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In Praise of Allies, Nick, 2195
Wed Aug 3, 2016 21:37

Dear Allies,

You deserve praise. Yes, you. I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able-bodied, I’m liberal or middle class; or some combination of privilege, I’m part of the problem.” No you’re not and actually, you deserve praise.

Why? Because when I need help, you’re there. You’re the white woman yelling “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” at the intersection as cops warily watched. You’re the men at Slut March, eyeing the crude, street guys to shut up. You’re my best friend, who held my hand at the Silent March against police brutality.

I’ve known you my whole life. My family knew you and before them, my ancestors knew you. Without you, our freedom wouldn’t be real. It was you, our allies, who came to our meetings, who marched with us, were beaten and arrested with us, who lost jobs and family for siding with us, who sometimes, died with us.

I’m writing to you because today, we talk so much of privilege and identity. It seems there are endless open letters on-line telling saying how or how not to be an ally. It’s become hard to say this one truth. You’re family. Thank you.

How did we get here? Where you’re seen as a potential oppressor instead of friend? We tell you to check your privilege but also use your privilege. We tell you to decenter yourself from our dialogue. We tell you not talk to media and get at the back of the march. And you do because, yes, on some level, it re-balances our voices. But it’s gone too far.

You show up but after being browbeaten, you leave. Or you stay but shrunken to fit a small role. You become invisible or silent or scared. But we need you strong and loud and powerful. We’re not looking for you to be a savior. Bono’s got that. We do need you holding our hands at the front of the march. Wherever we’re going; we’ll only get there together.

Role Reversal

We are the Left. We try to reverse the values of a self-destructive world. To treasure those who’ve been thrown away. To see those who have been hurt, healed. All true. But left unsaid is that we who’ve been injured, sometimes forsake liberation for spite.

When we, minorities, enter a leftist space, we go through a dizzying role reversal. The qualities about us that were a target are suddenly celebrated. Skin color, hair texture, body type, foreign accent, sexual orientation are evidence of the Struggle. Narrating our pain can at its best, lead to enlightened identity politics. At its worst, identity chauvinism.

I saw this at a Left Forum panel where a speaker said, Black writers had been corrupted by “the influence of Jewish intellectuals.” Silent tension filled the room. Shaking my head, I began to jot down a rebuttal. Half-way into it, I looked at him. He had long dreads. He wore a dashiki. The scent of Egyptian Musk floated around him like a cloud. I stared, a little too long and thought: I used to be you.

The first liberal space I entered was college. I grew dreads. I wore so much non-Western clothing I looked like a Lonely Planet guidebook. Incense spilled out of my dorm. The Koran and a stack of Afro-Centric books were piled on my desk. I learned to transform the confusion of being a minority into the weaponized language of resistance. My tongue was a switchblade. And I cut, cut, cut.

It was my allies, who I hurt the most. I battered them with rhetoric. I forced them to walk on egg shells. Until Brad, who I spent long evenings debating politics, sat up with me until sunrise and finally said, “You have a chip on your shoulder.”

I side-looked him, eyebrows arched. Who was this privileged man to tell me shit? He was raised in a leafy suburb in Long Island. I came from a boarding school for the poor. Who did he think he was?

But I listened. He sounded afraid and hopeful. Like a man trying to coax a jumper off a ledge. He said my defensiveness could be self-destructive. He knew what it was like to always be on guard. I knew he knew it. I remembered his stories of coming out of the closet. Not sure if he’d be loved for his true self. And watching others, to see if it was safe for him to be him. He lived life as a target too.

I didn’t change overnight, more like zigzagged my way to maturity, shedding along the way the reactive flexing on allies. But I never forgot how I acted because over the years, I met, over and over again, in anti-racist workshops or progressive panels more identity chauvinists. They talked over everyone. They assumed their pain guaranteed their authority or the accuracy of their analysis.

Few allies checked them. Tension would fill the room. People sulked away from meetings. Tired. Hurt. Confused. That ugly energy spurted up at Occupy Wall Street, at Left Forum panels. Recently on a livestream of a Black Lives Matters protest outside the Democratic National Convention, black organizers told whites to get to the back of the march. Again the tension tightened people’s faces. It is the silent centrifugal force that breaks the Left apart.

Love is Thicker than Blood

“My father is such a racist,” she said and half-laughed, half-grimaced. She was driving through Brooklyn to move to a new apartment. I sat and listened to her say how old school he was. How he didn’t get it.

“Jesus,” I said, “You make him sound like Darth Vader.” She smirked, saying he’d probably lightsaber her hand clean off if he saw her with a protest sign. As we cackled in the car, I felt how we become allies for so many reasons. Some it’s for redemption. We want to forgive ourselves for acts we committed. Or acts we should have done but didn’t. Some want to relieve guilt at the inheritance of unearned privilege. Some are human mirrors who endlessly reflect others and that radical empathy becomes rage at injustice.

For me it was guilt at acts committed. The boarding school I went to was run by Jesus freaks, teachers and supervisors radiated Biblical homophobia. So when, inevitably, a boy was caught kissing a boy or a girl humping a girl, we, students, beat them up or shamed them. They were hastily transferred if not kicked out.

