Tag Archives: social justice

Links: things to read and do

First the good news: a major (and fantastic) radical feminist blogger nails her colours to the mast regarding the fact that transsexual women are sisters in our shared struggle.  In her usual inimitable style:

Forget it! Gender is not to be trifled with. It is the most deadly serious social construct ever invented. The gender-binary police state doesn’t accept, no way no how, that gender can be fluid. Before granting a sexception, they require that a person literally be in emotional crisis, and demonstrate an irrevocable commitment to the Establishment by subjecting herself to the medical industry for barbaric surgical procedures. And when I say barbaric I’m not jokin’ around. Do you realize that vaginoplasty essentially takes a peen and turns it inside-out? I mean, I’m hardly one to cry out “oh dear what about the peen?!” at every turn, but Jesus in a jetpack, that’s gotta smart.

In the comments she spells out her views:

Women-only zones are vital to feminist revolution. This may seem to contradict what I just wrote about free-wheelin’ genderosity, but in the context of feminist discourse the definition of “woman” I like to use is “person whose female-identification results in measurably curtailed personal sovereignty.” Male-identified persons, on the other hand, accrue privilege that impedes women’s liberation such that their “unique male perspective” is a detriment to feminist discourse.

Oh yes.  Hooray for Twisty.

Now for the bad news: (warning for institutional violence against women) in case you haven’t heard, two women died in horrific circumstances this month.  Firstly, Jackie Nanyonjo.  She was deported to Uganda because, despite evidence from her partner, the UKBA didn’t believe that she was a lesbian.  She died, not due to violence when she arrived, but from the ‘security’ guards hired by the UKBA to control her on the plane.  More details here.

The second incident of violence against women was against Lucy Meadows. The Daily Male bullied and outed her in the national press; she has now taken her life.  The largest petition is here, and there is a vigil tonight outside the newspaper’s headquarters (Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, Kensington, London W8 5TT) at 6.30.

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Ethical Alternatives to Being an Ally – Second Thoughts

[I don’t think this post needs any warnings, but let me know if I’ve missed something.]

Having seen some more conversations around ally behaviour, and done some more ally-ing and been allied-to some more, I’ve had a few more thoughts on how to navigate this area.  I’ve realised that my original thoughts missed and crucial dimension of what it means to act as an ally:

Power

Power is one of the pervading dynamics that we’re grappling with when we do anti-oppression work. We’re analysing which groups have power over other groups in society, and trying to reveal and counteract this. Power also plays out within all smaller groups, and this is deeply connected to the wider power politics. So a group that is fighting for their liberation is struggling against groups that hold societal power over them, and this will probably involve fighting against individuals or groups who wield that power on a more personal level.

What this means is that we need to recognise the power dynamics of the ally-oppressed person relationship. It is not neutral. The ally holds more power than the oppressed person, by very nature of the fact that they belong to the social group which is imbued with power. [Privilege is a term more often used in social justice circles, but I’m going to stick with power because of its focus on doing rather than being.]

Due to this unequal power relationship, a crucial part of the ally’s activism needs to be counteracting, and mitigating the effects of, the power they have over the people in the oppressed group.

This might be in individual ways, or group ways, or more structural ways. Even ignoring the effects of wider structural power on the two individuals, allies still have various advantages which give them more power and benefit.  For example:

  • We don’t *need* the movement: we can leave at any time.  This means we are more free to piss people off etc
  • Outsiders to the movement will reward us more.  We’ll be seen as more generous, heroic etc for our efforts in the movement, and probably given more respect, airtime and resources as a result.  Sometimes this results in really tangible benefits like research grants, book deals, employment.
  • Insiders in the movement will reward and value us more, knowing that outsiders will value us, and that therefore we’re useful spokespeople and a legitimising presence.  This means that sometimes we can get our way by threatening to leave.  Even without threats, people will be eager to appease and placate us.
  • Because we’re usually still able to access the various kinds of support and resources open to us outside the groups we are allies to, that means we have two areas to draw on, whereas non-ally activists have only their own communities’ support and resources.

