Again on this “Ally” Thing

I’m at the point of having a bit of a love/hate relationship with the internet in general and blogging in particular, so I’m again in my “late to the party” mode regarding this letter by Queen Emily, this thread from The F-Word, and the multitude of posts that followed afterwards. I think 95% of the “hate” side of this relationship can be summed up with the tension I feel when reading those posts that Ren links, and shaking my head at the ever-deepening recognition that there is no damn way there is ever going to be anything resembling collaborative conversation with some people who call themselves “feminists”. And honestly, that’s all I can say about that.

What I really want to note is this “ally” 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 F-Word for posting this at all and the comments supporting Queen Emily’s original point, there were several that either outright asked for kinder, gentler language on the subject or alluded to just how difficult it is, as a cis person, to be maligned for not understanding yet. Specifically, in what seems to me to be a spectacular display in missing the point, commenter Ellie says:

For a lot of people there are real questions they have, real issues to be discussed, regarding transwomen. Are you saying that if we try to discuss certain issues we are not allies?…I’m probably going to get ripped to shreds here, but I’m not trying to deny transwomen anything, all I’m saying is thatt o move forward, to bring transissues more into the sphere of feminism, we need to discuss, introduce ideas to people, allow individuals to express opinions or ask question without being called a bigot or acccused of not being an ally, just get people to a place where they actually want to listen.

Lisa responded pretty thoroughly to this comment here, but I want to add an answer to the first question, bolded above (by me).

I don’t know if Queen Emily wants to say that, or Helen G, or anyone who was involved in that thread, but me? I will absolutely say that yes, if you want to discuss “certain issues”, like whether trans* women and men reify gender essentialist, or whether cis women require certainty that the person they are speaking to about their experience of rape has lived her entire life as a woman and therefore understands as no one else possibly could, or exactly what kind of language and what level of anger might make you willing to participate in the discussion, in a conversation that started about hate crimes, violent murders, and deadly levels of systemic ignorance, then I am calling you “Not an ally”.

Note, of course, that this is not the same thing as calling you a bigot, and the fact that you think it is speaks volumes on your level of understanding about privilege. In the logic 101 sense, it would seem obvious that all bigots are non-allies, while all non-allies are not bigots. The world isn’t divided neatly into these binaries of “Good People” and “Bad People”, where all the “Bad People” are the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, the whole damn checklist, and all the “Good People” get put straight into the “ally” camp, with a gold star for awesomeness pasted to their forehead, so we will always know that there’s no need to accuse them of anything, because even if they’re saying something upsetting, it must just be a misunderstanding.

You don’t get to be called an ally just for not being a bigot. That would be the bare minimum requirement for the “Lessons in Not Being an Asshole” club.

I do say this with some level of compassion, though I know my sarcasm comes through a lot more than my kinder gentler side on this blog. I’m chock-full of privilege, over here, and I can relate to the desire to be a good ally as part of living up to your own conception of what makes you a good person. But I find I get myself a lot farther along toward that conception if I stop expecting other people to call me a good person, and especially if I stop expecting thanks/praise/affirmation from people I’m supposedly trying to “help” (though not much of a fan of how condescending that charity-model can be) or with whom I am allied. It’s just not about me, and it’s only my pride that gives a whit about what I’m being called.



14 thoughts on “Again on this “Ally” Thing

  1. Debi Crow says:

    It’s amazing how that panned out isn’t it? The original post was saying, among other things, It’s not all about you – and so a bunch of cis people respond by trying to make it all about them! And they can’t seem to see what they are doing.

    This post is great. x

  2. purtek says:

    Thanks Debi. And yeah, it is amazing, even though every time there’s a discussion about allies going AWOL in a crisis, the same thing comes out.

    The original point is pretty clear – either step up, or get out of the way. The “it’s all about me” factor is pretty much the definition of “in the way”.

  3. Sarah J says:

    The whole thing about needing a biological woman to talk to after you’ve been sexually assaulted–well, really, how the hell do you know that said biological woman understands so fucking well? I’ve never been raped. I don’t know what it feels like, and much as it seems I’m supposed to know just by the experience of growing up with a vagina, well, I just don’t.

    Which doesn’t preclude me from being supportive to people who have been. But wouldn’t you think that you’d have much more in common on that level with a trans woman or even a cis man who had been sexually assaulted? I mean, I had an ex-boyfriend who’d been sexually assaulted. it’s not something that only happens to vaginas.

    gah, just ranting now.

  4. purtek says:

    Sarah J – but it’s a good rant. 🙂 And one of my biggest problems with this whole thing, which I essentially kept repeating ad nauseum re: Kyle Payne, is that there’s no litmus test for who is going to be helpful to whom in a given crisis. Certain individual men have been better able to support me around the sexual violence I’ve experienced – and, frankly, better able to empathize in the sense of NOT MAKING IT ABOUT THEM – than many women.

