A Refresher for Allies

Recently, I watched a conversation among allies go sadly awry. This was a private venue and I won’t repeat the specifics. They’re not necessary, really: gather together a mixed collection of people whose goals are similar but backgrounds are not, and you can watch the same thing happen. The folks in the group that are members of whatever minority or underprivileged group will eventually end up in the unenviable position of explaining to members of the the majority or privileged group that the tactic they think is so clever is problematic. Rather than admitting this is so and dropping the subject, members of the privileged group tend to dig in. It looks something like this:

Privileged Person A: Making fun of racists by using racist stereotypes to show them how stupid those stereotypes are – brilliant!

Minority Member A: Um, no, because it risks reinforcing stereotypes. Also, splash damage.

PPA: I don’t see it that way because reasons.

MMA, with B, C and D chiming in: It’s a problem.

PPA: Okay, it’s a problem for you. I totally get that. But it’s brilliant! Because reasons.

MMA, B, C and D: Collective headdesk.

As a person who’s a member of some privileged groups, and also a member of some non-privileged groups, I’ve experienced both sides. When I’m wearing my Privileged Person hat, I’ve had to learn something important: when non-privileged people are speaking, it’s time for me to shut up, listen, and then go away for a good think before defending my position.

It’s hard. I admit that. It’s bloody hard to have non-privileged people tell me that something I love, or something I think is a brilliant tactic for confronting injustice, is problematic. I want to get defensive. I want to find reasons they’re wrong. I want to go on loving my problematic something, or using the brilliant but problematic technique. I want to wave away the problems. The non-privileged person just doesn’t understand, or can’t see it for what it is, or is wrong. Right?

Possibly. But I’ve learned they’re right the overwhelming majority of the time, and especially when the lines break cleanly between privileged and non-privileged, it’s up to me to shut the fuck up, listen carefully, reconsider my assumptions, and try to see things through their eyes. Even when they haven’t been nice about it. Even when emotions are running high. Even when I think it’s a fun argument to have. Even if I think I’m right.

After watching that conversation go horribly awry because the privileged weren’t listening to the non-privileged members of the group, I headed off to spelunk the intertoobz for a few refresher posts. In addition to important work by our own bloggers – Greta Christina, Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Jason Thibeault, Jen McCreight, Crommunist, Natalie Reed, Zinnia Jones, Ashley F. Miller, Avicenna, Paul Fidalgo, Miri, and PZ Meyers – there’s quite a lot out there helping allies become better allies. This is but a tiny sampling.

Hershele Ostropoler’s foot-stepping analogy is always critical to remember. It covers allies and non-allies alike.

If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot.

If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot.

If you step on my foot without realizing it, you need to get off my foot.

If everyone in your culture steps on feet, your culture is horrible, and you need to get off my foot.

If you have foot-stepping disease, and it makes you unaware you’re stepping on feet, you need to get off my foot. If an event has rules designed to keep people from stepping on feet, you need to follow them. If you think that even with the rules, you won’t be able to avoid stepping on people’s feet, absent yourself from the event until you work something out.

If you’re a serial foot-stepper, and you feel you’re entitled to step on people’s feet because you’re just that awesome and they’re not really people anyway, you’re a bad person and you don’t get to use any of those excuses, limited as they are. And moreover, you need to get off my foot.

Sometimes, a refresher on what privilege is and why it can lead to inadvertent foot-stomping is a necessary thing.

The fact that people are stupid isn’t news, however. And actually that’s kind of why the concept of privilege is important – because privilege isn’t about being stupid. It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, or something with a moral or value judgement of any kind attached to it. Having privilege isn’t something you can usually change, but that’s okay, because it’s not something you should be ashamed of, or feel bad about. Being told you have privilege, or that you’re privileged, isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder! The key to privilege isn’t worrying about having it, or trying to deny it, or apologize for it, or get rid of it. It’s just paying attention to it, and knowing what it means for you and the people around you. Having privilege is like having big feet. No one hates you for having big feet! They just want you to remember to be careful where you walk.

This reminder of what allies are was written for allies of autistic people, but applies to allies of any people.

But here’s the thing: if you are trying to be an ally, you need to recognize that it’s not about you. If you are talking over Autistics or otherwise bringing the discussion back to center on ‘allies’, you are not a real ally. Real allies tell these people “don’t do that shit. This isn’t about you.”

If you are really an ally, you are not going to make it about your feelings. Declaring yourself an ally isn’t something you get to do. If you are really fighting with us and for us, it should be because it’s right, not because you want an “Ally!” sticker for your Good Person collection.

A conditional ally, by the way, is not an ally at all. Anyone who says they’d be for your cause if you weren’t so mean/if you personally educated them on every issue/if you were more appreciative is not an ally. Again, it’s not about the privileged group’s feelings here-it’s about equal rights and about our very existence. My exasperation with nearly everything does not reduce my personhood or the fact that I should have equal rights.

The following article address that distress we privileged folk feel when being called out, and why we really need to get the fuck over ourselves. This snippet begins with a quote from a person talking about the Chik-fil-A explosion, and ends with a reminder that while the Distress of the Privileged is real, it’s not as painful as the Distress of the Non-Privileged, and we need to face that fact.

