Since 45 was elected, I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends and acquaintances, both on and offline, about allyship and advocacy. These conversations have most often landed on the precarious subject of how best we can be using our businesses and public profiles as platforms. To paraphrase, this is what I most often hear:
“I want to be an ally. I want to tell people I care about them. I am horrified by what’s happening, and I want to speak up for the marginalized.
But I’m worried about doing it wrong.”
These comments have most often been made to me personally in regard to LGBTQIA+ and POC communities, usually from someone in a position of privilege. (Straight folks talking to me because I’m their gay friend; other white folks talking to me because they see me as a white person who talks a lot - publicly - about allyship.)
These conversations with smart, kind, compassionate women who I respect have prompted me to think harder about allyship - about its purpose and what about it, specifically, scares people right now.
While this regime is spreading fear and paranoia everywhere, very much encouraging a divide and conquer mentality even among marginalized communities, what has emerged through conversation is that there are a lot of misunderstandings about what allyship is.
This article’s intention is to do a few things: discuss what allyship is, what it’s not, and offer a course correction to folks who consider themselves allies and who want to be in there doing the work - but might be afraid to.
Quick note: pretty much everything I’ve learned about allyship, I’ve learned from black women: from reading bell hooks and Audre Lorde in college, from following women like Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett and Ava DuVernay on Twitter.
Preface: Why We Need Allies
At least speaking for myself as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I want allies. I need allies, for the simple reason that there is safety - and power - in numbers, and the more people who see me and my partner and my community as human beings possessed of intrinsic dignity and worthy of respect and love and all that other stuff, the more chance I have at having a normal day-to-day life. That’s all I want; I hope it’s not too much of a generalization to assert that that’s a common desire.
Allies help us get there. And as someone who seeks to act in allyship to trans and gender non-conforming members of my own community as well as to POC and other marginalized communities, it’s important for allies to think self-reflexively about the role allies play in helping us achieve legal, economic, and sociocultural gains. Which is to say, it's important for allies to take on the burden of allyship themselves without asking marginalized folks to exert more emotional and physical labor teaching them how to ally.
So, let’s return to the subject at hand: the fear of not doing it right, which is different than the simultaneous, and also palpable, fear of not doing enough.
The fear of not doing it right inclines us to be less vulnerable, less willing to do hard work, less willing to listen, less willing to dig in. Less willing to be there, to sit with the discomfort.
And we’ve gotta get uncomfortable with allyship, with white supremacy, with homophobia, with transphobia, if we’re gonna fight to get through 45’s regime and to help as many people as humanly possible survive 45’s regime.
Keep in mind, I am writing this specifically for allies. Personally, I’m speaking as a white woman to other white people, but also as a queer woman to those who are seeking to be an ally to my LGBTQIA+ community.
What is Allyship?
Allyship is an action, not an identity. Because it is an action, allyship is not a one time thing. Allyship is not marching once and checking a box “done.” Allyship is a perpetual action.
Like being in relationship, or in friendship, allyship is the continual work of dismantling systems of oppression. What does that mean?
Step one is bearing witness to the oppression of others.
It means acknowledging - mentally, verbally, publicly - that there is a silent genocide happening amongst trans women, especially trans women of color, in the United States right now. It means acknowledging the state-sanctioned violence against black folks. It means acknowledging the state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ Americans.
Step two of allyship is stepping the fuck up and doing something.
Marching and calling Congress. Donating.
But also, let’s be real: civil disobedience. Lunch counter sit-ins were civil disobedience. Trans women throwing bricks at the police at Stonewall? Civil disobedience. The recent repeal of 45’s first travel ban? Widespread civil disobedience at airports is what took that down and ensured its enforcement in the courts.
The Aesthetics of Allyship
T-shirts, buttons, pins. Retweets for the #resistance. The optics and aesthetics of allyship are sexy, and right now, it seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.
But here's the thing: some folks will always misconstrue even the best of intentions. Always. For folks whose businesses rely on having a popular social media feed, the reality that they might lose followers (or even customers) for taking a stand is not a happy thought.
But this is the reality. People will always disagree with you. People will always “call you out.” Sometimes, they will do this when you’re wrong (in which case: listen, learn, apologize, move forward). Sometimes, they will do this just to be a fucking troll.
If you have paid attention to conversations within marginalized communities, you are aware that public figures within those communities face criticism from their own every single day. Personally, I’ve got LGBTQIA+ folks on my ass about Bluestockings (my LGBTQIA+ focused lingerie business) on a weekly basis.
You can never please everyone, and the idea that allyship is an endeavor which could or would please everyone is unrealistic.
Here’s a series of questions to walk through:
Are you afraid of being “exposed” as someone who isn’t perfect - who doesn’t know it all? Is the discomfort, at root, a fear of embarrassment, of exposing any deep-seated internalized white supremacy or homophobia? Or are you afraid of offending others, of causing a fight? Are you afraid of not seeming fully aware and progressive, even though that is an ever-becoming process? No one comes out fully aware.
