The Unicorn Ally

I’ve been interested in oppression politics and social justice activism for a while now, both from the point of having things that directly affect me and that I want to change in society, and from the point of being an ally and trying to help other people do the same. And I’m enormously grateful that oppression activism exists and that it’s doing awesome things, so this isn’t a critique of the entire movement as such. However, as a ‘movement’ (as much as there is a unified thing there, in the sense of there being a group of people with certain shared values, rather than just pockets of people doing their own thing), we project certain messages about what it means to be a good ally, which I’d like to discuss here. I believe the messages are well intentioned and have reasons behind them, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the combination of the contradictory messages we use to put our allies under scrutiny makes ‘succeeding’ at being a good ally a theoretical impossibility – merely leaving allies with the possibility of different contexts and gradients of failing. I feel like I’ve been trying hard to be a good ally for a relatively long time, and that it’s a permanent losing battle. Instead I’m coming to prefer returning to my previous roles of ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘friend’. ‘Fellow human being’. That sort of thing. They’re things I feel I do ok at.

The first thing you get told when you even start going in that direction is that “Being an ally is hard work. You need to continually keep trying”. And I’m ok with that. Honestly. I’m ok with spending hours reading blogs, books, re-questioning my values, learning a whole load of new jargon, arguing with people, flagging problematic situations, attempting to be sensitive in conversations, trying my best to be supportive, and not use the wrong words, and keep reading, and learning, and all of that permanently on repeat. That doesn’t bother me – it’s all good. What being a good ally shouldn’t be is “theoretically impossible”. At the point where you’re trying as hard as you can to do all the good ally things, but still failing, there’s something systematically wrong in what we demand of our allies.

One of the things I hear frequently is “It’s not the job of the oppressed person to educate you, go educate yourself”. And I can totally see where that comes from – no, it’s not the job of the oppressed person to do anything. And, yeah, it’s not the job of the oppressed person to fix the oppression – the oppression is wrong in itself, and society as a whole should fix it (and it should really be the job of the people *doing* the oppressing, rather than the people being oppressed). I know, I know, I agree. But. I find this blanket statement highly problematic anyway, for a few different reasons.

The first is the assumption of ability there. I happen to be educated enough to understand varying levels of heavy jargon. I don’t have any conditions that prevent me from reading for hours. I happen to have the luxury of sufficient free time in which to do this. So telling me to go read up on something is kind of ok. But you know what? Most people don’t have that level of luxury. People are busy, you know, surviving themselves. They don’t necessarily have laptops, broadband, and ample time in which to make use of those things.

The second is the seeming unawareness of *just how much different shit there is to read out there*. I spend a *lot* of time reading, and the way I feel about this is that I’ve learnt a few issues in depth, at the cost of a billion other issues out there that I may or may not have even heard of, or I’ve heard of but don’t have the time to research properly, because – fucking hell, each of these requires, like, multiple lifetimes to really get to know in-depth. We’re talking like, multiple entire academic careers of critical analysis. If our demands were simple – you know “fat jokes are bad” level of complicated – then I can understand the original demand. If our demands are “educate yourself about the intersection between gender-based oppression and body oppression, as discussed by a number of prominent feminist authors” *without even pointing people in the right direction* because “that’s not the job of an oppressed person”? We have a systematic problem.

My third problem with it is that there are contradictions within our own movements. So even if you jump through the hoops of reading the ‘right’ books and blogs etc. etc., there are disagreements between activists about which terms are and aren’t appropriate. However, people are adamant enough about their preferences that if I use a term that exists within the movement in front of an activist who prefers a different term, I’ll get my head bitten off. The way to win is to not play.

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon.

The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression. The latter relies on a process I think of as Oppression Top Trumps. Oppression activists do tend to genuinely stick to the principle of paying the most attention to the people with the most experience within a particular axis of oppression, and I think this totally makes sense and I think is really awesome. It should be women talking about women’s lib, etc. rather than other people putting words into their mouths. So, to avoid getting my head bitten off, the first process I engage in, in order to speak, is justifying how issue x is one that’s personally affecting me – winning Oppression Top Trumps – which then lets me pick the words I use without anyone telling me they’re the wrong ones. In fact, having won Oppression Top Trumps on issue x, I then gain the right to correct other people’s words on an ad hoc basis. I do not, in general, write about issues that I can’t win Oppression Top Trumps about, because even if I care about them and I’ve researched them lots, etc. etc, I will by somebody’s definition probably get them wrong. In fact, the only reason I can possibly get anything right, is by being oppressed enough that my ideas are not open to questioning.

