The Do’s and Don’ts of How to be an Effective Ally in a Political Movement
The following is a transcript originally published by Making Contact, an award-winning, 29-minute weekly magazine/documentary-style public affairs program.
Andrew Stelzer: This week on Making Contact
What does it mean to be an ally in a political movement? From white Americans in the civil rights era, to Israelis in Palestine, to Latino-Americans working with the undocumented…how does one work to support another’s struggle? On this edition, from Mississippi to Zimbabwe, a roundtable discussion on the do’s and don’ts of how to be an effective ally. I am Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact a program connecting people, vital ideas and important information
AS: You’re listening to making contact. I’m Andrew Stelzer, today we’re going to talk about what it means to be an ally in the struggle for justice. It’s something that’s kind of hard to define, but some classical examples might be a white American in the US civil rights struggle, or a white South African working to end apartheid. In general, we’re talking about the people who wouldn’t gain directly from the struggle they are getting involved in. Joining me to talk about this are four people who all work in partnership with allies and a number of different movements for social justice. So, let’s start out by meeting everyone. Please introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from, what kind of issues you work on as an organizer, and who your allies are, or maybe you’re an ally yourself. Start over here.
LR: My name is Leehee Rothschild, and I live in Tell Aviv and Israel as a white Israeli considered Jewish by the state. I am an ally to Palestinians that I’m working with as well as refugees and work migrants and at the same time, as a woman and as a bisexual woman I have allies that are both men and heterosexuals.
IC: My name is Ingrid Cruz, I live in the state of Mississippi in the United States and I mostly work on immigration issues, and in that issue I consider myself to be an ally to undocumented immigrants, but as a whole, working on racial justice issues, I am kind of the one that is the person of color and I might have allies.
DH: My name is DJ Hudson, I hail from Nashville Tennessee, where the majority of the organizing and the activist work that I do is around racial and economic justice. Most of the people who I end up working with as allies are white southerners or white Americans. However, as also a member of the LGBT community I often work with straight allies as well as allies from religious communities.
RD: Hello! My name is Rumbidzai Dube I am a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe. I work on a lot of human rights issues. One of the main ones I work on is ending organized violence and torture with a specific focus on women victims of violence in Zimbabwe. And for this we have a number of allies from many different countries including South Africa, the US, Canada, who have grown an interest in the issue of sexual violence against women, the use of rape against women, human rights defenders and women activists in general.
AS: Okay, I’m going to bring someone else into this conversation via a pre-recorded interview. Mary King was heavily involved in SNCC, which is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee back in the 1960′s. That was a group that organized many successful actions in the American south around freedom and equality for black Americans. She’s also a professor of the University of Peace and has studied nonviolence struggles around the world. Here’s what Mary King had to say when I asked her about her experience and the concept of working as an ally in the struggle for social justice.
MK: By and large the white staff persons were very much aware of the fact that they were there to play a particular role, either to help raise money or communications or to organize the solidarity groups that we had in other cities like in Princeton, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, LA and so on. We had particular roles to play and we hadn’t come there because we were looking for the glamor and leadership. There was another angle that I need to mention, which was that within SNC, and this is due to Ella Baker’s influence, very profoundly, we saw ourselves as trying to awaken and elicit leadership from people who were gifted, natural leaders. And to build up the leadership from the black community. Ms. Baker would talk with us about this constantly. That we were not here to become leaders ourselves, and she would say you have to have a sense of your own worth and a strong sense of security to realize that you should forego the glamor of being a leader. Help someone else to become a leader. I think it made us a stronger movement that we were an interracial movement, because what it signified was that the stakes were much larger than just the self-interest of those who were involved. It was the statement in and of itself, the interracial nature of the movement was a statement. But what is at stake is the character of the United States of America. So I think that everyone gained as a result of it being interracial. We have been meeting together now, with a number of people who have participated in movements in which the individuals that stand to gain from it or are the sufferers of oppression have been working side by side with those who arguably could be said to be representatives of the oppressor group. This sounds very detached and social sciencey, but I think you know what I mean. It’s a good thing to have representatives from the oppressor community and the oppressed working together.
