I’ll start in admitting that I kind of hate this word, this need to label and be labeled. The concept is wonderful, yes, and it probably is nice for people not directly in a cause to feel unified by some idea, but I think it is unnecessary and distracting. Too many people spend more time trying to gain acceptance by the group with whom they are trying to “ally” than actually doing what the term suggests – working to support said group.
This morning in the Twitter-verse, as usual, I saw a couple of questions regarding “ally”-status fired at a black feminist I love to follow (Feminista Jones). She had posed the question asking allies if they were wiling to die for her son and responses followed asking if this was necessary to be considered an ally. In spite of my distaste for the term, I decided to join the conversation because the answer is clear for me: If you aren’t willing to stand as close to the people who don’t have a choice but to fight or lose a son, you’re not an “ally.”
Of course, in my mind, there are exceptions – if you are someone responsible for a child and giving your life means risk to them, I get not wanting to stand on the front lines in a literal life/death situation (although, notably, as is in my original response, not all mothers really feel this option so safely available). But I believe if you want to make this term seem so damn meaningful, “ally” should be a status attained by the people truly in it, the ones who will stand strong against literal and figurative bullets and risks.
As one Tweeter (is that an accurate term? I actually don’t know) pointed out, many people say they are willing to die for something as mere grandstanding. I’m willing to be critical and hold the bar high because when I say it, I do mean it. I would die for someone’s son.
The question arose for me as a teacher, following the Sandy Hook shooting. I read the stories of the teachers who died trying to shield their students from the spray of bullets. I thought about the ability of my classroom to shield my own students and saw how easily most of the rooms in my school could be entered and leave few safe places for my kids. Was I willing to put my body before theirs and take as many bullets as I could for them?
I grew up with a sense of being ready to die for a cause, specifically for love. As early as ninth grade, I remember having conversations with friends about the people I would die for if I thought it could save them. By college came the theoretical what about complete strangers and the balancing of that idea. Those that know me well-enough personally know I am not grandstanding, and they know I’m crazy enough that if there were an opportunity for me to join the front lines in some radical way, at this point, I probably would.
So then the trolling questions: Well, if you’re so ready to fight, why aren’t you out there with a gun?
First, I believe in organization. A lone woman with a gun isn’t going to do anybody any kind of good. Now, if the Black Panther Party were to reorganize and ask the White Panther Party to reorganize (without all the rocker-hippie values) to mirror their efforts and I had an opportunity, hell yes, I would be all over that. Please, let me sit at a table with the next Angela Davis’s, Assata Shukar’s, and Ella Bakers! And if you’re reeling at the concept of the BPP reorganizing, you need to take a moment to research the amazing things they did for their communities. (So, why not go do it yourself? Why are you waiting for someone else?)
And now brace yourselves, because this is the most important thing any “ally” hopeful needs to recognize:
Whether as a white woman concerned with black equality or a straight woman concerned with homo/trans/bi/sexual/transgender equality, my place is not on the front lines unless I have been invited in.
This can be tricky for some people to understand.
I am deeply, personally affected by both of these issues and others, yes, and one more deeply than any person outside my most personal life can ever imagine – as a someday mother, as an educator, as a family member, as a feminist (can’t say I want equal rights for women and discount how much more women of color have it), as a person that values deeply justice and equality and, above all, love – yes, these do affect me and are, in great part, my fight as well, for various reasons. However, as a white female, I do not get to “own” these in the same way I can step into ownership of feminism (acknowledging, again, that there still must be inter-sectionality with race in that too), of reproductive rights, of gender equality, even of sexuality (I’m straight, but maybe that slides around someday?).
Fight the white and/or patriarchal supremacy that has been inherently bred into you by Western values and pause for a moment to reflect that not everything belongs to you, even if it has a great effect on your life.
Nonetheless, as all of the things I am, I am obligated by my values to do all that I may to support those who do “own” these battles, and, if sought for more, am ready and willing to give it, even if it may mean risk to my life (at least, admittedly, until the point I am a mother).
I believe that, whether a cause is yours to fully own or not, every “ally” must have this conversation with her/himself because the important thing you emerge with is an understanding of how much do these things matter to you and in what ways do they matter.
Saying “I’m willing to stand on the front lines and die” doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be an opportunity I will have to fill, but I know I’m willing to do it. I know how far I am willing to sacrifice in the name of my values and therefore will be better prepared to make sound decisions when faced with decisions that fall into grey areas on a topic, as there are many, because I already know how far and to what extent in what ways my values matter to me.
Does not willing to die mean that a person has nothing to contribute to a cause and should therefore give up trying to help anyone but themselves? Absolutely not.
It does mean that they should stop being so concerned with trying to figure out if they are or are not an ally and, as has been advised by many people, simply focus on “being a good person.” If a person can see through the actions and words of my life that I am someone who supports x, y, or z group or cause, I do not have any concern for whether I am labeled an ally or some other identifier. It does not and should not change my actions and my commitment to ideals. A good person believes in equality, believes in justice, believes in the rights of individuals to seek happiness, and speaks out and stands up when they see these values being barred from others. With this, perhaps then, the need to figure out who is “us” and “them” dissipates into a clearer picture of “humanity” that is able to unite against greater evils that plague us all more directly.
If you want to follow me through the occasional Tweet, you can find my handle as @girlsharkey.