Thursday, February 7, 2013

And the Survey Says!... Allyship Reflections Part 1 of 3: Common Challenges

For the ninth meeting of RAPP XXVIII, our facilitation team decided to play a game! We're in the process of exploring the concept of allies & allyship in social justice and decided to survey as many folks as we could on short notice about it to build a game of Family Feud.

Rather than just share what we did with the survey results, why not share the actual results (as I analyzed them for the game, with the meeting in mind, and editorialized in their write-up - contact me (Rebecca) for the raw results if you'd like to work through them in your own way).

What is an ally?
In RAPP, we don't used fixed definitions for much of anything - which extends to the definition of "ally" and "allyship."  That said, in implementing the curriculum we approach this with what we sometimes call the "holistic" definition of allyship while acknowledging both that there are other definitions and that most of the group is acquainted with what we sometimes call the "traditional" definition.

The "traditional" approach says that anyone from a dominant group can ally with any subordinated groups in the process to end the oppression from which I benefit.  For example, one can be a white ally around racism, a straight ally around heterosexism, an temporarily able ally around ableism, a male ally around sexism, a cisgender ally around cissexism, and so forth.

The "holistic" approach says that anyone can ally to a group that's not their own, regardless of whether our identity is dominant, subordinated, or both (in intersectional work) in the issues on which we're working. Some examples:  White, Black, Latin@, bi- & multi-racial folks can all work to end oppression and marginalization of Asian & Pacific Islander people .  Straight, gay, lesbian, asexual folks can all work to end the invisibility and stereotyping of pansexual people.  Temporarily able and folks with a range of disabilities can support the advocates working to spread the word to end the word.

What makes it hard to be an ally?
The question appeared on the survey with the following additional explanation:

For example: What are the challenges?  What causes you to not be an ally all the time?  What is scary about being an ally?

The intention behind this question was to get "real talk" answers about the everyday challenges one may face when striving to be an ally.  We encouraged people to respond in terms of however they defined ally.

And the Survey Says!
The eight most common responses, from most frequently cited to least, are:

Feeling like you don't fit in anywhere.  Nineteen people brought up social consequences of being an ally, often related to the answers below around trust.  When I work to be an ally, folks who knew me before may  tease me, harass me, reject me and/or avoid me - I may no longer feel like I fit in with my old group.  When I meet other people like me, they assume I'm not an ally.  I also do not belong to the group I'm allying with, so I may not feel like I fit in with this group, either.

It's hard.  Being an ally takes commitment, involves continual learning, means self-work confronting my current & past behaviors and beliefs, and brings in all of the challenges listed here and many more.  It involves learning new ways to think and, for many, suddenly seeing an oppression that was previously invisible now every where all the time.  It involves a lot of emotions we may otherwise try to avoid: anxiety, uncertainty, guilt, shame, shock, and generally feeling overwhelmed.  The process of working to be an ally involves emotional and time costs.

Fear of failure.   A specific "it's hard" aspect that a quarter of respondents brought up was the fear of making mistakes.  Because the issue one is confronting is complex, so is the response.  Because we're not taught to be inclusive and equitable around the issue, we have to learn new ways to be.  Because no group is monolithic, every option we have may be problematic.  This creates a certainty of making errors.  And that's not easy.

Learning how to be an ally.  The first step may be realizing you want to be a part of the solution rather than problem.  Then what?  Oppression works to make sure we don't know how to solve it nor know many role models.  So, how do I learn to put my behaviors where my heart is?  Many expressed feeling a lack of connection with other allies and lack of having a framework to follow as a major challenge.

Knowing that I'll never *really* know.  Since ally has been framed as "working another group," it sets us up to not know what it's like to be in that group.  We can listen, read, listen, watch, listen, engage, listen, and support every step along the way, but we may feel we never fully understand or relate.

Lack of knowledge on the issue.  In RAPP we often use the Oppression Action Continuum as a model of moving away from supporting oppression to confronting oppression.  In this framework, people often feel the passion to be an ally at "recognizing, no action" and may feel they should be at "initiating, preventing" immediately.  I see this common challenge of "not knowing enough" as wanting to make that leap - the process of learning (and learning through mistakes, in particular) is not easy and we ARE taking action while we're in the process.

Trust.  As a self-declared ally, we know our good intentions and we know all the work we're doing to overcome these challenges described here.  The hard part is that many others don't know this about it.  Trust shows up as a challenge in many ways:

  • Learning to trust that I don't necessarily know what's best for everyone and trusting them to be doing what may be best.
  • Coping with the reality that I need to earn trust as an ally through consistently demonstrating allyship (rather than be given it immediately upon declaring I'm an ally).
  • Learning to trust other people in my group to be allies.
  • Learning to trust the process.
  • Learning to trust myself.

Finding other allies. I'm embedded in the system that warrants the lack of trust people have in my group.  I'm likely exposed to far more people in my group upholding the status quo than being visible allies.  I've likely not learned the long history of activists, advocates, and allies around the issue(s) on which I'm working.   These (especially compounded with the challenges described above) can lead to feeling alone, without guidance, without community.

Coming Up
Parts two and three of this series address what survey participants cited as common mistakes allies make and best practices for allies.

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