Woe is the Ally
I grew up wanting to be President. It’s not a particularly original goal for a kid in America, but I’ll cop to buying into the idea that it was the top job to have in this country.
Whenever I had some Me time—walking alone on my paper route, laying in bed trying to fall asleep, waiting for a parent to pick me up—I imagined making inspiring speeches to Congress or a throng of onlookers at an inauguration ceremony. I still compose extemporaneous speeches on occasion, although the themes have shifted with age. My imaginary administration sometimes begins and ends in some future late January by resigning on Day 1 to allow Vice President Janet Mock to serve my term.
Out of some 1.8 billion citizens in our nation’s history, there have only been 43 Americans who have won that top job. As a white, straight male, I get to claim 95% of past Presidents as pioneers paving the way for me. Throw out race and possibly sexual orientation, and I get them all.
When we claim that anyone in America can grow up to be President, we lie. It is mostly a lie of economics, perhaps more so today than at any point in the past. It is also a lie of gender. Our closest approach to the glass ceiling is Hillary Clinton, who will have to overcome Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and decades of sexist narrative to prove possibility to my mother, my sister, my wife, my daughter.
To ally with women, people of color, LGBT, or those experiencing the most economic hardship, I have to be able to understand the world through their eyes. The process to gain that understanding can seem an uncomfortable paradox.
To gain empathy, you have to experience a life from which you can walk away — an act of separation. To have important discussions with those who share identity and privilege, you must represent an experience you don’t live — an inauthentic perspective. So when DeRay Mckesson tweets “I love my blackness. And yours,” I wonder if there can ever be a future when I’ll have a blackness I can embrace. Will there always be a line to cross where solidarity becomes intrusion?
Furthermore, alliances implicitly choose sides. Treating everyone equally requires acknowledging how we respond to their differences (the #AllLivesMatter problem). Reconciling the intersectionality of power differential risks diluting the experience of all marginalized groups, while compartmentalizing oppression pits groups against each other.
The oppressed always suffer, even if they adapt to a society that does not privilege them. Those with privilege are responsible for changing that landscape. It is the hill we climb, trying to get a footing on a path that isn’t clear, short or terminal.
Moving to the side
I can declare myself open-minded, vowing never to do the terrible things most clearly understandable as an *-ism. Unfortunately, that’s like announcing it would be cool to visit the Moon. It is an important first step, as it points you in a direction, but a declaration is not the same as a transformation.
*-isms are not about the overt displays of bias, those detestable bits we can easily spot and avoid. Ridding the world of all of these behaviors doesn’t resolve marginalization. It only serves to create a false sense of conclusion: announcing the end of racism because everyone drinks from the same fountain, the end of sexism because women play basketball, the end of homophobia because the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, the end of economic hardship because the unemployment rate fell below 5 percent.
Ally is better realized as a verb. That long, seemingly impossible journey to the Moon took a community with resources focused on a goal. It wasn’t quick — outliving some that inspired the work — and its conclusion merely opened eyes to the next challenge.
As a noun, ally may have lost its meaning.
Indigenous Action Media, offering digital and direct action support to indigenous communities, condemns paid activists (the “ally industrial complex”) in a call for people to instead become accomplices:
… [W]e need to know who has our backs, or more appropriately: who is with us, at our sides? The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. …
Accomplices grow out of alliances. The evolution of perspective and commitment must be cultivated and made authentic. Learn to crawl before you march.
Empathy cannot develop by talking about oppression with a group that omits the oppressed. Insights into another’s experience have to come from the source.
In the days after 9/11, troubled by the uniform messaging of every American media outlet, I spent an hour or so every night surfing the Web for international newspapers. The Guardian offered a sympathetic view of the tragedy and its aftermath, but with more license to be critical. From China, Russia, India, Palestine, Israel and Iran, an outsider’s view helped discern between a shared outrage and issues we were neglecting in coverage at home.
Mostly, I sought connection, looking for familiar things in foreign places. Elsewhere in the world, there was room for day-to-day humanity. I read about local education, entrepreneurs and sports teams, about crime and political scandals. I saw faces I did not know, looking back at us through different eyes as they continued with their own struggles.
