Process Model Ally Work, Part Two

[Content Note: White supremacy; ciscentrism; privilege.]

Part One is here.

I wanted to flesh out a bit an idea I mentioned in my #femfuture post: "I am white—the privilege conferred by which is deeply and inextricably embedded in the visibility of Shakesville in ways I can't even fully know."

One of the reasons I value the model of ally work as an ongoing process (an idea which I did not invent) is not only because I need to be aware of how I can leverage my privilege on behalf of people who don't share it, and vigilant about not trading on and exploiting my privilege, but also because I have to centralize an awareness that I am privileged in ways I don't see.

(For this post, I'm going to be speaking from a first-person perspective and focusing on my white and cis privilege, although these ideas are applicable for anyone who holds any kind of privilege, and although my race and gender are not the only axes of privilege I have.)

I can't identify, with certainty, every time I am privileged because I am white and/or cis; I can't know who gives my voice more credibility or more values my perspective, consciously or unconsciously, because I am white and/or cis.

That's something I can't control, but I can mitigate it by communicating in multiple ways that I value and find credible voices that are non-white and non-cis. And I can make sure I don't use my lack of control as an excuse to give myself permission to forget that I am actively privileged. I don't just have these privileges, the way privilege is sometimes talked about as though it is just another personal fact that exists in a void; I am the beneficiary of visibility, access, opportunity, authority because of them.

It's crucial for social justice activists to be acutely aware of the existence of invisible privileging, particularly because, in the very commission of the sort of ally work which necessitates criticism of people who share one's privileges, one's criticism is likely to be:

1. Privileged over the criticisms made by marginalized people.

2. Complimented/commended by the privileged people being criticized in a way that passive-aggressively demeans the form or content of the criticisms made by marginalized people.

I'll explain that more fully in a moment, but first I want to observe something about the personal nature of ally work, about which I've written before:
Recently, we've had a couple of threads about trans issues get nasty, and, in each case, I've dived in and gone ten rounds of virtual fisticuffs. I was pissed (PISSED, BROOTHA!!!), because I categorically do not consider the legitimacy of trans lives up for debate, and it infuriates me that there exist people who do. But I was pissed in a different way than I get pissed when it's a thread in which, for example, the legitimacy of my perceptions of my lived experiences as a woman are being debated, because being pissed on behalf of other people doesn't make my heart pound and my teeth grind the way being forced to defend my own goddamned consciousness does.

During those nasty threads, on the other side of the series of tubes connecting our respective inboxes, CaitieCat's heart was pounding and her teeth were grinding, because it was personal to her in a way it's not to me. I wasn't the one being attacked; my life wasn't being treated like a tetherball. My empathy allows me to be a tenacious ally, but my cis privilege insulates me from the resonant ache of being a lifelong target of transphobia. What is galling to me in a trans thread gone off the rails, can be not merely galling but triggering to CaitieCat, because it plucks the strings of her history.

And even though Maude knows CaitieCat can hold her own in any thread in the multiverse, as can the rest of the trans Shakers, my role as an ally is to make sure that they don't have to carry that burden on their own—that they aren't expected, in the middle of a personal attack, to swallow down ten metric fucktons of rising bile in order to face off against and/or try to educate someone who's hurting them, especially on the occasions when that hurt is deliberate.

Often the most important thing an ally can do is just be willing to stand in front of a friend and take a few arrows in the armor made thicker by degrees of distance, to give the priceless gift of: "I got this one."
That is a gift I deeply appreciate when, for example, the thin contributors jump in against fat hatred; the male contributors jump in against misogyny; the contributors who are also being marginalized in the same way I am but just have more spoons that day jump in and stand on the line while I catch my breath.

Great ally work is harm mitigation. It's being willing to step in and be aggravated so that someone else can avoid being harmed. Because no matter how angry, contemptuous, frustrated, and other words of rage-filled dissatisfaction I am with racism or transphobia, it's never going to feel to me the same way it feels to a person of color or a trans* person.

It doesn't feel the same as defending myself against misogyny and fat hatred.

For that reason, it tends to be easier for privileged people doing ally work to appear any one of those familiar words used to dismiss the criticisms of marginalized people because they are allegedly not these things: Civil, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, nice. It's a lot easier to appear to be civil, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, nice when it's not your body, your life, your identity under attack.

And so, winding back around to the idea of passive-aggressive compliments, what happens sometimes is that someone like me, a white cis lady, will write a criticism of racism or transphobia that is then received and spotlighted as Very Thoughtful (or whatever) by the privileged people being criticized, which not only entrenches the narrative that people engaging in prejudice are owed thoughtfully thoughtfulness delivered in a thoughtful tone, but also plays into the narratives that equate privilege with objectivity and marginalization with overreaction.


This dynamic elides the very important dichotomy between being a marginalized person who is personally under attack and doing ally work as someone who is standing in solidarity with a marginalized person who is personally under attack, and the different ways that feels.

(Not that everyone universally reacts the same way, anyway. I don't even react consistently the same when I'm personally attacked; it has a hell of a lot to do with my emotional wherewithal on a given day.)

My point is: If I am deemed more "reasonable" by people I'm criticizing in the position of ally, well, there are reasons for that which generally don't actually have anything to do with my being inherently more reasonable. I try to watch out for compliments from people sharing my privilege on doing ally work on behalf of people who don't, and to be aware of how they may function.

* * *

[Note: Because I think there might be some confusion about this point, I just want to explicitly clarify that I am not writing about comments among marginalized people and their/our allies saying, "Hey, good job!" to one another. I am specifically writing about the preferential and complimentary treatment given by privileged people who are being criticized to the critics who share their privileges.]

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