On being an ally

Roller coaster
You can’t get off this roller coaster, even when it gets scary

Over the last week or so, the knitting universe has been in uproar over posts, comments and responses made on the social media of a knitting personality. Having had a small taste of infamy years ago, I have every sympathy. I understand that when the online world you inhabit seems to turn against you, it can feel overwhelming, and putting your mental health first is vital. Right now, he needs to do what he can to recuperate, and care for himself, and though my words today are going to be critical of his actions, I believe it is vital for us all as allies to examine what it means to be an ally, and sometimes that will mean recognising that sometimes good people do shitty things.

I think of myself as a good person. I’ve done shitty things. I said an offhand thing online during the marriage equality debate that I didn’t think through, and it haunts me to this day. The pain of knowing what I did, knowing that it hurt people I care deeply about is uncomfortable. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting about it. That discomfort drives me – it reminds me that being an ally isn’t something I should turn on and off when it’s convenient for me.

I have quite a lot of privilege. In some aspects of my life I lack privilege, but I have enough that I recognise that the ability to step in and out of being an ally is also a privilege. If I see someone behaving badly, I get to choose how involved I get. The person who is directly affected by the bad behaviour doesn’t get that choice.

When someone behaves badly online, everyone who sees that post of comment has a chance to call it out. And that is WORK. It takes effort. And if it feels hard for you as a cis/het/white/able bodied (insert privileged group here) person, just imagine how it would feel to have to defend yourself. Over, and over, and over again.

Imagine having to defend your existence over, and over, and over. Imagine being attacked online, and having all your friends sit by and say nothing. Imagine feeling like nobody cares.

Depending on your age, your culture, your family background, you are going to have different ideas about what sort of behaviour is acceptable. My paternal grandmother, raised with a lot of privilege, and in an era where racism was the norm, used to love Chinese food. She’d take the whole family out for dinner to an upscale restaurant, and call every waiter “Charlie”, with absolutely no awareness that it was rude. As a young child, I wondered whether it was a formal title that was bestowed on only the best waiters, or maybe there was some secret society.

I learned over time, through having progressive parents, that this was racism. I learned to see it. And I saw a lot of it. The war in Lebanon was raging across the other side of the world, and though I knew nothing of the war, I started to see new faces in our suburb. The single Chinese takeaway was joined by an Italian pizza place, run by a big Lebanese family. My parents had a friend who made us stuffed zucchini and kibbe. Our Greek neighbours shared every family celebration with us, and I grew to adore their name days and weddings and sunday get togethers, with the men smoking and drinking in the backyard, while the women prepared dolmades and baklava in the crowded, noisy kitchen.

My dad told me recently that the first Chinese family moved in to our suburb around 1956. He grew up with a Lebanese family next door, and maintained a friendship with his childhood friend for many, many years. The land that I grew up on had been part of my paternal great grandfathers citrus orchard. My high school was once part of that orchard, and the bush that backs on to the school leads all the way up to the Central Coast. My childhood playground was that bush, where there are aboriginal rock carvings that prove the original inhabitants of that land were there for a long time before we came. And gone for a long time before I was born.

The land I grew up on was Aboriginal land. No doubt stolen generations ago, but never talked about or acknowledged. I grew up never seeing Aboriginal people.

Our suburb was very white. English, Irish, Scottish. We sang “God Save the Queen” every morning in primary school. The Chinese takeaway was a lynchpin, as were the Lebanese family that made the best pizza I’ve ever had. I don’t know what it must have been like for their kids growing up there, where nobody knew the “N” word, but we all knew plenty of slurs for asian and middle eastern people. I think it would have been pretty awful.

As a child, my slightly darker skin tone, long dark hair, and large eyes marked me as “different”. In a classroom full of Stephanies, Belindas and Karens, the racially hard to pin down “Larissa” (absolutely an impossible name for Sydney in the 1970’s) was an anomaly. I was teased mercilessly, both on the basis of my race, and my inability to make friends, for my weird intensity, and my “off with the fairies” demeanor. I was also teased for being a lesbian, which made me think I might be, despite having absolutely no idea what was wrong with that.

I was 47 before I found out I had inattentive ADHD. And almost 49 when I found out I’m probably autistic too (diagnosis would be expensive, and not necessarily useful, so I haven’t sought one yet).

I’m still mixed race, but these days we see way more diversity in our cities, so I’m just a face in the crowd, and very rarely get treated any differently on the basis of race. I’m from Sydney, and I live in Auckland, so my day to day existence is in the context of large, fairly multicultural cities. Context matters, and while travelling in Sri Lanka, I am definitely treated with greater deference than the locals. You may have different experiences than I have had.

But my gender identity matches my biology (I’m cis gendered). I’m attracted (almost exclusively) to men (I’m heterosexual), I’m married to someone who shares parenting duties (I’m not a single parent). We have enough money to buy a home, educate our kid, and have access to great healthcare.

So I’ve got areas where I have great privilege, and areas where I’m not so privileged, and I can sometimes use an ally too.

Privilege isn’t a binary. There is no such thing as privileged vs. the under-priviliged.

Every single one of us has layers of privilege and lack of privilege. In the knitting community, the most visible people tend to be white, middle class, and female. Within that community, being male actually affords you both privilege and a lack of it, depending on the context. In the wider community, being male affords you more privilege than being female.

