What sucks about being an ally (and why it doesn't matter)

I have both luckily and purposefully not lived a homogenous life. Learning about injustices others face that I don’t has almost always come from first hand accounts from loved ones and not “baffling” news stories. So showing up in the world as an activist regarding issues that affect me as an individual as well as those that affect others has not ever really felt like a choice. Racism, for example, has never been a subject of debate as a “theory,” but rather has always been a lived reality of people I loved. None of that is to say I’m some sort of special outlier, but rather that activism has always been personal to me.

I aim to be an ally (a term I realize is controversial in itself and worthy of examination). It is of utmost importance to me and a matter of my integrity that I show up and use my voice when casual or downright overt ignorance and hatred rears its head. Every time. And sometimes it sucks. I’d like to have a honest chat about that, in hopes you might feel inspired to alleviate some of that yourself. Or even feel a gentle nudge to keep going yourself in spite of the suck-factor.

  1. It’s inconvenient. If you are an ally to a cause that you are not directly affected by, you have a choice to be quiet. It’s more convenient, truly. And by directly I mean it’s likely that anyone looking on can know you personally are affected by a particular injustice.  Personal example: I can choose to point to the diversity in my immediate family and believe myself to be an amazing unicorn/outlier with regard to race. But I am not. I am white and therefore benefit from the falsehood of white supremacy. When I get in my car, I am white. When in a group of strangers, I am white. In every interaction I’ve had my entire life, I have been white. Which means I can choose to breeze through racist undertones without comment. I can live under a cloak of whiteness.  I can feel the discomfort of disagreeing and just fly under the radar. I can choose not to confront it head on. But because others do not have that option, because they feel eyes burning into their skin waiting for their reaction, because I have that choice: I stand up, every time. Inconvenience is not enough reason not to, in fact it’s quite a privilege. And so I must.
  2. It’s unpopular. Recently while getting a pedicure (a semi annual indulgence for me) the gentleman painting my toes decided to launch into a speech about young girls on instagram “asking for it” with reference to rape and the (then everywhere) Brock Turner case. I wanted to roll my eyes inside of my head and make it stop. I really wanted to just enjoy my pedicure and relax. I didn’t want to be the person “ruining” everyone else’s experience by standing up to him. It was inconvenient and very triggering as a survivor of assault. It’s so much more tempting to give “passes” when the person affected by the injustice is you, honestly. I tried to “politely” let him know I disagreed without “making a fuss.” I just wanted him to stop. When he asked my daughter sitting next to me to cover her ears so he could speak freely it was as if I uncontrollably roared at him. I told him what was wrong with where he was placing accountability. That the fact that he wanted my daughter not to listen meant some part of him knew his stance was problematic (and no you don’t get to tell her what to do with her body). What his words meant to me as a survivor and what I did for my work. And then I waited for everyone to roll their eyes, like I was the problem present. To my surprise, all the women (everyone else in the room) cheered. One said he had daughters and needed to hear that. It was the only time I had ever felt encouraged and not isolated in my protest. The only time. I’ve been actively wading into that unpopular water for nearly 2 decades. I will never forget how meaningful it was to have others join in in spite of the inconvenience. But every other story has ended in eye rolls, in being regarded as a bitch, (and now the new “insult?”) social justice warrior. But I so often have a choice here where others do not. I wholeheartedly believe that my silence for fear of being unpopular is potentially deadly for someone else. Every time I hear about another unjust murder, I wonder how many times that person said or did something indicating their prejudice viewpoint and someone present knew better and said nothing. It’s important to me to disrupt injustice and ignorance when I see it, as the result of what goes undisputed is much more dire than my popularity problem. So unpopular is a place I can live.
  3. You get it wrong. Man is it frustrating. You’re out here sticking your neck out. Not just sharing academic articles or making sure your vernacular is up to date, but really using your own voice. Speaking from the heart (which is where I really believe the most transformative words come from) and all at the risk of screwing it up. Of saying the wrong thing and being called out. Even publically. Sometimes by people who aren’t sticking their necks out themselves. *Shakes fist at sky.* And when this happens to me I feel so defensive. “I’ve been here! Aware! Listening! Educating myself! Sticking my neck out for decades! Being shit on for it! And now I’M being called out?! YOU GET IN THE ARENA!” (Oh, hi. This is me being very problematic). *breathes deeply.* Getting it wrong is part of being an ally. Role modeling ‘getting it wrong’ and learning from it is part of being an ally. Realizing that you too have learned problematic ways of thinking and behaving, and a willingness to address them is part of being an ally. So I will get it wrong. I’m sure I’m getting something wrong right now. If “called out” I will probably feel defensive. I will do that alone, while examining my own shit. And I will come back having more finely tuned myself, thankful for the lesson after my defenses have calmed. For me, getting it wrong is important. As much as I hate it, honestly. It challenges me to be better, it means I’m showing up fully. So I’ll keep getting it wrong.
  4. It’s exhausting. No one really wants to be “that guy” who everyone is tired of pointing out injustice where it lives. It ruins the blissful ignorance that says things like “the good ol days” when speaking of decades when women couldn’t vote and were legally beaten in their homes or POC were regarded as a percentage of a citizen. Yeah, people hate that. Especially in its isolation, it can be so tiring. And yet I’m acutely aware that it’s a choice. I can stick my head back in the sand. I can revel in the safety of most of my identity. I can choose to “take a break.” While people close to me feel incredibly unsafe driving their cars. Ask themselves multiple times a day if what just happened to them was because of their identity. While mothers whose children don’t look like my (white appearing) child worry daily about their children’s safety just playing. My exhaustion just doesn’t even know what exhaustion is in that light. Which doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge when my emotional capacity is low, that I don’t deserve self-care that humans require especially when doing emotional work. I need all of that. But “I’m tired of choosing to stand up to injustice” just can’t even compare to “I’m tired of worrying my child will be perceived as a threat and murdered.” One is discomfort and the other is ongoing psychological harm and threats of violence. No comparison. So I can choose that discomfort too.

