Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ally is a Verb

by Stacey Prince

In couples therapy there is a cliche that gets thrown around that "love is a verb, not a noun". Trite though it is the phrase does capture an important principle of relationship satisfaction, that to love someone requires repeated actions (internal and external) that are loving and that love is a process, not a commodity. Similarly, I am learning (and relearning and relearning) that to be an ally is a verb, a process, not a static quality or status that I possess. This learning can be painful and humbling but is so worth it.

My best (and hardest) learning takes place when it is interpersonal, especially in relationships that I care a lot about, and in this context it is so much more than book learning or theory. I come up against it when I say or do something in my interactions with people of color, or someone with a disability, or members of other marginalized groups that is unintentionally hurtful or offensive, or in which I am negligent to my own privilege. Sometimes I don't understand what is pointed out to me right away; at other times I understand immediately. Either way, my immediate response is often to feel embarrassed and exposed. As a well-educated ally I of course like to think of myself as not making such blunders (and even more important, not having the underlying attitudes the blunders may represent). I like this quote from some readings that were given to me at a recent multiculturalism training:

Racism takes many forms. To perpetuate racism, I don't have to make derogatory comments, exclude someone, or believe in a common stereotype. I can abhor personal expressions of overt racism, but still overlook covert racism, especially my own, especially if I'm not vigilantly working to spot and root it out of my system.... If I don't want to perpetuate racism, I have to consciously and diligently reshape my assumptions and instincts, because even though I reject the idea of white superiority, it is how I was socialized and it still fills the air I breath (Margie Carter).

Like this author, sometimes I am easily able to name those more public expressions of overt oppression, but overlook some of my own blind spots. There are many examples of this. For one, my education and training as an academic psychologist causes me at times to present my thoughts in a way that can be distancing, naming the experiences of people with target membership in a way that sounds like a research study. The biased world view of researcher and study subject is one that I am still trying to unlearn. For another, I sometimes make assumptions about the internal experiences of people different from myself, rather than simply asking and listening. Third, I am quick to spot examples of personal oppression (both internalized and external) but am not as attuned to systemic oppression. Fourth, my efforts to be inclusive can be unintentionally tokenizing, especially if they are not backed up by really moving the center of power to the individuals I am trying to include. Finally, seeing the patterns is not enough; I need to take steps to change (or at the very least not participate in) the systems that support continued oppression. As an agent, naming the inequities would mean changing a system which gives me automatic privilege, and acknowledging that I am a part of that unjust system, and both of these are difficult.

It is something, but not enough, to notice the patterns. My privilege allows me to not see those things, to look away, to walk away. Once seen, my privilege allows me to ignore, or not to acknowledge. Once acknowledged, my privilege is to not do anything to change the structures that hold these inequities in place, because by changing those systems I put at risk the privilege those systems bequeath to me. People who do not hold dominant social memberships do not hold those privileges, and if I am to truly be an ally I need to be vigilant to the ways my privilege blinds me, makes me inactive, and makes me withdraw from the hard work.

Sometimes this work reminds me of running. When I go for a run, I am usually a happy camper as long as the terrain is level, and the weather temperate. As soon as I hit an incline (or it's too rainy, or too cold, or too hot, or my legs hurt) I want to slow down. Or walk. Or not head out in the first place. In my work as an ally, as soon as a blind spot is pointed out to me, or a blunder made (no matter how unintentionally) there is that reflexive part of me that says "this is too hard," or that retreats into a place of defensiveness or shame. Yet truly what I want is to be open, to learn, to be able to make mistakes in my relationships with friends and colleagues with different social memberships than mine, to be an effective ally. So I keep trying.

So, what I pledge to do as an ally is this: acknowledge the inequities I see (don't look away), say them out loud (don't be afraid to have a voice), engage in discussion around difference (don't be afraid to make mistakes), and work actively toward shifting the center in the groups and organizations I am a part of (be willing to give up privilege).

In our group, I hope we can continue to create an atmosphere where we can have respectful dialogue with one another about difference, to reflect the world that we want to see in the microcosm of our group. Racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of personal and systemic oppression are factors in our group. Especially in the areas where we have social privilege, we will not see everything, but we can support each other in seeing and naming as much as we can, and trying to understand more. We can only feel safe in a world/group/family/relationship where we don't feel we will be censured by naming difficult truths and where we trust that those truths will be held with respect.

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