On Allyship, Abuse, Identity, and Solidarity – and How to Make a Damn Difference (3)

*ok so. This is my (so far) final post on the series of allyship, solidarity, etc. It was not easy to write. I… can’t say much other than saying that the words speak what they speak. I… have a feeling this will (justifiably) alienate many people. I can only thank you for reading and hope that… some understanding, however uneasy, can… be built from what I’m writing about. My goal is not to make this a confessional, apologia, self-flagellation, or any such thing – but as the saying goes: intent is nothing. That being said, I appreciate constructive criticism about this – and similar – issues and how to write about them effectively.
deep breath. * 

In my first post in this series 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. In my last post, I discussed how allyship can sometimes be used as a proxy title for “being a good person” – and sometimes, more insidiously, to imply “I can never be a bad person!”. I also talked about how allyship, as a title, doesn’t often leave room for error, or growth, or learning. Earlier, I wrote “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 kyriarchies.” 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?  Trigger Warning for ableism/toxic relationship dynamics: 

I want to talk about something that happened to me a few years ago, the rippling effects of which have profoundly affected my life since. About 5 years ago, I was just developing a way to talk about my racialised experiences in high school. I hadn’t yet learned the vocabulary for privilege/oppression work – but I was opening up to someone who had been with me during high school, had witnessed what had happened, had been silent then but now seemed to be open to listening. Let’s call him Charlie. Charlie’s a 6’2” fairly conventionally good looking, blonde haired, white young cisgendered man. I say this, because what I was opening up to him about was racism. And before I’d even finished trying to explain, he had already started on the path of telling me to get over it, that it wasn’t a big deal, that others had moved on, and that my anger wasn’t helping me. I remember the feeling still – like a hot rushing sound in my ear, the feeling of so many dismissals, so many microaggressions, so many times trying to open up and constantly being told it was my fault. But something snapped. I’d never been able to articulate my own oppression in high school, had never been able to explain had never been able to get others to stop being dismissive. I’d also never had the words to lash out at them, hurt them, the way they had hurt me when I was younger – partly because it’s terrifying to take on so many people. Partly because I felt there was no way to say anything back or to explain. And partly because a part of me genuinely felt it was wrong to hurt someone just because they had hurt me.

But all that evaporated with this young man. In that moment, I understood why people want revenge. I understood why people want to hurt those who have hurt them.  I knew he had been suffering from depression because he had confided me. Sharp as could be I wrote back something like “what you did just now, that would be like if you called a suicide hotline and they hung up on you with 0 regrets.”

He could not believe what he had just heard. I, at the time, with 0 concept of ableism, did not know what I had just done. I had just lunged for what I felt was a thread to his vulnerabilities as a way to defend myself. And I’d yanked it. Hard. Just as my threads had been yanked, and cut, and scraped my entire life leaving my insides bruised, until it physically hurt to walk to school every morning, stomach twisting into knots, wondering miserably at what kind of special abuse I’d receive that day.  I had instinctively found a string here – one that led immediately and perfectly to someone else’s pain. And I had tugged it. The effect was immediate, and I will say, that I did feel horrified once he told me how he felt –even without a knowledge of ableism, I understood in purely empathetic terms how wrong it had been for me to do that. But there was also resentment. Of course, I still ended up apologizing first. And later on, I of course  realized that the word for what I’d done to him was called “triggering someone”. I had triggered him. But I will say he took his time apologizing about his lack of empathy about the racism I had felt. He understood though, instantly, how dismissing someone’s experiences can be awful – and so, in some twisted way,  our mutually abusive relationship, in that time, did lead to some actual growth – at least on my part.

Later, with a better understanding of oppression and privilege, I knew that despite the understanding that developed between us, what I had done was wrong. Initially I’d felt as though what I had done was not at all proportional in terms of a response to what he had done. It took me a long time to say: “And what he had done was wrong as well. When someone opens up to you about racist experiences in their lives, that is something that can be deeply personal for them. It can be a totally traumatizing event, or multiple events, that they’re discussing. And ignoring that or making light of it or blaming them for what they experienced is also triggering. It’s invalidating.”

