This past January I had an idea for a project. I work for a transition program in Berkeley, CA that provides life skills training and support for young people as they enter adulthood. All of the students are developmentally and/or intellectually disabled and typically coming out of a lifetime of “special” education. Each student contends with an enormous amount of subtle and overt discrimination. Seeing this day after day – their competence questioned, their abilities undervalued – is an outrage, and I wanted everyone to be outraged with me. I wanted my students to yell at people who wouldn’t talk to them directly or who condescendingly congratulated them on everyday tasks. I wanted these people to feel remorse. Sparked by this newly found injustice, I designed a photography project that would – I believed –both empower my students and be a part of a viral marketing campaign to the world at large.
The plan was to photograph the students with written messages of personal pride, and then create an online network that anyone in the disability community could contribute to. Brilliant! This was going to be huge. I had a photography team lined up and a timeline for completion – all in a matter of days. Then, the director of my program (who is himself Autistic) came to me with some concerns. He delicately questioned my inclusion of disabled people in the planning process, and my intentions for the overall message. Under the strength of my conviction, and the self-importance I felt in my role as a teacher and, importantly, an “ally” to the disability community, I defended my decision. I argued that I was merely amplifying the student’s messages and not my own. I knew I could organize it successfully, and I wanted to go ahead.
It took me a number of days, a number of conversations, and a number of uncomfortable feelings before I fully realized why the project was so problematic. It wasn’t an act of allyship and I wasn’t an ally. I had deluded myself into thinking the project was not about me, when it clearly was. I needed the project to look and feel the way I wanted it to, to appeal to a certain type of person. And I needed my students to be seen by others (able-bodied others) the way that I (an only slightly more educated able-bodied person) saw them. When I finally came to understand this, I was overwhelmed by shame.
Some people may have read this story shaking their heads, appropriately disgusted. Others, and I have encountered many in my subsequent discussions on the experience, may still not fully understand what the big deal is. Isn’t “helping others” good? Don’t social justice movements need all the “allies” they can get? Yes and no. Helping other people is good – if and when they seek help – but without an appropriate understanding of allyship, the help given by a privileged “ally” is more often a perpetuation of oppression than an act of solidarity.
What is an ally?
The first of many mistakes I made was presuming to call myself an ally to begin with. People often oppose the oppression of communities to which they do not belong. There are white people who disagree with law enforcement’s habit of racial profiling; men who support equal pay for women; straight people who believe that LGBTQ couples have the right to marry. This is the awareness of inequality; it is not allyship. Being an ally is not an identity one can assume on one’s own, but a role that one acquires through continued work in solidarity with that community to overcome the injustices you both acknowledge.
The Importance of Asking Questions
I now believe that the first real work of a wanna-be ally is to ask questions. When I was first feeling like it was important for my students to have a venue to share their strengths and build confidence, I should have asked some questions. I should have talked to my network of disabled people to see if they had any suggestions or knew of work that was already being done within the community. I should have reached out to the numerous local or online organizations that deal directly with disability pride and self-advocacy– most of which are run by people with disabilities.
Asking myself questions should have also been part of that process. Questions like, “Is my voice necessary right now?” or “Who should be leading this conversation?” are important in maintaining perspective and helping others feel safe and understood. Asking questions would have given me an understanding of the true needs of my students and of the larger disability movement, instead of my own.
Follow, Don’t Lead
The role of an ally is one of listening, not leading. My biggest mistake was not listening when my ideas were called into question. One person’s voice does not speak for a community as a whole, but an individual is the expert on their own experiences and must be deferred to as such. The director of my program was brave enough to approach me with his discomfort, and kind enough to do so in a way that did not seek to alienate me. This should have been the moment when I took a giant step back, apologized, and reevaluated. I am still filled with regret that I instead became defensive. Listening is part of the essential work of an ally, and the only correct response to being confronted with one’s ignorance and privilege is to listen quietly, apologize if necessary, and change those behaviors going forward.
Taking a secondary role is difficult, especially when an urgent sense of injustice is felt. My outrage was desperate and fresh because my privilege had allowed me to spend most of my years oblivious to the entrenched ableism in our society. I don’t always see the same type of rage in my students because ableist stigmatization and ignorance have always been a part of their lives. By assuming my students would benefit from my leadership, I was also assuming, within months of meeting them, that they all wanted to actively fight these attitudes and I knew how best to do so. “Listening, not leading” means consistent support as they continue to find strength and power through each of their own lived experiences. It means lending my resources to their projects, not using them as resources for mine.
Educating Yourself and Others
The next step is education – an ally must first educate herself, and then others in her community. Educating yourself on social justice movements requires reading its history, amplifying its activists, and staying involved with contemporary issues through on and offline social networks. It is important to be aware of changing preferences and sensitive to the nuances of personal identity, which must be taught and retaught.
Audre Lorde once lamented that it seemed, “The responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressor their mistakes.” This pattern can be broken by educating yourself instead of depending on others to educate you, and then taking on some of that responsibility of teaching others. A true strength of allyship comes through relating what you have learned back to your own community. When someone in the able-bodied community says or does something that I now know to be offensive, I try my best to let them know while keeping in mind that I came from a similar place of ignorance. I also try educating others through historical content, statistics, or by recommending the work of a disabled writer or activist, rather than making the mistake of presuming to speak to their experiences.
Recognizing my ignorance has been humbling, and I hope to carry that humbleness with me. Working in solidarity with the disability community does not mean I am a member of that community or that I have earned any special treatment within it. There is no “saving” of anyone else. Despite any degree of involvement, a person who works as an ally will never know first-hand what that specific discrimination feels like or how best to confront it. And despite any degree of involvement, that person must respect that not everyone in that community will trust them, consider them an ally, or always appreciate their presence.
I made mistakes and am thankful that I can share what I’ve learned from them. But I am unfortunately going to keep making mistakes. The work of allyship must be done over and over again: re-asking, re-listening, re-learning, re-teaching. Doing it once does not make you an ally. It is the dedication to continued work, support, and increased understanding that indicates your role. As Mia McKenzie, in her article, No More Allies, writes,
Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their “allies” be?
Maybe how exhausted you are is a good measure of how well you’re doing the work.
Well, there is a lot to do, and I’m ready to work until I’m exhausted.
Heather Yaden (Rutgers University) Heather is a 2011 Rutgers–New Brunswick alumni with a degree in Psychology and Cognitive Science. She currently lives in Oakland, CA and works as a team member of Ala Costa Adult Transition program in Berkeley, CA. ACAT supports self-determination, independence, and empowerment in young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities through teaching community engagement and life skills. She is passionate about social justice and class issues: feminism, queer theory, disability rights, diversity, equality and the intersections of identity. Heather is a a 3rd wave feminist and life-long pink collar worker. Check out her twitter @HdAvery.