The ideas which social justice communities have come up with around ally-ship, how to respond to call-outs etc can be understood as a code of etiquette designed to shift some of this power back in the oppressed person’s favour.  Because of this, it can feel very weird, and sometimes bad, to be an ally on the receiving end of these rules – they are designed to shift power away from you, and that’s never fun.  It’s basically like a super-diluted and time-and-space limited version of structural oppression: the rules are designed not to be in your favour.  Without seeing the context of the power balance already being in the ally’s favour, it can be very easy to feel shat on by these rules.  In fact, I think probably the less experience we have of being shat on by structural disempowerment, the more shocking and hurtful we’ll find these rules.

First I’m going to show how some of the more common ‘how to be an ally’ advice fits this pattern of shifting power away from allies, and why that’s a good thing, and then I’m going to add some more suggestions.

[Disclaimer: because no power structure works in isolation, there will be lots of cases where, although the people are talking about a structural oppression which the ally doesn’t experience, that ally experiences other structural oppressions which the person they are being an ally for, in that space, doesn’t experience. This might mean that the overall balance power is not in the ally’s favour, in which case some of the suggestions should be adapted or ignored.  For example, a black straight woman has a gay white male boss, and they’re talking about gayness.  The power is almost certainly in his favour, so some of the rules and suggestions will need rejigging.]

Common social justice rules and how they’re meant to shift power

‘Foreground the voices of the oppressed, don’t speak for us’
This is often framed in terms of getting the best information – the people who experience the sharp end of oppression necessarily know the most about how it works (and can also see the viewpoint of the oppressor, because their views are normative and widely disseminated). However, this is also an issue of power: silencing is both an active tool and natural consequence of oppression, so amplifying people’s voices is a way of handing some of that power back.

‘Don’t expect us to educate you
Many – though not all – structural oppressions are deeply tied up with labour. The oppressed group are forced/expected to work for longer, for less pay, on more horrible and less respected work. This literally disempowers them – they are left with less time, money and energy. Letting activism be one place where they can freely chose their work avoids disempowering them further.

Bear in mind that these two rules are set in the context of us really wanting to keep and appease allies, to educate and explain and to let allies be the more acceptable spokespeople for our movements.  And that for those of us with experience of allies who leave if they don’t get their way, we may be going out of our way to avoid that.

‘Behave decently when called out on something
Many of the behaviours which are commonly bad ways to respond to a call out are attempts to hold on to power. Properly apologising for something is an act which shows vulnerability. Letting another person have control over deciding what you did wrong, and how wrong it was, gives them a kind of power over you, however brief and limited.

‘Go learn about your power and privilege
You can’t hand something back if you don’t believe you’ve got it.  You can’t put the safety lock on a weapon you don’t think you’re holding.  If you’re having difficulty believing that you wield power, or have to option of wielding power, or that either of those things matters to acting as an ally, then you especially need to go and read stuff.

More ideas for how allies can hand back power

Consider not getting involved
There will almost certainly be ways we can help the movement as a whole, but some spaces will be more effective and more powerful without our presence. Not just the spaces already labelled ‘X-only’. Consider refusing offers of power: leadership, publication etc. Or, for instance, turn up to the meetings, but rescind your voting rights.

Do the things which are considered menial
Sign up for tea-making, photocopying, washing up, data-entry. Compile lists of resources to make it easy for others to educate themselves.  Not as ways to make friends and get known within the community/group/event, but as an end in itself.

Do things which allow more of that group to access the movement
Sign up for childcare, giving lifts, translation and transcription, etc.

Set up systems of accountability
Create way in which people from that group can talk to you about your behaviour and have control over that interaction. For example, let it be known that you will always try to respond to call-outs in a particular way. Or that you will leave the group if people request it. Or set up an anonymous feedback system on your blog.

