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September 24, 2015

Breaking Binaries: How to Partner Better with Allies

Last month, I wrote about why allyship is essential to advance the common good and creation of a world that works better for everyone. I described how allyship has been key to progress and social movements and how all of us can, and should be, allies to movements we (as “dominants”) don’t personally benefit from — on the surface. I discussed how we must break binary thinking — “either-or,” “us-them” — and learn to be better allies ourselves, or as “nondominants,” to accept and work with allies more effectively.

In my following post, I offered seven strategies allies can use to be better at allyship and more genuinely supportive of social movements and nondominant groups. Today, I will discuss six ways nondominants can partner more effectively with allies.

1. Be clear about your intent. Do you want behavior change? Or do you want empathy and emotional support? Do you want understanding and connection? Or do you want to vent your anger? Get clear and act accordingly. If you want to vent your anger, don’t be surprised if allies become defensive. If you want empathy and support, don’t be surprised if allies are clueless. If you want to express an opinion, don’t phrase it as a question then get angry at people’s sincere answers. If you want meaningful behavior change, this may require you to change your mindset and behaviors too — it’s not just the allies’ work.

2. Provide specific, concrete feedback. Allies can’t hear you and won’t change if you label their behavior or opinions as “privileged,” “racist,” “mansplaining” or “neoliberal.” If your intent is to vent your anger or shame the ally, labeling is effective. If you want the ally’s behavior to change, let them know the specific behavior or words that were problematic, the negative effect those had and why, and what behavior or words would be preferable or more aligned with the ally’s good intentions. Avoid questioning an ally’s intent; focus instead on the effect of their behaviors. Tell allies how to “do something concrete” and how to “be in it.” We have no clue what this means. Tell us what to do, and allow us be awkward at first.

3. Appreciate the big power of small, unseen actions. Not everyone “doing the work” is going to rallies, working for advocacy organizations, donating large sums of money, calling legislators or publishing op-ed pieces.   Many are challenging politically influential family members’ views at the dinner table, supporting non-dominant friends in crisis, calling out bigoted comments or misinformed assumptions in their workplaces, or boycotting products or organizations.  Many allies have started or championed initiatives or programs, facing real personal and professional risks.  Many tolerate abuse from their peers because the hatred leveled at allies can be more intense than that directed towards non-dominant groups because allies are often viewed as traitors.

4. Take the long view. Celebrate the little shifts in dominants’ awareness and behavior instead of criticizing the obviousness or inadequacy of those shifts.  Progress is messy and confusing – celebrate imperfect wins (like marriage equality) and appreciate them from a strategic long view of change (it took 100 years for women to gain the right to vote, and granting Black men the vote first was an unjust-looking strategy along the way).  Keep your eyes on the ultimate goal, tolerate bumpiness on the journey, and celebrate robustly every single step forward.

5. Heal your wounding. Having suffered doesn’t inoculate anyone against making others suffer, and having been oppressed doesn’t immunize anyone against behaving oppressively towards others.  The more invested you are solely in your identity as a member of a non-dominant, oppressed, marginalized group, the more invested you are subconsciously in maintaining the status quo to preserve your sense of identity and community.  Notice and heal your own oppressive tendencies.  Own your dominant identities and leverage their power and privilege.  Unless you are an elderly, disabled, Muslim, childless, convicted felon, undocumented transgender woman of color experiencing poverty who speaks almost no English and has little formal education, you have some privileged identities.  Challenge your assumption that dominants’ lives are better than yours or that they “have” everything – not only is this not true, its myopia and divisiveness are dangerous to progress.

6. Be the change. Keep your eyes and heart on your intent.  If you want a world where everyone is heard, respected, celebrated and included, model those behaviors in how you communicate with allies and dominants, even those who disagree with you or hate you for your commitment.  You hate it when people label you and make assumptions, so don’t label or assume.  People may “look” straight, cisgender, White, affluent, etc. but may not be.  Also, everyone is a work in progress and people change.  That bully that tormented you in high school may have had a change of heart.

The journey towards equity, inclusiveness and respect for the full humanity of every person is not “either-or”, it’s “both-and”.  Much progress has been made and much work is left to be done.  Straight and White people don’t “have it all” when it comes to wholeness and happiness any more than LGBTQI and people of color “have it all” when it comes to answers.  We will not see continued, sustained progress until we move beyond binary “us-them” thinking.   When it comes down to it, there is only “we”, and any movement that furthers the humanity and thriving of any one group furthers the humanity and thriving of the human species.

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