Thursday, November 10, 2016

I Will Stand With You

My social media presence is full of people speaking to their frightened friends, saying "I'll stand with you,  I'll fight for you" and promising to use their privilege to help those who don't have it.  As a friend pointed out yesterday, that's easy to say and sometimes tough to do.  Many people don't even know where to start.  So, while there is no be-all-end-all guide to being an ally, I do have some helpful tips for those who genuinely want to support their loved ones.

  1. It's not about 'the barricades'; it's about the day-to-day.  It can be tempting to envision the fight for equality and dignity as an actual physical *fight*, one where we might need to take up arms to defend our friends.  I desperately hope it never comes to that.  The real battle is going on every day, in ways that don't feed our adrenaline.  Most of the things you can do to stand and defend involve sitting and listening, speaking and teaching, reading and writing.  It's tiring work, and it must continue steadily to do any good.  The good news is that if you do it right, the number of people doing it with you increases, rippling outward from you.
  2. The goal is supporting others, not protecting them.  We protect children, we protect the weak, we protect those who are incapable.  Our friends are strong, courageous, intelligent, and dedicated.  They can protect themselves.  Do not stand between them and harm, thinking you can somehow shield them with your body.  Stand behind them and beside them and among them.  You are not the hero in someone else's fight for equality.  You are the sidekick.  Embrace that and be the best possible sidekick.
  3. Start by listening.  Let your friends know that you would like to hear what they need from you, and then do your best to help them get what they need.  Be present.  Be thoughtful.  Be open.  Understand that they may have been burned, in the past, by 'allies' who demanded a tremendous amount of time and energy and praise in order to be decent human beings, so if  your friends trust you enough to talk to you about things, be grateful for their trust.
  4. Accept feelings as valid, even if you don't have the same response to the situation.  Don't try and tell people they're overreacting, don't try and tell them things will be OK, don't try and explain to them how it will all be fine and we just need to 'focus on the positive'.  There are people legitimately afraid for themselves and their families, and that's not new.  Some of these people are only experiencing a magnification of fears they've had every day for years.  Understand that there is a real vulnerability in admitting those fears, acknowledge them and take them seriously.
  5. Don't make your friends waste precious time and energy when you can do the work yourself.  Asking what you can do is good.  Asking for recommendations to read is good.  Asking your friend to dedicate hours to an online conversation explaining the basics of sexism to you and proving to your satisfaction that that is indeed what they are experiencing is cruel and exhausting.  Asking your friend to give you detailed descriptions of what is and is not racist because you want to change as little as possible without hitting any land mines is lazy.  Before you ask someone to explain things to you, spend half an hour with Google.  Don't use that time to come up with ways to punch holes in what they say.  Use it to try and better understand what they're saying.
  6. Stop hearing "That thing you are doing is hurtful to me and others," as "you're a bad person who should be ashamed of yourself."  Don't make others spend the time and energy to ensure that you have a positive experience as an ally, just because it upsets you to have your mistakes pointed out.  You WILL make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Be the person your friends can trust to say, sincerely, "Oh, I'm sorry.  I didn't realize.  Thank you.  I will be more mindful of that," not the one who tells them, "Why do I even try?  I'm just wrong anyway.  You should not be so harsh with people who are on your side, you know."  Don't expect praise for basic decency as a human being.  If your friends don't thank you, it doesn't mean they don't appreciate that you're there; you'll notice that appreciation in greater levels of trust and respect and friendship, not in overt praise or thanks.
  7. Carry safe space with you, and establish safe space where you are.  Be the person your friend can trust to chime in with, "I agree with (friend), I don't think it's OK for you to say/do that either," or "I'd rather you not use that sort of language around me," or "I'm not sure you're aware of it, but that thing you're doing hurts people."  This is a hard balance, because you also need to do it without co-opting others' rights for them to speak for themselves.  Let your friends know you will back them, and then follow their lead.  Don't try to own the conversation, just support the people having it.  Make sure that your home is safe space.  This can be as simple as creating a space where others feel comfortable to speak up because they know they'll be supported, or as significant as keeping your spare room ready to receive someone who needs to get out of a bad situation quickly.
  8. Embrace and use your privilege.  There is *something* in your demographic that means some people might take you more seriously than they would take those who don't have it.  Once you understand what that is, whether it's your gender, gender identity, race, religion, sexuality, ability, or some other factor, you can use your status in the group to actively include and advocate for others who aren't.  Tell your male buddies you don't think rape jokes are funny, whether there are women around or not.  Call out your other white friends on racist comments.  Speak among your other straight friends of the need for LGBT rights.  Make sure that gender-specific events are planned as trans-inclusive.  Always be looking for ways you can include, support, and amplify others.  If you're aware of areas where you're not privileged, then let that awareness give you empathy in the areas where you are.  When different groups of people work together to overcome each other's oppressive systems, this is called intersectionality, and it is good.
  9. Members of demographic groups are individuals, not a monolithic hive mind.  One member of the group who doesn't have a problem with a slur or a joke can't 'give you permission' to use it whenever you like around anyone you want.  Some members of a group may not want your active support, for whatever reason.  That's up to them, and you have to respect it.  Some may not recognise you as an ally, while others might consider you one.  Again, that's up to them and you have to respect it.  Remember that these are your loved ones, first and foremost, and your goal should be making sure that you are doing what you can to make sure they, as individuals, have the opportunity to be safe and happy on their terms, not yours.
  10. You're not obligated to attend every fight to which you're invited.  The fight for justice and equality is going to be decades more at least.  You have to choose a sustainable level of involvement.  Sometimes, you have to say "I am too tired to take that on right now."  That's OK, as long as you do step in when you're NOT too tired.  If you see someone else fighting for their life, remember that they're probably at least as tired as you, and that even a little public encouragement could mean the world.
Finally, too important for a number:  Love is all.  Love is everything.  It is our shield and our fire and our reason for being.  Lead with it.  Live with it.  Fight with it.  Fight for it.

I love you all.


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