I sat in the ballroom of a Santa Cruz resort listening with a quiet mind, carefully if not intently. In place of the exuberance of the previous day, there was a muted, relaxed feel to the room. Eighty of my coworkers sat languidly as Pam, the facilitator, came to a point in the session where she invited anyone willing to share personal stories connecting them to our mission of helping students become better writers. I usually try to avoid compulsively filling silence, but on this occasion I allowed myself to rationalize my volunteerism by believing my participation would encourage others to share. Wanting to model vulnerability, I had in mind to share a story from my childhood. As I moved from raised hand to standing in preparedness to speak, Pam began to make her way towards me, skirting tables and dodging backpacks. I experienced a brief moment of confusion, unsure what her purpose was. She thankfully clarified her intent by saying “let me give you my mic,” which I then realized she had uncoiled from around her ear where previously it had served its purpose quite unobtrusively. In quick succession I felt mild chagrin at having been an inconvenience, then a companion wave of relief as I reinterpreted her statement as an offer I might decline. Ready to get on with it and say my bit I glibly replied “that’s ok, I can project.”
My confusion returned when Pam ceased the extension of the hand holding the mic in my direction and, pausing, began to speak slowly and thoughtfully into the mic. “You know, I recently learned something that—you can speak loudly or,” as she gestured to me, “project your voice, but do you know, folks in the back of the room may still have to strain to hear you. Or people with trouble hearing from one ear or the other may not be able to hear you as well, even if they’ve intentionally sat closer to the speaker. So, it’s not about being able to project, it’s an accessibility issue. We’re using the mic not just to speak loudly, but to be more accessible.”
Embarrassment washed over me. Feeling somewhat disoriented, I accepted the mic as
Pam offered it again and stumbled over my words for a few sentences before regaining my composure, finishing my story and numbly returned the mic. A few minutes more, soothed by the heartfelt stories of others, I was able to return to the calmly focused reverie of the day. Later that afternoon I would reflect on this experience and begin to form the thoughts I’m now writing.
It is not an easy thing to describe with precise language the characteristics that define an ally. The idea is obscured in equal parts complexity, difficulty, nuance and varying opinion. For those new to this concept, I’ll loosely suggest that an ally is someone who supports the cause of an oppressed or marginalized group of which they are not a member. There’s a good writeup on Dictionary.com, and organizations like GLAAD and others offer resources. Still, even with definitions and guidance, it’s easy to see why the idea can be hard to get a good handle on. What kind of support does an ally provide, and who judges its merit? For which causes exactly? Should an ally listen or speak, amplify others or be outspoken themselves? If I marched for civil rights in 1963, am I a de facto ally in 2019? As an ally, am I always “on?” What happens if I disagree with someone for whom I’m supposed to be an ally?
Most of all, what happens when I make a mistake?
Having spent a lot of time observing and contemplating human behavior, I’ve found humans possess a nearly universal motivation to view themselves as good. As you learn more about the world, you add to our understanding of what good means and occasionally alter your behavior slightly to meet that definition. You learn that single-use plastics take a huge toll on the environment, so you might come to see good people as those that try to actively reduce their use, and so you stop using straws. When you learned about systemic oppression—ableism, racism, misogyny, so on—you may come to believe that good people don’t behave with overt prejudice, and so you try to avoid prejudicial behavior. You might even expand your understanding horizontally and connect awareness of other struggles for equal rights to your understanding of good.
A time comes when someone lets you know that something you did or said failed to meet your understanding of good. Maybe it’s a word with a derogatory etymology. Perhaps it’s a belief about politics or policy. Your first reaction is defensive, “But, I’m not a __ist!” you clamor, ”I don’t have a __ist bone in my body!” Maybe that’s enough to close the conversation, or maybe they persist by explaining that regardless of your perception, this word, belief or behavior is born of systemic oppression. How do you respond?
The catalog of of human emotion is extensive but there are a few phyla that encompass most of the reactions one might expect, the most common of which is a brief negative emotion—shame, embarrassment, guilt—followed by a conditioned response to that negative emotion. Many people share an instinctual response to a perceived source of negative emotion, which is to feel anger in the direction of the source. Feel sad, and whoever or whatever “made me sad” stirs our ire. Feelings of guilt or embarrassment ricochet through our emotions and reflect back as indignation—“how DARE you make me feel like that!”
It turns out there’s a reason this reaction is so common, and it boils down to a defense mechanism to protect our personality. Upon feeling some existential anxiety, our anger arises in defense of our identity, in this case our chosen identity as an ally. But then, why do we care so much?
One of the most difficult rational leaps we must make as we learn about ableism or any other form of oppression is the realization that as much as we may want to point at someone who’s responsible, there’s no one to point at so much as everyone. Just as there are vocal, adamant and hateful people who speak openly and brand themselves as bigoted, there are many, many more who tacitly endorse oppression by accepting and even expecting the ways in which it benefits them as “just the world we live in.” In fact, we are as much a part of that system as any other, having been inundated by it from childhood.
This runs afoul of our most primitive, instinctual need to distinguish between that which must be defended and that which we expect to attack us. As much as we might want a foe to fight, that foe is as much ourselves as other.
The other side of this instinct is just as brutal, if not more so. If we allow ourselves to follow our baser emotions we may find ourselves rejecting the very community we had hoped to engage. “I’m came here to help, but if you don’t want me then fine, to hell with y’all anyway.” The antedote to this is to realize that none of this is about you as an individual, that you are not the center of the story, and to realize that the sides you imagined aren’t that way.
The more attached to your status as a member of some community that you are, the more central it is to your identity, the more instinctual you will be about defending that status from perceived attacks, up to & including by rejecting any individual that calls you out, or even by ultimately rejecting the community as not valuing your participation.
But again, it never should have been about you. This is the essence of privilege, the unearned empowerment to prioritize our own interests and center our own stories. Like oppression, privilege is also layered, and so we may experience different degrees of privilege.
Regardless, we should put that privilege to work. Use whatever privilege you have to raise the voices of others. Focus first on doing the work, and learn to care less if you’re thought of as an ally.