AS: So that was Mary king, former member of SNC and a University of Peace professor. So I’m wondering if anyone has thoughts or reactions to that, how those ideas might relate to your own work.
DH: I certainly do. What she said about self-awareness and the awareness of who you are and what you come to do in a movement, I think has a lot to bring to bear in the role of allies in a movement. In the American south and in movements of racial justice where race and racism is still something that’s really touchy and problematic, one of the things I found that I’ve experienced is contrary to popular belief, what most people assume, the majority of the racism of the ugly words, of the exclusionary practices, of the discriminatory actions that I’ve experience within my life have come from within movements. They have come from my white allies or my non-black allies within the movement. I think that part of why that happens is a lack of the self-awareness within movement. And one of the things that I find myself doing way more than I wish I had to is having conversations with white allies about how while yes, you might be participating in a movement for the freedom and advancement of black people or Latinos and Latinas or of poor people, you can still actually be racist. Just because you are on our side does not mean that you have unlearned all of the things that society has taught you. And also too, on that same token, being a recipient of white privilege is not something that you chose. And so the opposite response where people rather than ignore their white privilege and believe that they are automatically the best ally ever, some people just drown themselves in white guilt. And so they wake up to their privilege and say, “oh my god, this body that I live in, I get all of these free passes, it’s terrible, it is horrible I hate myself and my family and my heritage” etc., and they try to reject as much off themselves as possible, which is equally destructive. Again, this self-awareness, unknowing that you didn’t chose to be white, you didn’t chose to be straight, you didn’t chose to be whatever it is that you are that gives you privilege the vast majority of the time, and therefore being guilty for it is just as unnecessary as wielding it over and against other people.
IC: I wanted to add to what DJ said which really resonated with me because you know we both live in the south. Really close to each other. So living in Mississippi working in the immigration movement. I feel like I have two identities: one, I’m an ally to undocumented immigrants that has to do with a piece of paper and having a social security number which gives you a lot of access to different things in the US. But being a Latina I’m still not white, and I’m also not African American, I’m not Native American. So it’s always a little bit of a complicated conversation in which there are times where I myself have white allies and there are times when I have to negotiate what it means to be an ally to someone who’s more oppressed than me when I’m still not in the white privilege bracket. And I just wanted to add another thing to what you said about white privilege, is that I had a discussion with someone who is a white ally to immigration movement and also civil rights movements. Someone who is old enough to be there, he was about 72. And he just looks at me, taps me on the shoulder and says you and I are the same. Now I recognize that you don’t have to guilt trip yourself over being white. Nobody says that. But you also can’t say that we’re the same, that everyone is the same. Because at the end of the day, I’m the one who can’t take off this skin. But you can go home and put away the movement when you’re at home. You don’t have to think about wow, is the police just going to come and raid my house all of the sudden for no reason? You don’t have to think about if I’m driving, who’s the police going to stop? The white ally or me, or someone who’s African America or looks different? So I think that along with also being contentious, just recognizing we’re not on an equal playing field.
RD: Okay, I’m going to move in a several different direction from the rest of you guys, and one of the things that I would say has been a push factor in is to try and establish a network of allies, and the issue of violence free elections has been a recognition that the issue of violence against women in the context of elections is not necessarily just our issue, as zimbauean women. This is not just a regional issue, it’s largely a global issue. And so in building a network of allies, it allows the movement and the struggle itself to become a stronger voice to resonate with a lot of other people who can push in certain areas that we cannot reach, and to push the struggle forward in a way we would not be able to. But also I just wanted to point out that sometimes some of the people we would ordinarily think would be allies are not necessarily allies in the sense that we would want them to. And this resonates with one of things that DJ said about people who are already part of the movement and are sort of allies. For instance, in her case it’s mostly white people who are in the same struggle for equality and to end racial segregation. In my case, I would have it as mainstream civil society which is largely male dominated. You’d assume that because they’re already people working with human rights, they would automatically understand this proper for women to have violence free elections, for women to be free from rape and all other forms of sexuality. But half the time, the patronizing attitude that you talked about, Ingrid, of people trying to say but we’re all fighting for human rights. We are all the same. Why are you trying to make your issues more special comes out a lot. So it’s a little difficult sometimes, because the people that you really want to be your allies don’t necessarily understand where your struggle is going, what your story is, and why you need them to be allies and why they should be.
