Doing Allyship: It’s Not About You

One sad discovery from this journey is that many people who want to be called “allies” aren’t actually willing to put in the work to do allyship. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t know how and need some help. Other times it’s because they still need to learn one of the main lessons of doing allyship: It’s not about them. It’s not about receiving praise, it’s not about their own feelings, it’s not about staying comfortable while others LIVE uncomfortably.

Several months ago family members chastized me for commenting on another family member’s FaceBook posts that included a meme that had homophobic undertones. Now, the family member who posted it didn’t realize it held homophobic undertones, and I was aware of that. However, I am also aware that there are at least two groups of people who would recognize the bias… LGBTQ people, and those who are anti-LGBTQ.

As someone doing allyship, it is my DUTY to ensure that any LGBTQ people watching know they have an ally. It is also my responsibilty to ensure that anti-LGBTQ people do not feel empowered. Not even by things posted by folks who are unaware of their impact. So, as gently as one can possibly do over social media, I called my family in (vs. calling them out) to understand how the post perpetuated homophobia. I told them I knew they didn’t intend harm by posting the meme, but that because of the homophobic undertones, it IS a harmful message to share.

Wooooh, Lordy. The fallout of the ensuing kerfuffle was intense.  Several in my family chose to defend that family member’s feelings, hurt by my suggestion that they rethink posting things that I know don’t align with who they are. I was not surprised they were hurt, though. As Twitter user @WordsNRoses wrote, “Accountability feels like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your behaviors harm others.”

I chose to defend the “invisible” LGBTQ people who could be impacted by the harmful message the post sent. This all resulted in “unfriendings” and “unfollowings”. It left them hurt and angry and me over here disappointed by their unwillingness to listen and learn. They say they respect and support my work as an advocate, but it became clear to me that they only respect and support it when I’m not doing it with them. They want to be allies, but only if they don’t have to do the work of allyship. And let’s be honest, acknowledging how your behaviors harm others when you don’t intend harm can be REALLY hard work. (Google “Intent vs. Impact” for more on this.)

Since that conversation months ago, I’m repeatedly asked by other family members why I can’t just let it go when people, especially family, unwittingly do or say something harmful. My answer is easy:

First, it’s because I teach educators and students how to intervene when they see  or hear anything harmful to people with marginalized identities. If I didn’t intervene myself when I see or hear these types of things, then I would simply be a hypocrite, and I’m not about that life.

Second, it is my job to help people learn how to become better allies… how to DO allyship. It is my hope that people will WANT to learn how to do allyship, and so I gently let them know when it’s necessary for them to see things from another perspective. I understand that getting called in to learn about problematic words, beliefs or actions can be uncomfortable and might even feel a little like being attacked, but when an entire group of people are being oppressed and potentially hurt because of our words, beliefs or actions, it’s not about our feelings.

And then there’s also this:

This week I’ve read over 20 pages of anti-LGTBQ emails and letters (many from folks who claimed to be Christians). These people are your neighbors, family members, pastors. They’re your grandparents, parents and maybe even your children. Somehow they hate people so much that they took time out of their day to let people know how angry and disgusted they felt about an event that celebrated diversity.

Many of us believe that hate like this is unacceptable. However, I know from my work that it survives and sometimes even thrives because it is empowered. Who is doing the empowering? If you are sharing memes that have homophobic undertones, you are. Your anti-LGBTQ neighbors, friends, grandkids… they see that you agree with them and huzzah! Even if you don’t hate that group, you empower those who understand the undertones and DO hate. That demonization can lead to something called stochastic terrorism.

stochastic terrorism
noun

  1. the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted:

     The lone-wolf attack was apparently influenced by the rhetoric of stochastic terrorism.

Stochastic terrorism,  leads to things like the brutal beating and death of Matthew Shephard. It leads to the brutal assaults and deaths of many transgender people every year. Please understand; it leads to hate crimes like the one that inspired the book “Bus 57”.

Facts: People actually doing allyship don’t knowingly support or perpetuate words, actions, systems, policies, and people that will harm folks with marginalized identities. People doing allyship are willing to get introspective. They’re ready to acknowledge when their words/actions aren’t in alignment with, well, being an ally. Then they do better next time.

So if you ask me why I won’t let it go, or why I’ll always intervene and/or educate even where my advocacy isn’t welcome, I will tell you it’s because the students for whom I work on a daily basis need me, and you, and everyone else, to change the world. They need us to live Love loudly, even when that means getting uncomfortable and learning about how we can do better. After all, doing allyship is not about us.

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