Speaking for and with

Lately Sig Fig (total star of the week; read the post below) and I have been talking about the dangers of speaking for instead of with when trying to be a good ally. We’re concerned specifically about being trans allies, though I think it’s a question that should come up in trying to be a good anti-racist ally (as white folks), as a good feminist ally (if you’re a dude)… really any kind of ally. Here are my thoughts:

1. As a first step, always STFU&L. (I’m quoting Renee here, because that’s where I saw this first.) If you want to be an ally, you have a lot of learning to do. Especially in anti-racist circles, where I often can’t see my own white privilege (which is, in fact, a big part of having white privilege), I always have to remember to listen first, and listen long.

This step is also important just from a practical standpoint: if you want to advocate for any group of people, you have to know what those people want, need, feel and think. And this is hard, because we’re not talking about homogenous communities. So listen to what lots of people have to say.

2. Sometimes, people will only listen to “their own kind.” Just as there are white people who will only ever listen to other white people on matters of race, there are cis folks who will only ever grasp trans issues if they can hear about it from some other cis folks. It’s shitty, but it’s true. Being an ally can mean you’re the only one who will reach some of these people–and once you do, it’s vital to make them understand that it shouldn’t have taken an ally to make them listen. They should have been listening all along.

3. Your privilege gives you freedom to speak that oppressed groups don’t always have. It’s not always safe to be out (as queer or as trans), to speak up if you’re a woman or a person of color, or to be visible as a member of any marginalized community. When I was in college, as trans issues were just filtering into the consciousness of larger queer groups on campus, many trans folks in the community felt the need to stay anonymous. And given the rampant ignorance and transphobia we often felt, I can totally understand why.

I ultimately severed ties with that particular college queer community, but while I was still active I found that any time I tried to bring up trans issues on the group email list a major flame war would break out on-list–and I’d get a swell of support off-list. People thanked me for speaking out, and admitted they didn’t feel like they could.

4. It’s not the oppressed’s responsibility to educate the oppressor. I’ve noticed all too often that white folks–even in progressive or feminist circles–more or less demand that people of color prove that racism exists. I see the same thing in queer spaces–prove to me that your gender identity is valid, or authentic, or worthy.

While it’s certainly true that, say, trans folks might have more insight on gender identity or theory and probably know a few places to look for good information, why are we making them do all the work? Just as I spend my life justifying my sexuality and explaining being a lesbian to straight people, trans folks spend their lives defending and explaining their very existence. Can you understand why a woman who gets asked multiple times a week whether she has a cock might not be so inclined to hand-hold every cis person (even those with the best of intentions) who wants to learn more about gender?

[Please see also: Gays and Lesbians Know the Meaning of the Word Attack. The last paragraph in particular is crucial.]

11 Responses to Speaking for and with

  1. Wendell says:

    Thanks for this post! Right on, in myriad ways. (Came to it from Feministing.) I’ll be linking this, though don’t know how to do trackbacks. I’d say I’m a person of privilege in most ways, though only recently have I built up the courage to speak out more to those who hold the same privileges as I do.

    Very good point you make in the last paragraph, and it ties in quite well with your STFU&L point, bringing it full circle. I’d even go so far as to borrow a term from a forum I’m on: PTFA (pay the fuck attention). Paying attention = truly opening yourself up, IMO. Semi-humorous example: “What’s with all these kyriarchy noobs? They should PTFA.”

    And a bit of humor to end (again, related to your last paragraph): http://www.touchytranny.com/2009/01/god-im-tired.html

  2. pandanose says:

    Welcome, Wendell! I like PTFA a lot.

    It can be really hard to speak out amongst peers who share your own privilege. It’s especially hard when those people are your friends or loved ones–I know that’s one place where I really struggle.

  3. Wendell says:

    Thanks, pandanose! Another one for my RSS reader. 🙂 Sorry for the late response. Heheh, yeah–PTFA works in so many situations.

    I hear you on the difficulty of calling out privilege, and good point in highlighting friends and loved ones. It’s certainly an ideal for me, but I like it when the/a conversation can lead to me planting a seed of doubt in a caring manner. Benevolent patriarch? 😉 (Okay, bad joke.) Mind-expansion is difficult, but sure doesn’t have to be traumatic.

    I recall some privilege-thinkers (a better term escapes me at the moment) using the term “traitor” to privilege, though I can’t recall exactly how. I do remember not being completely convinced, though. And of course I forget why! Sheesh. 🙂

  4. pandanose says:

    I agree that mind-expansion need not be traumatic (though I think more than a few folks haven’t gotten that memo).

    …But, yeah, you lost me in the third paragraph… So if you can figure out the context for “traitor” I’d love to hear it!

    (Oh, and thanks for the kind words in the contact form. Not sure if I qualify as a Masshole, since I’m actually a left coast transplant… but I did just get certified to teach in MA, so I’m here for a while.)

  5. Wendell says:

    Indeed, that memo should be circulated widely!

    Belated welcome to MA! We’ll turn you into one yet. (I need to explore more of the west side. Just coastal OR so far. I’ve been known to correct people who say it wrong.)

    I found the traitor thingie: race traitor. I like a lot of the motivation behind the idea, but when I first read it something didn’t sit quite right with me. http://racetraitor.org/abolishthepoint.html (I was amused to find their address is in MA!). I still can’t quite verbalize my problems with it, though it might have something to do with the either/or mentality–I can’t look at it so cut-and-dry. http://tinyurl.com/dk8wpx makes some good points, albeit in more theoretical terms. Less favorable critiques: http://tinyurl.com/bahjav http://tinyurl.com/apde9r
    One of these makes the good point that the race traitor idea crumbles pretty quickly when one leaves the U.S.

    My head’s thick with theory. I need a break, and this comment is already wicked long!

  6. pandanose says:

    Oh. Um. Doesn’t “race traitor” have a history in, like, aryan nation groups? Isn’t it intertwined with notions of the “unpolluted race” and the like? Somehow it didn’t occur to me that you were referring to this phrase–I’d be reeeeaaaaally wary of anyone taking that label on.

    (And it doesn’t at all surprise me that they’re based in MA–we have more than our share of white pride/hate groups.)

  7. Wendell says:

    I hadn’t thought about that. While I am certainly for reclaiming words by those against whom they’ve been used, this particular one seems a bit odd. Maybe because it’s the first time it’s been reclaimed from a specific hate group and not society at large? I’ll have to go back and read it with that in mind, because I first got what one of the critiques mentions: a strict sort of Marxist perspective.

    Indeed, MA does have some very nasty stuff going on. There’s Malcolm X’s excellent quote comparing north and south, and the fact that some have called the north “up south”–just like the south, but up a bit.

  8. pandanose says:

    Yeah, there was a really interesting Feministe (I think? Either there or Feministing) thread recently where a handful of commenters were going back and forth about whether racism is worse in the north or the south.

  9. Wendell says:

    Thanks! I’ll have to search for that thread when I settle down a little. 🙂 Been hectic. I’m curious to hear more about how people’s experiences with it can differ from place to place, while still having a common thread.

  10. […] Fantastic advice on being an ally at Little Lambs Eat Ivy. […]

  11. […] has a thoughtful, succinct post on how to be an ally up at Little Lambs Eat […]

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