When we reconnected again, we talked about that incident, and to my surprise, he had remembered it differently – he had remembered it as me telling him to kill himself. I didn’t correct him, because what was the point? What I had said was tantamount to that anyway – it didn’t matter if I had felt shattered, silenced, utterly powerless, dismissed, hurt in the moment because I had also triggered him – and he was free to define that experience as he liked or needed to. I apologized again, and pointed out that he had also been cruel in what he had done to me. We reached some sort of understanding.

During this time, I remember comforting a friend of mine who had been recovering from a particularly toxic friendship. We’ll call this person Kyle. I won’t repeat the rage and anger and hurt they expressed to me one day – because that would be a serious breach of trust, but also because some of the things they said about their friendship was truly vicious, racist, and…. I understood in a way, that this was coming from a place of deep rage, pain, and… hurt. Not unlike my own. But at this point in our lives, my friend was also heavily invested in anti oppression work – I remember comforting them, hand on their shoulder, even as a small part of me at the time voicelessly asked myself: “Can you actually support this person right now? Yes, they’ve been through a lot, and you love them, but they are also saying really horrible things….shouldn’t they know better?” I remember thinking this way about my friend, even while I squeezed their shoulder and murmured comfortingly as they worked through the rawness of their pain. I remember wondering how this person could be so viciously racist in what they said. And I remember them thanking me later for just sitting and listening. And I knew I’d done the right thing. That despite how this person was in this moment, despite knowing that they had great potential for cruelty, that they also in that moment needed support, help etc. They had also been traumatised. I am not saying that being abused absolves the abuser, the racist, the ableist – not at all. But I am saying that so much of trauma leaks out, or can leak out, of the traumatised person, and shatter other lives in the process.

When I eventually reconnected with Charlie – the one I had triggered, the one who had hurt me deeply – I remember not trusting him right away. I remember still wondering if he had the capacity to hurt me. I remember wanting to prove myself to him – he was someone smart, capable – I felt I needed to earn his respect. I don’t know how or when, but due to a relationship fraught with miscommunication, mixed signals, and passive aggression, he eventually told me that I had been ableist, aggressive, and had violated his space in truly terrible ways in our recent communications. I couldn’t believe it – me, ableist? How? When none of my other friends had had that experience with me, how could I be with this person?

But I had been – I had demanded too much of his time, leaned too much maybe as I struggled to settle into a new environment, asked for support, wanted him to really “get” race – in some ways, I felt responsible for his understanding of race, particularly as our friendship became closer in ways I hadn’t foreseen. I had invaded his space even if I hadn’t realized it at the time. And here is the thing – I don’t think I had been overtly in any way ableist – there was nothing I did in our reconnection phase to be ableist in that overt “I am a bad ally” way. I don’t go around saying the ‘r’ word; I don’t even say “insane”. I was always careful to not make him think he was responsible for how his depression affected him or others around him. And yet, I had been ableist.

And this is why allyship is such a miserable concept – I was a shitty ally or person just by being a shitty friend. The root of my ableism in our recent communications lay in the nature of our interactions, not in beliefs I had about his depression, because I had looked for support from someone who was emotionally unable to support me; in so doing, I had exacerbated their symptoms of depression. It’s true that he had often tried to support me despite not being able to – and yes, no one can read minds. And Charlie had slowly started growing contrarian in his messages to me – there was something off about our conversations. I tried asking if it was me, and usually received a “no” in response. But I too have been conditioned in terrible ways by terrible white men – and hearing that sort of gaslighting instead of straightforward responses crept under my skin, and coloured my interactions with him. In retrospect, that “no” was probably filled with wariness at having to deal with me. But at the time, I didn’t know that he had slowly begin to lace his empathy with resentment. I want to be clear though: while it’s true that I hadn’t realized it at the time, my ignorance of the ways in which I demanded too much doesn’t absolve me of my actions. In some ways, that actually makes it worse. I also didn’t know how to support him, because people are different – how I support my other friends was not the way in which he wanted to be supported. And though I’ve been a good friend to other people in similar situations, that doesn’t mean I can be or am to everyone. I’m not.