“This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t. There is no “live and let live” on this issue because Dan Cathy is spending millions to very specifically NOT let me live. I’m not trying to do that to him.”


Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.

At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.

We also need to remember the very real difference between offense and harm.

Mocking the powerful and privileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for according that power and privilege reverses, rather than participating in and reinforcing, the cultural narrative that justifies their privilege (and that in so doing necessarily justifies the marginalization and oppression of the powerless and unprivileged).  Mocking the powerless and unprivileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for their marginalization does participate in and reinforce the narratives that justify that marginalization.

These things build up.  Over a lifetime, they build up a great deal: these usually-unspoken cultural narratives are precisely the stuff of implicit bias, and we’re soaking in them.  It’s a mistake to object to them as merely “offensive” — tacitly accepting that the inherently subjective idea of offense is of primary importance, which enables the privileged in claiming, confident it can’t be disproved or even argued against, that they’re “offended” by challenges to their privilege: or as Fred Clark has it, empowers the cult of offendedness — instead of pointing out that they do real harm.  They offend too, to be sure; and it’s unkind to offend on  purpose, or to fail to apologize for giving offense.  But the much greater harm lies in strengthening, even though it’s only a little bit at a time, the negative stories about marginalized groups that are woven into our society, both in the minds of the privileged, and of the marginalized people themselves.

This piece on privilege, politeness, and teaching was written about racism, but you can substitute sexism, ageism, ableism, or a variety of other -isms. Allies need to absorb this bit, because it will save butts from being hurt when tempers flare.

So if you say something racist I may write a detailed reply pointing it out and teaching a bit. I may also go off. Or I may just ignore it. It all depends. Depends on if I just spent the whole day dealing with racism, if I know you, if I think you can learn, if it’s something that’s been repeated over and over and I’m tired of dealing with it and think that you as an (assumed) intelligent person should know better. But you know what they say “If if was a fifth we’d all be drunk.” The point is I should not be expected to respond to racism with a happy-go-lucky smile and a will to teach. I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.

See this post has been brewing a long time which is maybe why I seem so “angry” or “rude”. I’ve noticed that when discussions of racism happen online the posts that go up in the aftermath, even some of the ones that address and acknowledge the issues of racism in the incident still say “They didn’t have to be rude about it. There was no call for it.” or “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened.” or some other variation (they of course referring to POC). What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and fucked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.

Here is a missive reminding us that molehills, while perhaps not as lofty or noticeable as the Alps, are still damned important in the aggregate:

And, in a very real way, ignoring “the little things” in favor of “the big stuff” makes the big stuff that much harder to eradicate, because it is the pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable little things that create the foundation of a sexist culture on which the big stuff is dependent for its survival. It’s the little things, the constant drumbeat of inequality and objectification, that inure us to increasingly horrible acts and attitudes toward women.

In conclusion, I’d like to point up two recent posts by my own Freethought bloggers. Stephanie Zvan on argument:

It’s different when the argument you’re being asked to engage in “for fun” is essentially the same argument you have to have over and over in order to be allowed to fully participate in society. Or, say, to avoid being beaten to death, depending on where you are and what the argument is.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but there’s no way that can be fun. It’s just more work, with very high stakes, that you can neither afford to skip nor allow yourself to lose.

And Paul Fidalgo on shutting up and listening:

Take this opportunity to see if you can understand how you were wrong, how what you said could hurt. Instead of a war of words to prove your equality-cred in the moment, decide to take in the criticism as a tool for next time. Use what you’ve learned to get better at expressing your ideas. Use what you’ve learned to better understand where people who have lived very different lives are coming from.

You’ll have so many chances in your life to be right. You’re a skepto-atheist, after all. But in times like this, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay, as long as when you have been called out, you take the opportunity to improve yourself through acceptance of the criticism.

Use what you’ve learned to become wiser.

All of us will find ourselves in a position of privilege amongst the non-privileged at some point in our lives. We’re much less likely to trod on already-trodden-upon feet if we pause, inhale, and remember the above. And when we’re wearing our non-privileged hats in mixed company, hopefully more of our allies will have taken the time to do the same.


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  1. rq says

    Well-said. Very.
    It’s difficult to remember this advice (shut up and listen), sometimes – being on either side, depending on the situation. But important, very, very important.
    Important to teach to other people, too. Sometimes not so easy, but necessary. A life-time of work, as it were, sometimes…

  2. says

    This post was brilliant.

    It addressed so many issues including what privilege is, empathy, all of it. This is definitely getting bookmarked for future linkage. Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    That’s a pretty information-dense resource post you’ve got going here. Nice!

  4. keresthanatos says

    What helps me the most, is to remember that that person “is” my brother or my sister, simply from another mother. I don’t always do it, but I try.

  5. says

    I thought my 15 minutes were long since over — I promise I wasn’t Googling myself.

    Partial credit to Ozy Frantz, who inspired (though zie probably didn’t invent) foot-stepping as a metaphor.

  6. says

    Ooh! I’m definitely going to read those that I haven’t already from this list. My social justice resources page on my blog also has a bunch of good ally stuff that I’ve come across.

    I think Paul’s recent post really hits the nail on the head. There’s nothing wrong with just shutting up and listening for a while. You can express your Important Opinions a little later, if at all.