Breaking the Alliance
I’m in the midst of a fundamental transformation, and it’s time for me to say to all the people whose rights I’ve worked to protect and expand:
I am not your ally.
This may come as something of a shock, given all the hours I’ve put in at phonebanks and lobbying and trainings and rallies. Yes, those are your bumper stickers on my car, your emails in my inbox, your scripts still invading the dreams in which I try to persuade talking dogs to call their legislators.
And no, I’m not giving up on activism. Far from it–I’m more committed than ever to bringing new people into the movements for safe schools, racial justice, gender equity, livable wages and housing, quality health care, and all the other things I care about.
But I’m not your ally anymore.
See, if I were your ally, I wouldn’t have a stake in these fights. I’d only be working for others; that work would have no appreciable impact on my own life. And it may seem like that to some of you who watch me flail around for the common good. After all, I married the person I love with no legal impediments. In fact, I even helped him immigrate, with no risk that he would be questioned or rejected or quota’d out of consideration. I’ve only had two, thoroughly planned pregnancies. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have reasonably affordable health insurance coverage for all but four months of my life. I’m white. I’m highly educated. I’m employed.
I am the veritable picture of privilege. So why can’t I be your ally?
I can’t embrace that title anymore because it’s mistaken. It suggests that I don’t benefit from the changes I help create. And that just isn’t true.
Better wages improve my economy. More affordable housing in safe, diverse, closely knit communities improves my family’s living conditions. Schools that foster the dignity and abilities of every child improve my kids’ education. The dismantling of the prison-industrial complex lifts an unfathomable burden from my society. High-quality, truly accessible health care keeps me alive. Environmental conservation preserves my planet, and by extension, the most sacred part of my soul. Broad civil rights for communities of color and LGBT people protect my own rights to vote, to speak freely, to exercise my most fundamental human aspirations. Autonomy, safety, and respect for women’s choices, bodies, and lives guarantee my own ability to live fully into myself.
I’m not an ally because your rights are my rights. Your liberation is my liberation. Your safety is my safety, and that of all I love.
I don’t know the word for what I am, but I am in this with you all the way. And I won’t stop working until we are all free and whole together.
UPDATE: A darling friend from church came up with what may be the correct answer to my dilemma: the word “ubuntu.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it thus: “Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well.” You can read more of the interview that yielded that quotation here. Yes, I know it’s also a computer term, but apparently the name was chosen deliberately to claim that friendly, collaborative, interconnected effort. So, ubuntu, y’all.
I submit this with all the humility of a-man-who-makes-games-telling-a-woman-who-is-also-a-professional-activist-that-she-might-have-gone-a-little-bit-off-track-with-this-one should have.
Keep transforming, because I think you are a few centuries a head of your time if you stay here.
Really interesting response, Eric. As I said, this whole thing is a transformation for me, and I’m still working this out. But I’m very particular about language. One of the reasons “ally” is a complicated term for me now is that the lines that divide us from one another seem to be disintegrating around me. Our experiences of social conditions are different, but they touch us regardless of which side of the boundary we stand on. And it’s impossible to disentangle anymore from the problems I’m working on, because everyone is poorly served by an economy or a justice system or a healthcare structure or an education system that doesn’t serve some of us well.
The degrees of separation are negligible, and our responses to different forms of oppression are very similar on both physical and psychological levels. I don’t know what it’s like to live in fear for my life because of my race, but I do because of my gender. I have healthcare now, but when I didn’t, I almost died, and even just switching from state insurance to private gave me months of anxiety attacks, like anyone who’s healthcare-insecure. And while my kids haven’t been bullied for sexual orientation, they have for disability, and the pain and helplessness as a parent just can’t be that different.
I want this discussion to continue, and I keep laying thesaurus entries next to my heart in search of the name that I can own and that can own me as I keep working. Thank you so much for your contributions and kind words.
Thank you, Jess. I absolutely am loving the energy of this conversation.
“The degrees of separation are negligible, and our responses to different forms of oppression are very similar on both physical and psychological levels.”
A light bulb goes off. I think we disagree with our assessment of differences. Since we don’t know each other personally, I will err on the side of over-sharing in getting back to this quote. I think this quote is the crux.
First to go back over your other comments – I’m pretty much just nodding my head with the entire first paragraph, especially: lines are disintegrating around us, no matter how our experiences may be vastly different they touch us in remarkably similar ways, and we are all getting a poorer deal than (to pick a convenient number) 1% or less are getting.
