“The problem with allyship is that good intentions are not enough. Allyship offers a safe haven from harsh realities and the dirty work of creating change. It offers a comfortable distance that can be terribly unproductive.” (Gay, 2016)
The World We Live In
Philando Castile was murdered in the town I currently call home, just blocks away from one of my favorite places in Minnesota, and the United States—the Minnesota State Fair. I didn’t grow up in Minneapolis, but when I needed to escape New York, and a return to the Midwest felt both familiar and comfortable, Minnesota took me in. Philando’s murder struck close to the heart. Eric Garner was murdered in the city that I most identify with—having lived the first 12 years of my adult life in New York City, I think I will always identify as a New Yorker, even without plans to live there again. Philando and Eric gave their lives to a moment and a movement that may one day be looked back upon as the point things took a turn. I hope for the better, for the brighter, but fear for what will come in the time between now and then. These are two names amongst a devastatingly long list of Black and brown bodies that grows longer every 26 hours in the United States.
I probably don’t need to be afraid. But I am.
I fear the police, and I fear the State, although I probably don’t have to. I do, in part because of an inflated sense of importance stemming from my time with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy. But I doubt that the State views me as much of a threat. I have seen enough videos of dying Black men who were simply going about their lives in the most mundane of circumstances before a chance encounter with a cop who, in the blink of an eye, steals their life. I have seen how activists of all genders, races, cultures, and ethnicities who dare stand up in the face of the State and say, “not in my name,” are viciously shown their place, their bodies brutalized, their lives made disposable through incarceration.
During my days with Occupy Wall Street, my mom knew which Twitter feeds to follow. On days of action or moments of high tension she knew how to find out if I had been arrested She was concerned for my safety, and my well being, but not, I think, for my life. Today, I don’t think she fears that she may one get a call or text from me in the middle of the night while I hide in a public bathroom because some hate-monger has come to shoot-up the places I hang out.
It would be so easy to go about my life as if there is nothing wrong with the world around me. That is in fact the encouraged mindset for white, cis-men raised in middle-class suburbs, who live heteronormative lives. I can choose to be ignorant and complacent. Our culture and society mandates it.
The Oppression Within
Just as every day is a conscious struggle against patriarchy, against the norms that encourage me, as a straight, white man, to embrace ignorance and assume a position at the head of the class, the top of the food chain, to project my voice first and loudest, and to never once question my position, every day is also a struggle against racism, to be anti-racist, because racism, like sexism, is essentially in my blood, it has been conditioned thus. I am, by cultural nurturance, racist and sexist.
Patriarchy alleviates my guilt when I flirt with coworkers who are far younger than me.
Racism tells me that my quickening pulse at the sight of a Black man approaching me on the street is justified and necessary.
Rape culture encourages me to put my own sexual gratification above and before the emotional, psychological, and sexual needs of my partners.
White supremacy allows me to treat customers of color with less respect assuming I won’t get a good tip from them.
Male entitlement has me convinced that every polite smile or casual conversation with a barista or woman sitting next to me at the café could eventually lead to sex.
Sexism necessitates that I take space with my body, my voice, and my thoughts.
My sexism. My racism. The ways patriarchy has gotten inside. The ways I perpetuate white supremacy. The ways I oppress others, and live a life of privilege.
I did not ask for this reality, but I live it nonetheless. It is my responsibility although it is not my creation. I do not want it, and therefore it is my obligation to dismantle it.
To be pro-feminist, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive is to reject that ignorance, to educate myself, to challenge myself, to strive to be better for the communities who are not given the choice to live in ignorance.
As a Former Ally
In my activism work, first with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City (October 2011 to November 2013) and the hurricane relief and recovery efforts that evolved out of OWS—a network of organizations under the banner of Occupy Sandy (October 2012 to November 2013)—I often identified my role as that of an ally. As a person of privilege, the problems we were addressing did not inherently affect me. This was especially the case with Occupy Sandy because my neighborhood was spared by the storm. As an organizer from outside the neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm, there was a distinct disconnect between me personally and the communities that were hardest hit by the storm. On the Rockaway Peninsula, where my organizing was predominantly focused, the communities we worked in were working- and lower-class African American, Latinx, and recent immigrant communities. Many of the households were single-parent and female led. A significant number of the neighborhoods were comprised primarily or largely of public housing projects.
In terms of race and class, I viewed my role as that of an ally: to utilize my skills, abilities, and knowledge to work with and for the community; to help them in the ways they asked of me, and to offer support and ideas, but never to force my support—or my needs—upon them. Ally-work is dependent upon relationships based in consent. It is also a passive identity that follows the lead of oppressed peoples, but also puts too much of the burden on them as well.
[I]n the wake of last week’s violence and unrest, I’ve seen what often happens during difficult times—people who consider themselves allies, well-meaning people, to be clear, ask what they can do to help. They ask for guidance, as if black people, in this instance, have the solution to the ongoing problem of systemic racism, as if we have access to a secret trove of wisdom for overcoming oppression. (Gay, 2016)
When, months into the recovery effort, female-identified organizers—my friends and comrades—explicitly called attention to manifestations of sexism within the organizing (that bled into our work inside the affected communities), I began to focus on gender-based work, forming a Challenging Patriarchy group with about eight other male-identified organizers. It was within these spaces that I began to see how ally-work is a misnomer; we were not doing this work solely because women organizers were affected by patriarchy; we were doing this work because we were infected with patriarchy, and that affected not only our relationships with friends, colleagues, families, partners, and lovers, but with our very selves as well. Doing work under the guise of an ally implies that the problem is over there. But it’s not over there; the problem is right here, it is in us; in you, and it is in me.
