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What We Can All Learn From False Allies

I had an experience recently, as I often do, of being exploited as a punching bag on the grounds that I was an allegedly “false ally” to a racially marginalized community in an online forum. I was accused of trying to escape my whiteness despite not having even the slightest hesitation in announcing my racial and mixed ethnic heritage as a white person and a settler. I was accused of trying to infiltrate and assimilate into a culture that was not my own, despite the fact that the only evidence to suggest that this is even happening is a single woven hat in the style of a completely different culture. The people who kept making these jabs at me and my extended families’ way of life might have known the differences, if it were not for the fact that they have never been directly exposed from the other side of the country.

I was accused of being “disrespectful” and “offensive” for asking and pursuing answers to penetrating questions about the accountability of four specific individuals, who have so far proven to be evasive, slimey, and untrustworthy while they act as though they are unanswerable to their own community for the past two years (and two of whom are back at it again, as they solicit for their own community’s money for a trip to California, rather than being of service to an already established non-profit organization run by their own people, working for the same causes). I was accused of being “racist” for daring to challenge a racialized woman of colour whose behaviour amounts to lateral colonization against her own people—a woman who herself agreed to engage with my questions, and subsequently failed again to provide any answers at all while pretending I wouldn’t notice. I have since decided to give up this pursuit and trust the community that is vulnerable to her predation, that they can handle their own even if it backfires again (as it has repeatedly for two years already).

I was condescended to, as though being a white person means I have no direct or legitimate life experience of my own upon which to draw wisdom and insight; and as though my complexion precludes me from understanding another person’s experience through the lens of my own—which at various times and in different but meaningful ways, has shared more in common with the lives of racially marginalized people than it has ever had in common with the lives of white people.

I was told that I have no right to even ask the questions I asked, because I’m a white person, and was accused of entitlement, of claiming status as an “ally”, and of attempting to take over while simply watching from a pedestal as the people I ally myself to scramble beneath me, where the “real” work is being done (implying that I’m neither willing nor capable of “real” work because I’m a white person).

Inaccurate assumptions about my gender and sexual orientation were also hurled into this conflict by my opponents, who presumed to know with certainty that having a sex change (haven’t had one of these) meant I had also received a lobotomy (haven’t had one of these either), and that I was a “hetero hater” because I have dared to fall in love with people who were born with the same number of X-chromosomes as I was born with. I was challenged on the basis that I “wear women’s clothes”, as if this constitutes direct evidence of my wholesale incapacity for honesty or sincerity on any topic. It just so happens that I sometimes do wear women’s clothes, because I have a woman’s body. But I also wear men’s clothes and clothes that don’t come with a gender, because it’s just fucking clothes and I don’t give much of a shit beyond whether or not it fits on my body.

I decided to stick to defending myself against these criticisms (rather than biting back), as they had literally no bearing on the questions, let alone me—the querant—who my critics didn’t know from a hole in the ground. It took nearly no time at all for me to realize that this conflict is just abusive people revealing themselves to all who care to witness, and not merely marginalized people pushing back against my privilege. I used this to my advantage while I made statements to the effect of “God knows women of colour are so helpless that they need a man to defend them from a white person asking questions about their accountability”, waiting for the abusive troupe to clue in to what was going on. I openly maintained that though I am conscious that I have no inherent right to answers, and do not feel I am entitled to them or have done anything to deserve them, I still have a right to ask them and make observations of whether or not they are answered — and by whom if they are answered at all, and what excuses are freely offered if they aren’t.

When the highly insensitive, inaccurate, and blatantly oppressive content about my gender and orientation began to emerge repeatedly, coupled with denial that it was these abusive people who introduced it into the conversation, it wasn’t long before I simply decided that going to bed would be a better use of my time. Beside the point that transphobia and homophobia gets old fast, it was the wee hours of the morning by that point, after all. But one final act that truly exposed the magnitude of the abuse came to fruition before my head finally hit the pillow that night: an enabler arrived in the conversation for the express purpose of explaining to me how all of this abuse that was being hurled at me was my own fault, that I invited it upon myself, and that I deserved all of it anyway just for who I am and what I had to say. Meanwhile, one of the perpetrators in the conflict began cyber-stalking me until I started mass-blocking people based on whose side they defended.

