I was at CLPP this past weekend — a yearly conference at Hampshire College called From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Advancing the Movement for Reproductive Freedom. As you can imagine, a lot of shit goes down in this space, most of it good, some of it ugly, all of it challenging and inspiring. One big theme of the conference was how some organizations are not accountable allies. What we didn’t talk about, at least at the panels I attended, was HOW to be an accountable ally. How do you make sure that in fighting for your own rights, you’re not trampling on someone else’s?
Let me put a disclaimer on this: I’m no authority on the subject. I have a shitload of privilege and am unpacking it as we go along. If you see a gaping hole, please speak up! This is not the end all, be all — it’s the start of a conversation.
So. How do you be an accountable ally?
1. Own your history. This came up frequently at CLPP, mostly in reference to Planned Parenthood and their failure to message effectively on Margaret Sanger and her history with eugenics. In order to be an ally, you have to be willing to talk about the uncomfortable shit, especially when it involves racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, etc. Before you think about helping transform another person’s history, confront your own.
2. Examine your privilege. I’ll go on the record as saying that I hate the word privilege. It reeks of jargon and academic superiority, but it’s important nonetheless. A non-exhaustive list of articles to read on privilege:
- Peggy Mcintosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- Privilege check-lists (male privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, class privilege, etc)
- The problem with privilege lists (don’t you love the Left?)
- Beyond Inclusion: Trans Women as Equal Partners in Feminism
- Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism
3. Do some learning. The last thing you want to do is show up in someone else’s space and expect them to educate you about their lives, their struggle, their issues. Do some research on your own. Asking questions is fine, but expecting someone else to break it down for you is not. What do I mean, exactly? Asking a woman of color to explain the rocky history between feminism and racism is not acceptable. Most people are not walking encyclopedias, and it is not her job to educate you. At the very least, do some googling before you approach someone about their history.
4. Admit it when you screw up and apologize. I’m 100% guilty of being defensive instead of making a disagreement or confrontation into a learning opportunity. This is critical — we’re going to fuck up in this work, and we have to be humble enough to admit it when we do. Claiming that you had good intentions is not enough — own your mistakes! I’ll be the first to tell you that this is pretty freaking painful in the moment (not to mention an ego blow), but well worth it in the long run. No one is The Perfect Ally, an admitting it proves that you’re aware of your own faults.
5. This is a process, and it won’t be easy. So forgive yourself when you make mistakes, because you will. Just because you intend to become an ally doesn’t mean that you are one — being an ally is a two way street. It’s an honor and privilege (!) to be trusted by a community that’s not your own.