I have tried to write this post so many times, and each time I’ve scrapped it and started over. I can’t seem to find my voice in it. Or maybe, I can’t seem to find its point. Or maybe it’s just not a topic I’m very good at writing about. But whatever it is, it’s frustrating me, because I want to write about other things, but I’m stuck on this. So I’m just going to write as if no one were paying any attention. Inspired by Mary Daly’s death (see what I think is the best handling of that over at Feministe) and all the talk of her transphobia and racism, and in honor of Martin Luther King Day, here are my thoughts on allyship.
I don’t like the concept of “ally” because I think so much of what people think being an ally involves is proving to someone else that you’re a good person, whatever that means. And that is so loaded with self-consciousness, with competition and one-up-man-ship, even vanity. I would much, much rather be met by a humble “um, sorry if this sounds stupid, but can you tell me what queer means? I thought it was a bad word” than by someone, upon hearing I’m queer, going on about how they have gay friends and how much the prop 8 stuff sucks and they really think everyone ought to be able to get married and other such drivel. This happens a lot, and those people are just … trying too hard. It’s like if I started spouting my opinions on affirmative action every time I met a person of color. Awkward, right? And de-humanizing. It reduces whomever the person is to whatever identity you’re trying to prove yourself an ally to.
I’m not just queer, you’re not just Chinese American, she’s not just Jewish, ze’s not just genderqueer. [Fuck spell check for not knowing the word genderqueer.] The let-me-prove-to-you-that-I’m-your-ally shtick is really just a way of allowing yourself to allay your own guilt and prioritize your own need to be recognized as good. It’s not really listening to what the needs, wants, and preferences are of the person at hand.
If you want to really be an ally, then you need to really listen. And beyond listening, you need to really hear. You need to turn off the voices in your head that are responding to every little thing you’re listening to, and just hear it with your soul, without judgment, without defensiveness, without shame or guilt or anger. Yes, you’re opening yourself up to being hurt this way, because it can hurt to have your beliefs and your actions crumbled. It can hurt, too, to hear other people, because oftentimes, people don’t speak as if you’re really hearing them. They speak as if you’re not hearing them. So you might hear anger, and hurt, and resentment, and suspicion. But if you’re really going to be an ally, you need to hear all that, and you need to also remember later to take care of yourself and consider what your needs are, and whether and how other people can be better allies to you. And that might mean asking them to listen and hear you. But you have to be open about this, because anything that isn’t shared candidly is just a brick in the prison of self-defensiveness and isolation that you’re building up around yourself, and once that prison is built it is so, so hard to escape.
But I don’t think “ally” is the appropriate word for this — because this, to me, is what it should mean to be human. Forget about proving anything. Forget about trying to live up to what you think it means to be a perfect ally. Forget about trying so hard not to make mistakes that you cry in frustration and from feeling misunderstood. Just listen, and hear. Then, when you mess up, you’ll know because other people will trust you to hear them when they tell you what your mistake was. And you, in turn, will be able to learn from them. And maybe then you’ll be able to tell them when they mess up, and they’ll listen, and hear you too. And then, maybe, gradually, we’ll all be able to stop greeting each other from behind thick curtains that we suspiciously peek out from behind, and maybe we’ll stop having to yell in order to make sure our voices are heard, and maybe we won’t have to resort to communicating to people different from us with anger, because we’ll trust them to hear us when we feel betrayed. Or maybe we will get angry, but then our anger will be met with support and validation, rather than defensiveness and dismissal.
What do you do if you hear someone and they don’t hear you? My friend Ruhi once asked a mentor, “how many people can you love before you love too much?” and her mentor said, “you can never love too many people, as long as you don’t expect them to love you back.” You have an infinite supply of love, as long as it has no agenda. See, the thing is, if you are listening to someone under the condition that they listen to you too, then you’re not really hearing them. In order to hear, you have to give of yourself. It has to be utterly selfless, in a way, because hearing is not an exchange. It’s a one-way action. If you then don’t feel heard in return, you may certainly lose some respect for the person, and you might decide that in order to take care of yourself you shouldn’t pursue a relationship (of any kind) with the person, but that doesn’t mean the person didn’t deserve to be heard. And maybe, just maybe, you planted a seed in the person’s heart. A hearing seed. (And at the same time, I think hearing can be utterly selfish, because you’re acting out of your full humanity, and allowing it to blossom.)
I am not an ally. I’m not an ally to anyone, and I’m not really an ally to myself. I’m constantly fucking up and getting stuck and doing things that aren’t good for me and living out all my various internalized oppressions. And if I keep fucking up with regards to myself, how on earth can I possibly live up to being an ally to others? I try, dammit, I try. But that’s all I can do, and when I do fuck up, the best thing I can do is say, “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.” And then try again, and maybe fuck up again, and say I’m sorry again.
I am not an ally, but I promise from the depths of my being that I will do my best to hear you. And when you hurt me, I will try my hardest to tell you, so that you have the chance to hear me too.