16 August 13

How to be an ally

I spent a lot of time writing about feminism as I began blogging, and for several years after that. And then I stopped writing about feminism, I barely read much about feminism, I even find myself not really thinking about feminism being one of the first words I use to describe myself these days. And that is mostly because I’m not up to date on the feminist world and I’ve not had the energy or brain power to write much of anything for years.

And this week, that has made me very, very sad and disappointed with myself. Feminism gave me a framework to process a lot of the feelings and thoughts and perspectives I had but couldn’t truly understand. And for me, feminism has never just been about gender. It has always been about how class, and race, and sexual orientation, and gender identity, are entertwined and related and embedded in each other. I’m grateful and feel very lucky to have had teachers in college, when I was beginning to learn about feminism, challenge me to have a truly intersectional approach, even if I didn’t hear that word for many years.

One of the first, and one of the most enjoyable classes I took as I worked toward my minor in women’s studies, was a class on feminism and African American literature. I was one of 2 white students in the class, at a university where it was rare to have 2 students of color in any smallish class I took. It reminded me of being in high school. On the first day of class, my professor who was African American, a lesbian, and seen as being the “perfect” teacher by many of the teaching assistants I’d talked with as I tried to map out the classes I would take, asked me and the other white woman in class: “So, what the hell are y’all doing here?”

I answered first: “I’m here to learn about how feminism is portrayed in African American literature.”

My professor smirked, asked the second woman the same question (I don’t remember her answer), and then turned to the rest of the class and said, “Now, what they gave as answers represents their personal opinion. They do NOT speak for ALL white women. Keep that in mind as we discuss things. Feel free to attack, dissect, or question their opinions, but do not expect them to speak for or defend every woman who is white in America.”

This floored me. And I welled up, and I was so unable to process my thoughts, and even 20 years later this still seems so weighty that I can’t process all my thoughts about how I feel about this statement and about how safe this made me feel in class. And it worked. We had amazing conversations. I learned so much from my classmates and from my professor and from the texts that we read. I could almost feel my brain and my heart growing after every discussion.

And at the end of the class, as I got my final paper back (a paper I came across recently) I read my professor’s comments. “You have learned enough in this class to be an ally to all black women in the United States. Thank you for pushing yourself. And thank you for making me think. Keep asking questions.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

And that comment made me feel so very proud. I still feel my heart swell remembering reading that for the first time. But I had no idea what she meant by being an ally. I never got the chance to ask her, and it was years later when talking with gay rights activists that I truly understood what it meant to be an ally. And I sort of shrugged in an “of course” kind of way. I mean who could consider themselves a feminist and not be an ally.

And then I remembered sitting at the National Organization for Women conference in Columbus, Ohio in 1996. I was there with a press pass to write an article for the student newspaper at The Ohio State University. I was covering the final discussions to determine what the political agenda would be for the organization. It was my first experience with something so official and formal and huge. The discussion was held in the same auditorium that had help the family of my high school graduating class. And it wasn’t packed, but the auditorium was full.

Toward the end, a woman to my left filed a motion to ask that NOW include transgender women’s issues. I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember looking at the faces of the several women seated to my left. They were nervous and anxious. The request was turned down. The tone was almost dismissive. I was shocked. And I kept thinking, “but they’re women. Why can’t we include them in this?” And as the session ended, I turned to the woman nearest me and I said “I’m sorry that didn’t go in your favor. I can’t understand why it wouldn’t. If I had a vote, I would have voted in your favor.” She shrugged and the group of women continued talking amongst themselves, obviously angry. And I felt shame in an organization that I had admired and looked up to.

And this was the first instance where I began to realize that how I felt was not typical. And I’ve seen many other instances over the years where the large organizations that I looked up to and that I supported financially and emotionally were not supporting everyone. They were cherry-picking, and in many cases their executive directors were rude and disrespectful toward non-white, non-middle-class, non-straight issues. And I’ve grown appalled and I’ve grown weary.

And I think my disheartened feelings have contributed to my withdrawal from reading about feminist issues and participating in the feminist blogosphere. There have been many times where I’ve seen something that made me angry. But I didn’t process or write about it. I saw things that people would write or say and it would anger me, but I would slough it off and shrug it away.

And this week, I want to apologize for not being a more vocal ally. Hugo Schwyzer made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t figure out why so I just ignored him for the most part and thought that maybe by following him on Twitter I would figure out what irked me about him. But I rarely read his tweets. And I was conflicted because early proponents of the feminist blogosphere that I read were publishing his writing and speaking positively about him. And because I firmly believe that men CAN be just as feminist as women. And because I truly do believe that redemption is possible and that we must forgive people who commit wrongs but learn from them, I chalked my unease up to being uncomfortable with his past and I trusted other feminists to do the work for me.

But the problem is that I trusted white feminists to do this work for me. I don’t read many blogs these days. And many of the blogs still in my RSS stream that were written by African American women have been silent for a long time. They’ve changed urls, or pseudonames and I haven’t followed them.

I don’t think that if I had followed these people that I would have spoken out about him, and about the attacks he levied on them to the white bloggers of note who I would occasionally read. But I might have. At least in the comments. I don’t have the authority or the power to change things. But I could have let women of color know that I supported them, that they weren’t alone. I could have been a better ally. But I haven’t been a good feminist, let alone a good ally of late.

I’m disappointed in Jezebel, I’m disappointed in people I’ve respected. But now, I also have a new bevy of people to follow on Twitter and blogs to add to my reader and readings to absorb. My computer time is still limited, but I hope to make better use of it. I hope to remove this sensation of being “disconnected” from the world by expanding my horizons. I’m disappointed in people who supported him despite misgivings (just like myself) without looking to see who else he was hurting and how.

I’m grateful to all of the women of color who have spoken up, who have shared their frustrations, but who are willing to continue talking instead of shutting down. I’m hoping that a release of anger, combined with white women quietly listening and trying to understand, will push things toward change. I’m grateful to the women of color I’m lucky enough to know in person who have tolerated my ignorance and helped me to learn. I have a lot to learn, but I intend to work on that.

And I want to close by suggesting you read this comment about what the difference is between racism and white privilege. It’s making me think and chew.

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