Allyship: Sometimes It Means Just Shutting Up

Why sometimes we should "just shut our mouths."
12/18/2016 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2016
Henrik Sorensen via Getty Images

I am a white man. I am also gay. I know that white privilege exists, and I speak up about it whenever possible. Simultaneously, I also acknowledge that my sexual orientation has caused me personal pain since childhood. Once, while I was in high school, some boys I didn’t know began mocking me while we were running on the track field. I remember turning to them, firmly, and asking, “what did you say?” Speaking up only egged them on, and they made fun of how I spoke. People triggered by my long hair and general aesthetic call me names, both online and in person, to this day. My upbringing has also affected me. I grew up in a Bible-believing church in Texas where I felt I would never be accepted for being born the way I was born, and for many years, my parents made me attend services three times a week. They didn’t know it, but every moment I spent in that church was an opportunity for me to feel shame and confusion. Still, I am white, and despite my legitimate experiences with bullying and self-doubt, society affords me opportunities that people of color, trans people, and religious minorities don’t enjoy. The dichotomy between my privilege and my pain is sometimes difficult to navigate.

White people are really sensitive. Plenty of white people, who purport to realize their own advantages in life, become annoyed by generalizations about race. “Not all white people,” they think to themselves. I am guilty, despite the fact that I know I’m privileged, of having that thought. “They’ve gone too far vilifying whites this time, some of us are just trying to help,” I would think, while reading about race relations. “They’re talking about ‘white tears,’ and I just don’t get it,” I would opine to myself. I would feel somehow attacked, while in chorus knowing that I should not. So, what gives? The answer is simple: for whites and other privileged groups, privilege is pre-loaded. Privilege is subtle, subconscious, and sneaky, and it’s so innate (because of centuries of entitlement) that it seems normal, and by extension, it becomes nearly invisible to those who possess it. This is why people like Tomi Lahren believe that minorities only perceive their oppression; her own experience is so normal to her that she can’t fathom that it’s not normal for everyone else. For people like me, who want to support minority groups in productive ways, moving forward must be a constant process of self-reflection.

Relationships between large groups of people are different from relationships between individuals. Overarching societal and cultural realities do nothing to condemn any single person, and if we want to advance relations on a broad scale, we must be allowed to speak in generalities. We must be allowed to view human interaction from a macro perspective. We must be allowed to talk about white people as a conglomerate power in society. With that said, a micro perspective is important in its own way. From a micro perspective, we can see that interactions between friends of varying backgrounds, while still colored by societal and cultural factors, are unique, because they are also informed by the personal relationships and circumstances of the specific people involved.

I have an acquaintance, from years back, who is a trans woman of color. We don’t know each other well, but we are friends on Facebook, and I often admire her fashion choices and writings. A while back, she posted a status that was, essentially, about being fed up with white people. Without thinking, I posted a comment. I explained that as a white person, I don’t know what it’s like for people like her. I said, “all I can do is listen.” I then said something about not liking Tomi Lahren. My acquaintance responded. She was not impressed. She said that the fight must be with my own friends and family. She also questioned whom the intended audience for my comment was. That’s when it happened — I felt attacked. I thought to myself: “What did I do? I care about equality for everyone! I’m on your side!” I didn’t realize, in that moment, that I was cheapening the pain she felt. My privilege was speaking, but I didn’t even notice. My nonchalance in joking about a viral personality was not consistent with the tone of the post I was responding to. When I commented, I wanted to feel good (and validated) rather than do good. Dialogue is great, but dialogue is not what my acquaintance was seeking. She was seeking empathy.

I could have just posted, “I support you.” But I don’t know this woman extremely well. I don’t know her in a wholly micro capacity. We are not close friends. Because of this, my interactions with her are, in part, still governed by a larger reality: I am a white man, and she is a marginalized woman I sometimes notice on Facebook. My sexual orientation, alone, doesn’t automatically make me her champion, and it certainly doesn’t exempt me from my privilege. So, instead of delivering any message of support, which, considering the fact that I barely know her, would have only been self-serving, I really should have just shut my mouth. Sometimes, the most loving thing you can do is refrain from injecting yourself into a personal conversation that no one asked you to participate in. Of course, every situation is different and requires a different response, but my message to white people who want to engage with other communities is simply this: if what you’re about to say isn’t coming from the deepest place of love and understanding, or if it points the conversation unnecessarily back at you, don’t say it.

I thought that I was enlightened. I thought that I was pardoned from scrutiny. I was wrong. Allyship is a process and nothing more.

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