I worked out that he needed some space – through a conversation that was akin to pulling teeth –  but the boundaries of that space were not clearly defined and I ended up violating it. Our friendship had always hinged on me reaching out more than him, and so after a week or so, to catch up on past plans we’d made regarding Christmas gifts, I tried to message him a few times. I was also paranoid by this point because he had been growing increasingly manipulative, contrarian, and strange in messages to me – and I honestly felt that leaving entirely and running away – as I often did in past relationships – would be unfair to him and to myself. In retrospect, I didn’t have the foresight to see that running away would have been the exact correct decision to make – not just for my sake, but also for his.

Within a week of reaching out to him, I felt I’d made a huge mistake in trying to check in. I’d sent him a deeply personal Christmas gift that we had discussed earlier in November, but I had been nervous about sending it. It’s not often I show love or care to people in that way, and I often *do* feel unwanted. He had been trying to help me with these feelings over the past few months, so I hoped he’d understand that in giving the gift, I had tried to put my feelings of anxiety aside. But soon after sending off the gift, I felt incredibly unwanted, felt as though I had burdened him further, and realized I’d not only violated his space, but that I’d been ignoring my own feelings of “run away” for a long time. I couldn’t take it anymore, and I left his life, leaving him a short message indicating that  the door was open for communication in the future should he choose that.

But by this point, he had read my gift as a willful insertion of myself into his life. He sent me a vicious email that I did not deserve accusing me of violating his space, among other more cruel attacks that centered on my insecurities. And everything came crashing down. I was unwanted. I was terrible, invasive, clingy, horrifying. I had asked him, and he had said I was not the cause of his worries, but he had wanted me gone long before – he just never had the words to say it. And I, stupidly, had tried to believe him, despite all my instincts telling me to run. I did not respond to his willfully cruel email in any capacity until well over a month later– and that was only to re-establish boundaries: I let him know that I needed more space too, and that while I was backing off and breaking other online ties we had, I didn’t intend a total cutting off; if he wanted to reach out eventually, he could, and I could also reassess my situation again.

And that was that – or so I thought. I was moving on, putting that relationship and friendship behind me – but it eventually came to my knowledge, months later, that he believed he had been justified in sending me that email, and that he always suspected I was an ableist person – that ever since 5 years ago, when I had triggered him, he had known. “like yeah, you’re mad about racism, but you don’t say that to someone” were his exact words. I couldn’t believe it. And yet I so could. I had confided in him, wanted to believe he would understand how dismissive he had been, and he had never, not once, considered that the pain I felt might be anywhere equivalent to his. Not once! See, I think he had in his mind the really stupid idea that while depression could cause suicidal thoughts, that racism didn’t have a similar (if not exact same) impact on me. And yet he had to have known, because we talked about it. And yet he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand the impact racism had had on me, or why I had lashed out at him.  I felt a surge of vindictive rage flow through me – and I remembered, Kyle  sitting on the bench, being comforted by my hand on their shoulder, cursing racist expletives about someone he loved because she thought so low of him. “Well if that *********** thinks this about me, let that be true – yes, yes I think it!” they had thundered. – and I understood that now.

I wrote Charlie a terrifying email, where, amongst a slew of other information about me deserving better, about him never taking our friendship seriously, about never wanting to see him again, I insinuated something pretty terrible. “Since we’ve so clearly established I can hurt you without trying, you don’t want to run into me again, now that I want to hurt you, not even accidentally. You’re not the only one who can use words as weapons” I wrote. And it was true – I just wanted to hurt him that night. Since I was so ableist anyway, what did it matter? Let’s make that threat more real, I thought. Let’s be clear: Yes, yes I can be fucking ableist and abusive and manipulative to you. Yes, I deserved better than your contrarian crap – I deserved leeway and understanding. And I’m sick of telling you that you deserved better – I have told you nothing but that.  I’m sick of your depression as a cover for the way you treated me, the way you constantly gaslit me in our conversations.

I’m sure he felt my email was a vindication of his feelings “aha! She’s ableist all along!” he must have gone. He might have been annoyed more than actually threatened, despite my email being threatening. Since he already thought I was an ableist fuck, let him really believe it now, I figured. Go ahead, yeah, fucking run, I thought. Your turn to run. Don’t ever come near me again, or I will throw words at you like you did at me – and remember this: the last time you hurt me terribly, I hurt you back enough to wound. I can fucking do it again – and I don’t even feel bad about it.

