I often struggle with the very fine line between being an ally, and being an obnoxious, privileged explainer of oppression. This difficulty is inevitable, as a cisgendered, white girl, I am in a position of privilege in myriad ways. I consider myself an adamant and extremely liberal activist, but in this, I must not fail to recognize my privilege. As an intersectional feminist, I attempt, as much as I possibly can, to recognize my privilege and also to recognize that so, so many people lack such privilege, thus, I will never be able to fully understand the racism people of color face; never fully understand the cissexism and profound heteronormativity people of genders besides cisgender are forced to deal with. There are facets of my identity- innate facets- that, unjustly, inherently benefit me. The whole systemic construct of inherent privilege is horrifically unfair, yet, of course, is the way the world has historicall been, and avoiding recognizing oppression (being “colorblind”) completely negates the point and dismisses inescapable oppression that has inexorably shaped the prejudiced society we live in.
I possess privilege. I do not want to place myself on a pedestal because I think I do my best to recognize my privilege, but I know that I certainly cannot ever fully understand some particular forms of oppression, nor do I need to. Here is my next point: you will never completely, wholly be able to fathom the ways in which marginalization works if you, yourself, have never been marginalized for certain parts of your identity. Understanding and empathy are certainly both important aspects of being an ally, but, moreover, attempting to listen and support especially when you don’t understand is, arguably, more important.
Being an ally, in any form, takes time and, often, strenuous work. Those who possess privilege in certain areas of their identity often attempt to explain oppression to the oppressed, as if the oppressed wouldn’t know what oppression feels like. A quintessential example of this over speaking is when white girls utilize the highly problematic “white feminism” and attempt to speak over women of color on important, feminist issues that they themselves (the white feminists) would know little about, and yet, get the credit for their opinions while black girls are repeatedly silenced.
We all lose, here. We all lose when the privileged (often unintentionally) speak over the marginalized, because the marginalized are too often silenced, thus, even more marginalized, and we lose their voices, which are valuable and of utmost importance.
Regarding intersectional feminism, this silencing occurs all too frequently and sometimes insidiously. The most blatant (amongst many) problem with white feminism is that it fails to recognize that sexism is not a lone social disease; fails to recognize that racism, cissexism, classism, and about any kind of institutionalized prejudice play unavoidable parts in sexism and oppression; thus, fails to recognize that all of hese myriad systems of oppression intersect. Women of color face injustices that white women, due to their privilege, will never have to face. I possess white privilege and if I fail to understand that feminism cannot not solely apply to those who also have this privilege , I fail as a feminist and as an ally. Feminism is absolutely useless if it is. Or inclusive and, of course, intersectional, as any women’s studies class will teach you. Feminism only succeeds if we all have the opportunity to succeed.
Another vital thing: possessing privilege absolutely does not negate one’s sufferings or difficult, awful things happening. A privileged person can suffer unimaginable amounts, however, they will never suffer because of certain forms of oppression. A heterosexual person can go through horrific ordeals, for example, but will never be oppressed in certain ways because of their sexuality.
Checking one’s privilege is no easy thing. It is very easy to point out the ways in which we don’t have privilege, I’ve noticed, but extremely difficult, and sometimes transformative, to point out the ways in which we do.
Another issue common in those attempting to be allies is the extremely odd sense of exclusion they feel. I have known some well-meaning, liberal but privileged people, unintentionally offend when they attempt to play in the oppression game. These people feel left out, almost as if they wish to be oppressed in order to be able to contribute valid ideas to a conversation. As well-meaning as this may be, it only exemplifies one’s privilege, and ignorance of it. Those with privilege are societally taught that their opinions are inherently valid, and thus, when this sense of validity no longer feels as if it belongs to them, it is disorienting and unsettling. What is most important, to remember, in these situations, is not to force the conversation to be about you, because this only further silences the oppressed, but instead, to listen. You do not need to speak to be an ally. Or, rather, speak, but be conscious as not to speak over those who understand the oppression far more than you ever will.
Leading into another important piece of conscious support, is the enormous problem of tone policing. I will explain this simply. Tone policing is, as said best by Geek Feminism Wiki, is used primarily as a derailing tactic by privileged groups, in regards to what a marginalized group has to say, “The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down”.
This definition of tone policing applies to not only feminism, but truly, to any movement intending to dismantle oppression. I find tone policing to occur all too blatantly and regularly. It happens almost everyday in my life, because of my constant calling out of sexism. Rather, any adamant feminist most likely will experience this more than once. We are told that maybe if you were more polite and not angry, more people would listen. Feminism is so often, ridiculously, criticized for the ways in which we express our opinions, rather than the actual content of our opinions.
For example, telling a woman to express her opinion on feminism in an aesthetically pleasing and polite way is not only sexist, but it implies that her opinion only matters if it is said in a way that does not make the privileged uncomfortable. Oppression absolutely should make you uncomfortable. It implies that her anger is not justifiable, when, in fact, it certainly is.
In summary, what I am trying to say is that in order to be an ally, one must check their own privilege before trying to contribute an opinion on oppression one may not experience. I am not trying to be pedantic or supercilious, because of course not everyone can be expected to be perfectly aware of their privilege all of the time, of course we all are human beings and make mistakes. We are fallible creatures and I know that. All I want to say is that support, and trying, is vital. Actionable support of those who face oppression, in trying to disarm such institutionalized systems that allow such oppression to be perpetuated, means being conscious. It means not allowing oppression to both blatantly and subtly continue. It means being an ally without silencing those who you are supporting.
It means trying. So try. To end with a favorite quote by the incredible Roxane Gay:
“I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
(I am entirely open to discussion and debates over any of this. I recognize my privilege and welcome any criticism anyone has to share in order to further my education on these issues.)
Here are some wonderful links on the issues I’ve been discussing:
What Is Privilege (video)
5 Tips for Being an Ally