By Liz Greene
I recently stumbled upon this amazing article from Peter, chair of financial company Earnest’s resource group for LGBTQ employees, Queernies. It was one of those fantastic pieces that actually made me take a step back and examine my own words and actions. In doing so, I found that I’ve been lacking as an ally and made a promise to myself that I would do better. One way I’ve decide to make good on that promise is by sharing what I learned.
One of the hardest things to accept is that even as allies, we are still bound to possess (and act upon) discriminatory behaviors. This can be a hard thought to face. It’s even more painful to accept that we may have done someone real harm despite our best intentions. But, being a true ally means recognizing and taking responsibility for these thoughts and actions — and then taking steps to correct them. Though I’m well aware that no one likes being called out — and that our gut reaction is to become defensive — please take a deep breath and a little bit of time to think on everything I’m about to say.
As allies, the marginalized members of our society owe us nothing.
They don’t owe us friendship, kindness, or gratitude — and they certainly don’t owe us answers. Though I know a desire for knowledge and understanding (not to mention basic human curiosity) is what drives us to ask questions of the marginalized groups we ally ourselves with, doing so can be incredibly intrusive. They are under no obligation to answer these questions, and here’s why:
It Could Compromise Their Safety
In the U.S., many marginalized groups (African Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ, and so on) face an overwhelming amount of violence on a daily basis. As such, they may feel uneasy discussing private aspects of their life and identity with others. Exposing themselves carries the risk of social alienation, the loss of their job or home, verbal harassment, and physical violence. And, much like a woman trying to gently turn down a man’s advances, they’re never quite sure when someone (even an ally) is going to violently overreact.
It May Be Harmful to Their Mental Health
Keep in mind that people in marginalized groups have very good reasons for not talking to you. They don’t trust you with their stories and emotions because they’ve spent a lifetime . experiencing discrimination firsthand. This is not only terrifying, it’s incredibly exhausting. Furthermore, they may be suffering from PTSD, and your questions are triggering. If they don’t want to talk to you about their identity and experiences, respect their decision not to have that conversation with you.
Your Privilege Is Showing
The truth is often hard to hear, and unfortunately, even self-proclaimed allies are prone to shutting their ears to it. When we ask marginalized groups to be patient with us, or kind and polite in the face of our ignorance, we’re ignoring the suffering and pain they’ve experienced their whole lives. It’s not their job to make us comfortable.
As an ally, it’s natural that you’ll want to understand everything about the community you support. However, demanding that that members of the community give you the answers you’re looking for won’t win you any friends. Don’t expect them to educate you — do the work required to educate yourself. They are not our teachers and they’re not there to hold our hands and guide us in the right direction. We need to find the path by ourselves.
As Peter said in his article, allyship is about friendship, it’s about progress. While you may make friends that are members of marginalized communities, not everyone in that community owes you their friendship or even understanding. Regardless of your desire to help, it’s important for you to realize that you’re not owed a place in these communities at all. Take time to remind yourself at least once a day, “This is not about me.”
While it’s not always easy being an ally, it’s nothing even remotely close to the pain and hardship that comes with being marginalized. If you truly want to use your privilege for good, stop asking questions of those who don’t owe you any answers. Utilize the amazing myriad of tools at your disposal, such as the internet, libraries full of history books, and museums dedicated to educating people on such matters. Most importantly, when people do choose to tell you their stories, listen. Don’t speak over them, don’t compare their experiences to yours, don’t try to rationalize what they’ve suffered — just listen.
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.