If you give an ally a cookie…
I originally wrote this article when Oreo came out with an advertisement of a rainbow cookie in support of this year’s Pride festival.
I work in marketing, so I’m always hesitant of things like this. I’ve been going to Prides since I was little, when the only thing Pride could hope for in terms of sponsors were lube or porn companies because other advertisers wouldn’t touch Pride with a ten foot pole. Over time, as people have actually started to pay attention to LGB issues, particularly in America (I feel like the UK’s very different when it comes to media representation of LGB people), there’s been what I call “gaysploitation”, which basically consists of companies utilising the controversial nature of gayness in order to get press and publicity.
Since the Britney/Madonna/Christina kiss, I have a hard time seeing most mainstream company’s efforts to support lesbian and gay people as anything but a continuation of that. Now, it’s different when the company privately decides to support an issue, gets boycotted by a major anti-gay group, and that get’s publicised and people go out and buy that product in support. That I can see as genuine. But this? I have a hard time seeing it as anything but a clever marketing ploy.
Things have changed to the point where, when a mainstream organisation comes out in support of something LGB, there’s some controversy but an overwhelming amount of people willing to support that organisation, especially monetarily.
I’ve been volunteering for both LGB and trans causes since I was about 12 now. And I’ve watched youth programmes and services that are vital get cut for LGB and trans kids and I’ve seen how many LGBT kids get thrown out into the street, and it frustrates the hell out of me that fundraising is so freaking hard and people seem to be more willing to spend 3.50 buying a coffee at Starbucks just because they got some grief than donate time, money, skills, or space to LGB or trans charities and causes for kids who’ve got way more grief than most of these companies can imagine.
Giving allies credit
This is parallel to a situation that I see happening all of the time, and I was reminded of it by an article called “The Unicorn Ally” about why allies need less hostility and more cookies from oppressed people, and I disagree. Allies are not entitled to cookies and I really hope people consider this before giving cookies to companies like Oreo. Why aren’t they? The number one reason being: You already get them. In abundance.
I’ll first address the cookies I get as an ally. As a white person, I have privilege that I no longer deny. But accepting that I have privilege does not rid me of it. In fact, accepting I have privilege and being a white person who speaks out against racism means that I take on a privilege that very few BAME/POCs get — I’m actually listened to.
As an ally, I occupy a precarious position. Yes, I am there to help. Yes, I am on the side of anyone who fights against white supremacy. But it is that same white supremacy that means that when I speak, my voice has more weight with other whites than BAME/POCs. I consistently see this in both my lived experiences and in real life, reflected in the media. Being a white ally means that I can say the exact same thing about racism that people of colour have said for decades and I get far more credit for it.
I am lauded as brave for fighting for my beliefs by some. I’m considered insightful, articulate, and awesome both by other white people and sometimes BAME/POCs. When I get into arguments with other white people about racism, white people stop talking and they listen. Now, it’s not all cake and sunshine. I’ve lost friends, wasted countless hours, been frustrated out of my mind with white people who wouldn’t listen to me no matter what I did.
I’ve been accused of creating racial disharmony by pointing out bigotry in the gay community, I’ve been accused of being anti-white or hating white people, and saying something about racism has opened the gateway for cissexist, misogynist, and other forms of hatred to come in and make themselves at home. I don’t do any form of activism for the purposes of making good friends because social justice is rarely something that makes you popular.
Yet still, as a white ally I know that I will always be given more credit, even by well meaning individuals, than people of colour will and do. I’ve sat in a room of other white mentors amidst a group of black gay youth, hearing them speak over a black trans woman who insists that racism plays a role in the beauty standards she must adhere to, only to have them finally shut up and listen when I manage to say, “No. She’s right. Beauty standards are incredibly racist.” I can say the exact same thing. And it means more.
Ambivalence towards allies
While I have no idea what it is like to face racism, I do know what it feels like to face heterosexism and cissexism. And I know that as a person who does face those things, I find I am extremely ambivalent towards “allies”, both in personal and corporate form.
On the one hand, yes. I find a certain amount of relief and catharsis in seeing a Standard A model masculine cis heterosexual male say that he has no problems with gay people and that he thinks that other straight men who do have got some serious shit to work out. Sometimes, I want to dance on buildings, jump for joy, and even extend offers of sexual favours towards individuals who manage to pull back the curtain and see the man standing behind it.
Yet the sweetness and light is mixed with the bitter realisation that making the same observations at a very young age earned me no kudos, and in fact made the world an unsafe and unwelcoming place. I did smile when I saw a small boy refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance in his classroom because he came to the logical and simple conclusion that America was not an equal place so long as gay people couldn’t marry who they love.
It’s touching. But at the same time I’m reminded that I came to that conclusion not through a logical deduction and an “aha” moment, but through the abuse I faced because people thought I was gay. And I didn’t have the benefit of refusing to say the Pledge and I wasn’t able to broadcast the reasons why. Because having a gay mother would mean that coming to that conclusion was too obvious and saying so out loud would have risked my and her personal safety.
I’m not doubting that that kid is brave in many ways and I’m not saying that straight men who say anything contrasting patriarchal masculinity have nothing to lose. But what I have witnessed in so many cases where I am an ally or I am marginalised, the bravery of allies is encouraged and cheered by many, even myself.
The bravery, the hard work, the fear, the pain, the frustration, and the heartache that marginalised people face daily by existing is on a level so wide and encompassing that perhaps cheering allies for the rare occasions when they manage to contradict the dominant paradigm is a hell of a lot easier than patting ourselves on the back for toiling day after day, especially in a culture where we’re already encouraged in many ways to see ourselves as less worth of praise with regards to our marginalisation.
Maybe by praising allies instead of ourselves we’re giving ourselves praise vicariously. I don’t know. It’s complicated.
Helping is a double-edged sword
The complication puts me in an ambivalent place as an ally. I know that just by being white, admitting I have white privilege, and talking to a white person about racism I occupy a space of power in a debate that BAME/POCs cannot. Because I’m white and even I see it and agree. I have used this and seen others in positions in debates I cannot occupy to the advantage of trying to explain and break down privilege.
But I know what I’m doing and I know the double edged sword of frustration and elation it must create. But when faced with the ironic position where I’m automatically privileged in debates about my own privilege, I have either the choice to say something or say nothing. And I find it overwhelmingly better to try and say something where it is appropriate than to keep quiet.
Still, I must realise my position. As an ally, I am the cover band being invited to play a huge amphitheatre when the real band is backstage starving. I am a discerning, disapproving reflection to society’s Narcissus, but a reflection nonetheless. If privilege is the man standing behind the curtain, I am the Wizard of Oz. And to ask for kudos on top of that? Well. I just don’t think it’s on.
I’m not saying companies like Oreo should never do anything to support any LGB causes and I’m not saying I don’t appreciate when companies like Starbucks and JC Penny manage to do something right. But I’m encouraging people to give themselves a bit of a pat on the back.
And when you see a bit capitalistic drive towards monetarily supporting an organisation like Starbucks just because some bigots have boycotted them… well, consider maybe giving that money to your local LGBT centre or trans group.
If you don’t know where to donate funds to, find a LBGT blog and ask.