    In fact, in my experience, some women who’ve dealt with sexual violence have been far *less* supportive than anyone else, because they’re more inclined to universalize their own experience, their own recovery strategies or their own timeline.

    There’s this radical concept that I’ve been trying out these days, which is treating people not as categories, but as individual human beings with individual strengths and weaknesses, not as Category Woman, Man, Trans* Person, Survivor, whatever.

    And gah, now I’m just getting with the sarcasm. 🙂

  5. drakyn says:

    As someone who was told I was too angry in that conversation, I have to say that I am saying that “if [folks] try to discuss certain issues [they] are not allies”. It really is that simple. Queer allies don’t ask why you can’t just find the right person of another sex. Allies to POC don’t ask why you are upset at blackface. ETC.

    And these folks keep making it all about them; and I’m sick of it. They can go fuck themselves with an unprotected lead pipe and then play with mercury.
    I’ll be over here talking about real violence and real people instead of theoretical utopias and cardboard cutouts.

  6. purtek says:

    It’s that “real violence and real people” thing that seems to be completely lost, isn’t it?

    Unfortunately, I think there *are* people behaving exactly this way in the queer/POC “ally” community (the “spearchucker” images from a recent book pop immediately into my head) and it’s exactly the same story then, too. It’s basically a series of demands for the circumstances under which they’ll agree to be your ally. And I kind of appreciate your response drakyn – fuck that. I would operate under the assumption that you’ll get better quality allies if you’re not wasting your time with this shit.

  7. Lisa Harney says:

    Yeah, people who call themselves allies fuck up with regards to all of their privileges. I fucked up as an anti-racist ally for not mentioning that Angie Zapata was Latina.

    The question of course isn’t whether anyone fucks up – everyone fucks up. The question is whether you make the fuck up about you, whether you think you need to be coddled and given cookies and milk so you know you’re a good ally, whether you get defensive when your being an ally isn’t central to the conversation, or that your failing at being a good ally is central to the conversation.

    Being an ally is not about the allies, it’s about the people you’re allied to. When the people you’re allied to are saying “This is not okay,” you cease to be an ally when you start dictating what should and should not be okay to them.

  8. purtek says:

    Yeah, people who call themselves allies fuck up with regards to all of their privileges.

    I’m starting to believe that people who call themselves allies fuck up just by calling themselves allies. I mean, it’s not uniformly or categorically the case, and of course, I’m speaking from a heavily-privilege-infused position, but it almost seems like the ones who actually *are* allies don’t spend any time at all on what they’re being called. They’re too busy doing stuff.

  9. Lisa Harney says:

    You have a good point.

    A lot of people who say they’re allies just plain aren’t. They want to say they’re sympathetic to a particular group of people, but when it comes to checking their privilege, that is completely out of the question.

  10. purtek says:

    Right, because it seems like the whole reason they want to say they’re sympathetic to a particular group is because the Good People say that, and in their dichotomy of Good People vs. bigots, all they know is, they’re the Good People. Anything that messes with that concept is troublesome, and must be addressed.

    Which is really a lot different from, y’know, actually *being* sympathetic toward a particular group of people.

  11. Lisa Harney says:

    Yeah, I agree. And no one is required to be an ally, but if they want to be one, it means a whole lot of things that people seem to not want to take on with the ally label.

  12. I always come away from these discussions (and by come away, I mean back away slowly) with the feeling I’ve missed something, because I just can’t understand why anyone would be ASKING these questions, or seeking to understand trans people as a group. It’s like trying to understand postal workers as a group, on the assumption that because they’re all postal workers, they must have all sorts of other stuff in common, too.

    By even wondering about these things, you reveal yourself to be an essentialist at heart, don’t you?

  13. And seriously, if I AM missing something, do tell me. This is a topic I’ve never felt like I *understand*, because I don’t think there’s anything TO understand, but I’ve been wrong about that before. In better words:

    As far as I can tell, cis people who ask these questions are implying that gender essentialism is required for a person to want to choose his/her gender. I disagree. If people aren’t allowed to have any feelings about their gender without being accused of essentialism, than any cis person who would NOT be perfectly happy to wake up tomorrow transformed into the other gender becomes a hypocrite. Because either there’s a gray area where people can have personal, apolitical feelings about the gender of their bodies, or they can’t, period, end of story.

    Sorry for double-commenting. I’m really trying to sort this out in my head.

  14. purtek says:

    No apologies necessary, and from my perspective, sounds pretty sorted to me – the whole position doesn’t make sense, which is why it gets all confusing-like.

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