What’s more (this isn’t satire, I genuinely notice myself doing this), there are only a selection of oppressed people I’m allowed to speak to, and they’re the ones where I’ve done over a week of reading on the relevant oppression issue. They’re the ones I will probably offend by using incorrect terminology, but I won’t offend them as horrifically as the ones where *gasp* I’ve done no reading at all, because I’m just aware enough of my own ignorance to expect that I’ll unknowingly say horrific things, but I don’t know enough to identify what the horrific things *are*, so… So I kinda sorta just don’t speak to them. Or, like, I speak to them about kittens. There’s probably a flame war somewhere about kittens too, but it seems to be a fairly neutral topic in most social circles. Um. Yeah. Not joking.

So. Dear oppression activists. Please stop telling off your allies at every available opportunity. The only people who will be negatively affected are the people who are *actually listening*, and I’d hesitantly suggest that we’re not the problem in the first place.

From the point of view of being an oppressed person who has allies herself, here’s what I will try to do:

-I will do my best to educate my allies. These aren’t random people off the street – they’re people who are taking a lot of time to learn about specific things that affect me. And then they go off and do awesome things, like support me and stand up for me. So, no, I don’t think it’s their job to educate themselves. I think it’s my job to train them. Seems only fair.

-I will give my allies cookies. Seriously – I don’t like the whole “bah, you’re just doing the right thing, you shouldn’t get cookies for it”. Yes oppression is wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s my friend’s job to learn everything they can about my particular corner of oppression, the issues that come with it, and to try and do things to change it. Doing that isn’t the base level – doing it makes them *awesome*.

-I will accept that nobody gets things right 100% of the time. They’re still learning. I’m still learning. It’s ok to talk. It’s ok to get things wrong. They’re my allies – I believe that they’re not doing it maliciously. It’s not ok to hurt me, but I will flag things when they arise, and I trust them to respect my feelings. It’s also ok to ask things, because that’s how people learn about this stuff.

I don’t suggest it as a universal list. People come into this from all sorts of places, and defensiveness and rage can be perfectly natural responses, even towards well-meaning people. However, what I’d really like, is for us as a movement to collectively stop looking for unicorns. Cause, you know what? My allies are amazing, and I love them. And some of the time they get things wrong, but they try really hard, and I think that should be appreciated.

As for the label? I’m not sure I want it. There are things that as an ‘ally’ I find difficult to do – like *gasp* talk to people – that as a friend or as a human being, I’d find straight-forward. There are also things that as an ‘ally’, I seem to have to tolerate, in a way that I wouldn’t when I’m just being me. So I think I might personally discard the label for the time being, until either the demands change, or I find value in it again. So – I’m not your ally. I’m merely your sister or your friend.

Posted on April 3, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Thank fuck for the cookies thing. Agreeing so hard.

  2. I’m so pleased this blog entry exists. The pressure put on allies is so huge that sometimes it silences them. There’s not really any solidarity, communication or education in that.

    Sometimes even within groups in which I am also one of the oppressed I’ve found that speaking my truth is not enough (even when I have specified that it is my truth and not necessarily the experience of others), and that the pressure to get it right means I end up feeling further oppressed and unable to speak out

  3. Fantastic piece – thank you :) I’m an academic working on trans issues and my partner is trans so I’m a bit of an insider but not really. I find that I’m often afraid to fully engage in discussions where I might get something wrong because of what you talk about here. I’ve felt silenced before and told that I am working against trans people by thinking I have a right to do a PhD about trans people and their partners and include the non-trans partners voices as equally valid. Another who heavily critiqued my book and talked about academics appropriating trans voices. It’s so tricky. This post has also really helped with a chapter I’m currently writing about rethinking the intimate self through engagement with marginalised ‘others’.

  4. While I have problems with some of this, I agree that there’s a lot of pressure on allies, and that the pressure to be perfect can debilitating, especially for women. I think some of this is linked to seeing ally-ship as something you *are* rather than something you *do* – so it’s not something you have to be all the time, it’s not something where a slip-up means you’re evil, etc. [Shameless self-promotion] I wrote about this – I’d be interested to hear if you think my ideas solve any of these problems?

  5. I think you present a lot of good points but there are a couple of things I fundamentally disagree with, both as an ally and as a marginalised person.

    “What being a good ally shouldn’t be is “theoretically impossible”.”

    What you, as an ally, are asking here is for all people under one banner to agree which… to be honest is counter productive toward being an ally. As a white person, I have privilege. I am also an anti-racist and I would like to think of myself as an ally. For some people of colour, their experience of racism has been so vile, so difficult, and so hard for them, that they may wish to not be around me. I respect that. I can’t say I understand how that will necessarily help them escape racism, but I cannot as an ally have expectations upon people of colour to tolerate me just because I think I’m good. Being an ally is not about being the good guy.

    I don’t ID as genderqueer, but it’s often assumed I am woman. I don’t personally seek to completely separate myself from cis people, but I do understand the anger I have seen of fellow gender variant folks. I do understand the women who seek to live absent of men, even when I feel that creating “male free zones” puts me, as someone who is GQ, on the spot.

