Allowing for Allies

Disagreement is good, it is powerful, and in many ways it is a vital tool in helping to unlearn our unquestioned positions on things. In disagreement with a friend this week I realised that it had been a long time since someone close to me had seriously asked me to reconsider some of my standard assumptions. I realised that the comfort and safety that I have found in the past year – in finding people who agree with and empathise with me in most ways – has also caused me to reach a sort of stale and uncritical approach to some things. In disagreeing and negotiating though, I realised that I had forgotten to question or consider why I felt some things to be true.

The role of women supporting women was one of these.

it all rests on trust [image of women balancing in pyramid shape atop shoulders of others.]
For the most part, my view of women supporting women has been an assumption rather than a thought-out or articulated reasoning. In this assumption I felt that women should support women, but that often they don’t and that I personally did not want or look for the support of women who did not look for my liberation. I had reached an inwards conclusion, I suppose, that there were many and simultaneous battles to be fought by and for women, but that not all women could or should fight all those battles.

In this way then I was slightly taken-aback when my friend voiced that it made them sad to feel they could not or should not support the uplifting of other women. To hear that from someone I am close to and someone I believe genuinely desires women’s liberation; the very premise of my assumption became fragile.

I suppose, for a long time, my view that different fights should be fought by different women, has stemmed from my own experience of people trying to fight my fight for me. From my experience of non-Muslim women assuming they knew better than me what my liberation looked like. From my experience of the white-narrative of “supporting” brown women, being a narrative which made us subservient and painted us passive. My instinct in the face of help from other women, women who did not share my struggles, has therefore often been one of wariness. I fear the white-savior complex, I fear being accused of false-consciousness, I fear my liberation being co-opted for somebody else’s ego.

Makes for a good selfie, but what help can you actually give? [photograph of white woman taking selfie with black children.]
This fear has consciously shaped the way I engage with other liberation movements too. I am deeply conscious of speaking over the voices of those whose lives are in question. Conscious that I come to their plight without experience of it. That whilst it is easy for me to use the rainbow LGBT+ filter on my profile picture, share some stats about the life-expectancy of trans women or a photo for Black Lives Matter, those things don’t actually affect me at all. I can share, promote, condemn; but all from a safe distance. And the privilege of that distance makes it easy for me, but it also makes me question how useful I am. How useful is it for someone who has no experience of a certain oppression to talk about liberation from it?

More than this, from my own perspective, when others talk about my liberation, I feel resentful. Perhaps I should feel happy, perhaps I should feel cared for; but often I feel resentful. Resentful that their anger is met with regard, that their concerns are considered. When for so long your own anger has been denied, for others to be angry on your behalf can be irritating. It can make you feel excluded from your own liberation.

These qualms, fears and experiences were what I brought to the table then when my friend voiced how sad it was that I suggested that people be left to fight their own oppression. When they put it like that though, when they suggested that there was and is genuine support and love out there, love that could be directed to helping others. I was taken aback. I suppose I had been too wary and afraid to consider – despite the multitudes of excellent women and men that I know – that others could help in struggles not their own. That they could want to, genuinely and lovingly.

In many ways, my fear of co-option, of being drowned out, of being denied anger, has toughened me. Has often made me afraid to trust others, afraid to let them relay my stories. The very fact I write this blog is part of the desire to use my own words and to support myself. But in the course of the conversation with my friend, I realized that my fear and disbelief in the role of other women had left some of those who could truly help me, helpless. I hope they can understand. I hope those who have wanted to help but don’t know how or feel they shouldn’t, hear my fears. I too harbour those fears, I too feel unsure of how to help others; but you’re right, we do need to support one another. We have to.

Let those you want to help TELL you how to help. [image of instructions on “how to be a better Ally” which indicate sitting down, shutting up and listening.]
Perhaps re-framing “support” and defining “help” in new ways will create a less wary and disparate set of movements. Perhaps allowing for allies in the ways we need them, rather than the ways they consider best; is best. Whilst I continue to think that those best placed to seek their own liberation are those who have experienced that oppression; in a kind conversation of disagreement I have realised that there are also those that want to help. And there is space for them. When it is wanted and when it is needed, there must be space for them. Space for solidarity, for unlearning fear, for regaining trust. Space to use the privilege of those not-oppressed to aid the liberation of those they ally to. Space for walls built to protect us to shift a little.

Without realising it, fear and anger had turned me away from those reaching out to help me. Fear made me distrustful and anger made me resentful. But now, to know and to realise that there are those who would help me on my own terms, those who would help others on their own terms, I feel fear fade away. Both, fear of those who genuinely offer me support and love; but also my own fear of helping others. My own fear of co-opting or silencing others. Instead, I ask us to trust each other a little bit more and to begin to believe again. To believe in solidarity with those we can trust, and to believe in trust after centuries of continued betrayal and denial. There is love out there, and a love between us that has the potential to be more radical than anything we could do alone; but first we must salvage trust and re-negotiate the terms of support.

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