I grew up in a home and neighborhood where violence against women and those who presented as feminine was commonplace.
My mother’s natural leadership constantly clashed with the patriarchal structure my father imposed on our household. My sisters could never escape street harassment from men who felt entitled to their bodies. Some grew up to enter relationship after relationship with abusive men.
From my vantage point, the women I loved had to deal with physical and emotional attacks at the hands of men on a near daily basis, and it was harrowing.
And as a queer Black boy who wore masculinity like an ill-fitted costume solely because it was forced onto me, I saw some of myself in them and proudly accepted protecting women as my duty.
I was punished for performing the non-masculine gender expressions that came to me naturally and attacked whenever I even hinted at queer sexuality. Society violently resisted my Blackness and queerness.
Given that I knew so well what identity-based oppression felt like, I thought I understood the experiences of my mother and sister just as well as they did.
It was easy to adopt the banner of feminism and call myself a “male ally.” I practiced this by speaking out against the mistreatment of women, supporting their rights in policy advocacy, and even physically fighting for them if necessary.
I now know identity-based oppression feels different for differing identities, and it wasn’t long before I also came to know what being on the other side of allyship felt like.
Being spoken for when I have my own voice. Watching my struggles appropriated by others. Watching as the guilt and the pain felt contingently as a result of my struggle trumped the directly inflicted violences I experienced. Having others assume to know what is best for me without question.
All the things I did with the women in my life for whom I claimed to care so much.
I have many white and straight friends who consider themselves allies for Black and queer causes. Yet, I find myself in a constant struggle within my friendships and relationships with white folks – which sometimes seem to become harder and harder to maintain even as they become further committed to being allies.
It’s not that I can really deny their commitment. An ally is, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a person or group that gives help to another person or group.” However, that definition is vague and imprecise.
It leaves room for shows of support that are only so on the surface. It doesn’t give requirements for how strongly and sincerely that support must be offered.
It is why I was able to so easily adopt the title of “male ally,” despite the fact that the actual work necessary of me was never supposed to be easy.
It’s why many have felt the need to continually redefine what it means to be an ally or reject allies altogether.
“Giving help” can look like so many things, but not all of those things are received as help just because they are given as such.
It is the basis of five reasons I no longer claim to be an ally, and why I prefer to think of myself as a turncoat instead.
1. Allies Co-Opt Causes and Take Up Space
As an ally, it was easy to learn the language of those with whom I claimed to be allying.
Many have taken issue with how allies don’t listen enough, but sometimes the problem was that I listened extremely well and parroted what I heard without giving credit or recognizing the position of privilege from which I spoke.
I once was called out for speaking for trans folk in a space where trans people were present and transness was not my experience.
As an ally, I resisted the criticism.
I meant well, and the friend hadn’t even argued that they would have said anything much different. At least the message got out, I thought.
It’s clear now the issue wasn’t with what was said, but when and where.
Speaking for trans people when they can speak for themselves further robs them of an often disallowed platform and voice.
Trans people are consistently erased from conversations and their distinct needs ignored, even in spaces supposedly designed for all LGBTQIA+ people, and my actions legitimized this practice.
It also insinuated that I can say better what they can about their own lives, or that it is more important coming from me. It reinforced the idea that a non-trans person’s existence has more meaning, the very thing a person seeking solidarity should be fighting against.
In certain spaces, it is a much greater display of support to step back from the action than to move forward alongside those whose causes we claim to champion.
While allies adopt another’s causes as their own, non-marginalized people need to find a way to address the issues of oppression from their own unique position.
2. ‘Turncoat’ Recognizes That Work Done Inside a Community Is For That Community
It is fundamentally different for me, as a Black man, to emphasize the importance of my commitment to loving other Black men romantically than for a white person to do the same.
For them, choosing to date primarily Black men can easily teeter into the realm of fetishization. My decision is rooted in the necessity of finding spaces of safety in my love life.
The way I deal with anti-Black racism needs to be different from how a white person deals with it, and the same is true for other marginalized/non-marginalized pairings.
That does not mean men can’t learn from and be informed by women or white people can’t be guided by the work done by nonwhite folks.
Quite the contrary, it simply means being informed or guided is not the same as informing or guiding.
If we are not members of a marginalized group, we cannot take their work as our own or force them to do ours for us.
What bothers me most about many of our conversations about race is that a lot of it revolves around nonwhite people teaching white people what to do, trying to force them to empathize with us (I don’t believe seeking empathy is the way to combat oppression), or responding to their demands to know from us how they should address white supremacy.
