Half-Assed Allies Wanted
*This is my unpublished response to "The Year of the White Male".
Half-Assed Allies Wantedby Joseph Oteng
Mention the phrases police brutality, sexual assault, or marriage equality and straight white men seem to prepare themselves for an onslaught of social justice jargon which often ends in definitive name-calling à la racist sexist homophobe.
On this campus and so many others like it exists a culture rightfully concerned with social justice, inequality, and the differences that make us diversely human. College is a time where some students discover themselves, learn beyond ridged binaries, and challenge prejudiced beliefs. Others however cannot be bothered to google an identity, examine privilege, or curb biased speech let alone attend a lecture, join a discussion, or a demonstration.
The excuses abound for why people don’t get social justice, don’t want to, or don’t care to. The implications, however, are burdens that no one can carry. In failing to do so, you deny the humanity of others, can you live with that?
Without it you lack a fundamental understanding of not only how, but why people, at least in the historical context of the United States, interact the ways they do. You miss macro level institutions that systematically have and continue to disenfranchise, exclude, and neglect people with marginalized identities as well as interpersonal encounters that stereotype, stigmatize, and devalue those people.
It’s complicated, confusing, and challenging. Even more so is coming to comprehend not only conceptualizations of power and privilege but how some demographics of campus and society in general benefit from the oppression of others.
Privilege implies that some are haves which implicitly means others are have-nots. It’s unasked, unearned, and often unwanted but it exists. It does not necessarily mean taking away but rather failing to give, as in human respect, dignity, or the benefit of the doubt i.e. black youth, sexual assault survivors, and same sex couples.
And what about power? That’s having social mobility, governmental influence, and diverse media representation on a large scale but also prerogative and vocalization day to day too. Why then are straight white men perceived to be the root of social injustice?
*Excuse the “us and them” othering dichotomy here but it is necessary. And again, no one can speak for anyone but themselves.
They made it this way, whether inadvertent or not. Who - the forefathers and government officials who denied women rights and still police their bodies; built the country through the work of indigenous, African, Asian, and Latino peoples and continue to limit their opportunities/lives; and silenced people with queer identities and sustain that negligence. The reality is that we all have and continue to play into these inequalities; we are all to blame.
Of course straight white men were at the forefront of creating this great nation but they also ended up putting others down in the process. You get to be normal. You get to be an individual rather than a representative of all those who have or are perceived to share your identity. You get to determine whose humanity is visible and who is forgettable. Everyone else is a variation and you’re the standard by which we are all judged only to inevitably fail just for existing. We’re not all cisgender, middle-class, Protestant, traditionally educated, temporarily able-bodied, average sized, naturalized citizens. Everyone is an intersection of those “dominant” and exponentially more “subordinated” identities.
Everyone with a normalized identity, you’ll stop being blamed for things when you start critically examining how you have benefitted from the putting down of others, taking into account that we all have certain devalued social and personal identities. Consciously commit to dismantling systems, rewriting biased histories, and seeing others’ humanity in how to talk, treat, and exist around them. That last one - the feelings part is most important. Straight white men, you are perceived to be unaffected, or even apathetic about social issues - combine that with you being who comes out unscathed and it doesn't look good for you. Show some emotion!
Yes, if you choose to do or say nothing, and it is a choice you make regardless of consciousness, you are part of the problem. You condone all the messed up ways we treat one another. Of course you are different from perpetrators but to those most impacted, your inaction has not helped them either so what’s the point of making a distinction. The only way to be distinguishable is to be better as an ally.
Let others be normal! Difference works both ways, as in, others are different from you, but you yourself are also different from them. Normal is relative.
You help by becoming an ally. It’s a title bestowed upon you, not self-declared. It means those in certain identities that can count on you to do your best to actively try, not be perfect, in using inclusive language, taking responsibility for your actions and words, and showing support. It’s challenging others who share you identities too. It’s a lifelong commitment to create equity, and foster multicultural connections of celebration. It’s a privilege to be able to check in or out of tough conversations; those with subordinated identities are not afforded that luxury but any help whether sustained or not is still helpful, nonetheless.
That half-assed allyship also means that if something is wrong that you’re offended. Yes. You – your damn self. Not because you have a black friend, a sister, or a gay co-worker but because it’s wrong. That’s where empathy comes in. You don’t have to have a relationship with someone to know something is hurtful or carry an identity that is targeted with slurs, hate speech, or bigotry to understand.
People should be treated with equitable respect because they are people. No one needs to earn your respect. That mindset puts the power back in your hands as the benefactor of all that is just. People don’t get to define who or what is respectable a identity, action, or belief. Respect should be given unless it is lost.
Allyship means learning to think of others. That’s understanding the events of Ferguson as not some isolated incident to be knit-picked and overlooked because of less than perfect evidence but rather a disturbing trend of authorities disproportionately targeting people of color. That’s realizing that sexual assault has absolutely nothing to do with survivors but rather their attackers when nonconsensual sex is had. That’s knowing that sexuality is not a choice and marriage equality takes nothing away from spouses.
Allyship is not a "get out of whatever-ism free" card. You can and will offend others – that’s part of being human. The difference is that you’re steadfast to apologize authentically, take responsibility for your words/actions, and work to be better so there's not a next time.
The “ally or bye” mentality comes from a denial that your life experience is drastically different from mine. Those with subordinated identities enlist in a never-ending war to be seen while those with dominant identities have a choice in fighting. Allies who become warriors are those who not only give up their privilege but use their power to move others forward whether that be in classroom discussions or in government chambers.
Saying “ally or bye” is admittedly problematic. On one hand it is totally valid in that waltzing in to “save the social justice day” on white horse of epic savior proportions only to retreat to the safety of “normalcy” when an incident is finished can be construed as nothing more than a demonstration of privilege. On the other, if all attempts to aid the plights of the marginalized are refuted then no change can ever come.
Let those who are willing to fight for you from their place of privilege do so. It is they that need to be moved in heart and physicality. It’s they that have the power to systematically and institutionally improve society. It’s they have the most effect in saying something to interrupt the behaviors of their peers.
Also, check those who fight for you. Motivations are important. Wielding the social justice sword for brownie points or the approval of those with subordinated identities is inauthentic. You fight the fight because you believe in it. You do it for yourself not others in that you check yourself before anyone else. You give what you can but also can call out when you’re slacking. You amplify the voices of the unheard, not steal the megaphone. You give your vulnerability and contribute to conversations rather than staying guarded and detracting.
In principle allyship is idealistic but in reality you have to take what you can get. People cannot be expected to refute their lifelong indoctrination into bias in a day, and some may never get there. However you can offer your aid is welcomed because our society can only change when you do so. Your half-assed allyship is wanted, needed, and necessary, but know you can do better.
*Leave a comment - how do you define allyship?