Take instruction
If at all in doubt about a course of action, check with some of the relevant group, preferably those who will be impacted by it.  Better still, let it be known that you’re up for instructions, and wait until people give you some.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your professional life, try to subvert those structures to hand power back
If you have an managerial power, for instance, use any influence you have on policy, training, recruitment, wages etc in the group’s interest. If you interact with the public in a way which gives you any power over them, set up feedback forms or patient advocates tailored for the group(s) in question, so that they can safely complain or otherwise institute change. Ideally, let people from that group set up the system.  If people from that group are contributing to your work, or you are otherwise benefiting from their existence or oppression (e.g. you’re doing research on them, writing a book about them, doing a programme on them etc) make sure that you share the material and non-material benefits you gain with them.  E.g. share the royalties, credit them, pay them upfront, etc.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your personal life, try to subvert those structures to undo the leverage it gives you
If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of that group, think really carefully about what kinds of power you do, or might wield over them, and try to counteract them. For instance, you could try giving them more control over decision-making, or make it absolutely clear that you never expect sex from them, or that you won’t leave them if they piss you off or disagree with you. If you are the parent or carer of someone of the relevant group, you probably have even more power over them – think really hard about what steps you could take to reduce this. Giving them practical resources, external sources of support and as much freedom as is safe are probably good places to start.

So…

So, all of this might sound pretty scary, and kind of extremist.  If you’re like me – i.e. involved in different movements, some where I’m an ally, some where I’m not –  part of you might be going, ‘hell yeah!’ and part of you might be going, ‘holy shit, I can’t t do that.’

For me, the more I’ve come to learn about societal power and privilege, the more adept I’ve become at noticing it in my interactions, and the more uncomfortable I’ve felt noticing when I have them, and when I use them.  So taking some of these steps has actually increased my ease and comfort  – it decreases the guilt and feeling of responsibility that comes with noticing my power.  [N.B. I’m not trying to say that you should take these steps because they’ll make you feel better about yourself.  There are much bigger and more important things at stake in my behaviour as an ally than my feelings.  I’m just trying to show how the loss of power and benefit can have some good byproducts too.]

I also want to acknowledge the role that my own tendency towards feelings of guilt and responsibility play in my taking these things seriously.  For me, those feelings have a lot to do with what society has taught me about being a woman.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, that activism women tend to be better at taking on criticisms, suggestions and ideas about their own power and privilege than activist men do.  So that doesn’t mean that women are pathological or masochistic or shouldn’t take these things on board.  Instead, the responsibility is on men, and anyone else who’s not taking these things on board as seriously, to pull their weight.  And if we spot them doing otherwise, then we can use what power and privilege we do have to hold them accountable.

Understanding that ally-etiquette is about transferring power can also make life easier for us, because it explains why those rules feel difficult and disempowering.  It’s a way to channel our energy into truly supporting and empowering those you work with, rather than in being confused or beating ourselves up because we don’t feel like a good happy ally.

Bearing Witness: Ethical alternatives to ‘being’ an ally

[Warning: this article contains mention, but not discussion or description, of gender-based violence and numerous other oppressions.]

In various social justice circles, ‘ally’ has become a common way of referring to people who do not share a particular oppressed identity, but who nevertheless have given up oppressing that group, and instead position themselves as supporter of their cause. While it has various advantages, important critiques have been made of the behaviour of such allies and of the concept in itself (e.g. serious critiques and fun ones).  The failure of the concept of ally is best seen, I think, in the number of ‘how to be a good ally’ lists which start by describing ways to stop actively oppressing the group in question (e.g. this bi one or this disability one). This shows the commonness of people claiming the title who still haven’t forsaken their oppressive behaviours, let alone adopted useful ones.

So to replace, or work alongside the word ‘ally’, I suggest using ‘bearing witness’, which I think solves some of the problems. This article describes how.

