I know I was late to the party, but the first time I heard the word ally was several months ago when I saw a conversation on facebook that was alarmingly sexist. There were several people involved whom I know in passing, and I didn’t want to go on a rant to them. Instead I went to my own page and posed this question: If you see someone say something sexist, do you speak up? When, or when not? Then, to add another dimension to the question, I added, If someone says something racist, do you speak up?
Lots of my friends were eager to jump in and say that we must always speak up against racism. Be an ally, they said. My first thought was, oh yes, I want to be an ally. I like that word.
(Interestingly, not a single person expressed concern about being an ally of women by speaking out against sexism.)
Later I thought, wait a minute. I’m half Asian, though I sometimes forget it, because I was raised by WASPS, and where I live, there aren’t Asian people so everybody just assumes I’m some kind of tan white person. But I am a person of color. Am I not? I’ve been told that Asians don’t count as a minority. I have no Asian cultural heritage, can’t say that I’ve suffered for my olive skin, except that I look ghastly in neon green. Maybe I’m just racially confused. And when people start talking about cultural appropriation, it gets worse. Which culture am I allowed? Being adopted and of mixed heritage, I’m a mess. Am I an ally? Or in need of allies? I’ve grown gradually less enthusiastic about the term.
On Mothers’ Day weekend I went with my birthmom, Barb, to the John Brown museum in Osawatomie, KS. We were joined by Barb’s (white) husband; her (white/black) daughter, my half sister A whom I met when I was 22; Barb’s best friend N (white), and her best friend’s daughter S (white/black). This is Barb’s patchwork family, some by blood and others tied just as strongly by love and choice.
We all had a nice time, but one comment S made to me stuck out in my mind. She said that there are a group of people in the city where she lives who very much want to be allies, but they don’t really know what to do, and maybe they could organize a field trip to come down to the John Brown Museum. I was trying to read a plaque at the time, so, sadly, I didn’t give her my full attention. I just said, “You mean, they should be more like John Brown?”
“Well, maybe without the violence.”
It’s taken me three weeks now to figure out what I think about that. A field trip would probably be a great idea, and fun as well, but here’s what I would like to say to S: What white people need is to feel that racism doesn’t just bring down people of color. They need to understand that the losses are their losses, and feel the pain as their own. This is true because we are all connected. We live on one planet, we breathe the same air, we drink from the same well of compassion and when we sleep, our dreams mingle in the same empathic, morphogenetic fields. When we know that, and feel it, action follows.
This is why I choose not to call myself an ally: because it bolsters the belief that race defines and separates us, that that separation leads to some of us being victims and others of us condescending to assist them, when what we really need is to break down the walls and fully feel our humanness, our pain, our love, for, on behalf of, and with others and ourselves. We must own it all. My white half is not an ally to my Asian half. I am one.