Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to be an Ally

Last week at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University, I helped convene a multidisciplinary, intersectional panel on allies, those in positions of relative privilege who seek to act in solidarity with people who do not share it.   In almost all of my native contexts, I enjoy the privileges of being a white, straight, Christian, cisgendered man, yet I hope to be a good ally and collaborator with others in the interest of justice.    My friends on the panel taught us much on the role and calling of alliance with people on the margins of our institutions. 

(These are also critical lessons for empathy and empathetic advocacy necessary for client-centered lawyering.)

The panelists, Dr. Jeanine Thweatt-Bates, Julie Mavity Maddalena, Edward Carson and Scott Lybrand, are respectively and intersectionally, white, black, straight, gay, men and women, across a spectrum of faith and post-faith, speaking from diverse backgrounds of affluence, poverty, education and vocation.  They spoke from various, ambivalent points of privilege and marginalization.   This is some of the wisdom they shared for people who would be allies in solidarity with people without power or voices in our communities.

Listen:  The first and essential rule for allies is to listen to those with whom they would have solidarity.  Listen for stories.  Listen for insight.  Listen for wisdom.  Listen for agency.  Do not reinterpret.  Listen and attend to one’s own internal reactions.   If a friend on the margins speaks and provokes an emotional reaction within the ally, the ally ought to reflect on the dynamics that triggered the response and question it.  

Amplify:  Do not speak on behalf of a marginalized voice but use powerful platforms to amplify her voice.   Allies should use the platforms and means at their disposal to amplify the voices of those on the margins, with their own identity and agency, sharing the stages and podiums we enjoy with those who do not have access to them. 

Move out of the center:  Effective allies will not presume to be the heroic protagonist in the neighbor’s narrative.   The ally should not be on a rescue mission but should strive to pull alongside the friend on the margins, to empower and support, to amplify, but not to eclipse.   No one wants to be another’s project.  

Disagree without condemnation: Build together a context where disagreement does not mean condemnation.   Rather, disagreement ought to lead to acknowledgement for more and better communication and understanding.   The people “on the margins” are not monolithic or univocal, but as humans will disagree, struggle and advance conflicting points of view in their agency.  

Hear stories:   The effective ally will hear stories with an intentional discipline to understand context and with an understanding that one person’s story never is representative of an entire community.   Individuals matter.   Let people tell their own stories, and do not interpret someone’s story for them.    Listen for criticism of oppressive dynamics, but also listen to perceive resilience, beauty, faithfulness, dignity and forgiveness.  

Educate yourself:  “It is not the queer person’s job to educate the privileged ally.”   Friends may seek insight and understanding from friends, but to insist that a person on the margins be the source of knowledge for an ally makes the person on the margin an object yet again.   The person on the margins is not obligated to educate the ally on oppression, although the ally ought to learn from the neighbor on the margins.   

Understand the effects of oppression: Oppression causes harm.  Often the criticism leveled at those on the margins by those in privilege is the result of the oppression, not of the identity of the person on the margins.   “Gayness is not harmful.  The institutional oppression of gay people is harmful.”   The Invisible Man is not weaker, less able, less smart, less worthy, but being made invisible generates harmful and persistent, traumatic effects on spirit, mind and body.  Always ask whom we may be harming by doing what we do. 

Don’t interrupt:  Listen and hear without preparing a response, a defense, an interpretation.   Be willing to give up the initiative and direction of a conversation. 

Recognize default categories of normalcy:  Recognize that inherited notions of normalcy create privileges for those in the default categories, forcing the exceptions to the margins.   Normalcy receives implicit preference and favor.   Honor the exceptional who lie outside the default categories of normalcy but counter their exclusion by inviting them into the privileged and preferred spaces of our conversations and collaborations. 

Don’t confuse the ought with the is: To say that one does not see gender, race, etc., to claim to be “colorblind,” does not reflect reality.   To ignore difference, even with a good will, impliedly adopts the dominant as normal and imposes the default categories.  To ignore difference, even with a good will, denies the gifts of difference and exception, and ignores the beauty and wisdom of variety and experience.  

Recognize movements already in action:  When entering a cause as an ally, avoid the impulse to initiate something new from scratch on behalf of those with whom we would be in solidarity.  Rather, with a posture of humility and caution, recognize movements already in action.   Do not assume that the movement needs an ally but lend aid, power, voice and capacity as the movement invites and welcomes the ally’s effort.

Take a risk:  An ally might better be called an accomplice.   Acting in solidarity as an ally accomplice may require skin in the game, risks to the ally’s self.   It is all too easy to claim to be an ally when it is convenient, then to retire to a place of comfortable safety when the ally needs a respite.   The oppressed don’t get vacations from oppression, so the ally must prepare to sweat and bleed with the friend on the margins.    

Practice epistemic humility:    Be comfortable with ambiguity, fluidity and constructive conflict.   Certainty, clarity and clean resolutions are not realistic in a truly plural, multivocal world.   Admit and accept that we do not know and cannot know everything about the others’ world and experience. 

Be helpful:    Guilt, paralysis and shame are not helpful.  Likewise, the posture of a savior bent on rescue is not helpful.  As Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson said, “If you've come here to help me, you're wasting your time. But if you've come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Be angry:  Question institutions without ceasing if everyone in the room looks like everyone else in the room.   Be angry that people are on the margins at all.  Be angry for the poverty of spirit imposed on the privileged and the marginalized by exclusion.  Do not make people invisible, and do not abide their invisibility.  Do not judge the excluded by the standards of the included.  Always question and challenge the exclusion of anyone.  If you would walk into a room and ask, “Why doesn’t anyone here look like me?” then be prepared to ask, “Why does everyone in this room look like me?”

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