There is a fear of “doing it wrong.” On the surface, this looks like perfectionism, that mild and harmless “weakness” that is the safe weakness we give in job interviews: I just want to do it right. I just want to be sure that I’m the best I can be.
But what is perfectionism? What is a fear of failing in public? It’s a fear of vulnerability. A fear of being willing to live and learn out loud.
A fear of appearing as anything less than the “perfect” ally.
A fear of being censured as racist, or homophobic, or transphobic, by the groups you are trying to ally.
A fear of exposing the darkest corners of your heart that you may not yet have come to terms with.
A fear of fucking up and losing approval, or not winning approval in the first place.
And this strikes at the heart of the issue:
Allyship is for the group of people you care about, but you as an ally are not talking to those people. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the application of allyship.
What People Misunderstand about Allyship
Here’s the thing: my audience as a white ally is not black folks. My audience as a white ally is white folks. In this, I have two jobs:
First, amplify black voices (and never ever ever speak over them). RT the shit out of black writers. Funnel resources by black writers and academics to a white audience. On this note: shut up when black folks are talking. Last month, I was not about to pitch editors about Black History Month or get up in black writers' mentions about BHM. But write threads specifically aimed at educating white folks about Black History Month? Yes, I did do that.
Second: educate my fellow white folks. Write blog posts like this one (An Open Letter to My Fellow White Business Owners). Talk to my coworkers. When they say shit like, "But Nick Viall [the latest Bachelor] is never gonna pick Rachel [the last standing black woman]," really push in and be like "Why?" Don't be afraid to go in and have those conversations (yes: even about stuff as seemingly innocuous as The Bachelor). Get over my fear of doing shit imperfectly.
And a really important part of being an ally? My job is to never ever ever ask for cookies in return.
I say this as a gay woman who is 1) out of cookies and 2) fed up with all the straight people in my life who expect me to applaud them for being “one of the good ones,” AKA a decent fucking human being. I don’t give a fuck about you showing off your progressiveness in front of me. I am an easy audience. I am already gay. You think I have the right to get married? Great, so do I! I also think I should have the right to adopt children in every state, and to be honest, I’m slightly frustrated that you’re so busy dancing for cookies that you haven’t thought that far ahead. And do you even know how many trans women of color have been murdered in the US this year? (As of this writing, March 16, 2017: seven that we know of.)
Go be a good person in front of your Trump-voting family. Go have hard conversations with them. Go call out your homophobic coworker. Go call out your boyfriend when he says stupid shit that you let pass because he pays for dinner. Go call out those people. Don’t get pissed when I don’t do cartwheels because you asked about my girlfriend.
Go be a good person in the community that you can speak to, in the community where you have privilege. Go be a good person where it’s hard.
Tl;dr Expect nothing from the community you care about. This sounds harsh, but it's true. The work of allyship is to relieve marginalized communities of their emotional burden and to educate (and check) your own community. Full stop.
When Shit Blows Up (or, the "doing it wrong" part)
If you are publicly acting as an ally, shit will eventually blow up publicly, because shit always does. And this is where understanding your motivations, and insecurities, is important, because if you understand why you’re doing something - if you believe, truly, that it’s important, beyond ego-feeding reasons, then you’ll live to ally another day and you’ll learn from the mistake.
I want to share two examples where I received public backlash with you.
Example #1: Even people from a marginalized community get criticism from their own community, so don't freak out when they come for you, too.
The first example of public backlash was from my own LGBTQIA+ community. I give this example to remind everyone that no one is “safe” from backlash - even if you’re in the community itself. I give it, second, because the backlash reminded me that even as a gay woman, I am still fundamentally an ally to trans and genderqueer folks.
The backlash was around a photo shoot I did for Bluestockings, an LGBTQIA+ inclusive lingerie store that I still run today. I was ridiculously excited about this photo shoot - I had cobbled together a few thousand dollars for it, which was way more than I could afford. It was my first shoot and I had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted the models and photographer to have agency in it. (Oh also: everyone was LGBTQIA+!) So the models chose their own outfits and also had agency in their poses and locations in the photos.
Honestly, this kind of agency for models is unheard of. In hindsight, I should have provided more direction, and should have changed up the shots a little more to have more variety, should have made sure that each model was featured prominently in some of the group shots. I should have recognized that, since trans and genderqueer models never get this kind of facetime in lingerie campaigns (especially when this was shot two years ago), I should have been more thoughtful about placement in shots.
Even though the models ranged across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, appearances are everything, even within our community, and the only trans woman was in the back of the most popular group shot - which quickly became a lightning rod on social media.
The post went viral on social media sites, with thousands of reposts and notes calling Bluestockings out as a sham, calling me a TERF. I got hate mail. I was told, bluntly, that Bluestockings had betrayed the LGBTQIA+ community.
Emotionally, I was devastated. I used the Bluestockings Blog and interviews at queer sites like Autostraddle to explain the photo shoot (and to post other group shots more prominently featuring trans models at the shoot), but emotionally, I had been unprepared for the avalanche.