I don’t want to get into the details of how I felt that night – but nothing good. It’s like electricity running through your veins, when you want to crush someone emotionally. That night, I didn’t even care if my thinly veiled threat about throwing terrifying words in his face was itself triggering. This is the danger of wanting to hurt someone so terribly – you really do, for an instant, become the nightmare that someone else thinks you already are.

So here’s the long and short of it: he wasn’t justified in treating me the way he had, and sending me that email. And I wasn’t justified in treating him how I had, or sending him mine. Later on, it shook me. Would I be this way to other people who hurt me terribly – find their weaknesses and throw it in their faces, or threaten to? How could I basically threaten to trigger him again, now that I know the consequences of what triggering entails and have even had it done to me? Later, through the accounts of others near me, realized I had totally dissociated that night. They were afraid for me, I know. But they were also afraid of me. And being traumatised doesn’t excuse what I did – my email was willful in the moment. I had wanted him to know I could hurt him – because I had sat there, hurt and raging and upset by how he had treated me.

This is why I no longer refer to myself as an ally about anything. I’m not. I’m your ally if you say I am, sure, in that moment. I’ll be your friend if our relationship dynamic doesn’t suck, and we can offer perspective and provide opportunities for growth for each other.  Sure.  These are good things. But I am not your ally – because once the way I’m oppressed is flung in my face, repeatedly or callously, the minute I am hurt in specifically manipulative ways that make me think the worst of myself, about what I can offer to people, about my self-worth – the minute I feel myself being placed in the same helpless situation of my youth, I swear to god, I will find, I think instinctively, ways to protect myself. And often, the best defense is a good offense – and who knows how to offend better than someone who’s experienced it in such creatively cruel ways for so much of her life? This is scary. I know it’s scary. I’m also not proud of this part of me.  I am working on it, to move past this, to let the rage I feel dissipate into something else – creative work, screaming into a pillow, screaming into a bowl of water, I don’t know. I am searching for ways to look at abuse and allyship and toxic relationships for what they are. I understand that these are really awful parts of myself – but they do not come from nowhere. They are also products of toxic, shitty, terrifyingly awful relationships existing in a horrific world. But I still take accountability and ownership for what I did and what I said – and I’m trying to move to a place where that does not happen again. And I do think there is a difference between a pattern and history of abuse and apologia and a toxic dynamic that brought out the worst in two people who are, in general, well versed in anti-oppression work. Abuse is abuse is abuse, mutual or not, but there’s value in understanding how abuse manifests and how we can make sure these instances do not happen again. And in light of that, I also recognize I am not at the stage where I can be anyone’s ally in a useful way. I don’t think I’m ableist throughout – I also strongly rethink my own mental health often, especially over this past year. And I don’t think Kyle or Charlie are “racists” despite what they said or did…and this is where I’ve really realised that the vocabulary we use in anti-oppressive work is so fucking inadequate, and here’s why:

We are all oppressive in our lives at some point or another. We all minimize others’ pain and hurt others when it’s convenient to our own narratives, and when it’s honest to our own feelings. And allyship is such an excuse. I could easily have sat here and said “no, I was never ableist in my interactions with Charlie – I never once called him insane!” or “he triggered me so I triggered him back; that’s fair play!” as though that’s a marker of anything decent – but it’s such a crock of shit. I was ableist by demanding too much of his time when he had none to spare or give. I see that better now. And if I’d been a better friend, maybe I’d have seen that sooner. And I was obviously ableist by expressing 0 qualms about triggering him that night I learned he didn’t give a damn about how my experiences with racism had shaped my life.

I’d rather be a friend – rather see and dissect the enactment of the subtle ways of manipulation in our lives rather than overt forms of oppression. No one close to me now is overtly oppressive. They are all well versed in privilege-oppression work. But it doesn’t fucking matter – all it means is that we find more creative, more subtle ways to be resentful, manipulative, and genuinely hurtful – sometimes, without even meaning to. So many of us have been traumatised, hurt, really experienced pain. And unless we recognize that capacity we have in us for hurting, any oppression-privilege work we do is tainted by a pretty big lie: that we believe somehow that manipulation, lack of communication in relationships, love, clarity – that these things are less meaningful than the systemic oppressions we try to tackle. I want to assert that our personal lives are not less meaningful.  