Seeking and finding a different voice is considerably easier in 2016 than it was in 2001. Today, following AJEnglish on Twitter is a remnant of my late nights fifteen years ago. Twitter remains my go-to platform when I need to add a new perspective, and two such voices deserve mention.
The Everyday Sexism Project is a website created by Laura Bates in 2012 to solicit the experiences of gender-based harassment and abuse. The simple act of following EverydaySexism provided daily accountings of catcalling, fondling, inappropriate workplace comments, and numerous other examples of the background noise all women face merely by walking out their door (or venturing online).
That regular exposure changed my thinking about sexism, making it visible and allowing me to see it as persistent. This collective voice trained me to notice similar affronts as they surfaced in the walk through my own day.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, another disconnection surfaced. Initially, I relied on my existing network to supply information, countering work-related articles about law enforcement with my progressive newsfeed. With each new tragedy, it became clear this was not enough.
In late June 2015, amidst political controversy following the terrorist attack on a South Carolina church, a young activist climbed a flagpole and took down the Confederate flag flying above the state house grounds. I followed Bree Newsome on Twitter the next day, turning on notifications for anything she posted.
This eloquent (and prolific) woman brought a strong sense of purpose and history into my newsfeed, first describing her intentional act of civil disobedience and later adding insight to the sad parade of police-related deaths of black men and women.
Through Bree, I added DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Shaun King, Zellie Imani, Vann Newkirk, and the large networks they amplified. These new voices also led to Patience Zalanga, Blossom Brown, Barbara Ransby, Clay Rivers and others without the verified stamp on their profile. When Missouri students protested racism on campus, this extended network made it easy to find Jonathan Butler and other participants in the action.
Since I cannot look at Twitter all the time, turning on notifications for Bree was critical to my listening. The tweets that pop up on my phone throughout the day are ones I always read, giving the information Bree provided an immediacy that I might otherwise have missed. In some cases, I get news faster than I previously did; in others, I read about concerns that never seem to get reported from mainstream sources.
Twitter is an ideal listening channel because it does not require reciprocation. As Meg Cramer, producer of Another Round, put it: “Being a good ally often means not being included in the conversation, because the conversation isn’t about you.”
Count your privilege
Listening to the people who experience oppression reduces the ignorance that contributes to it. It is especially important to hear criticism when your ignorance does surface. As author Anne Bishop wrote, “When people point out your oppressive attitudes or language to you, your first response should be to believe it.”
Because *-isms are initially understood as horrid behaviors reasonable people would never do, it is natural to look elsewhere for the problem. Most Americans believe in freedom and equality, and they recognize the worst of the bad stuff when they see it. We are usually blind, however, to the bulk of oppression, even exaggerating the discrimination we face.
Peggy McIntosh, a senior research scientist and former Associate Director at the Wellesley Centers for Women, called attention to white and male privilege in a 1988 essay:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.
McIntosh then conducted an inventory of 46 privileges in her own knapsack, activities she can do without consequence but which are loaded with socio-cultural traps for people of color. Some of these are less disguised than others—“I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives.”—but McIntosh also articulates privileges most taken for granted, such as “I could arrange to protect our young children most of the time from people who might not like them,” or “I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.”
This could not have proven an easy exercise for McIntosh, but it represents the critical work any alliance needs done in order to be able to act effectively and appropriately in solidarity.
It is also an important awareness to surface discussions about intersectionality. Since the world does not follow a strict hierarchy of power, there will always be at least one advantage at your disposal that someone else doesn’t have. Black men have privilege over black women, gay men have privilege over transgendered. Counter to the laws of physics, the more privilege we have, the less burden the knapsacks become.
We may hope that our privilege can be mass produced for use by anyone. Rather than removing them from our own knapsacks, we just duplicate them for everyone else. Some advantages, though, are zero-sum: They exist due only to someone else’s suffering. We cannot reproduce those without moral cost. Working to discard those privileges leads directly to lessening the marginalization of others.
Rebecca Carroll, a writer for the Guardian, suggested exercising privilege by making an intentional choice to reject it, if only for a while or in a moment:
I think among the most pressingly crucial concepts for white allies to consider is not simply the privilege and power they possess in a system that favors, elevates and rewards that privilege and power, but what it would mean or look like to take that privilege and power down a notch, or maybe a few notches.
