no safeword for oppression, or, thoughts on being an ally

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of being an ally. I spoke on a panel not long ago in which a fellow panelist said she doesn’t like the term “ally” as applied to herself because that makes it sound as though the struggle in question (whatever that may be – we weren’t specifying at the time though by context I might guess trans issues) was somehow not her own as well.

I totally appreciated her point. Even if we just take the question of trans issues, as an ally to trans people, the struggle for trans rights is in many ways my own, too. When the world at large makes assumptions, builds policies, enforces laws, maintains social structures and so forth that all reinforce a rigid formulation of gender, that affects me, and not in a small way. Gender is the whole reason I became a feminist, and why feminist politics spoke to me so strongly when I first discovered them in so many words. (Hello, Rosie the Riveter!) Gender policing has real, everyday effects on me, and the policing of trans people’s lives, bodies, rights, dignity ripples out and affects my own life, body, rights, dignity. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – the struggles of trans people are, in some ways, the condensed and concentrated version of the struggles I, we all, face as gendered human beings in a binary society.

Now, extrapolate that idea to the other ways in which I am an ally. As a white anti-racist, I consider myself an ally to people of colour, but not because racism is somehow “their problem” and I’m all sympathetic to it. Racism affects me.

For example, when I sit in a room and listen to a speaker who makes racist statements – as happened recently, at the Guelph sexuality conference – I get an awful, gut-twisting feeling, that sense that things are not right, this is not the world I want to live in, this is wrong wrong wrong. I feel ashamed of the person who’s exhibiting the behaviour in question, and perhaps more so ashamed of myself, as though somehow, if I were doing a better job as an anti-racist human being, these things wouldn’t happen anymore (never mind how illogical that may be).

I feel a wrenching sense of anger that anyone of any colour or heritage is subjected to the indignity and disrespect of racism, because I know what disrespect feels like and I know exactly how it can wither the soul. I feel a sense of searing offense that any white person (in this case, as in so many, the speaker was white) should feel comfortable speaking this way in my presence, as though somehow they expected I, as another white-skinned person, would be complicit, would understand how they feel, would of course be just like them. I am not just like them. Which is not to say I don’t have my own shit to work on – that would be just plain naïve – but I feel slapped in the face that anyone would make the assumption about me that my politics must be like theirs because my skin is like theirs. It’s akin to being presumed a liar, which never fails to feel like the highest form of insult – a direct challenge to my honour (I know, archaic term, but it works) as a thinking, feeling, political human being.

I feel fear that other anti-racist people in that setting, skin colour irrelevant, might perhaps percieve me as complicit in racism that’s displayed nearby me – I fear that judgment, I fear that those I wish to support, those with whom I stand, will misunderstand me and lump me in with those whose position I so strongly wish to distance myself from. When I see an audience applaud without seeming to have noticed such racism, I feel a sense of drowning, sinking in a sea of ignorance. It feels like… hmm… like being a queer gal at a cocktail party full of gay men, and all of a sudden realizing they’re actually not gay men, and you’re in the wrong place, and you’re in fact at a Promise Keepers’ meeting. All of a sudden the same people, the ones sitting to your left and right, the ones who held the door for you and smiled moments ago, go from comfortable community to potential (and actual) oppressors, at the drop of a hat. It’s terrifying, and lonely, and it sucks. Racism affects me.

That being said, I also felt I needed to qualify my agreement with the point my fellow panelist made. Because no matter how much I can understand that these struggles are mine as well as belonging to the people who are members of the oppressed group in question – trans people, people of colour, and many more – it would be wrong to try to lump myself in with them as though we were one and the same. We are not one and the same. I will never have to face the real, lived, everyday challenges of moving through the world and negotiating life as a trans person. I will never have to depend on the whims of a messed-up government to get surgery that would make me whole in my bodily experience of my gender, or constantly correct the pronouns people mistakenly assign to me based on a cursory examination of my physical appearance. I will never be assaulted or denied a job or housing or suffer rude and reductive stereotypes because I’m dark-skinned. These things will not happen to me, because I am white, because (for all that my gender is complex and people do make mistaken assumptions about me) I am not trans.

It would be disrespectful of me to appropriate trans people’s struggles, or the struggles of people of colour, as though somehow I, too, was a direct recipient of the oppression they experience. I’m not. I hold privilege that they do not, and trying to pretend that’s not true would be a disservice to all of us. To do that would be to ignore a very real power differential that sets our experiences apart. To appropriate their struggles as my own would itself be an act of oppression, the exact sort of oppression I wish to challenge.

This all brings me to sadomasochism.

No, seriously. It really does. These thoughts have been percolating for a few weeks now, and part of the reason is that I’ve been seeing parallels between my experience of being an ally and my experience of moving through the BDSM/leather scene.

(As per your kind requests, folks, I’ve split this post in two… read on for the next half.)

4 Responses

  1. Everything that you wrote speaks so true. We are affected by oppression and/or ignorant/hurtful/belittling beliefs even when we are not directly the targets of those things. Yet we cannot claim like we’re parts of that other oppressed group or that we know exactly what they feel and experience. You wrote everything so much better than I can but I agree with everything that you wrote, and was glad to read it because over time I’ve sometimes thought about these things too.

    That’s a big cliffhanger at the end…can’t wait for the next half! :)

  2. Most of this post, I’m on board with 100%. However, I have a question, and I pose it to you as a member of the LGBT community: what on earth makes you think that a cocktail party full of gay men isn’t full of potential (and actual) oppressors? A person’s sexual preference is not a ‘get out of misogyny free’ card.

    All of that aside, I’m very happy to have found your weblog. *bookmarks*

  3. Wendy – Thanks for pointing that out. Goes to show that the power of analogy does not lie in its precision. ;) Misogyny, racism, transphobia and lots more – yes, certainly, gay men are guilty of all those things, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself more times than I care to count. I still think Promise Keepers are way scarier, mind you, but I very much agree with your point!

  4. I often feel the same way with respect to feminism and male privilege. Its an ongoing struggle for me to negotiate, for example, how I, also, feel oppressive strictures on my own behaiour, appearence, sociality due to structural power around sex/gender, and at the same time I hae to deal with the shear fact that I benefit substantially from the position it places me in, even if to access some of those benefits/avoid a deprivation of societal recognition I need to fit a set of expectations.

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