    For some people, it IS theoretically impossible for you to be a good ally. Being a good ally does not change the fact that I am privileged because I am white. I can be as anti-racist as I like independently, that in and of itself does not stop the system. So, I really think your focus here is a bit more on yourself.

    Re: Educating yourself.

    You make a lot really fantastic points here that illustrates where privilege really intersects. How are individuals who have never been in academia supposed to understand academic texts about privilege? Google is not a substitute for educating yourself.

    But where we disagree here is that you put the responsibility of this on the oppressed person. I don’t believe, as an oppressed person or as an ally, that anyone should be solely responsible. But personally, I see this as my point to shine as an ally. Because as an ally I have the privilege of not experiencing that marginalisation. I could talk for a long time with someone about racism without having a personal experience to call upon. It’s not that draining for me. I see it as part of my duty as an ally to be the one to educate where I see fit. To talk to other people about it, because I think most oppressed people do plenty of talking on their own.

    So, while I wouldn’t say I completely disagree with you here, I do think, again, you’re putting SOLE responsibility on the oppressed. In situations where I experience oppression, I do try to share links and relevant information. And I’ve been in very long, very pointless, very tedious arguments because I think both you and I know that if an individual is unwilling to accept the idea of privilege, no amount of readings, sugar coating, or rewording is going to matter. Unfortunately, these individuals don’t wear signs. And being an ally has meant that I’ve spent a long ass time in pointless arguments with people who have caused me frustration, pain, and anger. But honestly, I see it as my duty as an ally to do my best to speak out when and if I have the freedom to.

    “My third problem with it is that there are contradictions within our own movements. ”

    There are contradictions within all movements because privilege and marginalisation is a complicated thing. We’re simplifying it frequently but different marginalisations intersect, different privileges intersect and it’s very, very complicated. I don’t think that’s a problem that can be solved. I also don’t think you’re going to ever be an ally or oppressed person of a cause or group that doesn’t have these contradictions.

    The way I navigate that is by understanding that, in terms of being white, not all people of colour are going to think the same — and that’s okay. Just as I know not all queer people think the same. What I think allies should strive to accept and understand is initially the entire premise of undoing discrimination — treat people as individuals.

    You use “bite your head off” quite a lot, which leads me to believe you’re less than empathetic about the valid anger a lot of oppressed people have. Do I think it’s necessary for people to target allies or unassuming people making honest mistakes about verbiage with anger? No. But here’s the thing, allies aren’t perfect and neither are oppressed people. Perhaps you should cut oppressed people a tiny bit of slack here. You should know, if you experience oppression, the type of anger that can build up. And depending on your life, there may very well be nowhere for that anger to go. It may be impossible to express or get rid of. And it may snap.

    If you’ve never read Non-Violent Communication, I think it sets up a good way to handle the anger and frustration of others. I see this as something I’m going to have to deal with in a lot of cases and honestly I tend to be less angry with someone who’s oppressed getting upset with me because I’ve offended them than say… some sort of motorist getting pissed off with me because I crossed the street.

    I know it’s frustrating because no one wants to be the subject of anger. No one wants to be yelled at or hurt… but I really feel that part of being an ally is to not put myself first. And I try to understand that we’re both human. Sometimes I fuck up. Sometimes I go OFF on people who have said the wrong thing on the wrong day. Sometimes people go off at me. As an oppressed person I try to have more understanding, and believe me I think that there are many, many situations where we have no other choice but to be understanding (e.g. careers, family, etc.), but it’s not always easy.

    “So. Dear oppression activists. Please stop bashing your allies at every available opportunity. ”

    Honestly, I take contention here with the way you use “bash”. This video really sums up when I think the term “bash”ing is appropriate:

    And to sum it up for folks who can’t watch it, basically I see “bash” as a reference to physical violence. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and been the subject of anger, but I’ve yet to have anyone physically hurt me for saying something ignorant, and I’ve said a lot of very ignorant things. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen or it can’t happen, but the percentage of which it DOES happen does not remotely compare to oppressed people who are brutalised. And I really don’t think drawing comparisons to that (while that may have not been your intention with the word “bash”) is fair at all.

    “-I will give my allies cookies. ”

    This I have a huge problem with. Both as an ally and as an oppressed person. I don’t think you have to be a martyr to be into fighting for social justice, but if you’re doing it to be the hero, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

    I see this as an issue of self care and self love. If I need to step away from what I’m doing and take care of myself, I do. But I don’t expect the people I’m trying to ally with to take care of me. And I don’t think it’s fair to put that burden SOLELY on oppressed people. Allies can do this sort of thing to and I think that’s a far thing to do as an ally. Again, here I just feel like placing all of the burden on the oppressed is a bit unfair.