By choosing to live at a privilege deficit, you begin to notice the previously invisible realities of our world. We sometimes get help from marginalized groups (e.g., #OscarsSoWhite), but that should be the work of the privileged to see things from a different vantage point.
In 2013, I made a decision to no longer pay money to see films that do not pass the Bechdel Test. The catalyst for this was the release of the second film in the rebooted Star Trek series, whose roots in television were groundbreaking in the 1960s. The showrunners’ clever mechanism to bring old characters to new life, however, imagined the future devoid of women talking to each other about something other than men.
The Bechdel Test is a critique of the entertainment industry as a whole, not a feminist score placed on a particular film. There are plenty of good movies that don’t pass this test, and some stinkers that do. However, this personal boycott forced me to see trailers for superhero and action movies, in particular, with a new lens. Living in this vantage point has impacted how and whether I see movies by forcing me to continue to ask an important question about representation. Should I ever realize my other childhood dream of writing a screenplay, you can bet the story will be shaped differently than had I not chosen to boycott.
The best way to affect change is to be the change. Every thing you do that brings you in contact with the rest of the world is an opportunity to be more intentional about where you give your attention and your resources.
Cosmopolitan looked at the top 100 leading men in Hollywood, by virtue of their box office appeal, and found only 8 who had worked with women directors 5 or more times in their careers. 20 of the 100 stars had never worked on a film directed by a woman, and 64 percent had worked with no more than two. For men who have the resources to change their professional landscape—in 2013 and 2014, women represented only 1.9 percent of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films—male mega-stars are not exercising their power.
One of the actors not yet on that list, David Oyelowo, actively sought projects with female directors. Oyelowo worked on five films directed by a woman, including a run of four straight.
“We can complain about inclusion or diversity or all these words that have now become buzz phrases,” Oyelowo told Cosmopolitan, “but if you have the ability to do anything about it and you don’t, you are part of the problem.”
It isn’t like women aren’t doing the work. Barbara Ann O’Leary has compiled a database of over 8500 female directors as part of her Directed By Women project. Seeking out these films honors the contributions of their creators and, in some cases, may strengthen your own empathy by experiencing the artistic choices they made.
For women, limited opportunity is not confined to Hollywood. In politics, women are at their highest levels of representation—20 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislators are women—despite being the majority gender in the U.S. In Silicon Valley, less than 11 percent of executive officers are women, slightly worse than the rest of corporate America (women comprise 16 percent of executive officers at S.&P. 100 companies).
Of the 800,000 women with engineering and computer science degrees, more than a quarter left their engineering jobs. Plans like the paid re-entry program originated by iReLaunch can be widely adopted by technology and financial companies to help qualified people return from a career break. The big beneficiaries are family members who stopped working to raise children, or left companies due to inflexible schedules.
When bias is institutionalized, change does not happen organically. Apple shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to promote minorities to fill leadership roles in the company. They were urged to do so by the board, who described the plan as “unduly burdensome and not necessary.” Such characterizations of recruitment initiatives are myopic. Clearly, less intentional policies are not reflecting our diversity.
Black and Hispanic graduates have a 50–50 chance of getting a tech job. Those demographic groups account for about 17 percent of tech students and 29 percent of the U.S. workforce, but control 4–8 percent of jobs in technology companies.
Intel vice president Neil Green suggested to NPR that the pipeline to train qualified minority applicants isn’t the problem. Retention of those who are hired is more concerning, which Green blames on the frustration felt by minority employees at the slow pace of advancement. According to Green, “They aren’t necessarily meeting with and being sponsored by the senior executives.”
In the same NPR report, tech investor Freada Kapor Klein claimed bias creeps into the hiring process most potently in a company’s quest for a culture fit:
“They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there. That’s not diversity.”
This is where allies start becoming accomplices. Gaining awareness of the barriers that block people from marginalized communities provides the target. The privileges you carry with you that allow you to bypass barriers provides the means. The next step is to use that power to pave a better path for others.
Start small by checking your own language. When she lectures to students, author Daisy Hernández urges them to look at their relationship with language:
Every time they are texting, tweeting or Facebooking, they are making choices about words and the stories we tell about race. What are you noticing about headlines when the police kill another black teenager? Is the teen described as a kid on his way to college or as a “black male”? I try to raise awareness that we’re trafficking in racial ideology 24–7 online — and that we can change the direction of these conversations every time we hit “comment.”
