Below is a text of the talk I gave this past weekend at an anti-oppression workshop for white people who wish to work against racism. Today as I think about the children of Ferguson, Mo. I have decided to post the talk here. I don’t get around to blogging very often, but today I can think of little but the small children of Ferguson in contrast to my two daughters off in school carefree before a vacation weekend.
I keep thinking of those little boys and girls sitting at home due to a cancelled school day. Sitting in living rooms waiting and watching as their neighborhood once again implodes with rage and grief. As a mother and as a teacher my heart is aching for them today. And always. And as a fellow human my heart is aching for every one of us while we continue to let this be the possible life for any of our children.
Ally Praxis: The being is in the doing
Presented at a Anti-Racism / White Privilege conference for the ASUO Women’s Center on November 22, 2014
To put myself on the line to do what had to be done at any place and time was so difficult, yet absolutely crucial, and not to do so was the most awful death. And putting yourself on the line is like killing a piece of yourself, in the sense that you have to kill, end, destroy something familiar and dependable, so that something new can come, in ourselves, in our world. Audre Lorde
When asked to offer some opening remarks on a day of anti-racism workshops for white people looking to develop an ally praxis in the face of racism I was humbled. My first thought was of the erased anti-oppression work of so many women of color activists who have spoken to these topics of social justice over the years. I was also deeply aware of those whose lives and voices are erased because of disability, because of citizenship status, because they are religious minorities and because of so many other marginalized identity markers that intersect with their biologic sex and gender identity.
As I thought of these people, I knew I needed to begin any talk by naming the spaces of privilege I arbitrarily embody which allow me ongoing unearned opportunities to be heard, to be seen, to be mobile in my anti-racist work in ways that my fellow activists living on the minority side of these ideological identity spaces are not. I am a middle class, educated, white, cis-gender, temporarily able, U.S. citizen with Christian heritage. And I benefit from greater visibility, mobility, authority, and safety because of these identities.
And so today I wish to begin with the words of Audre Lorde, and hope to evoke into this space many other women of color who have given their lives to anti-racists and anti-oppressive work. I want you to think of them and the centuries of work they offered in fighting so fiercely to be heard. In Lorde’s words these women put themselves on the line to do what had to be done.
I want to make visible their leadership in this work which is all too often erased by the white activists and scholars who are often given undue credit for anti-racists work. Lorde’s words and the work of many women of color deeply influenced my thinking and actions in resistance to white supremacy as well as to other systems of oppression. I will work to keep these voices present in these remarks.
The remainder of my framing remarks offer what I consider a pragmatic framework for what I call an ally praxis for being in the world in resistance to oppression and domination.
I will share with you how I attempt to be in the world in moments of alliance with marginalized communities and simultaneously attempt to keep track of the ways in which my own privilege is in operation on my body, my experience, and my identity.
I will use the rhetorical device of a list of steps simply because we need frameworks to organize our actions. We need concrete ways of thinking of how to be anti-oppressive. This framework is not closed, it is not all inclusive, I would not venture to call it finished. It is simply a developing framework that may be of use to you in thinking of how to be of use from spaces of privilege when fight against white supremacy, ablism, or any form of oppression that does not befall you.
STEP 1: REFLECT
How do I think about being an ally?
First I need to be l clear with myself about what I believe it means to be in alliance against racism. I choose to reject the identity of ally and instead think of this term as a working verb and mode of thinking directed toward enacting moments of alliance. This way of being in opposition to oppression from places of privilege is what I call an ally praxis.
Ally praxis in my definition assumes the acts of alliance are coming from people who live outside of a targeted identity category. Majority identity members develop an ally praxis for acting against the targeted oppression of people living in identity categories where the would-be “ally” identity is socially held as superior. To enact ally praxis starts when a person living within a privileged category develops a theoretical understanding of oppression and then from that theory develops a praxis for anti-oppressive work against oppression.
In other words white people can have an ally praxis for working against white supremacy. Cisgender people can have an ally praxis regarding transphobia. I do not believe anyone can simply “be” an ally as a personal identity. One can however act in moments of alliance from a commitment to resist oppression.
And in those moments it is always important to remember that those who take up the work of being an ally will always simultaneously benefit from the oppressive discourse they are fighting. This paradox is at the center of your relative safety as an ally in comparison to the danger people in the margins experience when fighting the same fight.
During this moment of reflection it is good to consider that as a privileged person within a particular alliance you have not personally been oppressed as a member of this community. Ask yourself, where does my life and my experience sit in relation to the system of oppression? What are the privileges in my life I have been comfortably unaware of? How much do I know about how privilege operates within the given context? And how have I connected that with my own life?
Be honest: Ask yourself, what is my motivation in this work? Am I a white savior? Am I a missionary? Do I really see all oppression as linked?
Be committed: What is my capacity for discomfort in places where I have always gotten to feel comfortable. Do I feel entitled to safety? Comfort?
STEP 2: COMMIT
Am I ready to stay when the going gets very difficult or tedious or uncertain?
If you believe any form of oppression is destroying lives and rotting the social fabric of society – you commit to learning about and acting against oppression. Ally praxis is not here to examine “both sides” of white supremacy or any other form of oppression. Ally praxis does not consider the “reverse racism” or any other relativist framework around the practice of making some groups subhuman. Anti-oppression praxis says racism is everywhere as part of the social fabric of society, patriarchy is fundamental to the gender structure of all social interaction
STEP 3: LEARN
What makes me think I already know everything?
