When Allies Fail, Part I

By Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

[In the following post about allies, I am confining my discussion to anti-racism and feminism because those are the movements with which I am most familiar. I hope, though, that these ideas have broader application.]

Allies are important to any equality movement. It does not help people of color if we are the only ones who understand racism and how it still exists in society. It does not help women if we are the only ones that believe we deserve equal treatment. This is especially true considering the ways that women and people of color have been kept from places of power. The battles are ours to fight, and we can win them, but we need allies.

What does it mean to be allied? The dictionary definition is to be joined in a group to advance common interests or causes. And what does this joining require? I think mutual respect, shared activism and adherence to mutual goals and objectives. Alliances are by nature two-sided affairs. Both sides bear the responsibility of maintaining the relationship. And this isn’t easy. I have witnessed too many battles between members of marginalized groups and their professed allies to think otherwise. The disagreements are often raw, emotional and ultimately unsatisfying. Sometimes, I think we expect too much of our allies. Sometimes the privileged are too confident in their roles as allies and too slow to examine their own biases. As enlightened about race or gender a person may be, we are all products of a racist and sexist society. To expect any person, no matter how good-intentioned, to never reveal a racial or gender bias is to invite disappointment. If members of marginalized groups want to work with allies, we have to know that they will fail us sometimes. Our allies have to know that they will fail.

And what do we do when this happens–when allies fail? How can we address mistakes, while preserving relationships and maintaining the power that comes through alliances with people outside of our group? How do I think an ally should respond when their bias or privilege is called out? How do I think marginalized groups should handle the mistakes allies make?

This is the first of two posts on maintaining alliances in the face of failure. Today, I will tackle the responsibilities of anti-racist and feminist allies. What should an ally do when he or she has made an unwitting show of prejudice or privilege?

Listen. Good relationship habits 101–listen to the person(s) that you have harmed. It may be helpful to repeat what you understand the grievance to be in order to demonstrate that you are making an effort to understand. Before you speak, think about what is being said. Try to put aside your ego (hard as that is) and examine the “offense.” Can you see your privilege peeking through? Have you uncovered a hidden bias? Even if your actions were unintentional, can you see how they could be misconstrued?

Don’t defend. Everyone wants to believe they have their prejudices in check. And when you are generally diligent about examining your biases and privilege, and you have good intentions, hearing that you have failed can feel like a slap. It is easy to become defensive, rattling explanations and defenses rather than truly listening to the person who is offended. And you may feel angry: “After all the ways I’ve proven myself, how could anyone think I am (racist, sexist, etc.).” Resist the urge to defend yourself at first. This doesn’t mean you need be endlessly berated or that the person who you have offended is right. It simply means that you can’t listen and hear where another person is coming from if you are talking.

Allow us our anger. It isn’t easy being a member of a marginalized group. For instance, I have written before about the dull aches of racism. I have also written about how members of marginalized groups are expected to hold their tongues in the face of mistreatment–to be the “bigger persons.” What may seem like a very small deal to you, to us may be yet another wearying and soul-destroying slight. Any human being has a right to be angry about injustice. Again, this does not mean that we have the right to dehumanize or insult you. It is not an ally’s job to be endlessly flogged and called to account for the sins of all society. But marginalized people do have a right to be pissed off and to show it.

Apologize. If you understand and agree that you have committed an offense, apologize. No “I’m sorry, but…” No need to explain the whys and wherefores or attempt to minimize. Just say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong and I should have known better.” Period. Own your mistake. Now, I am not suggesting that you apologize for something you didn’t do or don’t think you’ve done. If, after truly listening, you believe you have been misunderstood…well, that situation is more difficult. That I am a black woman does not automatically mean that I am always right in identifying a white person’s race bias or a man’s gender bias. There is a way to acknowledge what another person is feeling, even if you ultimately don’t apologize. But know that if you’re a guy on a womanist Web site, for example, and multiple women tell you that you are being a sexist asshole, you probably need to check yourself.

(If Possible) Correct. If what you have done can be undone, do it immediately.

Educate yourself. The best way to come to understand how, say, “racism” works, to identify your own biases and to learn the language of the movement, is to get smart about racial prejudice and privilege, as well as other cultures. Don’t rely on people of color to do your work for you. As allies, we will naturally share some information with you, teach a little. But teaching is not our responsibility. Read the books by important thinkers on race. Note new study results. Pay attention to pop culture, media and art beyond the mainstream. Seek a diverse group of friends. Lurk on popular anti-racist blogs. Get involved offline. And again, listen…listen…listen. This is the best way to avoid missteps and to recover when you fail. Your education is your responsibility.

[Editor's note: There is nothing that annoys me more...and you can find this often on feminist blogs when the issue of race comes up...than when someone begins a comment by saying, "We'll, I'm just a clueless white woman, but..." To this, I say..."No." First, the constituencies of most of the popular feminist blogs prove themselves to be far from clueless on other topics. They talk of being PhDs and scientists and teachers and journalists. These are smart women. What this statement really means is, "I have the privilege of not having to educate myself on this issue, so I'm going to make a cutesy disclaimer before I speak in case I say something wildly offensive." That's a cop out. It's an attempt to get around owning your mistakes. And it demeans me and you. If you think you really are "clueless," do something about it.]

Reaffirm your commitment. Proof that you are a true ally to a cause–whatever the cause is–is that you slog through and keep going, even through rough patches and arguments. Your continued presence post-mistake, whether on a feminist blog or in a local grassroots anti-racist organization, is a demonstration of your commitment.