August 22, 2019 by Cláudia
When dealing with discrimination and marginalized groups, whether we are talking about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia etc. etc., if we want to stand up for someone else’s rights, it is not necessarily self-evident how to be a good ally.
I recently went to an event called tea for feminism with the main topic being black feminism. It was a fascinating session that covered black feminism History, personal experiences and questions and answers. However, in the end I left with the feeling that, though inadvertently, non-black women were not being good allies to the black feminism cause. At all. From claiming that we shouldn’t refer to black feminist but simply feminism (claiming it was “separatist”), to spending too much time talking about their own personal experiences, to claim to relate to the experiences that have been told, what transpired was that white women were not comfortable at all talking about what it feels like to be black.
This discomfort lead many white women to claim that they completely understood what black women were describing. “My mom also hated my hair and wanted me to straighten my hair”. “I was also bullied because of my appearance”. I understand this impulse, as I felt it myself as well. Some stories were so shocking, so foreign to me, so unfair and so violent that my brain immediately wanted to mitigate the discomfort by finding smaller but somewhat related experiences that I had been through. By relating to their experiences, the situation wasn’t so foreign to us. But the situation is foreign to us and it is important to recognize it as so. As a white woman, I have never ever felt, and probably never will feel, what it is like to be discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. I don’t know what that feels like and I don’t know how it would have impacted my life. As an empathetic person, I can listen to other people’s experiences and empathise and, to a certain extent, imagine what it feels like. But I can never ever say that I completely understand. I heard many participants claim that they totally understood what was being told because they were also discriminated because of x and y. Everyone has had experiences in which they felt left out, minimized, disregarded or belittled. Some people more than others, but it is an experience that most can relate to at some level. However, to extrapolate this experience and claim that we understand what feels like to be the victim of racism, is not only untrue, but it also minimizes all the historical, educational, social and cultural violence of being a target of racism. In this context, I believe that a good ally is someone who recognizes their position of privilege and admits their lack of personal understanding of the situation.
Which leads me to the second (and probably most important point) point: LISTEN. Since we’ve established that we cannot fully relate and understand someone else’s experience on a deep level, we are not entitled to tell others how to feel, think or act. I realize this can hurt our ego and that we probably want to feel very enlightened, but our ego has no place as an ally. It is not about us. Going to a discussion of black feminism and, as a white woman, taking up more than half of the time to discuss your own views on feminism is not acknowledging racism as a real problem, is not giving voice to black women and it is not empowering black women to share their truth.
Consequently, before jumping in with thoughts, opinions and theories, sit back, ask questions and listen. Listen. Ask questions. Try to understand without putting yourself in the story. This is not your time to talk about yourself. This is not the time to take the floor.
It would be as if a man went to a feminist meeting for the first time ever and started spilling out his opinions on how women should think, act and behave, without even asking questions.
Even if the intentions are good – connection, understanding and compassion – claiming to understand discrimination is just making people feel isolated, misunderstood and unvalidated. Marginalized groups and communities have been spoken over, told what to do and feel and had their voice taken away from them for too long. Our part as allies is to make sure that they have a voice. Is to show support without a leading role. Because it is not about us.
Read more about black feminism: