Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Resolution in solidarity

My big resolution for next year is to be a better ally. I’ve noticed that many of us who get involved in the struggle for social justice have a tendency to self-righteousness. We are most comfortable defining and defending the moral high-ground, it’s often the only perk of activism. Many of us aren’t used to our views being irrelevant, wrong, or part of the problem. My first step to being a better ally is to be more open to this:
  • to think about how to support people who are oppressed in ways that I am not
  • to ask if there is anything they want from me
  • to think about what solidarity means to me
  • to think about how I want to be supported in struggles that I care about, and to model that behaviour.

I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve felt supported to do or talk about things that are hard. I was recently part of a discussion about what it means in practice to be anti-sexist/anti-racist (etc) on an email list, which turned into an ugly argument. I could not have participated without the support of a few people who acknowledged what I was saying, who tried to point out the defensiveness and dishonesty of some of the responses to my ideas, and who debriefed with me off-list. I was surprised by how few people joined the discussion—it made me think about all the times I’ve sat on the fence, especially when I’ve known which side I’d be on if I had to choose. Why did I choose to do nothing?

Sometimes, I’ve done nothing because staying disinterested is easier than working through what I’m thinking and feeling. Sometimes I haven’t spoken up because it’s easier to stay silent than to risk being wrong. Sometimes I’ve been silent because taking a side risks losing social power. Sometimes I’ve stayed out of it because it isn’t my issue. Every time I’ve done nothing has been because doing nothing is an option for me. I’m not so angry or hurt or insulted (or whatever) by what’s happening that I have to react. So instead, I’ve chosen the easy risk-free option—staying out of it. Many people have pointed out that staying out of it is taking a side—it’s siding with the more powerful, status quo voices against the marginalised and oppressed (brownflotsam writes beautifully about this in How to stay still on a moving train).

Often when someone speaks up about something that marginalises them, they are criticised for sounding too angry or upset. As if being silenced, ignored or exploited aren’t good reasons to be upset. As if the feelings of the oppressors are more important than those of the oppressed. Usually, it’s just that those with more power have less experience of being criticised and feeling uncomfortable. Being a better ally means listening to people who tell me I’m getting shit wrong, and being grateful that they care enough to speak up. It means suppressing the response to immediately tell them what they are doing wrong, or how they could have handled things differently.

When we have some understanding of someone’s oppression, it can be tempting to take it on as our cause. Because I don’t actually face the oppression, I can become an expert on it. I have more energy and access to be outspoken, I am safe to be more outraged, I can also be dispassionate. I get to satisfy my guilt without listening to the people I am marginalising, or giving up any privilege—in fact, I actually gain power from this. It’s a different way of exploiting and maintaining oppression. When I feel outrage at oppressions I don’t experience and feel the urge to berate people about their ignorance, I am suspicious of my motives—I am choosing outrage when I could choose to engage in solidarity. Outrage is easy, working with other people who don’t face that oppression to examine our power and ignorance is much harder. It isn’t easy to find a balance between supporting marginalised voices and speaking over them; it requires building relationships, and talking about oppression and needs. It means being accountable—I expect to get it wrong, and I need to be okay with hearing about it when I do.

In short, being a better ally won’t be easy. Sometimes it will mean acting or speaking before I feel ready, sometimes it will mean holding back. The balance is probably different for everyone depending on whether we’re more inclined to impulsiveness or inaction. For me, it means overcoming my inertia, cautiousness and cowardice. It means overcoming my defensiveness, and understanding the ways that I have privilege and power. It means noticing and unpacking what I’m feeling. It means getting over my shit. If you want to help, you can tell me when I’m getting it wrong (I may even do the same for you).

Solidarity means making an effort.
  • Making an effort to take a side
  • Making an effort to say whose side I am on
  • Making an effort not to be defensive
  • Making an effort not to be offended by the anger of marginalised voices
  • Making an effort to understand a marginalised point of view
  • Making an effort not to be outraged on behalf of the oppressed
  • Making an effort to work out my guilt separately from groups I may be silencing
  • Making an effort to be honest
    • to do what is asked of me, or say that I can’t
    • to know my place and not take over .

There’s a lot more.


  1. YES! Very timely, even though your message is timeless. This writing is a great contribution.
    Thank you.

  2. I like the list. And the resolve. And I always like your writing, so you should keep doing it! x