On Facing Your Bias, Owning Your Prejudice, and Allies – Part 2

by Latoya Peterson

This post has been continued from part 1.

(Before I get into this next part, let me address something from part one. When I was writing about allies, I specifically was thinking about people who self-identified as women of color allies and who dropped the ball. But as commenter Kali pointed out, things are a bit more complex than that.)

Good allies are in short supply. So the question becomes how does one become a good ally? In pondering this question, I realized that there are some people who could benefit from this information but would never ever use the term ally. For example, I have friends who will not ever consider themselves allies to the GBLTQ2 community because of their religious upbringing. However, the people who are my friends also realize that persecuting people for who they are is not right and they will not condone it.

So how does one define an ally? A person who actively advocates for your position? A person who provides back up when you need it? Or quite simply, someone you consider a friend?

I will allow you all to ponder that one, to be revisited at a later date. However, it occurs to me that being an ally also overlaps with being conscious of the lives of others. And whether we deign to be allies or not, much is gained by learning more about the lives of others, and how to listen when someone is sharing their experience.

Synecdochic speaks on the nature of being a (feminist) ally:

Being an ally is not a destination. It’s a process. Everyone fucks it up sometimes. I have made some spectacular fuckups myself, and that’s with trying to be very, very careful and aware. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card; there is no Magical Incantation. If you catch yourself thinking that of course you’re not like those men, stop and take a good hard look at yourself, because statistically speaking, chances are good that you might be patting yourself on the back and forgetting that you have to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.

If you consider yourself an ally, and you wind up doing or saying something that gets a really strong negative reaction, and you see one of your friends saying something along the lines of “it’s okay, he’s one of the good guys, it’s not like that”, that should be a warning sign that it’s time to immediately apologize. A real apology, not an “I’m sorry if you were offended” — because that kind of language isn’t an apology at all. You clearly did offend someone, or else the dogpile wouldn’t have happened. “I’m sorry that I offended you, and I’d like to make sure I understand why, so it doesn’t happen again; what I’m getting is that it was such-and-such, and I’m sorry I did that, and if that wasn’t it, I’d like to listen to anything else you have to say…”

Did you catch that?

If you consider yourself an ally, and you wind up doing or saying something that gets a really strong negative reaction, and you see one of your friends saying something along the lines of “it’s okay, he’s one of the good guys, it’s not like that”, that should be a warning sign that it’s time to immediately apologize.

These things happen.

Even if you consider yourself an ally, there is a chance you will say or do something offensive. After all, life is long, and we have a lot of chances to screw things up. We also have a lot of chances to make things right. However, it seems that some people get very caught up in what they think is their identity so it blinds them to the mistakes they make.

You hear this a lot from people in the world. “I can’t be racist, I ____,” “there is no WAY I’m sexist, my wife said ______” or “I can’t be homophobic, I’m just telling the truth!”

Don’t spend time trying to duck the label – hear what other people are saying. If you feel like the characterization is unfair, fine. But listen to what they are saying and respond respectfully. You’d be surprised at how many conflicts die down once you approach these kinds of conversations respectfully and humbly.

I say this as an anti-racist activist, who edits a blog dedicated to exploring these kinds of issues, and I have committed colossal fuck-ups.*

When you step into a new environment or attempt to tackle a topic you have never tried before, you will probably make mistakes. Do not be afraid of making mistakes. In my conversations with Anna over at Jezebel, one of the things she kept mentioning was that “if writing about these issues gets these types of [negative] reactions, maybe we shouldn’t cover them at all.”

And that is the absolute wrong answer.

If you don’t keep trying to cover these issues, everyone remains ignorant. No one has to change their perception because they have not been challenged to do so. (However, if you are not willing to cover an issue properly, do research, and write a good piece about an area you are unfamiliar with, maybe you should stop covering those topics.) In the wake of the issues that arose around the coverage of Islam, I felt completely attacked. I was extremely upset. I was yelling at my computer “Don’t you realize I am trying to help? Why are you upset at me?”