Becoming an Accomplice
It is no longer acceptable to be an ally. I want to be an accomplice–to the extent I can be–with my comrades of color, with the queer community, gender-non-conformists, differently abled, female-identified, and others who are oppressed by Western culture and systems of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, who are working to undermine, deconstruct, and burn down the bridges that led us here so that we might together build something new, something liberating.
Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.
Don’t tell us about your racist uncle or grandfather or sister or cousin. Don’t try to unburden yourself of guilt that isn’t yours to carry. (Gay, 2016)
For too long it is has been too easy to other the violence, to believe it happens somewhere over there, in neighborhoods and communities of color, to lower class people, to people without morals, or without higher education. For too long our silence has enabled and perpetuated a culture of violence, as if our daily lives were not one of silent subservience to a violent history and equally—though different—violent present.
[…] anti-Black racial logics are embedded in the routine decisions made by millions of people every day. Decisions about where to live, how to identify a “safe neighborhood” or a “good school,” whom to police, and to whom police are to be accountable, also rest on a longstanding demonization of Black bodies. These choices, grounded in ideologies of Black threat, frame separation from Blackness as a rational choice. The narratives that routinely diminish the life chances of African Americans are not yesterday’s problems. Dylann Roof was born in 1994 […] (Crenshaw, 2015, para. 8)
Acknowledging these realities is the first step to undoing them. It is important to accept that while the violent, racist, sexist, classist, homo- and trans-phobic past of the United States is not our fault, as we move forward it is our collective responsibility to undo and correct these actions.
It is not the job of oppressed people to educate people of privilege. It’s our job to educate ourselves, and each other. To undo cultures of oppression, white people must follow the lead of communities of color, while embracing antiracist principles. Men must follow the lead of women and the queer community, while embracing profeminist and anti-sexist principles. The time for silent acquiescence is over, and the excuse that I, as an individual man, do not act directly violently against the women in my life, or those I encounter, is far from sufficient. To be pro-feminist is to be proactive; it is to be agitational, pushing back against the acquiescent status quo.
The majority of men are not physically violent against women, but the majority have been silent about this violence. The [White Ribbon] campaign recognizes that men have a responsibility to speak to, and challenge, other men. It doesn’t glibly say we were all responsible for incidents of violence, but rather that we have a shared responsibility for stopping it. […] In other words, as well as appealing to men’s compassion, anger, and concern about the experiences of the women we love, we also appeal to men’s own best interests, encouraging men to find ways to lead healthier and happier lives. (Kaufman, 1999, p. 77)
The role of allies is not just to provide support in the causes or struggles of others. In fact, the role of allies needs to shift or go out the window completely. The concept of allies seems to imply that there is nothing to be gained directly for them in the struggle. So-called white allies have much to gain in antiracist struggles, and as has been laid out herein with the support of authors such as bell hooks, Michael Kaufman, and others, men have so little to lose and so very much to gain from the dismantling of patriarchy and the fostering of a culture of empathy.
The implication of all this is that the feminist challenge to men’s power has the potential of liberating men and helping more men discover new masculinities which will be part of demolishing gender altogether. Whatever privileges and forms of power we will lose will be increasingly compensated for by the end to the pain, fear, dysfunctional forms of behavior, violence experienced at the hands of other men, violence we inflict on ourselves, endless pressure to perform and succeed, and the sheer impossibility of living up to our masculine ideals. Our awareness of men’s contradictory experiences of power gives us the tools to simultaneously challenge men’s power and speak to men’s pain. It is the basis for a politics of compassion and for enlisting men’s support for a revolution that is challenging the most basic and long-lasting structures of human civilization. (Kaufman, 1999, p. 80)
Men–and in particular white, straight men–may lose some semblance of structural control, but they will gain control of themselves, gain their souls, gain the ability to become fully realized emotional beings. Not only will we let go of the chains that oppress women, sexual minorities, and other men, we will liberate ourselves from the oppressive constructs of toxic heteronormative masculinity.
I will no longer be an ally working from a comfortable distance. This is not a time for fear. Nor for silence. This is the time for accomplices. And I commit my words, my voice, and my body. There is no turning back.
Crenshaw, K. (2015, July 10). The Charleston imperative: Why feminism and antiracism must be linked. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kimberle-crenshaw/the-charleston-imperative_b_7757996.html
Gay, R. (2016, July 1). On Making Black Lives Matter. Retrieved July 12, 2016, from Marie Claire: http://www.marieclaire.com/culture/features/a21423/roxane-gay-philando-castile-alton-sterling/
Kaufman, M. (1999). Men, feminism, and men’s contradictory experiences of power. In A. Kuypers (Ed.), Men and power (pp. 59-83 ). Halifax: Fernwood Books.