Today there is uproar. Intensely so. Looking onto both the spaces pertaining to my identity and those that don’t, I see and feel so much exhaustion. I was talking with a friend (a woman of color) recently who said “I have been in such a place of anger that I thought I didn’t want to explain things [about my experience] to white people anymore. That I was too tired. But it’s not that I don’t want to have meaningful conversations with white people, it’s that I am no longer willing to beg them to affirm my humanity.” If that statement somehow makes you feel defensive instead of called to be better and take action yourself, (with all the love I can muster, really) I’d ask you to look at yourself more critically and honestly. Because those words tug every piece of my heart and make me see all of the above as exactly what they are– a distinct privilege to choose when injustice matters to me. The choice to look at myself or decide it’s too uncomfortable to. To sit in guilt or eradicate it with accountability for my individual part.

So being an ally doesn’t get me any gold stars. In fact it’s unpopular, inconvenient, tiring and likely to cause a loss of friendships. Speaking out is highly likely to lead me to being pointed out as being wrong about something, even though I am trying really hard with great intentions. All those things are a bummer. And yet none of them are likely to cost me my life. None of those inconveniences are worth my silence so long as others’ lives and safety hang in the balance. The more folks stick their neck out for others, the less those things will be true. But so much more importantly, the more folks stick their neck out for others, the more change we will see in the hearts and minds of those around us. That is exactly how “society” changes. One little, unpopular voice at a time. With no gold stars and lots of refining.

If for some reason all you hear is “people with privilege should feel guilty,” I recommend you read this all over again. Because while guilt is a totally understandable feeling, I truly believe it’s not helpful to anyone. If you hear me saying I feel responsible for all the injustice in the world, you’d be projecting your own discomfort again. I feel accountable to my part today, that is where I know my personal power and responsibility lies. And if you hear me saying that I hate white men and/or police officers, that is a willful decision of yours alone. I don’t hate my dad or men who look like him. I don’t believe that being honest about racism and challenging systems of power is the same as vilifying every person in a system. If those are your immediate responses, try looking again with a more open heart. I am vilifying no one, these are not issues with such clear cut “sides.” I am claiming accountability for my own part, in my own life, with my own voice. I am acknowledging that my experience is different than others instead of shutting those narratives out. Those (common) responses are attempts to derail discomfort. I encourage you instead, to choose discomfort with me.

Because my discomfort has to be less important than others’ suffering. I hope you stick your neck out and probably screw it up at some point. I hope you take your defensiveness to a lonely corner or to someone you have a close relationship with who is willing to help you sort it out. And you come back with newly refined leadership skills. Because you have a choice where others do not.

Your voice matters tremendously.

To discomfort and accountability,

Erin Brown