I often want to say (and generally do), Figure it out your damn self!
But Darnell L. Moore put it a little more kindly in an interview for the Washington Post, “White people have to do the hard work of figuring out the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism. And I don’t know what that looks like, because that is not my work, or the work of other black people, to figure out.”
3. ‘Ally’ Allows Me to Ignore That Sometimes I’m Part of the Problem
Supporting a cause as an ally is a conundrum.
It is self-centering in some cases – such as taking the mic from transfolk in order to talk for them – but also self-removing when it comes to blame and responsibility.
It was easy for me to speak over and for my sisters about their plight when it made me look like “the good guy.”
It was just as easy for me to point to that “good guy” status to avoid being lumped in with other men, even when I’d objectified, harassed and done many of the very same things at some point or another.
An ally can be whatever is most beneficial to be at the moment. True commitment to a cause means refusing to leave the room just because the fire you started is hot.
And, yes, I started some of the fires in my communities, or at least poured gas onto them. And I am responsible for putting them out.
As a supporter of another’s cause, it’s hard to see oneself as also implicated in their plight – how simply one’s presence or words can detract from a struggle.
There are biases, both conscious and unconscious, that I still possess and bring with me everywhere I go. For example, not too long ago, I claimed to prefer masculine men.
I thought I meant romantically, but eventually found that my friend circle’s femme male membership had dwindled. This wasn’t a coincidence.
I carry biases, and it’s undeniable that at times I act on them, perpetuating the very oppressions I claimed to ally with marginalized people to combat.
My very presence means the simultaneous presence of those biases. Which means my very presence can harm others. Similarly, there are privileges that follow me wherever I go that can take away from others without them even being in my environment.
In professional settings, my gender might make superiors much more comfortable considering me for jobs and promotions than an equally qualified woman.
There are resources that are given to me at the expense of others that I have been conditioned to accept.
This must be acknowledged and those resources diverted to other places if true equity is ever to be achieved.
4. ‘Turncoat’ Reinforces the Importance of Unlearning Oppressive Behaviors
Dictionary.com defines “turncoat” as “a person who changes to the opposite party or faction, reverses principles, etc.; renegade.”
The term speaks to how, as members of a non-marginalized identity, we begin our journey in the same place as an oppressive group.
Therefore, we have learned how to think, speak and move through the world just like them.
We are them, and we are responsible for reversing the damage we’ve inflicted and continue to inflict unknowingly.
One of the recent tasks I’ve taken on, which surprises me in its difficulty, is the decision to eliminate sexist and ableist language from my vocabulary.
I fought taking this step for a long time, making whatever excuses I could to conserve the right to say things that hurt others, even though changing my language did no harm to me, and finding other ways to communicate even functions as a mental exercise of sorts.
My resistance – which I must credit Son of Baldwin and the women on his page for helping me through – was part of an ingrained commitment to oppressive behaviors in general.
Many times, we are the only thing standing between us and eradicating the oppression of folks whose marginalized identities we do not share.
5. Turncoats Must Take Responsibility for Intra-Community Insurrection
Finally, the work of a turncoat is, essentially, insurrection.
This is not a battle our marginalized counterparts can do, as they do not have access to the spaces and resources that we do by virtue of our privileged status.
However, it must be just as hard-fought. Sacrifices must be made and, if done correctly, it will be consistently uncomfortable, at the very least.
Members of non-marginalized groups have to organize and lead from within their communities and influence from the inside out.
Such a revolt demands that we gather our friends and family and get them on board with our fight, rather than waiting for marginalized people to do that work for us.
That means straining cherished relationships, and maybe even breaking them.
It means not only using privileges for good, but also accepting that we eventually have to give them up.
My work is to toil against an enemy inside, or, at least, one who shares the ground on which I stand. It is to unwork my own oppressive ways of thinking.
To be a turncoat is to recognize these systems have been crafted and upheld by us and for our benefit. Not only is dismantling them our responsibility, but we’re the ones who have access to their most vulnerable defenses.
When it tumbles, all those privileges come crashing down with it. For solidarity to have any meaning, we have to be ready for that.
Hari Ziyad is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a Brooklyn-based storyteller. They are the Editor in Chief of RaceBaitR, a space dedicated to imagining and working toward a world outside of the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalistic gaze, and their work has been featured on Gawker, The Guardian, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire, and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can find them (mostly) ignoring racists on Twitter @RaceBaitR and Facebook.
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