A few years ago there was a huge earthquake in Haiti. Buildings crumbled, clean water was hard to come by and people were really struggling. And so people in richer countries sent clothes and toys to those in need, out of the goodness of their hearts. Really nice, right?
Well, not really. For one thing, kids in a disaster don’t need teddy bears to hug. They need clean water and food. Most countries around the world have access to clothes (yes, even after natural disasters), and the clothes that were sent were either inappropriate for the climate (tropical people don’t need winter jackets) or poor quality. It also slowed down the actual relief process – planes bringing essential supplies were bogged down or couldn’t land. People’s hearts were in the right place, but their common sense, and therefore wallets, were not. So their help was more of a hindrance. See what I’m getting at?
There’s been a lot of protesting lately. This is great, the people have a right to make their voices heard, and I love a snazzy protest sign or two. But it can be hard to see where protestors are helping the disenfranchised, especially when the protestors are not the disenfranchised people themselves. I mean, I know that their hearts are in the right place, but I wondered about their post-protest actions. Marching is an all-day affair; oppression spans generations. So I guess the question is, how does one be an ally every day?
I’ve come across two schools of thoughts with regards to allies. The first is that the oppressors should help the people who have less privilege than them, and the second being that the oppressed need to help themselves, and the oppressors need to check themselves. I’ve seen this in Facebook arguments and on blogposts and in real life, and it actually kind of amuses me in a sad sense. I mean, people who think that being an ally means that they should help at all costs are so… earnest. Their placards are so glittery, their voices are so loud, their selfies so full of hope. And if I’m honest, I personally appreciate the support. With a little guidance, I think there’s real potential there.
But the thing about privilege is that it doesn’t just go away because you want it to. And when you’re more likely to be heard than the oppressed, you run a real risk of overstepping your place and the people who need to be heard continue to be ignored. I’m a firm believer in checking your own people, and I try my best to do that. I’m a heterosexual cis woman, and that is a privilege in itself, so I try to point out things that other cishet people say that may be harmful. I cannot speak as an LGBT+ person, but I can listen to them and relay the message to those who are hard of hearing. Similarly, as a black woman, I don’t necessarily need a white person talking above me, but it’d be really helpful if said white person turned to her racist uncle and said “hey actually that’s really harmful thinking, can you not?” They’ll get it a lot faster if they hear it from someone like them.
I think a lot of allies get really hurt when they get told that they’re not being helpful. Like the charity organisations, it’s quite hard to tell someone who’s just “trying to be nice” that niceness doesn’t fill bellies or fix problems. Just like how you can’t fix earthquakes with a teddy bear, you can’t fix oppression with earnestness. It’s tiresome having to deal with other people’s hurt feelings on top of the actual problems that need addressing, and allies need to learn to check themselves before their feelings take over the actual task at hand. It’s an ongoing struggle but it’s a worthwhile one too.
Change is slow, but it’s effective when we all work together. The wonderful thing about allies is that they’re born with a megaphone in their hand. They just need to figure out which way to point it.