I firmly think that how we are to one another matters more than what we say we are. And I do think that we need to consider relationships in our work more than laying claim titles of allyship. I do think there needs to be space for error, for growth, and for honest assessments of relationships and our capacities for hurting each other. Intent doesn’t matter to systemic oppressions in the sense that harm done is harm done, but intent absolutely matters to personal relationships and growing from painful experiences. It can’t not. There’s a huge difference between unwittingly hurting someone, and then knowingly dismiss the impacts of racism and mental illness.  But I understand now that the lack of trust in my toxic relationship fed into how Charlie and I implicitly saw each other. I sometimes vocalized my lack of trust and I remember him visibly frustrated with my mistrust. But he also never really trusted me, I don’t think. The lack of communication about our feelings also didn’t help. But we were not allies to each other – though both of us write extensively on anti-racism and anti-ableism. He is one of the best writers I know – his arguments are sharp and incisive, and I still recommend his blog to people. He is explicitly anti-racist in his writings – but my interactions with him mean I do not ever want to reach out to him again. And I recognize that I can also be similarly ableist. Our experiences with each other showed me that. And I know in writing this, I might alienate some of my readers because I still believe that at the end of all this, I was still probably overall worse for him than he was for me. I’m not sure why I believe this – I think it has to do with how he tried to help despite his growing resentment. I’m trying hard not to admire that because I think ultimately, it’s a destructive behavior and indicative of poor boundary-setting. But I do admire it in one strange way – I think, he genuinely was trying to help even if the cost of helping me was any honesty or transparency in our friendship. Even if the cost of helping me was, ironically, our friendship. Even if his ‘help’ was actually manipulative in the end.

So this is the last reason why I won’t call myself an ally. Because it’s bullshit – when push comes to shove, it’s about relationships and how we choose to work through conflict – and I mean really work. This goes beyond regular call-outs – it’s about critically assessing in our own lives, the implicit and subversive ways in which we are oppressive or abusive – even while others may consider us allies. Sometimes, this can be messy and unproductive. Sometimes, it can lead to lasting change. Changing systems is not necessarily distinct from changing our own lives – from figuring out how we go wrong, when we go wrong. I’m not saying all oppression will end if personal relationships were just ‘happy’ or ‘nice’– not at all. But for those of us already invested in privilege-oppression work, we know full well what is appropriate or ok and what not to do – but we still manage to hurt people in deep ways. And it is only by critically examining these ways that I feel we can actually move to a point of deeper understanding, build better bonds, and move toward healthier communication between people. I want to move beyond rhetoric and to points in my life where I can actually build trust and respect – and not just allude to it with superficial words. I want to be able to give and receive support without feeling undercurrents of resentment, tension, and dependency in my relationships, real or imagined. And I believe this is also powerful work. I don’t know if it counts as radical – but I think formulating new ways of giving and receiving love, respect, and care are fundamentally revolutionary because they speak back to normative understandings of how relationships should operate. Currently, in our anti-oppression work, we seem to divide oppressor and oppressed, ally and abuser – but nearly everyone I’ve talked to who has been invested in this work for a long time recognizes the blatant contradictions in these constructed dichotomies. So I want a practice of friendship, care, and anti-oppression work that allows for mistakes so long as we learn from then, that differentiates between instances of abuse and patterned abuse in meaningful (not dismissive) ways, that understands how toxic relationships develop and poison people, that refuses predictable narratives of redemption or confessionals (though one might, in fact, argue that this is all this post is) in favour of drudging through the messiness of feeling eviscerated to find some truth or insight beyond “Yeah I know what I did was wrong” – that ultimately holds ourselves and each other accountable. Solidarity has to mean something beyond a sterilized definition in someone’s dictionary – I want a solidarity that is raw, messy, and one that actually addresses (and attempts to clean up) conflict rather than sweeping it under a rug and hoping it will go away. Conflict doesn’t go away. Pain doesn’t go away. These are things that will fester if left unto themselves. So I want a solidarity that speaks to the grueling work of analyzing our feelings critically. I want a solidarity that can actually address the oppressor and abuser in those who have been traumatised, who are seen as allies, as supporters, as also oppressed. I want that solidarity. Hell, I need that solidarity.   

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