with Lynne and Leslie

Allyship: A fable; Or “Helping while actually helping and not taking over every blessed thing”

by SweetMidlife

So I’ve had an interesting weekend, inadvertently having a discussion with actress/feminist activist/Twitterati champ Alyssa Milano about racism. Yeah, I was shocked as you are.

I’m not going to get into the whole discussion because it’s long and has both helpful and hurtful tangents and it’s a holiday weekend and I don’t have the time. But the gist is that Ms. Milano posted that the presence of KKK meetings in 2019 meant she didn’t recognize her country, and myself and others informed her that it’s exactly the country we’ve always known we lived in, even after the election of a biracial president that she said she’d hoped was a symbol that we were past racism (Fake “Arrested Development” narrator: We are not.)

Anyway, Milano has said that she wants to be an ally to POC, which is a noble thing, but so hard to do when you haven’t paid enough attention to the details of the actual struggle to know that it exists. This happens when we as supposed allies, whether straight allies in LGBTQ+ causes, or white allies in communities of color, or Christian allies in Muslim spaces, decide to center our feelings and tactics without asking what the communities we propose to help actually want. Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls once told me that the best way to be an ally is to listen, and not assume you’re in charge.

For some people, who have traditionally believed that their needs were to be centered in everything – my generation watched a lifetime of specials and movies where a well-meaning white person was always the star of any story about indigenous people anywhere, and I think it’s hard to get over that. (As a black woman, mainstream culture made it clear that very few things were mostly about me.)

So think of allyship as a simple parable: Imagine there is a war, a fierce one, and a band of brave fighters are doing their thing on the ground, but know that it’s going to take help from people on the outside who have more in common with the people they’re fighting. At a crucial moment, someone from outside arrives and says “I’m here to help you!” “Thank God!” say the tired freedom fighters. “Let us tell you what….”

“No need!” say the helpers. “We already know what you should do. We’ve been in charge a lot and we mean really well, so surely we can take it from here. Also, here’s what you need to do. Here’s Bob. He’ll be your leader now.”

“Wait a minute!” say the freedom fighters. “There’s so much here on that ground that only we know, that we have experienced from being on the front lines, that we need to explain to you before you can help. And we appreciate you and Bob and everything, but we just need your help to spread the word to your compatriots because they won’t listen to people like us as well as they listen to you.”

“Well….” the new allies say, tapping their feet and getting just the slightest bit indignant, “you’re not being very sensitive to us, and we mean well, so telling us how to help you, when we’ve told you our plan, is rude. If you keep doing that we’re going to get offended and maybe not want to help you.”

These sentiments were heard by some of the other freedom fighters, who began yelling at their own compatriots. “You have to be nicer to the allies, or they’ll get sensitive and run away and not help us! You’re being mean.”

“But…” said the first group, “why are you more concerned about the feelings of people who center their own over what actually needs to be done? Why are you trying to protect THEM from us when all we’ve asked them to do is listen?”

Meanwhile it’s a big old mess, and everyone is yelling and mad, and meanwhile the enemy is laughing because nothing is getting done. And meanwhile the so-called allies are giving interviews about how they’ve been slighted, and how the freedom fighters are ungrateful, and why won’t they just shut up and let Bob lead a fight he actually doesn’t know enough about?

The moral of the story is this: If you propose to help a culture not your own, but center your own ego and needs over theirs, you are not an ally. You are just one more thing we have to fight.

2 Responses to “Allyship: A fable; Or “Helping while actually helping and not taking over every blessed thing””

  1. Ikeepitprivate@ikeepitprivate.com' Bi-racial American Woman says:

    I read her post and I think you are being way too hyper-critical. As a bi-racial woman, I think you need to set the example and instead you attacked her. Yes, racism has always existed. But the issue is, whites didn’t realize it not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t see it. Suddenly Trump takes office and issues a permission slip for racists to raise their voices. Whites genuinely thought progress was being made and are feeling shocked and even ashamed. They DON’T recognize this country because even under Regan and Bush they didn’t see this. So instead of shaming someone who meant well and taking her Tweet out of context, which you did, perhaps be kinder in your lessons.

  2. SweetMidlife says:

    Thanks for your response. I didn’t mean any disrespect to Miss Milano, and did not attack her. Telling her that it’s frustrating to still be catching allies up to date in a time is crisis was honesty, not an attack. We have also spoken by DM, which I won’t elaborate on except to say that she says she wants to learn and I’ve told her that listening and learning is all we can do. I know that people didn’t see it. That doesn’t make it OK. Things have escalated in the last few years in some ways, but no one should be shocked that the Klan exists. They rallied down the street from me 20 years ago in Pennsylvania. My comment was only to say that our realities are different, and that we don’t have a lot more time for people to catch up. Ms. Milano is an activist with access to the most expert speakers and thinkers on everything, including race, and she has sadly, historically, been defensive and self-pitying when called out. Black feminists and writers more important than me have attempted to educate her, and she still says she’s shocked. She means well. She really does. But asking her to be aware of the information in front of her face is not shaming. I thank you very much, though, for your comment and your compassion. It’s always nice to see. – Leslie
    SweetMidlife recently posted…Allyship: A fable; Or “Helping while actually helping and not taking over every blessed thing”My Profile

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