LR: I think in many cases it’s very painful because it’s so disappointing. Because you’re like, these people are standing there, with me week after week, chanting slogans and getting tear gas thrown at them, and when I’m speaking about the men in my movement, and or I don’t know, we’ve been working together for years. And they’re all about human rights, and they’re all about equality and justice for Palestinians, but when it comes to women, they can’t understand as men they have privilege, why as men they have to take step back in the conversation and allow women to participate, or why certain things that they are saying are silencing or when they’re raising their voice it’s intimidating, or we want to have a sexually harassment free to work in.
RD: Yeah. And for me, what it means for someone to be an ally is for them first of all to just step in to my shoes. See what it is that I’m fighting against every single day, because a lot of times men just don’t understand why we make a lot of noise about equality. And as DJ was saying, a lot of white people do not understand why black people and Latinos and American make a lot of noise about inequality, or why Palestinians living in Israel would make a lot of noise about inequality. Some people are just blind to the realities of this world. And the first thing that someone would need to do for them to actually understand why we’re fighting the things we’re fighting against to just live what we leave through just for a single day and see the kind of horrors that people have to live with, the kind of difficulties that people have to put up with and then after doing that, to empathize because that’s what it takes for someone to actually be in an ally. You have to understand what I’m going through and feel for me the same ways that I feel for you if you were in my shoes and I was in yours. And then to take action. To assist and not necessarily usurping my role and the struggle as DJ was saying to say as an ally your role is not to tell me what to do.
LR: Donors come in to a community that is already fighting for social justice, and they determine what it is that you fight for. They try to influence what you focus on, you focus areas, the say in which you produce the results, who you target as part of their requirements for reporting in things like that find that to be one of the most annoying things that has happened to the struggle for human rights, and even for the work that I do, fighting against sexual violence in the contest of elections. You have to have bread and butter on your table, and for you t to have that you have to seek assistance form other people, but the problem is that they come as allies, and in the end they want to tell you what to do.
AS: Alright. Um, so we’ve heard a lot about the problem from different perspectives, I’m wondering if any of you have examples of specific examples of a couple of the mentioned of times when this arose, when someone was trying to get involved as an ally, but was doing it the wrong way, trying to help your movement or something you were working on, how do you handle those? And I’m especially interested in cases where you feel like you successfully dealt with it and were able to bring that person or people into the fold.
IC: I can think of two instances in which, now these are not very big things, but two instances in which this was dealt with successfully. And there is just a very small group dynamic. So, I have a friend named David who had this girlfriend, Juliet, She was a big leader on her campus, was a students at UCLA. And whenever she would have meetings, y’know, with their group she would always keep account of how many people spoke in the room, she would take a mental note of say, how many men are there. How many women. And if there’s anybody that’s queer or undocumented, she knew those things, y’know? So sometimes during a meeting, especially strategic planning meetings, she would say okay everyone, we need to hear from everyone. There are 7 women in the room and four men. All of the men have spoken, and only 3 women had spoken. And things just as simple as keeping counting those things. I was in Washington DC in February for this really intense training having to do with immigration issues. I confronted the national executive director of the entire organization. I basically told him, look what I notice in our conversation is that whenever you speak, I let you speak your full sentences. I want to speak in full sentences, too. So we’re having a lot of miscommunication because you’re assuming that you know what I’m going to say before I say it. Then, you’re interrupting me. So this is really skewing the conversation in to a really bad place, only because I can’t speak in full sentences. So he apologized for that. But these are these tiny socialized norms that I’ve noticed in different countries. And sometimes it just takes that one to one interaction, and pointing it out. And if that person hates you, well then too bad. But they’ll learn a lesson.