I’m also clutching my heart over your difficulties that you mention. I have not had anything like your brush with death, and the only disabled people I know that closely are so far from the schoolyard that they are enjoying retirement (or will soon). I don’t claim to have had any experiences like that.
I’m glad health care access was an example I picked. I can’t tell you that you’re wrong here. I was wrong. You seem to be in the thick of the health care struggle like I have not yet had to and hopefully never will have to face. You are not an ally, you are on the front lines.
Maybe, in fact, your professional work on the front lines makes you more. You certainly are more involved than I am. I write smart things, I like to think, and speak up in my personal life, but I haven’t staked my career or life on it, and I haven’t had the nerve to publish with anyone aside from myself. Maybe that does make you more than an ally. A Professional Hero, a Quixotic Bad-Ass? But this is still playing with “my definition vs your definition,” instead of digging into why there are differences, and I want to focus on that.
So, back to the quote. It’s wonderful. I love your framing of negligible differences and common responses.
Spiritually, I agree with your assertion that we are all equal. Psychologically I agree with your assertion that our responses have so much more in common than our differences. I agree that, when it comes down to what’s really important in a social, interpersonal, global, and cosmic sense, our differences are not large enough to treat one another with anything other than compassion.
“Trauma is trauma” as they say. I’ve met people who were just as, if not more, struggling with life for being too attractive or too popular in school, while I’m wrestling with a childhood history of substance abuse and violence. Losing my teddy bear as a child was one of the most distressing things for me for a very long time, and for someone else I’ve met the most distressing thing was repeated sexual assault by a family member. These people I’m thinking of were able to get successful jobs and balanced minds just as I think I’ve been able to. They were also able to put on performances that let someone like me connect with their struggles. I saw myself in them, even though I never felt too popular, too pretty, or too sexually manipulated.
So, I get that our experiences may vary by degrees so extreme that it looks like an impossible divide, yet under the surface the struggles are so much alike that we might as well be best friends. We share the same emotions, and those shape our responses and reactions.
We are wrestling with paradoxes and ghosts. Which differences are negligible, which are huge, and which don’t exist?
I think my grandpa’s casual use of racial slurs made us starkly different, yet I never stood up for my beliefs with him. Stories he told me of growing up in rural Texas makes me want to be like him more than anything. My grandma was extremely spiritual. Memories of her faith and compassion were inspirations to me, even as I spewed hate and insults at anyone who would dare to believe in something beyond the factual or use a holy book for their moral compass.
How can I hold such differences in myself?
I think you could argue that my ability to accept them is proof they were negligible, but they never felt that way and they still don’t. It was a simple insight to embrace my grandma’s spirituality and compassion and abandon my hate for the mythological, yet it took me years to come to terms with it. I will never embrace my grandfather’s bigotry, and yet it feels like all I would have to do is let my guard down before I’m telling my grandkids about my feelings about the president using racial slurs. I can tell myself a story that I was always the apple of my grandmother’s eye. I can also tell myself a story that (if she had been alive) my style of atheism would have destroyed our relationship, and I the memories I held onto would have been overwritten by bitter disagreements and cold holidays.
I could choose to tell you one of those stories, the one I felt was most right, most true, most accurate. How would you measure the differences? By the end results? By the process?
Who gets to decide if they are negligible? What if we disagree? Am I wrong for telling you a one sided story, or are you wrong for filling in the blanks? Are we both wrong, and if we argued, and never talked again, how would that alter our perspectives of each other? Sometimes I wonder how many people fight and troll just to prove to themselves that differences aren’t just huge, but irreconcilable.
In truth, we would both be paradoxically right and wrong, and could create a story that reinforces our view.
I think you see the paradox of language that I’m exploring, and if so, you’re right to struggle with it. I think you are wise in recognizing the danger of being attached to words or definitions, however, there is also danger in refusing words and definitions. We need words and definitions to be understood, yet, the things we are trying to describe cannot be captured in things as limited as language, math, or emotions.
I don’t think it matters how different we are. We are different. Fact. Negligible or not, our differences are of the utmost importance until they aren’t.
We are going through a transformation, personally and culturally. Like every generation that ever lived, this social transformation is bigger and harder to predict than any before. I don’t know how it will play out, but I believe there are two things we need for it to go better than many past revolutions.
First and foremost, we stop oppression and injustice for those who are being persecuted and maligned for being different in ways that harm no one else. Color of skin, content of character, creed of life. I don’t care if it’s a trait that a person is born with and has no choice, if it’s a choice as important as deciding to marry any number or variety of consenting adults, or as trivial as what to have for breakfast. As long as it causes no harm, there is no social problem. Our definition of harm is what we need to debate and come to a mutual understanding, not the levels in which it is acceptable to be free and what oppression is acceptable.