After I calmed down and really thought about what happened, it didn’t really matter what I intended to do. What I did was employ the same silencing tactics that have been used against marginalized groups forever. Oops. So I extended a crappy private apology over email. And then I thought about it and extended a better apology publicly. And that was the end of the matter. No, really, it was.

As a result of that conflict, I was introduced to a lot of Muslimah bloggers, learned to look critically at Muslimah issues, and while I do not feel like I am well versed enough to speak on Islam, I know exactly where to go to get analysis and perspective. This is not an impossible task. It requires reading, listening, learning, developing relationships, doing some research, and asking the right questions. So, the slight bit of embarrassment I caused myself was actually really worth it in the long run.

And here’s a quick story to show you how half of these conflicts get blown up in your mind. Last month I was headed to the WAM! conference and knew Nadia would be there. So I sent her an email to see if she wanted grab some tea. Along the way, I ended up meeting many of the radical women of color bloggers including Black Amazon, BFP, Sudy, Alexis, Angry Black Bitch, and many others. Did they yell and scream at me and call me an oppressor? No! We met, we did the lunch caucus, and Wendi and I attended their panel.

Here is what you have to remember – if you are receiving criticism from people in your own group, from people who are trying to accomplish the same things you are, from people who also identify the same way you are, they are generally trying to make you aware of something that you are missing.

They are not “hating.”

No one is waiting to stone you if you make a mistake, even though you feel attacked. It’s not that serious. Apologize and prepare to move on.

This brings us to parts two and three:

2. Understanding where you have a blindspot/prejudice/lack of knowledge
3. Being honest about what you are trying to accomplish


Understanding where you have a blindspot/prejudice/lack of knowledge

It is not possible to know everything about every world conflict, marginalized group, or social justice issue.

Let me repeat that – it is not possible to know everything about every world conflict, marginalized group, or social justice issue.

So when you are entering into a topic you are not well-versed on it is best to tread lightly and link to or reference other people who have done more work in this area, or who are actually living this experience. Citing who you learned from does not weaken your argument – in fact, it lends you more credibility as it shows you have done your research.

If you have a lack of knowledge on a certain subject, please understand that you will not be able to get a reasonable grasp of the issue in ten minutes. You must remember that when you are exploring certain, indepth topics, you will bump up against ideas that directly conflict with your grasp of the world. Do not immediately dismiss these ideas, even if they make you uncomfortable.

I took a business law class, which focused entirely on the World Trade Organization (WTO) and it’s role in global trade. We had one major paper due at the end of the semester which sought to answer this question: Is the WTO effective? Now, when I first started learning about the WTO, I quickly exhausted myself reading through indictment after indictment of the WTO by smaller nations (referred to as the Global South.) It appeared that they blamed the US and Britain for the bulk of their problems.

I remember being very dismissive of these claims. “It’s not our fault your country is broke,” I remember thinking.

By the end of the class, having conducted a thorough review of the practices and policies of the WTO (along with the practices of the World Bank and the IMF) I realized: Yeah, it IS our fault that these nations are poor. We directly contributed to most of these problems!

If I had gone with my first instinct, I would have never learned anything. By being quiet, listening when you disagree, and sticking with a topic, you can open yourself up to a greater understanding of most issues.

Being honest about what you are trying to accomplish

When you write (or speak) on a public platform, you have to be very honest with yourself about what you are trying to accomplish. What are you trying to do? To educate? To entertain? To inform? Realize that sometimes, what your audience expects is at odds with what you are trying to do. Perhaps you are trying to entertain people when they are looking to you for education. Either way, if you are writing/speaking for public consumption, please remember that what you do and say does have consequences and at any moment, what you write may end up in the newspaper, on another blog, on television, or in any other kind of situation.

Be mindful of what you are trying to accomplish whenever you engage with an audience. With increased exposure and increased acclaim also comes increased responsibility. No one said this would be easy. But it is definitely worth it.

(To be completed in part 3.)

*Yes, I know, I keep pulling out this same example because it illustrates a lot of different issues very well. When I fuck up again, I’ll replace the example. Until then, here’s a shameless plug for the Allied Media Conference, going down June 20 – 22. It looks like it’s going to be great, and I have entered negotiations with my job to release me long enough to go.