That was in 2015. It’s 2017. No one remembers this viral event but me. (And, well, now all of you.) Over the last few weeks, I have offered this particular example to friends and acquaintances as a reminder:
Here's the lesson: you will never please everyone. You will never please everyone in your own community. The experience taught me a lot about how to direct (and not direct) a photo shoot. But mostly, I learned a lot about how divisive things can be even within a purported community.
At the end of the day, you need to pick yourself up, keep walking, and not feed the trolls.
Example #2: Sometimes, shit blows up publicly, and you’re totally, totally wrong.
Sometimes, shit will blow up and it will 100% be because of something you said wrong. I speak from experience!
Here’s the thing to remember: failure is how we grow. Mistakes are how we grow. The key thing is apologizing. The key thing is understanding and doing better the next time.
One of my tweet threads about how every white demographic went for Trump went viral pretty much immediately after the election. What I had intended to say was every major white demographic - which is true - because pretty quickly, a lot of white folks dropped into my mentions to be like “not college educated white women!” and shit like that. (Also, y’all, college educated white women went for Hillary by LIKE A MERE FRACTION IT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THAT CLOSE WE DO NOT GET COOKIES AGAIN WE DO NOT GET COOKIES.)
But my mentions pretty quickly took a turn I did not expect: lots of progressive Jews started dropping in being like, you need to stop, because Jews went for Hillary.
Confession: I had not considered religious groups when I posted the thread. I was thinking demographics in terms of gender, age, education.
Further confession: in spite of having done my graduate work at Brandeis and kept a Jewish calendar for four years, I was (on November 9, 2016), woefully unaware of the fraught relationship Jews have with whiteness and white identity.
Instead of owning up to my ignorance and being like “Hey, so sorry, I totally did not think about the fact that Jews went for Hillary when I made this, and you're right, Jews are definitely the exception here,” I held my ground and said a lot of stupid and contradictory shit. For no reason. Just because I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t thought about A Thing (fraught Jewish relationship to whiteness, etc.). Pride is ugly, y’all. I eventually apologized, but not until after I’d said stupid things and done damage.
Looking back, I cringe at how stubborn I was in my own ignorance. Even as I was trying to be an ally and talk about white supremacy, I was showing blatant anti-semitism by dismissing the concerns of Jewish folks at the election of 45. Jews went for Hillary by a landslide, for obvious reasons. The explicit rise of neo-Nazism and post-election bomb threats to Jewish synagogues and schools (not to mention the recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery) have made headlines, but these tensions were obviously painfully felt by the community itself long before the election.
I just didn’t listen.
Lesson learned: listen to people when they tell you that what you're saying does or doesn't apply to them. Apologize quickly. Google immediately. Reframe thinking. Don't stubbornly dig in heels when there is no evidence - only assumptions.
There are many fears that may be underlying your fear of “doing it wrong.”
But here's the thing - there is a learning curve to this whole allyship thing. And I can guarantee a few things.
At some point, you will stick your foot in your mouth.
At some point, someone will get mad at you.
At some point, there will be an awkward silence, probably with someone you care about.
At some point, you will be at a loss for words.
At some point, you will not know how to deal with the situation.
At some point, someone from within the community will tell you that you are doing it wrong even as someone else from within the community tells you that you are doing it right.
At some point, someone from your own community will come to you and thank you for helping them understand their own privilege better.
At some point, someone from your own community will come to you and tell you to shut the fuck up.
Allyship is not an identity. It is an action. It is a roller coaster. And it happens every day. It is not something to get into for headlines, or for kudos, or for popularity contests.
Allyship requires you to give up the desire for headlines, or kudos, or popularity contests. If you think allyship or inclusivity efforts are a way to build a business, well. Speaking as someone who did build a business on them, it’s not a great way to build revenue, but I can promise that this kind of (consistent) effort will change lives.
Now is the time to sit down with your journal, or your phone, or however you process, and think hard about your motivation. What are you doing this for? Who are you doing this for?
One last thing:
I can’t remember where I saw this, so if any of you know, please comment or @ me on Twitter (would love to give credit where credit is due). At any rate: I once read a thing where a black person asked white folks something along the lines of,
Why would you be an ally? White supremacy benefits you. Why would you invest yourself in dismantling a system that does so much for you?
This question knocked me on my ass. I had never heard it put so bluntly before. The question stayed with me for a long time, and I still think about it.
For a while, I tried to come up with an eloquent answer, but honestly, all I’ve been able to settle on is, because it’s the right thing to do.
If you’re still reading, I assume that you’re interested in allyship in some capacity of your life, be it along lines of race or sexuality or gender or ability or age or religion or [fill in here].
Consider the question: Why would you be an ally? Why would you invest yourself in dismantling a system that benefits you?
I know this was a long post - thanks for sticking with me. I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or @ me on Twitter (@jeannakadlec).
P.S. You can sign up for my tinyletter here.