DH: And that is another reason is why having these conversations were so difficult, because very often, when you try to challenge someone on their privilege or on their racism or on their sexism or on their homophobia, they can easily wrap up what they’re doing in some other language. They can make it an issue of organization, and say that you know it’s my job to do X, Y and Z. So I’m not being sexist, I’m just being a leader. Those sorts of things. And sometimes it’s true that people don’t even realize that they are disguising the real issue.
LR: One thing that I’ve learned in many cases actually, they try to frame it as a personal problem but not personal in the level of them being wrong, but actually as a personal thing of oh, you just don’t like me, or…
DH: Or you’re big too sensitive…
LR: Yeah, or we have problems communicating with one another, you misunderstood, why are you so sensitive? Why do you jump whenever somebody raises their voice? and if you’re intimidated then it’s you problem, and if you don’t speak out in a meeting, it’s you problem, it’s not anybody’s fault, and it’s not that I’m taking too much space, it ‘as that you’re not taking enough space, and etcetera, etcetera. And these are excuses that constantly come up. I actually wanted to share another positive story which was I had a very traumatizing and experience in a demonstrated in which I was sexually assaulted when I was left alone and lost in an unfamiliar city, and a week after that we had a group meeting to discuss that, as part of anarchists against the wall. And the amazing thing about this meeting was that women spoke one by one by one about those violent experiences that they’ve had. Sexually violent experiences, and the men remained silent. And more than that, the men asked us to keep on talking, and they said we just wanted to sit and listen. And for a whole meeting men just sat and listened. It was this thing I experienced just this one time in my life. And I think the… for once I think these men actually got the hang of our experiences, cause they were absolutely shocked an amazed when they left the meeting, and but also for once, women in the group actually got a space in which they could fully express themselves, and the reason that some any experiences were left unspoken came up in these meetings is that for the first time, we had space. We had a place in which we could talk. And while I’m not 100% happy with many developments that have happened afterwards, at least out of this meeting I came out feeling very empowered and truly felt like I had some male allies.
LR: One of the dilemmas that I face as an ally in the Palestinian struggle is where to what extent do I draw attention to myself and to for that matter, the violence that I experience in the struggle from my own country? And cause for that matter, as a white Israeli, every violence, every violent act, every form of oppression that is directed towards me gets far more attention that those things when they happen to Palestinians. When I get arrested, when I get beaten up, when I get interrogated by the secret police or have my house raided, that makes it to the news. That’s getting reported. But in most cases when it happens to Palestinians and for many of them it’s a daily occurrence to them, it’s no news. And there is this question of how much space do I take with these experiences, how public do I go with them? Cause on one hand, it’s definitely in my opinion, helps the struggle to draw attention to the Palestinian struggle, and also it exposes for many people the way the Israeli government is treating people who support the Palestinian cause, and how the Israeli government is treating Palestinians. At the same time, it still feels somewhat disturbing that people are so shocked and dismayed. What they have tortured you when you were arrested? But they fail to see the fact that this happens every day in the military courts.
DH: Absolutely. One of my good friends and fellow organizers and ministers back in Nashville, said something really profound. He said that racism in America did not start to change until white people were in rooms full of white people talking about why racism was a problem for white people. And in an instance where I had to push back on someone was in a group of people who I was on a list serve with, we were talking about this KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, it was a very white supremacist old group in the united states south was having a rally. And all of the white supremacists could come together and one white guy sent an email out saying what are the contact information of different peoples of color, their work, and contact information for Jewish associations and the NAACP and Latino organizations, so we can get them here. And my response was actually none of us want to show up. These people have been calling us out of our names and have been hurting us, killing us and intimidating us and terrorizing us for generations. Actually what we need you to do as white people to do is step up and you go face them. You tell them as white people why racism is a problem for white people, because I’m not about to put myself in a situation to be demeaned and demoralized because that’s what they want is for me to come out and to face them. I’m not giving them that. You go do it. Actually, that’s the work you can do for me to be a great ally at that moment. And he hadn’t thought about it that way. But the problem is often times the responsibility for fighting against oppression falls against those in oppressed groups.
