After #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: So You Want To Be An Ally, Now What?

We’re all women, and if we’re talking about being allies, that means working together for more than one set of causes.
Publish date:
August 27, 2013
race, social justice, learning to be an ally, M

This article was due days ago. When I promised to write it, I had this vague idea that I was in the middle of one of those moments that no one remembers after they’ve had some sleep and a cup of coffee.

Obviously, that isn’t the case. Everyone knows the backstory of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag now, or can easily find it with a Google search. This piece isn’t going to be about the conversation, the anger, and general frustration that made me tweet it. It isn’t going to be about the self-aggrandizing white men or the people who enable them, either. That man has had enough attention, and if he hasn’t? Oh well. That’s someone else’s problem.

This is not the piece I wrote last week or even the one I wrote when I realized that, just maybe, I’d really started some shit. This is the piece I wrote when I realized that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about a hashtag. I want to be the person who makes the conversation actually happen and keep happening for as long as it takes.

We’re not post-bigotry, but we are at a place where we can start trying to get there.

Full disclosure: I'm one of those people. More specifically, I'm one of those black people. You know, the ones folks like to sneer about in discussions of life in the inner city, single mothers, welfare, you name it. I probably could fit at least part of a negative stereotype. My family valued education, but access to it came at a price that my elders were willing to pay, and I never forget that.

So as I sit here at this metaphorical table, I see how cultural differences influence the tone of the conversation. I don't think that women of any color need to be respectable to be valuable. I want feminism to be a movement that doesn't infantilize people who are already disenfranchised by assuming that the way people speak is an indication of the worth of what they're saying. We’re all women, and if we’re talking about being allies, that means working together for more than one set of causes.

Since I’ve had a number of would-be allies asking me what they should do next, I want to talk about the next steps in a concrete way. It would be so easy to point at the tweets in the hashtag that lay out (to me and the people making them anyway) what the issues are, and how they need to be addressed. But, if it was that easy, the hashtag wouldn’t have been necessary.

By the same token, no one is served by a host of well-meaning, clueless people charging into the fray. That’s a recipe for some brand new disaster. So here’s what should be happening right now.

Step 1. Listen. Not to rebut, or chime in, or do anything else but hear and understand what is being said, blogged, tweeted, etc. Just listen. Understand that your role is not to lead, or speak for women of color. We’re more than capable of speaking up for ourselves.

If you must do something, do it internally. Interrogate yourself about why listening is so hard, why you want to do something right now, or why you’re so upset to hear that your action/inaction has hurt someone. This is probably going to be the hardest part, because active listening isn’t something most of us are used to doing, especially when the topic is one so fraught with emotion.

There will be an urge to defend yourself, even though the topic of the conversation isn't specifically you. Ignore that urge. Why?

  • No one cares that you're not like that. You’re a stranger and your word doesn’t mean anything. Your actions will speak volumes.
  • Derailing a conversation to talk about how someone’s tone upsets, offends, distresses you is not okay.
  • Any response to a discussion of someone else’s oppression that centers on you and your feelings is the wrong one.

Step 2. Educate yourself. Invariably in these conversations a list of books, articles, and blogs is referenced, linked to, whatever. Go read them. No, not all of them on the same day. But really, if you only know Audre Lorde and bell hooks as quotes, if you've never read anything written by undocumented people, if you know nothing about indigenous Americans beyond Thanksgiving myths, if you've never read anything written by trans women, by disabled women, by women with identities that cover more than one of these categories? Your education is limited. No one can fix that but you.

And no, I don't mean buy all the books, or read things that aren't easily accessible to you. Use the mighty power of Google, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Read what you can when you can, instead of demanding an individual education.

Step 3. Check yourself. Check your friends. Check that random douchecanoe who won’t shut the hell up. One of the best things that happened when #solidarityisforwhitewomen was trending, was when people took it upon themselves to get their friends, trolls, and random C-list celebrities sans a clue out of my mentions. “If you see something, say something” also applies to being an anti-racist feminist.

Sure, people of color can and do fight their own battles, but when you see someone being harassed, bullied, verbally abused, etc? Step in. Offer words of support, deflect a troll, rally to defend women online in whatever way you can. Please note, that doesn’t mean anyone expects you to act in ways that are detrimental to your own health, it literally means do what you can when you can.

Step 4. Not every community has the same goals or the same needs. This takes us back to Step 1. Listen to what is being said, understand that just because your community functions a different way that doesn’t make it better. For instance, as a black mother active in my community? My focus is on my ability to be a mom, on access to good schools, quality health care, on my neighbors and their safety from crime and police brutality.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether or not someone changes their last name, or who is shaving what. That stuff is all noise to me, but if that is what matters to you? Great. Just don’t expect my priorities to match yours.

This is just a primer so that the conversations can happen. There are more steps ahead, lots of them. Building trust takes time, so try to spend that time productively. I have some really great white allies in my life who show up and show out when I need them to do that. They also listen, learn, and do their own heavy lifting. That’s all anyone is asking for right now. Can you do that much?