Second, and I think this is more important but more difficult, to ensure that new differences we spot are treated with compassion. Celebrated and not condemned, hidden, or shamed – despite any evidence we find that might indicate otherwise. Racism was helped very well by meaning people. Yes, it started by mostly selfish jerks, but when scientists got into it, I believe they were trying to be objective and rational. They created the 4-5 races of humans out of ignorance, not malice. They justified claims of superiority by looking at their opulent, aristocratic lifestyle and compared to to people who, in their mind, were living more like animals. I think we agree that if only they had the mindset that our differences are negligible, the 20th century would have been a much better place.
But history is history. And while there are white people who hold onto negligible differences as a source of pride and power, only creating harm in the process, I understand there are many people of color who do the same thing in order to create unity and strength in an identity that we’ve been taught, by schools and culture we share, there is little more than savagery.
I am not going to tell anyone their difference is negligible after our shared history is one in which my grandfathers through my great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers said in newspapers, in scientific textbooks, and in direct conversation: “you ARE different and you are INFERIOR for it.” I think any white person who wants to ignore our differences when it’s no longer an unquestionable blessing to be white is dangerously close to using their privilege to ignore our history and our responsibility for it.
Instead of moving away from being an ally, I think that as we delve deeper, we will find that we all have to be allies to each other and that’s all we can be. That despite our many similarities, you and I have had lives so different that we would need hours of conversation to just relate some of the details we think are important. And there’s no assurance we won’t come away with a misunderstanding. And so, I could never be more than an ally to you. Even though we are both white, your experience of the privilege and guilt aren’t the same, and that even as a fellow white person, the best I can be is an ally, a witness, a companion with you on your path.
I can never tell you that I’m more than that. I can never tell you I’m really walking your path, because if nothing else, I am pretty sold on my path. I have some pretty amazing core values, and I have some pretty clear directions, if I don’t mind saying so.
If I were to presume that I could walk on your path as something more than an ally, a witness, a companion, it’s a short hop to presuming that you can, or indeed you should if you know what’s good for you, walk my path.
We have tried that. Tyrants and benefactors tried it. Religious leaders tried that. Scientists tried to find a grand unified theory. And as much as I believe in the power of the social justice philosophy, I don’t believe it can withstand the idea that there is one perfect path that we all must walk. Instead, I think every path that every person walks is perfect for them, and by sharing the journey as equals, we all learn how to walk our different paths better.
I think you are pointing to a future where humanity is all in it together, where we stop fighting over appearances, choices, and borders, and we start working for optimism, survival, and peace. This will be a grand path where differences do not hold us back. However, even in this future of unity and peace, each and every person will be walking one, and only one, path that is completely unique to them because we will always be different in ways that are not just important, but beneficial to everyone we will ever encounter.
We walk towards a paradox of collectivism and individualism. Human survival is nothing but making sense of paradoxes described in words and atoms.
I’m not claiming that our experiences are identical, or unfraught with complexity and contradiction. Obviously, that’s not where the differences I speak of are negligible. Surviving a war is not the same as growing up in a racist household is not the same as suffering in an abusive relationship.
However, our physical and emotional responses are strikingly similar, regardless which of those experiences we’ve lived. The way trauma affects our nervous system, for instance, is remarkably consistent–you can find a chart that demonstrates it here. I live in the “stuck-on” position, as I have for many years, as a result of abuse and sexual assault over 20 years ago. But had I suffered violent crime or overt racism, my chart would look virtually identical. Likewise, Native survivors of American efforts to exterminate their people and cultures are often in the “stuck-down” position, as are survivors of abusive childhoods or housing instability. Trauma doesn’t distinguish the cause, and in its impact, we find much common ground.
None of my activism is done professionally–I’ve never been more than a committed volunteer. But “ally” doesn’t cover the sense of interdependence with the people whose stories I learn–whether they’re “good” or “bad”–that lives inside me. I’ve felt guilty at times because it seemed that I was getting more out of my activism than I was putting in: a sense of self-worth, a galvanizing spirit of action, a multitude of deep friendships, a model for how to demonstrate my values to my family and community. Paul Wellstone famously said, “We all do better when we all do better,” and if it takes a bit of new vocabulary to express those deeply binding ties, then I’m willing to teach it.