1. It centres the right voices (or should do)

The best witnesses are those closest to the thing being witnessed: this language automatically acknowledges the superiority of the knowledge of people who have experienced oppression first-hand.  I’m proposing that we use ‘bear witness’ as an activity which is primarily an activity of people who have experience of that injustice, i.e. are members of the oppressed group in question, so it’s not a straight replacement for ally language.  I suggest it as a term that we can secondarily apply to those doing liberatory work on behalf of other people, and those who fall in the margins between those two groups (see section 6 below).

Much of the criticism of so-called allies has focussed on the way we tend to use our privilege to speak over or silence members of the marginalised group in question.  Bearing witness language hopefully makes obvious the idea that in any situation, we need to listen most, or exclusively, to the best witnesses.  The role for the secondary witness then, is to speak up in spaces where there are no primary witnesses, or where they do not feel safe to speak.  The second job being to make those spaces safer and less exclusionary to members of those marginalised groups.  So for example, responding to rape jokes when no-one there is out as a survivor, or awareness-raising about race in environments which are still 100% white. Even when relevant people are around, if they’re not being listened to, we can use our privilege to get others to realise that they’re not listening to the right people, or amplify the right voices.

However, bearing witness language does have the risk of ignoring the very people we ought to be centring: it would be possible for a load of white people to bear witness to racism as an almost abstract concept, using evidence distanced from black people’s experiences (e.g. stats). So this is not a perfect construct, and we still need to keep each other accountable.

2. It’s not about you

The language of ally-ship (like a mothership!) ties activism to identity, to who you are: we say “She’s an ally” rather than “She does useful thing x.” This seems like an advantage, since presumably if you can get someone to identify as a supporter of a movement, you can ask more of them. They have tied their self-image to their involvement with the struggle, so they would seem to have a greater incentive to be involved. It also neatly mirrors the emphasis on oppressed identities within social justice circles: you can see why if oppressed group X are organising based on their identity as X, then other who want to be involved are going to look for an identity, a noun, under which to organise and join in.

In my experience, lots of people who work with/for marginalised groups they’re not part of already have very strong emotional and identity-type links to that work anyway. This might be because they are close to someone in that group: a parent, a partner, a friend or child. Or they may have witnessed an event or worked in an environment where oppression was obvious, and have strong memories and emotions which inspire their work. Even nothing like that initially inspired them towards that work, if they have build up a reputation or indeed a career around it, they’re going to be deeply emotionally invested in their identity as an ally. My point is that the links to personal identity are already dangerously strong, and people’s strong feelings which inspire this work are often already taking centre stage: we don’t need to encourage them.

The identity language of ally-ship can also be pretty misleading, and conceiving of our identities in that way can be deeply unhelpful. If my self-image as an ally is inspiring my liberatory work, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m also not going to react very well to criticism, because it will speak to the heart of how I see myself: I’ll be unwilling to acknowledge my oppressive behaviour because to do so would undermine my good opinion of myself. There are other ways in which identity-ally-ship makes me concentrate on me and my feelings instead of the people I’m meant to be working for. For example, in my own life, feeling guilt-ridden because one action meant I ‘wasn’t a good ally’ has got in the way of repairing the damage done by that action. Jay Smooth has an excellent talk here on how focussing on the person and their identity doesn’t serve justice, and a follow up here putting the responsibility where it should be, i.e. telling us how we can avoid focussing on our own identities when our behaviour is challenged.

So, using ‘bearing witness’ instead of ‘ally’ can avoid making it about my identity. I can’t hide behind my status as a Good Person™ to avoid accountability, and those feelings are less likely to distract me from the task in hand. It’s a label not for a person, but for an action.

3. It’s about action

If allyship is about what you are, not what you do, it’s easy to get complacent. I’ve seen lots of ‘how to be an ally to X’ lists which stress this point, that you have to go and do the work to earn the title. I suggest that instead of labelling the person, who may or may not be doing the work, to varying degrees of effectiveness or oppressiveness, and instead label the work.