When I met Brad in college, I was a Nation of Islam fan. He was Jewish and gay, just learning how to be out. I hid my homophobia behind a smile. But I lit up when he came to my dorm. He had a handsome, owlish face, an easy grace about him. He had radar eyes that didn’t miss a thing. I felt a deep sibling love for him and for the first time, consciously asked, what kind of ally could I be to him?

I did acrobatic readings of the Koran to fit him into my spiritual life. I researched homosexuality. Mom and her old school Boricua crew saw the books, got worried and asked me if I was gay. But being an ally, really began with a simple job. Keeping my friend safe.

One time, Brad was prepping for a drag show. I palmed my forehead as he rolled stockings up his hairy legs, slipped on a long dress, put on make-up and heels. He didn’t shave. He looked god awful. He also looked scared.

So I held his hand and along the street, faces flashed with hate and disgust. Every time someone stared at Brad with a threat, I held his hand tighter and stared right the ... back. I was terrified at the rage he had to walk through just to get to a party.

My best friend was in danger for being gay. In the months after, I began seeing homophobia in books, film, Hip Hop and in everyday talk. One night, I read and re-read an anti-gay passage in the Koran, got up and threw it in the trash.

Being an ally meant dedicating myself to his struggle. To learn it. To be a part of it. To fight against straight privilege. To force people in my life to make space for Brad and his lovers at our table. And he did the same for me.

I think a lot of allies go through this life change, it’s not talked about enough, when you go far beyond guilt to a place of love. When you reflect each other and it forces other people’s ugliness to the surface.

Brad brought his grandfather to the African Meeting House where I gave lectures. His parents fed me at their house. Years later, he told me his father made nigger jokes on MLK Day and asked if his nigger friend, me, was doing anything for him. It hurt to hear. It hurts, sometimes, being an ally. I sat quietly for a minute, my face like stone. Brad leaned over, hugged me and apologized for his father.

Years later, we met at Central Park as thousands of people gathered for a silent march against stop-and-frisk policing. Brad is a New Yorker, he knew how cops looked at me; he knew the risk I take to walk the street.

The march began. Thousands strode down 5th avenue, at times, it was so quiet you could hear shoes padding the cement. Every so often, he or I reached out and held hands. I saw a deep focus in his eyes as if he was looking not just at the Silent March but at the years ahead of us, asking how could he keep me safe?

The Struggle in the Struggle

“Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech,” white abolitionists told Frederick Douglass. In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled how they said to repeat his story of slavery, they’d “take care of the philosophy.” I was reading it to prep for a class and chuckled, imagining a Black Lives Matter protester telling Douglass’s mentor, William Lloyd Garrison to check his privilege.

We’re not the first to struggle with each other. Every generation of activists re-learns how to be an ally, how to let others ally with us. The evidence of the Left’s success is that the oppressed, speak for themselves and allies know to listen. In order to get here, we needed identity politics as a correction to the totalizing of Marxist-based, class analysis. In turn, the use of intersectionality, corrects the silo effect of identity politics.

But the goal was always to struggle together. We feel a deep, human need for a just world. What guides us there is a vision. In practice, it means those who are part of a privileged majority do the work to see minorities beyond the stereotypes. It means we, who are minorities, don’t presume the guilt of allies or see them as potential oppressors. And we need this because any one of us could be on one side of that equation or the other.

How? Intersectionality cuts both ways. Oppression and privilege overlap the same body. Yes, I might be a cis, able bodied man but who is of color and in debt. You might be a transgender person with a trust fund. We’re both citizens. An undocumented worker may be read as white. So instead of pouncing on someone for a verbal misstep; we can offer each other grace. Instead of labelling each other racists or sexists or homophobic; we can show compassion.

It’s something Douglass did in his eulogy of Garrison. He’d long left the “plantation manner of speech” and became a world famous orator and moral philosopher. In many ways, he outgrew his teacher but he still paid tribute to the man who first invited him to speak. At the funeral, he said, “I must frankly say I have sometimes thought him uncharitable to those who differed from him … To say this of him is simply to say that he was human, and it may be added when he erred here he erred in the interest of truth.”

And that is what I think of you. When you, my ally make an error, I know you do in the interest of truth. And when I, your ally, royally ... up. You dap me some credit. When we heal our failings with laughter, we can transform the world. Everyone can hear how large we are inside, how our strength comes from sharing the existential space behind our masks. They can trust our definition of freedom because they can see how we give it to each other.

You probably heard the saying, “justice is love made public.” It hit home recently. Brad asked me to be the best man at his wedding to Timmy. I’m preparing a suit. I’m plotting a bachelor’s night of debauchery. I’ll walk him up the aisle and after their vows, give him the ring, knowing that this is justice, this is love and this is being an ally.

  • In Praise of Allies, Nick, Complete First Draft - jt.indypendent, Sat Jul 30 21:07
    Dear Allies You deserve praise. Yes, you. Funny how I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able bodied, I’m liberal or middle class; or some combination of privilege, I’m... more
    • In Praise of Allies, Nick, 2195 - jt.indypendent, Wed Aug 3 21:37
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