Learn about the history of oppression for different identity categories. These unique histories matter and are pervasively erased by schools, media, and the governing forces within society. The history of oppression toward people with disabilities is different from that toward people of color. Gay civil rights history and black civil rights history are entirely different. While marginalized identities share general political, economic, and ideological oppression, the different stories and forms of oppression matter and comparing two forms of marginalization as if they are all “pretty much the same” is not an act of alliance, it is an act of historic erasure and oppression.
Is this research and intentional learning “extra work” for you? Yes, but only because you did not need to know this history in order to survive and thrive within a marginalized space. An act of alliance would be to push for a more a more inclusive history of any topic you are studying from the professors you’re your courses. Could you sustain your attention and advocacy for including a marginalized identity that was not central to your identity? Could you push week after week, push yourself, push your professor, to think about and learn about those not included in the framing of our learning?
STEP 4: DO YOUR OWN WORK
Where do I go for my learning and information?
Don’t look to those close at hand to relive their personal history of oppression to offer you a window into “Othering.” There are anti-racist blogs, disability tumbler sites, documentaries, movies, college courses, etc written about the experiences and lives of people living in the margins. Read, discover, read some more, network your learning, take a class, etc.
As Gloria Anzaldua explains, “We (women of color) cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are willing to help but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her. That’s an energy drain. More times than she cares to remember, Nellie Wong, Asian American feminist writer, has been called by white women wanting a list of Asian American women who can give readings or workshops. We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.”
STEP 5: LISTEN
When those close to you do choose to share experiences you need to be with those stories. Hear them, feel them, and sit with them without questioning. When someone is generous enough to speak about their experience with oppression there is a cost. They are reliving that abuse to connect, to be seen and heard, to be respected.
STEP 6: OWN and REFLECT
Anti-racist work is not designed to take care of white guilt, white resistance, or my ignorant intentions.
So many times in the face of the pain of dealing with and feeling the sting of racism up close, white folks get defensive, tender, or needy. Dealing with white guilt can take up all the air in the room and force the conversation back to white needs. Own your own complicated feelings about the injustice AND remember race oppression ally praxis is never about taking care of white guilt.
- Debra Leigh explains, “Often white people hear blame whenever the issue of racism is brought up, whether or not blame has been placed on whites. As beneficiaries of racism and white privilege, you sometimes take a defensive posture even when you are not being individually blamed. You may personalize the remarks, not directed personally at you. It is the arrogance of your privilege that drags the focus back to whites. When whites are being blamed or personally accused of racist behavior, this defensiveness and denial further alienate you and may preclude you from examining your possible racist behavior. ”
STEP 7: GET COMPLICATED IN YOUR THINKING
You can not isolate racism from sexism from ableism. All oppression is interconnected.
Ah yes, it is always so much more complicated. Our complex identities all exist together in real time. I am both oppressed and oppressor: I am white and I am a woman. I am middle class and a lesbian. Like everyone else, I am experiencing access and privilege and oppression and domination all at the same time. Our social and personal identities do not exist in isolation but are rather blended together. While I have centered my remarks on race today, oppression is always already multiplied by the matrix of identities we all live within.
My ally praxis was to keep race at the center in my remarks today as it is the organizing framework for your conference. It would run against my ally praxis to list off all the ways I too am oppressed even as they are also true. All too often in anti-oppression work the intersectional experiences of activists and the complicated relationships people have to oppression and privilege will push the conversation from one form of ideological violence to another. Oppression Olympics is of course a product of both privilege and oppression.
We all continue to need to get complicated in our thinking about identities and recognize how inter-sectional all of our lives are. We all need to be in dialogue with difference, border crossing and affirming the different experiences people have within and between groups. Opening boundaries and creating room for people to be seen as living in multiple identities is at the heart of ally praxis.
STEP 8: FOLLOW and TAKE RISKS
As a white person working against white supremacy my first task is to listen to and follow communities of color.
My praxis it to not speak of or for people of color’s experiences. I can and do however speak of whiteness, white supremacy, race and racism from my experiences and learning as a white person and I most often speak to and lead white people.
This is not a popular activity. Therefore I know I am doing my work when I am uncomfortable and worried about losing the social goodies I like to have in my life.
STEP 9: HONOR THE ERASED
Ally praxis is to perpetually turn the spotlight on those doing the work who live in the targeted identity.
You are likely to be more visible than your family living in the margins, that is a basic function of oppression. As a white ally, a cisgender ally, a temporarily able ally you may be quoted, praised, or exalted for your wisdom and your sacrifice regarding a minority group. Name the important leaders and thinkers within the group. Shower attention on the primary sources of anti-racist work – the people of color who have died fighting racism. Be prepared to send people to the sources of queer praxis and queer history. Name the unnamed – raise up their faces and their voices and do not let their ideas be credited to you.
STEP 10: STICK IT OUT
It tends to get hot in hell.
Take breaks when necessary, but be committed. You will make mistakes, you will be defeated, you will be heartbroken, and I think most often you will find that mirror of your privilege very very very uncomfortable.
Still, stick it out and come back again and again.
Apologize and learn.
Listen and learn.
Watch and learn.
And come back again and try it different,
Again and again.
Ally praxis exist only in anti-oppression action.
You have to DO in order to BE.