This weekend, I went to a DC Black Lives Matter training called, “Dear White Allies.” The training was created because of the hurt that some of the white protestors have caused protestors of color at local actions. Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed up as an ally.
There comes a point when as an ally of marginalized folks, you’re tested. Truth be told, many of us will fail these tests. Some of us learn from failure, apologize, and pick up again, better allies for the lesson in humility. Those lessons are important, but we shouldn’t be cavalier about our learning curve: “I’m just going to keep showing up [and being abusive and checked for it] because that’s how I learn, through experience.” Nope. A big part of being an ally is learning that when we fail in these ways, we hurt people.
Even the most well-intentioned ally can stumble. After a while of doing this work, we begin to think we’ve arrived. We get comfortable with what we know and how trusted we’ve become. We may even get a little famous for it in our communities (or on the internet).
Calling our own people out becomes a way of distancing ourselves from the “us,” and makes us allies feel like the good guys. We’re the white hat deputies in the fight against injustice, don’t you know?
Yet inevitably, as professing allies, we’ll say or do something downright stupid. We might have our act together on the outside, but our inconsistencies and personal prejudices will start to show. Our ignorance will prevail upon an unsuspecting victim. If we’re vigilant, these mistakes can create an important time of pruning for us. If we’re in loving relationships, someone who cares will point these things out to us.
But many of us buck against the critique when it comes. We do all the things we fuss at our own folks for: we reject critique because of tone, we deliver our ally resume and dismiss those we deem less-qualified to speak, we pick up our ball and go home. We complain that we are untrusted, persecuted, all the while losing sight of the fact that the folks we say we’re standing with of face that kind of scrutiny and skepticism daily. Sometimes seemingly “unfair” scrutiny is the price of solidarity. Good allies are willing to take that kind of heat.
We ignore the fact that our failure hurts folks and instead of centering the concerns of our friends, the stakes become about us and our reputations: “Y’all make me look like a bad ally. I look like one of *those* people we’re all against.” We make the mistake of thinking that allyship is about our heroism, our ability to be the exemplars, the shiny contrast among our kind. We forget how easy it is to betray our friends and their cause. We get offended that people are injured by our offenses, so we put up barriers for self-preservation, even obstructing the progress we once supported.
Being a good ally begins with centering the concerns of others. Remaining a good ally depends upon the same. Ally work isn’t about reinforcing “us versus them” by merely switching teams. This is humanity we’re talking about. Not some (albeit awesome) dualistic sci-fi adventure.
Allies fail when we get confused and think a good ally is one of “us” joining “them” in the fight against “us.” Ally work involves navigating both spaces: “us” and “them.” Allies help the rest of “us” shed personal prejudices and join the work to undo power structures that keep “them” oppressed by everything involved in the “versus.” We do oppose our own folks from time to time, but with the clear vision that our enemy is bigger and more insidious than the individuals in front of us:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
Allies who trade difficult navigation work for self-congratulatory gate-keeping will fail every time. That’s not our role. Our desperation to preserve appearances and maintain our post at the gate can quickly become an idol. Let’s keep ourselves humble, listening to and weighing critique when we receive it. Let’s never let our reputations as allies become more important to us than the people we’re standing with in solidarity.
I began this post saying I’ve messed this up big time as an ally. I still do. As a disabled woman, I’ve also learned to forgive equally epic failures. Building a beloved, just community is hard work. Humility, empathy, and quick repentance are required. If you’ve messed up, confess it. Do the work in you and then get to dismantling structures of oppression (even those you’ve helped to build).
That’s the work of an ally. No gate-keepers need apply.