    Overall I can understand your frustrations here. I’m not saying you’re completely wrong. Your feelings here of frustration are very valid. I hope you don’t see my response to this as any sort of attack or personal jibe, I just wanted to share my thoughts.

  6. Wow Lola, way to exemplify Being The Problem. Not to mention building an army of straw men. I’d respond to your post but honestly I’m just too fucking tired after all the scrolling back up to the original article to confirm that nope, the author didn’t make *any* of the points you’re actually arguing against. I genuinely question your reading comprehension.

    And y’know what, this is *exactly* the problem: you find someone who genuinely wants to help, to understand better, and to make the world a better place, and you yell at them until they no longer want to. And then you wonder why it seems like it’s you against the entire rest of the world and you have no friends, either.

    To the writer,

    Thankyou for writing this piece. I’m glad that the vast majority of the comments on here have been immensely positive, and I have to agree that I think a lot of this has needed saying for a long time. I too have found myself depressed, frustrated and disillusioned, even in groups where I *do* have the most valid viewpoint on oppression available, by the negativity and infighting amongst activist communities, and by the bitchy point scoring and in-group behaviour from people who really ought to know better. I’ve been trying to find a way to express this without getting my throat slit (metaphorically) by a group of people who often seem more committed to Being Right than to making the world a better place for anybody, but you said it far more eloquently (and tactfully) than I ever could.

  7. Sorry, M. Your relentless want to be “the good guy” and get a pat on the back isn’t my fault. If you decide you’re not rewarded enough for your own activism and quit, that is YOUR responsibility, no one else’s. You can’t Cartman your way out of activism and lay that burden down on others. You quit, you quit. It’s you that’s quitting. No one else. You want to make the world a better place? Deal with the fact that it’s not a nice one because the marginalised people you’re supposed to be an “ally” of are experiencing it in a way you can’t possibly understand.

    I’m not saying people deserved be verbally abused, but I don’t expect any cookies from people of colour and I sure as hell am not going to be handing them out to all of the cis people so they’ll stay around and help my cause. Screw that.

  8. Hi everyone,
    Thank you all for reading and commenting! I was quite surprised (and impressed) with the amount of attention this post seems to be receiving. I understand there are quite divided opinions on this, and it’s cool to see that people seem to be thinking about it and engaging with it in different ways :)

  9. A very thoughtful and interesting article, and I think a lot of this needs saying. Thank you. It’s not a new thing: working for a feminist organisation in the 90s, I found that there was a section of people who preferred to critique those closest to them rather than actually striving to get something done. It was a privilege of terminology over action, and it was very tedious. There seems to be a subset of people who will focus on the minutiae of ideology at the expense of real change: you get it in the Left a lot, to its detriment (the Right, being more motivated by self interest, at least here in the UK, will take advantage of it without succumbing to that particular failing).

  10. Hellooo LO!

    I would have to agree with M on this, since if it isn’t a perfect example of someone who is part of problem then it has to be the posterchild of the last stand of an academic who still thinks correct grammar trumps facts and thus can win any debate.

    Neither grammar nor the big book on how to win debates does any good at all when you argue a false or fundamentally flawed view point. I am surprised that once you are on the ropes you didn’t do the last ditch “Sounds good, but I can’t follow what you are saying so it’s just a waving of the hands”

    There are plenty of people who have trouble admitting when they’re wrong, and it is a horrible policy, doesn’t matter if it’s in regards to a BF/GF, debates, politics, arguments or anything admitting when you make a mistake and sincerely apologizing without ruining it with an insult is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength as nothing is more dangerous than the typical male inability to misidentify a strength as a weakness.

    Civil rights, equal rights, oppression, whatever you want to name it, IS NOT too complicated for any number of factions to ever universally agree on. In fact it’s the opposite, because the whole point is working towards eradicating unjust discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you call it privilege, entitlement or any trojan horse name given by saboteurs who are not striving for equality of rights for citizens as they were God Given before control stolen by males.

    Privilege has nothing to do with the difference between right and wrong, so it doesn’t matter who is speaking out when they see people directly or indirectly treating another human being in a bigoted way, it could be the most overprivileged or underprivileged and it still the same thing because when everyone is striving to end unjust discrimination (which is as simple as telling right from wrong) even the least privileged will be backed up against the overprivileged and the powerful when the citizens far outnumber those who took it upon themselves to govern a community, a state or the world and decided to dictate that they get to decide who backed up or dog piled according to dictated lines between right and wrong.

    And any movement that will succeed is going to depend on the sheer numbers of folks who have no problem distinguishing between right and wrong, because anyone who is honest knows it’s an easy thing to parse. The only problem is the fear an intimidation spread as a toxic poison which are all lies fed to the public in order to maintain an unlawful and unjust control.

    The People cannot resort to the same wrongs they are laboring to end, that is called sabotage, and it is a losing side to sign up for

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