In my last post on allyship, I discussed how we can approach allyship as a problematic, particularly when we consider how allies become centered in conversations having to do with axes along which they are not oppressed. I spoke a bit about how such centering confounds the very notion of what an ally is meant to do or be, as it again privileges the voices, opinions, and analyses of people in positions of power. I challenged those claiming the title “ally” as an identity by asking how their so-called identity differs from the groups they claim to support. I want to focus now on what it actually means to do anti-oppressive work, rather than a shortcut label to free cookies and “gratitude” on the part of oppressed groups and a different, perhaps messier and less rhetorical approach to allyship.
Conversation. Words. Room for error. Mistakes. Discussion. Moving forward. Spectra and Mia Mingus both share, in their writing, how identity and action can intersect in surprising ways. Spectra writes about how “some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.”
Similarly, Mingus writes “I grew up in a feminist community, around other powerful femmes of color, but none of whom identified that way. There was no word for it, it was… just their life. It was how they had to learn to be, to survive. It was what they had crafted out of the fires of their desires and loving. It was part of how they had learned to be magnificent.
Their gender was about being a grounded force to end violence. Their gender was about forging dignity out of invisibility that could slice through femininity that would rather be pretty than useful. Their gender was about answering the question, what is the work you are doing to end violence and poverty, not what shoes are you wearing. Their gender was about feeding family and raising children collectively; organizing for themselves when no one else would. Their gender was a challenge to the world they lived in that was trying to erase them.
As femmes of color—however we identify—we have to push ourselves to go deeper than consumerism, ableism, transphobia and building a politic of desirability. Especially as femmes of color. We cannot leave our folks behind, just to join the femmes of color contingent in the giant white femme parade.”
Both these authors mention family, community – it is something intrinsic to many people of colour, particularly as we immigrate to new countries – and it’s also true for communities of colour that have existed for generations in North America. There are already bonds of solidarity, of being there for each other because relying on mainstream ways of support were already not accessible for us. I remember my mother saying “no one will fight your battles for you” and “there is no thing as I can’t”. I have great respect for my mother, even if she might argue I don’t always show it. I don’t know many women who can leave their families temporarily behind to carve out a new life in another country, and then bring over their husbands and children. I don’t know many women who could even begin to negotiate the kinds of experiences their young child would face. I don’t know many women who would succeed – by all means, we are your typical South Asian family success story so far, even if sometimes I genuinely wonder at what cost.
And she’s not perfect, my mum. I remember confiding in her about instances in my life that I think genuinely broke her heart – things about me that she could not accept and indeed has a very difficult time even now accepting. But I know one thing: that woman has my back no matter what. I can’t call her an ally; she’s just my mom. God help anyone who hurts me, if my mother ever found out about it. She’d never call herself an ally though – I can see her scoffing at the word. “Ally? I’m just your stupid mom watching out for her stupid kid who opens her mouth when it’s totally unnecessary.” And I mean, fair enough – that’s not exactly drenched in unqualified support – except it is. My mother and I would never have been friends had we grown up together. But she’s stuck with me, and that is unbreakable. I know this, because I think I’ve actually actively tried to break it in the past because the gap between how much she cares about me, and how little she understands me is honestly so wide that often I feel ripped down the center, heart and head cast on either side of a wide chasm. This is why saying ‘I love you’ in my family hurts. This is why I sometimes don’t even believe we ‘love’ each other – we don’t have the lovely “love you unconditionally” crap that’s sold to us in Western movies. We have a different love – one that IS bound by duty, cost, obligation. There are sacrifices my parents have made that I can never pay them back for – and they also don’t expect that – but they do expect some things and I know every step I take away from those expectations hurts them.
I don’t think my mum identifies as a feminist – though I am convinced every day that any inspiration I had for feminism came directly from the experiences of my mother – the way she kept our family together, pushed my father and I to be ambitious in ways I don’t think either of us are. I asked her once why she wanted to leave India. “I just… wanted my own house. And my own car.” It sounds so simple, these dreams. They are not simple. With what she grew up with, my mother… has achieved more than I think I ever will. It’s only as I grow older that I really recognize the sheer strength of force this woman possesses. She had to fight tooth and nail for it. My uncle, who still lives in India is convinced the country’s going to shit and told me once, when we were driving through dusty Pondicherry streets, that my family had made the right decision in moving when we did. But she had to fight all the crap along the way, the racism we endured – that she still endures – the sexism. All of it. “that’s just the way it is” she’ll say. “We have to work harder – obviously.”
“But that’s not fair!” I’d respond.
My mother would scoff: “Fair or not, it’s our lives. You have it so much easier!” I hated this response as a child, but I get where she’s coming from: my mother didn’t have the luxury to sit around reading and writing about identity politics, oppression, and privilege. It really was, in every sense of the word, a life. And she managed, in some way through sheer force of will, to make the system work for her. The relationship I have with my mother is “unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful….[and] built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.” Ok, maybe that last bit is stretching it for my relationship with my mum – but she’s the only one who has really experienced the steel blade of my tongue and who’s still stuck around. And vice versa – my mother has said honestly terrible things to me sometimes- but I’m around. And I pretty much always will be. And honestly? God help anyone who says anything about my mother to me, other than me. I don’t know if we always return to build deeper connections, but we do take on the world together. Are we united in our efforts? No – our efforts are sometimes at odds – sometimes splintering –but they’re always raw, honest, and passionate.
And they’re real, do not rely on rhetoric, and have room for error, just by necessity of the cultural constraints on what our bond signifies as mother and daughter. There’s something scarily powerful about that –make no mistake, I’m not always sure if I like this bond. But it’s one that very naturally exists between these two women of colour, separated by so much else: generation, experience, values to name a few.
This room for error is not something that I think our communities of anti-oppression have been very good at actually addressing. We too easily draft people into oppressed and oppressor, while maintaining some loose connection to notions of kyriarchy or intersectionality. We too easily ignore abusive behavior in our own ranks, uncomfortable to call it out and name it. I want to say right now no one is an ally at all times to all people. In light of how I feel about allies – I don’t even think it should be some sort of special ranking – like “oh I messed up by ally standards’” No. You were just not decent and an oppressive shithead, like most of the world, for some part of your life. Just like me. Just like anyone else. We all can make mistakes and do make mistakes. This does not mean that such behavior should be tolerated, or that you shouldn’t be held accountable for it. And anyone at the receiving end of such behavior has every right to deal with that in whatever way they wish… or do they?
What follows in my next post is my account of a terrifying relationship between myself and another person. We were cruel to each other. We were hurtful. I am not ok with, nor do I advocate, what either of us said or did in our interactions. It is very likely that what I write about next will alienate some of my readers – but I think it will also resonate with readers. But it’s important to write about, and it’s important for me to learn from, so I’ve put it out there. And I deeply hope it will also help others.