LR: I agree with you, I think that one of our duties as Israelis who support and see themselves as part of the Palestinian struggle is to speak to speak to other Israelis the struggle for Palestine is no struggle against Jewish people and there’s nothing anti-Semitic in demand equality for Palestinians, and I think that from a place that I come from as an Israeli Jew, I can do that. My words get greater validation.
RD: Yeah. I would certainly agree with you, because even in the struggle for gender equality, I would assume that if a man were to stand and say simply because we are struggling for women to have the same rights that we as men already have, it doesn’t mean that we are diminishing their position as men, we’re just elevating women from where they are right now, which is in a really bad place, that would be more… that would be received in a more open way by a man than if it’s a woman who is trying to say the same thing.
IC: But in terms of our response to what the three of you said, it made me think of something I read once in a feminist publication talking about men who want to be feminists don’t need to assume roles of leadership in the feminist movement. Instead, they take the spaces where they know their privilege, and make it safe for women there. And I think that’s kind of the way you’re an ally. For me, for example when it comes to dealing with police or whatever, it’s just hearing comments against immigrants or in my case, I mean, it’s a multicultural country and you hear a racist remark against anybody or something that demeans anyone, if you’re really a person of conscious, that’s time to try and educate the person in a peaceful way, cause I know that if you’re not able to. When you are an ally that’s all you do. Make everyone else’s space, make that space as safe for those people.
DH: And some concrete things that allies can do, one thing is that discomfort is actually an opportunity for change. A lot of people, especially who come from privileged societies like the United States, really back away from the discomfort of all kinds and they avoid it at any possible chance. Part of learning how to be an ally is being able to face and to sit with discomfort, and being able to be made uncomfortable, to be made vulnerable or to be made hurt and not run from that, but to learn from that experience. And to say “you know actually, I feel really uncomfortable. I’m feeling angry. I’m felling afraid. I’m feeling attacked.’ Where is that coming from? And when you follow that line of where’s that feeling of discomfort coming from, that’s where you learn where your privilege lies, and that’s where you learn where the change. Also to becoming comfortable with discomfort is another tool to help other people who also share your privilege to understand their own privilege. So just as Ingrid said when racist comments are made, instead of laughing it off, or instead of just saying Hahaha, making a joke trying to keep the level of comfort with that person, be very firm and clear. Hey, dude, that was not cool, or actually, that was not funny. I find that offensive. And the person problem will be like, but you’re not Mexican, but you’re not black, and it’s like, I don’t care it’s not funny. It’s not cool. Don’t say it in front of me. And some people are like well, I don’t want to make my friends uncomfortable, I don’t want to be aggressive.But don’t condone something by your silence or by your laughter, or by acquiescing to somebody else’s discomfort. Sit with that discomfort and learn from it and help other people do the same.
DH: And I’ll go back to the point I mentioned earlier on empathy. If you’re feeling intimidated as someone who wants to be an ally, by joining a group of a few people who have decided to take a stand against something that the majority are saying “its okay for us to go this way,” just imagine just how that particular group has been fitting all along. The small anthill in the middle of a whole, y’know, group of big hills that are casting their shadows on those people. So if you just put yourself fin the shoes of those people and how intimidated they must have been initially when they decided to take a stand, then I suppose that can make you feel a whole lot better about joining them and knowing that these are people who understand exactly what you are going through.
AS: I’ve been speaking with Daria Hudson, Leehee Rothschild, Rumbidzai Dube and Ingrid Cruz. We will link to their organizations and others you heard about during today’s discussion on our website, radioproject.org. Thanks everyone for being here today.
Group: Thank you.