Friday, July 8, 2016

please don't ask me to teach you how to be an ally

I'm a writer – one whose writing often focuses on helping people to understand what it's like to be part of a marginalized community in this country. I'm a peer mediator at heart. I tend to take the position that through dialogue and critical thinking, we can actually start to chip away at some of the oppressive structures that are holding so many Americans back. Listening to each other and trying to understand differences in experience is among the most basic first steps toward social change.

That said, I can't do all of your research for you. Please don't ask me to teach you how to be an ally.

Listen, I know when people ask for my opinion on things, it's generally coming from a good place. And sometimes I even appreciate when a friend asks me to help them respond to something they know is wrong but don't have the words to properly address. Sometimes you hit a wall and you're just like, “PLEASE! Someone who knows more about this than I do, bail me out!” I'm not necessarily opposed to coming in clutch to help you out of a bind.

But when you post breathless statuses about how you just don't know how to help and then go on to tag me in comments begging for some guidance, it frustrates and exhausts me. I can't be expected to perform the labor of being an ally for you. If you want to help me, don't make me do that. What it tells me is that you want everyone – me, especially – to know that you wish things were different, but you don't want to put in the actual work it takes to make the change. I know. That's not the intention. But when it happens all day every day, it's hard not to want to slam my head against my keyboard and scream to any god who will listen, DO THEY NOT KNOW GOOGLE EXISTS?? There are books and blogs to be read, Facebook groups to be joined, public intellectuals and activists to be followed, protests and marches to be attended, government representatives to be called. I shouldn't have to provide you with the links and phone numbers, an annotated bibliography, and a passionate plea for you and your friends to understand my plight. It reads to me like you're more interested in getting the brownie points for publicly stating your solidarity than you are in really being an advocate. It's standing next to a life preserver while a person drowns, but throwing up your hands and lamenting that you wish there were something you could do.

I appreciate that you value my opinions. Follow me on Twitter and you'll see them all day, every day. To expect thoughtful engagement from me in response to all of your racist relatives and political questions is unfair, though. Believe it or not, people actually pay me to give my perspective. It's work. I don't have the time, energy, or emotional endurance to do it every time a white friend doesn't understand something. Chances are, many of your other outspoken POC or LGBTQ+ friends probably feel the same way. Some of them are not shy in saying so, and you may feel defensive when they call you out for requiring that they calmly and rationally explain to you their own oppression. It is not their job to make sure your feelings aren't hurt when you tear open their very fresh wounds.

I'm not telling you to feel bad or guilty if you've done this to me or your other friends. That's a waste of time and energy. Nobody knows how to be a good ally before someone tells them how to be a good ally. So I'm telling you right now: Don't task marginalized people with doing the emotional and intellectual labor of explaining their marginalization to you. If they offer that labor to you, there's no reason to feel bad about accepting it. But asking for it is like saying you'll help somebody move and then sitting on the couch telling them how hard it looks while they do all the heavy lifting. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.