I had started to write some thoughts on the shooting in Charleston, but then I started to question my own ability adequately write about that particular horror. Instead, I started following my brain down a different path. I think one of the best pieces I've seen on the shooting thus far (and admittedly it's early, as it only happened yesterday) has been this:
I follow a number of activists on twitter. They represent a range of issues: gender equality, race isues, marriage equality, even nerd rage. This conglomeration has evolved from discovering and following voices from various different movements and experiences over the last year or so, from Gamergate to Ferguson. I agree with a number of things that they say, and I don't agree with other things that they say. Mostly, I just use the opportunity to follow them on Twitter as a chance to hear what they might have to say. By the way, Twitter is a terrible medium for an in depth conversation, but it's a great place to see people's first reactions to issues as they arise.
At this point, I would consider myself an ally: I support marriage equality. I support wage equality. I believe that all humans deserve basic respect and decency. I acknowledge that there is a system in place in this country that has kept certain people in power for far too long based on their heritage and not their merit. I understand that poverty doesn't affect only people of color, but it affects them more profoundly. I get it that by being a straight, white woman many of the opportunities I've had in my life have come to me because I am straight and white. They've also been as a result of the relationships my parents have spent their lives creating and cultivating, also afforded to them to some degree because of their own backgrounds.
It took me a long time to realize these things. I watched my parents work very very hard for everything they gained. It took me nearly a lifetime to finally understand that for a person of color to start from the same place my father did and reach the same successes, the work would be harder and the obstacles to success would be bigger. This isn't just because of overt racism, but also because of systematic and internalized racist societal structure. Understanding that simple basic reality does not mitigate or somehow detract from my father's hard work (and he worked harder than anyone I know). It doesn't mean that my father didn't deserve his successes, neither does it mean that those successes were somehow simply handed to him. He certainly earned them. It also doesn't mean that people in poverty can't work exceptionally hard and be successful. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that the idea that hard work and grit is all it takes is a short sighted and overly simplistic view of the current reality of opportunity in this country.
I've said some pretty inflammatory things in my younger days, some pretty racist things. I'm not proud of those things. I grew up in a pretty homogeneous population in Montana: there were not very many people of color. For that matter, there weren't a lot of people who weren't Christian (at least outwardly). I just didn't see it every day, so it was easy for me to form opinions from a distance. It was easy for me to read the newspaper and say "why do they act like that? Don't they get it?"
The one who didn't get it was me. I didn't see how there wasn't, and isn't, really an equal playing field.
Once it started to dawn on me that not all opportunity is created equal, I became a firebrand: preaching to everyone about equality, why they were racist or sexist or homophobic. I was more than willing to self-righteously label people, I was happily willing to publicly shame someone for being a bigot. But the problem was, and it still is, I'll admit, that I was taking on someone else's fight and fighting it for them in a way that left them out of it. "Don't worry, friends, I got this. I'll save you."
Not only was I alienating people by calling them bigots, I was also, in a way, silencing the very voices that I was trying to defend.
Don't get me wrong, I still know plenty of bigots. But not all racist speech comes from bigots or racists. I certainly never thought of myself as either of those things.
I won't lie, it's hard to be a white, straight ally. Not because I get grief from others who disagree with me. Like most people, I tend to group and be friends with people who are similar to me and who have similar ideology to mine. It's human nature. It's hard because, well, I'm used to being heard. I'm used to my words having meaning simply because I'm saying them. And once I start speaking over the people I'm trying to help, I have the effect of silencing those voices, even if my message is well intended.The point of being an ally isn't to be heard, it's to help others be heard. It's not to be the voice of the voiceless, because these aren't voiceless people. They have their own voices. They have their own words. We've just ignored and suppressed it.
A side note on being heard. As a woman, I have found myself silenced by men who talk over or around me. I've experienced and witnessed plenty of workplace and every day sexism, whether overt or internalized. You would think that having had that experience, I would have recognized it when I was doing it myself, but I didn't. That, as much as anything, I think is the nature of that internalized, subconscious system of inequality.
I have to work hard daily to stop myself from taking over for those voices. It's not that I don't get to have my own opinions and ideas about the news of the day, I certainly do. But I don't get to speak for the people I feel compelled to be an advocate or an ally for. All I can do is try to take what they are saying and amplify it without changing it or putting my own spin on it, and to help create a space where they can be heard, and to listen.