Axis, Allies and Switzerland

Like most white people, I’ve got serious issues with my privilege. I can be completely oblivious to the normalization of whiteness, to the meaning of racism, to the impact of “intersections of oppression” in lives, even as I know about “intersectionality” in theory. There is a distance accessible to me in conversations about race and the experience of racism – I can make the concerns academic, I can step back and think “hmm, isn’t that interesting” and wonder about how (or whether) the stories I hear should affect my philosophical approach to the world.

As a white, straight, cisgendered, well-educated, middle-class raised woman without any disabilities, I get to pick and choose my battles. That’s a privilege in and of itself. As I said in my last post, I don’t get to pick the battles that affect me as a woman. Rape affects me because I’ve been raped, and even if I hadn’t, I would have been conscious of the possibility of rape as I debated whether to walk home alone, whether to leave my drink unattended in this-or-that context, and how to set sexual boundaries with new partners. I didn’t choose that fight, it pretty much chose me.

War metaphors being pretty much par for the course in activist work, it’s not surprising that the term we’re looking at is “ally”, but because this metaphorical discourse is so common, we also tend to lose sight of its symbolic value. People hear the term “ally”, they learn a little more about it, and they figure it’s something they should be. Sounds like a good thing. Sounds like good people. It’s the kind of term (like either of the pro-life/pro-choice options, or like sex-positive etc) that makes most people cringe at the notion of being its opposite. The assumption is, then, that they’re an ally because they say they are, because they want to be, because, well, they’re not the enemy.

Allies, however, fight. They throw resources, energy, life to combating the problem. When the group with whom they are allied is in serious trouble, when the people are facing a real threat, when the land has been invaded, allies reprioritize, put aside their own present concerns and focus on this immediate issue facing those that they would help. Why? Maybe because it’s politically beneficial in the long run, and they know that if the situation were ever reversed, they would have the same support. Maybe because they’re conscious of the ultimate purpose of the fight, and they recognize that what their allies are facing is the most important front on which to fight that fight right then and there, because if that one falls, there will be a weak spot, there will be a victory, and it will affect the whole damn war.

Lots of people who are in positions of relative privilege call themselves allies. If you dare question them on that choice of self-identification, they are shocked – shocked – to hear such slander coming from your mouth, saying of course they are concerned with the issues you raise, just not right now, and can’t you see all the work that they’re doing to fight the enemy on their own front, and why are you focusing your energy on them when the real battle is elsewhere, and how dare you, anyway? They are good people. They are feminists. They are liberals. They are on your side. All this “infighting” is counterproductive.

And, okay, these people aren’t the enemy, per se. If you’ll continue to forgive me my grandiose metaphors (and if you got past the title, you’ve probably done so), there’s an axis out there, and those in it are the ones that are attacking, the ones that are out for world domination, the ones that are doing the violence. These people aren’t in that axis. But they’re also not allies. They are (as I’m sure you’ve seen coming) Switzerland.

To unpack that metaphor a bit more, Switzerland is well known for its official neutrality in the wars, and in casual conversation, this is often invoked as a positive comparison, a good place to be. Choosing to stay out of the fray is associated with pacifism, stability and independence. Historically speaking, this is pretty clearly an erroneous representation of the role of that country – refusing to support either side meant that Switzerland could exploit both when it suited, including making money from riches stolen from Holocaust victims. There’s nothing peace-bringing about seeing threat and danger, even possibly admitting that one side in the fight is clearly the aggressor, and putting one’s hands up, stepping back and saying “I’ll just let that one play out, I need to take care of myself first”, then watching as the stronger party emerges victorious, whichever one it may be. You’re still standing, your borders are still intact, and you’ve likely even made some money off of the deal, though you’ll always be able to say that since you weren’t really the one who stole it in the first place, it’s not like you’re really at fault just for using it to your own advantage.

I’m making a couple of points here:

  • Not being the worst of the worst doesn’t mean you’re not hurting. “Balance” or “neutrality” is never either balanced or neutral.
  • You’re not an ally just because you say you are. The people you say you want to help may damn well turn down the kind of help you’re offering and ask you for something else instead, something they really need, possibly even something that requires sacrifice on your part. If you’re making the conversation all about the quality of your allegiance, an expansive rundown of your resumé of past support, a repetition of demand after demand after demand that they accept your help, accept the form in which you will provide it, and be fucking grateful for it, instead of about the actual fight in which your allies are engaged, then you’re getting in the way.
  • You may not be the enemy, you may not be the axis, the patriarchy, the right-wing war mongers that we all see at the top of this horrible, horrible food chain, but you are, in fact, eating at their table, eating food that was picked by those at the bottom, eating food that got to your table as a result of violence, and you are, in fact, profiting from gold that was violently stolen.

Am I saying anything new, here? No. I’m certainly not saying anything that I haven’t heard said over and over and over by women of colour bloggers who have been feeling, pretty clearly, that they’ve now got this other front that requires fighting. And when I hear a lot of it, I’m often inclined not to say anything – I’ve been afraid of saying it wrong, stepping on someone’s toes, being, well, mighty white. But now, The Angry Black Woman has started a chorus of voices asking about ally-work, saying that, yes, it’s useful to jump in to a discussion to say that you’re on the side of the anti-racists rather than the white supremacists or race deniers or shouters of “reverse racism!” who have shown up, just because it’s comforting and strengthening and helpful to know you’re out there, and just because it’s not okay for these people to think that all white people think like they do.

I don’t think like they do. I’m not okay with silence being interpreted as “being on their side”. I also can’t dismiss the fact that sitting back “neutrally”, presumably even profiting from the battle and the losses of others, actually is, on some level, helping them win.

Back when I first started this blog and had essentially no readers at all, I wrote a series on “Action Barriers” going into detail about the basics of why these conversations are frustrating. Since it fits with the theme, if you have some time on your hands:

Action Barriers, Part 1: Defensiveness
Action Barriers, Part 2: Guilt
Action Barriers, Part 3: Blame
Action Barriers, Part 4: The Good Person

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3 thoughts on “Axis, Allies and Switzerland

  1. belledame222 says:

    awesome post, purtek.

  2. BetaCandy says:

    I just read brownfemipower’s final post:

    http://bfpfinal.wordpress.com/2008/04/16/3/

    So this was just spot-on as a chaser. I don’t consider myself qualified to say what makes a good ally, but I do think you have to WANT to include others in your fight, WANT to understand where they’re coming from even though you never will do so 100%, etc., in order to be an ally.

    It’s a fucking lot of work, that’s for sure. I haven’t done nearly enough of it yet.

  3. […] word that comes up again, specifically in the comment thread on the F-Word. I’ve written about this before, but I need to say it again, because in amongst the comments that were outraged at the […]

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