The Challenges of Allyship
While I absolutely appreciate that there is no conquering of White supremacy without the full participation of White people, sometimes I just want to say, “You know what? Let’s not bother.” because sometimes, what it takes to get to the point of true allyship makes me wonder whether it’s worth the energy.
Being an ally is hard. And truthfully, I’m not sure everybody waving the ‘ally’ flag really appreciates how hard it is, because I suspect they have not accounted for what allyship entails. Being an ally requires some difficult things.
First, humility must be the standard; the guiding principle. Allies cannot be first. Allies cannot lead. Allies do not know better than the group they seek to assist. Can you do that?
I told ya this was gon’ be hard.
Using one’s superpowers for good requires one to center the dialog on someone else. Can you do that?
When Batman or Supergirl swoop in to save the day, they do what they can to set things right. They get the job done and then ride off into the proverbial sunset. They don’t stand around waiting for camera crews and enjoying photo ops. That’s what humility looks like, and it’s what allyship requires.
Humility means you can’t be the line leader, the first at the microphone, the star of the show. You’re gonna have to be a backup singer. You gon’ have to be a Pip, you don’t get to be Gladys. And when G is singing about the midnight train, you get to dance, look slick and sing “Woo! Woo!” (hand gesture entirely optional.)
That’s your lane.
Can you stay in it?
Do not seek out ways to make yourself either victim or savior in this journey. If you’re working with an organization run by POC, the most you can get is a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination. Keep that in mind. Support. Make it a great picture, but do not try to upstage the lead actor(s).
Second, risk is a requirement. There is no reward without risk, and in allyship, if you’re not risking losing something — social capital, financial/economic standing, or political power — you’re not doing it right.
On Sunday 12 February during the Grammy’s, Adele (rightly) claimed that she really ought not to have won Album of the year. While she thanked the academy and made it clear that she couldn’t accept the award, she went on ahead and accepted it anyway.
She spoke movingly about Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album, but rather than go all in — risking everything — she played safe. She told the audience that Beyonce’s work was brilliant, and important, and powerful and though she thought she shouldn’t have won, she accepted the Grammy. She did try to use her powers for good, by saying kind things about Bey’s work, but she might also have gone all in, descended the stair, handed the award to Bey and invited her to speak. I’ve heard she broke the award and gave Bey half. (I’d be intrigued to know which half though: the gramophone or the wooden base? And there’s probably something I could say about these ‘also ran’ prizes when first is what you deserve, but I’ll hold my tongue.)
Had she done this, had she gone all in, there would certainly have been backlash. She would likely have been quietly blacklisted (how fitting) by the Grammy’s, never again being nominated or winning, regardless how good her future work might be. She might have venues and sponsors withdraw their support, under pressure from White supremacists who felt offended. She might have suffered financial loss as a result of White fans refusing to buy her music thereafter.
These are all foreseeable risks, as is evidenced by some of the reactions to Beyonce’s openly pro-Black performance at the Super Bowl last year. And in taking these risks, Adele would have done something much more profound than returning a statue; she would have declared that her ally’s validation and fair treatment was worth more than the risks. That is what the people who face the real risks do each time they speak out or protest — they declare themselves valuable.
An ally is one who has the courage to do likewise.
Third, being an ally requires owning one’s ignorance. The truth is, there’s plenty that allies don’t know, because the challenges faced are not theirs. They do not live in the skins of those who face the challenges, and know only by proxy what they learn from those who do. So those who seek to be allies know enough to want to be allies, but there is much that they do not know. And those holes in their knowledge can be dangerous for the very people to whom they would be allies.
A NWL — nice White lady — who considers herself an ally, once said to me that Africans who sold other Africans into slavery were “almost worse” than White slavers. Seriously, she said almost worse. After I’d surgically adjusted her posterior, her friend private messaged me that I needed to be gentle with her because she was “on our side”. I did not have any more surgical supplies, cuz if I had, I’d have rearranged his ass too.
I shouldn’t have had to point out that, as James Baldwin said in Notes of a Native Son, “Even the chiefs who sold Africans into slavery could have had no idea that this slavery was meant to endure forever, for at least a thousand years.” but I did. And to a so-called ally. Almost worse? No. Just no. And oh, by the by, if your allyship includes trying to draw some kind of false equivalence between colonizer odiosity and Black collusion/negotiation with that odiosity (for its own survival), you have a very long way to go.
My advice to allies is to recognize that what you do know about the history and current experience of oppression could probably fill a thimble. What you don’t know about these things could likely fill an Olympic pool. Govern yourself accordingly. And if you’re going to try to find someone else to blame for slavery besides the White men who created, formalized, perfected and profited from it or the White women who participated wholeheartedly in it; the White preachers and church who blithely justified it; and the White politicians who, unflinching from the obvious dissonance, wrote an entire Constitution of liberty and justice while treating human beings like cattle, just stop. You are clearly nobody’s ally.
Read a book. Read Frederick Douglass. I hear he’s still publishing.
Finally, understand that there are no laurel wreaths for this work. There’s anger, vitriol, there’s accusations of divisiveness and there’s real risk of physical harm. There are victories but many more losses. And whatever ugliness comes at you, is going to be coming at your POC compatriot with 10x the ferocity because White supremacy, because life, because America. That’s the “beauty and the burden of our journey” so govern yourself accordingly.
Thus, if you think your prospective allies haven’t been sufficiently respectful of the risks you’re taking; if you think they are not grateful enough, you probably haven’t acknowledged that your risks, grave though they may be, pale in comparison to theirs. And unlike you, they cannot choose to have those risks. They cannot walk away from their gender, or skin color, or ability, or sexuality, or national origin.
So the next time you’re tempted to say, “Why are you attacking me? I’m your ally!” while on the verge of tearful demands for greater understanding, please remember this: what is being ‘attacked’ is the presumption of superiority; what is being attacked is the presumption of the right to lead; what is being attacked is the belief in saviorhood; but most of all, what is being attacked is supremacy. In whatever form it presents itself.
Sometimes, that form is you.
Feel free to follow my blog on this an other matters that catch my interest at Liesl’s Meanderings.