Challenging a relative or high school classmate about their Facebook post risks disconnection, but those simple acts are courageous and important work to do. Most destructive comments regarding *-isms are based in ignorance, possibly the same limitations you once held. Your most important role in an alliance may be helping your in-group move along their path.
Leverage your own listening to introduce that perspective into your network. Retweets and shares are low-effort slacktivism, but they serve to put the names and ideas of others in front of people you know, who would not get that information otherwise. “Amplifying the opinions and ideas of other people is a way to participate without taking up space,” wrote Cramer.
When possible, move toward true activism by showing up at protests, or actively supporting others in doing the same.
In Indiana, our current state leadership is actively working against the LGBTQ community. At the height of the debates over religious freedom legislation, which opened up an ambiguous loophole for discrimination, my family found ways to be present at rallies against the law. In some cases, my contribution was to stay home to care for the homestead and allow my wife to drive north to Indianapolis.
For some, activism is their identity. To ally, you don’t have to match their schedule, just their commitment. Look for opportunities to apply whatever privilege and resource you have to create space for those who lack it.
The Economy, Stupid
Inequality is present in hiring practices that disfavor black and female applicants, and in the salaries and benefits for those who gain employment. It is present in every election, where personal income and skyrocketing campaign spending contribute to political success. It is present in policy decisions made by those in power.
Blatant *-isms established the foundation for inequality, but institutionalized economic biases make it persist, if not worse.
Since the dawn of the Reagan Era, the income gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country widened substantially. Productivity steadily increased, but average wages remain stagnant. The tax rate for the top bracket, which had been in steady decline since its peak of 66.4 percent at the end of World War II, now sits under 40 percent.
If all income groups had seen the same rate of growth between 1979–2005 as they had in previous decades, America would have redistributed $842 billion from the top 9 percent to the rest of the population. To put this in perspective: This year, the federal government will spend 80 percent of their $4 trillion budget on healthcare, pensions, defense and interest. What remains — welfare, education, protection, transportation, general government and other spending — is about $800 billion.
Long before Occupy Wall Street used tents to raise awareness of continued economic struggles in the wake of Great Recession bank bailouts, economist Paul Krugman described the spiraling inequality in a 1996 article for Mother Jones:
The reason why government policy has reinforced rather than opposed this growing inequality is obvious: Well-off people have disproportionate political weight. They are more likely to vote — the median voter has a much higher income than the median family — and far more likely to provide the campaign contributions that are so essential in a TV age.
The political center of gravity in this country is therefore not at the median family, with its annual income of $40,000, but way up the scale. With decreasing voter participation and with the decline both of unions and of traditional political machines, the focus of political attention is further up the income ladder than it has been for generations.
In the two decades since, inequality of wealth and the political influence of money has only increased.
Like rising water lifting all boats, economic hardships — magnified by the financial failures inherited by President Obama — inflame all issues of social justice. If it seems like there is suddenly a resurgence of claims of racist, sexist and homophobic practices, it is because (a) poor economic situations inspire the question, “What’s wrong?” and (b) *-isms are never solved.
For those looking for a place to devote energy that positively impact all marginalized groups, it’s still the economy, stupid.
This is my journey. At the moment, I’m largely constrained to listening, amplifying and learning. It bothers me that I do not do more, but I realize there will always be more to do. I do the self-improvement needed to help overcome centuries of institutionalized bias, while I try not to be a barrier to others while I work. My alliances are a work-in-progress.
It requires some sacrifice, often involving a re-examination of past happiness. More than with racism and sexism, public conversations about homophobia over the past decade made 1990's media look like the 1940's. In the same way White Christmas was ruined by blackface, otherwise harmless entertainment like Ace Ventura is awash with easy social aggression. Even Malcolm in the Middle has some cringeworthy moments that slid by me when it first aired. My enjoyment of those shows highlights my blindness.
For me, progress is illustrated by a shift from childhood dreams. Short of President, my more realistic goal for adult life was to hold office. At some point, I promised, I’d find the time and strength to get elected and make a difference. The difference I can make, I’ve realized, is to help someone else get elected.
I paint “ally” on my profile, not as a badge of accomplishment, but as a reminder to do the work.