I’ve seen various books and articles accompanied by an author biog which includes their status as an ally up front and centre: “Example Author is a trans ally and…” Bearing witness language would label the work instead: “This book bears witness to transphobic bullying…” If they really wanted something to put in the biog then maybe “Author writes on various topics including bearing witness to children’s experiences of transphobia…”

With this phrasing, no-one can rest on their laurels. Well, we can, but only if they are won fairly, and labelled with the race we ran, rather than our ‘identity’ as runner.

4. It’s not about their identity (or doesn’t have to be)

Lots of social justice work focusses on identity, and much of this is fantastically productive. Identities are extremely useful banners under which to organise, give emotional connections to the work, and facilitate human rights analyses of oppression (e.g. you can’t control your identity, therefore discrimination is unfair). It also speaks to one of the truths of many oppressions, that people (often) commit oppressive acts because of what they think a person is, not what they do. It allows us to talk about the status we’re given on the basis of identity. It also, importantly, allows us to celebrate aspects of our identities, the histories of those who shared it, and to cultivate a sense of pride in it.

However, I think an over-reliance on the concept of identity to analyse oppression lacks a few things, and in some areas can have negative effects. For example, sometimes people focus on identity when experience is a more pertinent measure: not everyone who shares an identity will have experienced certain forms of oppression based on that identity. Identity language can also erase the differences between the people who share a characteristic, often in oppressive ways: focusing on one identity tends to minimise the other oppressions felt by people in that group, or invisbilise their membership. For example, focusing on woman as an oppressed identity in a vacuum tends to create a norm that women’s issues are a separate thing from black issues, and to centre the experiences of white women, invisibilising many women’s experiences of racism, and of sexism and racism combined. (See ideas about kyriarchy and intersectionality).

The language of bearing witness can accommodate both diversity and the importance of experience, since the focus is on the oppression not the identity. There is still a risk of assuming that oppressions only strike one at a time, but I think talking about ‘bearing witness to the racism in/of…’ has less of a risk of this than ‘being an ally to black people’.  In centring the injustice it makes no implication of a unified community who all share the same needs and goals.

Also, In focussing on oppressions instead of identity, we can open up the language to include specific types of oppression, e.g. gender-based violence.

5. But it (could) make people disclose privileged identities

It’s easy to invisibilise your privilege with use of the word ally: you can avoid using ‘white’, ‘without disabilities’, ‘straight’ etc. You can hide behind assumptions of neutrality and un-markedness: you don’t have to disclose privileged identities because they are the norm, the ‘unmarked’. Instead, if you want to describe yourself as bearing witness to something you don’t experience yourself, you have to actually disclose your position: “as a white person bearing witness to racism” or “I’m aiming to bear witness to the endemic sexism in this industry (insofar as a man can).”

6. It’s not a binary

One advantage of ally language is that it describes a fundamental difference between those who work against an oppression having suffered it, and those who haven’t.  This is an important distinction and one we should never lose sight of, and bearing witness language doesn’t do that job, although it hopefully centres those with experience.

However, it does allow for more flexibility in distinguishing people in this way.  This will be useful for people whose identities or experiences are often deemed liminal (i.e. on the boundaries) in terms of allyhood: for instance, mixed-race people, non-binary gendered and agender people (with regard to feminism), women who have experienced some forms of gender-based violence but would never call themselves a survivor of rape or abuse, people whose identities are closeted or invisible and so do not experience the same kinds of oppression as visible members of that group.  Such people can be recognised for their bearing witness to the realities of oppression without designating them either as allies or as members of the oppressed group.

But…

There are some problems with allies and ally-language that bearing witness language doesn’t address.  For example, nothing about it makes clear that it’s unethical to make any kind of profit from that work, or to pit marginalised people against each other to get the outcomes you want and lead from behind (what A.J. Withers calls “Leadership Shopping”).  Also, the concept of ‘ally’ implies reciprocity and a degree of equality, both of which fit badly with the way we currently use it.

So people, what do you think? Pros and cons? What have I missed? Could you fit ‘bear witness’ into your sentences?