When I woke up the following morning, I observed that I had been stripped of further access to the forum where this conversation (and the abuse that spilled into it) took place (zero fucks were given that morning). I stated this observation (and a couple others that were relevant) to one of the forum moderators, who I had met in person and engaged in extensive conversation with months before, in a private message—as much as I could not stand by his apparent decision to remove me from the forum as a punitive measure when I was the target for the abuse, I nevertheless accept his right to do so; and as much as I could not stand by and enable him to continue enabling other people to perpetrate such severe and gratuitous abuse, I nevertheless respect his autonomy and hoped that he might quickly learn the actual cost of enabling this kind of behaviour. I was reminded in so many ways of this incident in which a Cree woman insisted that a misogynist slur — make that the most misogynist slur in the English language — was part of her culture and I’m too white to know better, so I should just stop trying to “dictate her way of life to her.” As I worked through what happened (with some help), I realized why I was forming this connection between two isolated events with completely different people involved: there are abusive people who thrive on the thrill of exposing and excising false allies from their own communities’ struggles; and there are just as many enablers who see this abusive behaviour as justifiable, so long as their own community members aren’t the targets.

As anyone else who has been involved in a struggle for social justice long enough will be able to parse, false allies quite literally abound in marginalized communities. False allies act from misguided motivations, such as white guilt or analogous forms of privilege-flexing thinly veiled as emotional pleading; or they base their actions and politics on the erroneous belief that “ally” is a meaningful label that, once acquired, means their status as an ally to the cause can never be revoked or challenged, no matter how shitty their politics, choices, words, or behaviours (let alone towards whom they convey this shittiness, or in front of what audience). But those who actually embody allyship in their every day actions, rather than giving mere lip-service to it, know that labels don’t mean anything. As one elder in my life (a survivor of three residential schools, and a man of mixed race) puts it with respect to colonial institutions of organized religion and their belief in this construct called God, “once you put a label on something, you think you know what it means.” I apply this critique of labels to social justice, and to allies and their “solidarity” in particular. Once a person assumes the “ally” label — especially, it seems, white people who think of themselves as “allies” against racism and colonialism — they also assume their self-interrogation and privilege-checking is officially complete. Often for life. And this is at the root of my experience of being “exposed” as if I claimed this label for myself as a way of taking the accolades of social justice while doing none of the work of being an ally.

The problem with this isn’t just that I am intentionally careful about how I speak of the ways I move about marginalized communities; it’s also that I do a lot of work that few people (if any) ever directly witness me doing, that I am not at liberty to declare openly (and that I wouldn’t even if I could, for several important reasons), but that many people who locally benefit from my actions are well aware of, both before and after it is done. As anyone who embodies what it means to be an ally already knows by the time they are ready to throw the label-maker away, being in a position of social privilege means that assuming the accolades of progress is horrendously loaded with problems (including privilege-flexing).

Thus, I personally have learned the benefit of working as silently as possible when acting in service to racially marginalized communities, so that I can continue on with the work without constantly triggering those whose needs my actions are supposed to be serving; or inviting excessive, emotionally taxing, and functionally crippling criticisms from abusive persons pursuing conflict like a heat-seeking missile—because no matter how pale my face is, I am still an abuse survivor with triggers, and I still don’t deserve to be impaired by another person’s need to abuse the most vulnerable or dispensable people around them. My strategic silence around what I actually do to demonstrate my solidarity can and often does serve a higher purpose than the possibility of throwing a trump card down on someone who will bait me into conflict no matter what I say. That isn’t to say I never speak of my actions as an ally, because this isn’t always possible or productive. It is simply to say that I recognize when it is counter-productive to do so.

What this most recent conflict has taught me is that once you spot a false ally operating within a socially marginalized community, they will quickly lead you to the most abusive people in that community — the people who thrive on the drama, excitement, and accolades of humiliating, shaming, and ripping away the merit badges from “false allies” (perceived or actual) for a public audience. Only what I now know that they apparently don’t, is that they can’t actually distinguish in any meaningful way between real and false allies. Their need to routinely pin down other people and vomit abuse upon them until they run away crying blinds them to the reality that not every person coming into their community from the “outside” is just there to cash in their voluntourism for social currency among the privileged. They have lost sight of their ability to trust those who routinely and consistently prove themselves trustworthy, and as such, are inherently disingenuous and untrustworthy people themselves. These are the “loose cannons” within the community, and it is in everyone’s best interest that sincere (see also: effective) allies avoid them.

False allies can teach us more than what makes them disingenuous. They can also teach us the instinct to avoid making ourselves the target for abuse while we continue to engage in meaningful and productive work for the benefit of many.

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