Allies Are Trying… Very Trying

It’s dynamic, language and how it shapes how we do life. Back not so long ago, the word “Ally” had power. It stepped away from the idea that members of subordinated[i] groups (those from whom rights have been taken) needed rescuing by members of the dominating groups (those who took the rights), and toward the idea that members of the dominating groups ought to follow the lead of subordinated peoples by standing with and not for them. Then we lived inside that story long enough for two things to happen.

First, we started teasing out what this idea means, such as shifting from using it as a noun (to be an ally) to understanding it as a verb (allyship as a thing we do) or as a relationship. Second, our larger shared story asserted its relationship-shaping power and the word became (in some circles) mildly scornful, as in “ally performance” for when people aim to look right but not do right.

There is a Code Switch podcast which explores these concepts of ally and allyship. Like all their work, it is informative and deep and thought provoking and explores multiple perspectives. For some of the show’s guests, the concept of ally assumes inherent problems, like allyship is based on sympathy not empathy, or that allyship is “done to” a group/people, or that it requires compromises of the people “receiving the allyship”, or that allyship assumes that what is good for me is not good for you.

Seeking a better word for better action, some of us used “accomplice” to try to draw closer to expressing the action of challenging one’s own privilege in service of moving toward humanity-based justice. I haven’t heard it used in many places, and expect there are other words for this idea. I also expect that, with time, we’ll be back to the Ally problem for all these terms, that whatever language we use will eventually reflect dominant group blind spots and subordinated group frustration and we’ll be here once more, critical of people who do allyship wrong and our imperfect language.

The thing is, we really do need what that original version of Ally aspired to… that people with disproportionate access to resources work as real partners with those that access was taken from. I don’t know if we’ll ever settle on a word for it, but here is what I think it looks like:

  • Dominating groups will always include people who want to contribute to creating a fairer world.
  • When we members of dominating groups try to be part of the solution, many of us are going to start out in (or fall back into) the patterns that say we’re in charge. We can educate ourselves out of some of this, but it’s pretty much a chronic condition. This is our responsibility to handle.
  • Foundational principles include: That what we do is more important than what we say we believe; That we are likely to mess up sometimes; That people who point this out to us are doing us a favor; That sometimes we need to center our experience (e.g. whiteness when talking about racial identity) so we can learn how this stuff works, but it should not be centered otherwise; That we are harmed by socially unjust patterns, but people in subordinated groups are wounded and killed by those patterns so their needs come first; That we don’t know much about the lives of people in subordinated groups and should believe them when they tell us.
  • Finally, we should try until we do and not retreat when we get critiqued for trying wrong.

As my friends and I say, if this work were easy, it would already be done. And I am sorry for all the times our trying is … very trying.

[i] These issues of oppressing/oppressed groups are important in many forms of identity and always lead to language that is clunky and incomplete. Henry Louis Gates uses Dominant and Subordinated and that seems a good a model as any.

Selves and Authenticity

There exists in psychology a concept named the Johari Window. This model (shown above) describes “selves” based on what we know about ourselves and what others know about us (either because we told them or they figured it out.) The model is about individuals in general, but I keep wanting to apply it to white[i] individuals who want to be part of dismantling racism. In this context:

Open Self–that which we and others know about–could be the “I’m not a racist”, “I don’t see color”, or “I read Baldwin” face we give to the world. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessary a lie or a cover… it just isn’t all there is to the story.

Blind self could also be blind spots… those things you don’t know about yourself but others see. Maybe the cheer-filled overcompensation when you make a point of saying hi to the only Black person at the party solely because you want them to feel welcome and worry they might not. (Saying “hi” is fine, and striking up a conversation as you would with any person, but grinning like a fool while you do so might convey something besides ease to the person you are greeting.) Or it could be a little flinch when a large Black man in casual weekend wear gets onto an elevator with you alone. You might not be aware of it, but chances are pretty good he’ll notice.

Hidden self is the material you are aware of, but do not let show. It could be that you still hear your beloved uncle’s voice using a nasty racial slur when you pass a group of boisterous youth on the street, or that you kind of think maybe cops should be worried in neighborhoods of color and have a right to protect themselves though you don’t say so out loud, or that you decided to buy that house you loved and could afford even though the realtor told you with a wink that only “the right sort of people” were shown homes in that neighborhood.

Unknown self is what lives in each of us unseen by anyone. This could be all the undiscovered messages about whiteness and how they shape who we are in the world and with others. Through experience, personal refection, and relationship some of this hidden material can be brought into one of the other three selves. We’ll never know all the details of that dream that unsettled us or left us feeling whole when we woke, but we can learn more about what we’ve been told about race, what we made of it, and how we behave based on that understanding.

So, being human, we all have all of these selves. No one (at least no one I’ll work with for long) is asking us to not have areas of which we are ashamed or unaware. We are asked, however, to take responsibility for seeing each of these areas more clearly so we can then address what requires attention.

In my experience noticing how my open and hidden selves do (or don’t) align gives me information I need to be more consistent with myself. This, I’ve observed, seems to increase the authenticity with which I meet the world. Moving beyond that, believing (and being grateful for) feedback about how I’m Doing Whiteness (mostly from POC) gives me insight into my blind self which enables me to move that content from my blind self to my open or hidden self. This also increases my authenticity in my relationships. We have less ability to explore and integrate the unknown self intentionally, but I’m betting that working on the other three is a good way to start.

image: 2.bp.blogspot.com/-fP8sevs0xBo/UVQYpshKSCI/AAAAAAAAAw8/e8pya-PNsz4/s1600/Johari+Window.jpg

 [i] Standard disclaimer: White, Black, and POC used here for readability only. None of these are quantifiable human attributes, but point to socially created and supported racial identities which cause no end of mischief and which, therefore, we need words to talk about.