The context in which an interaction exists can’t be ignored either. Online, some of us have much greater influence than others. Influence is power.

If I, as a white woman, walk into a knitting group, I know I will be accepted (*at least initially) because it is very likely I will see other white women in the room. That is an example of how I benefit from being part of the dominant group.

Now, I might suffer from social anxiety, and I might feel really scared to walk into the room for the first time. Or I might have a physical disability that means stairs are a challenge. Or maybe I need to be close to a toilet, or maybe I care for a relative, and my time away is precious and scarce. There are a million reasons why walking into that room might be challenging, but not being white isn’t one of them. And that’s what privilege means – of all the challenges I might be facing, race isn’t something I need to deal with.

All my life I’ve felt apart and other. Maybe that’s autism, maybe that’s growing up in a leftie family, with artists and scientists and challenging the status quo as natural as breathing. Or maybe I’m just a sensitive soul who identifies with the underdog, and I’ve just grown accustomed to the obligation of caring for those that need a hand. Regardless of the why, I’ve always been driven to do what I can to make the world a kinder, fairer place.

In 2012, whilst at Macquarie University, I trained to be an LGBTQ+ Ally, and was part of the university ally program. I signed up because I thought it would be an interesting way to meet people, and it was an idea I believed in. I never expected to learn as much as I did. And I still have a lot more to learn.

Through Where Change Started, I’ve signed up for the Anti Racism Leadership Accelerator program. I’m a few weeks behind (another ruptured disk, plus international travel) but I’m learning a lot, and I recognise that this is a lifelong process of listening, learning, self examination and reflection, and that while I continue to strive towards being a great ally, I’m bound to make mistakes.

So I’m promising to myself that if I do stuff up, I’ll listen to criticism. I’ll take responsibility for my mistakes. I’ll repair what I am able to, and do the work I need to do to prevent myself from making the same mistake again. And I’ll try to share what I’m learning through Yarny Allies, and try to build that up as a resource for everyone who is seeking to grow along the same path.

So all of that is a really long way of saying the following –

  • if you experience something differently to me, I promise that I’ll listen to your experience
  • if you share your experience with me, I promise that I will believe you
  • if I’ve done something that causes you pain or makes you feel unsafe, I’ll do whatever I can to repair and take responsibility
  • if I see someone behaving in a way that makes you feel unsafe, I’ll speak out
  • if you are speaking, and not being heard, I will make way for you, retweet you, promote you and amplify your voice
  • the areas in which I lack privilege are irrelevant to any discussion of your oppression. I will not use my fragility to dismantle your right to expression.

So, where do I stand on the Sockmatician?

Nathan is a nice guy. He’s gregarious, and friendly, and funny, and he does clever things with knitting. He’s openly gay, and openly living with HIV. That takes bravery and brains, for him to recognise that he can be a role model for opening people’s minds about what it means to be living with HIV. When I was in my early twenties, the world was crazy with fear over HIV, and openly declaring yourself to be positive was absolutely unthinkable then. That has changed, largely due to people like Nathan being brave enough to share their stories, despite any fear of conflict, retaliation, or rejection.

I met Nathan while he was in NZ, and I thought him to be a positive role model for the knitting community. That wasn’t long after he started promoting the use of the #diversknitty hashtag, and it had taken off. I believed he genuinely and passionately wanted to promote diversity within the knitting community.

Since I started writing this post (overland travel within Sri Lanka has meant it’s taken several days so far), there has been a further incident which raised the stakes significantly, so my initial statement would have been directed differently.

An oversimplification of events would run a little like this –

Nathan posts on instagram about it being a year since his promotion of the hashtag, noting it’s widespread use. And asking for a change in how the hashtag is used, requesting that people use it to spread only messages of positivity.

Feedback is given in comments that his post is undermining people who are using the hashtag, that they have defined what it means to them, and that tone policing their use of it is insensitive and tone deaf. At a time when the knitting community is undergoing growth and change, we aren’t yet at a point where we can all be sunshine and rainbows.

Some of the feedback isn’t super nice and conciliatory. Nathan responds to criticism by rudely dismissing suggestions that he might educate himself about the issues people are raising. His partner steps in and rallies supporters to gather information about people who are critical. Nathan insists that he is a nice guy and only doing his best to make the world a better place. He then goes dark, and then his husband and sister both post saying that he has been hospitalised (without any further information about why), and that people shouldn’t be nasty.

The two main instagram posts had gathered thousands of comments. Then they disappeared, along with all Nathan’s social media presence. Ben has updated his blog, referring to mobs, bullying, and portraying Nathan as the victim of online bullies.

Nathan was apparently released from hospital, and attended a yarn event to sign copies of his book. At this signing, he was approached by a woman who wanted to engage with him about how his actions had affected her. He had to be physically restrained from attacking her.

I’m not providing links – this woman has suffered enough abuse because of what happened, I am not going to expose her to the mob. I believe her account of the event.

There are two terms I need to introduce here. White Fragility, and Racist Bypassing. You may have heard these terms before, you may not have, but please take a moment to familiarise yourself if you aren’t already.

This is a pretty classic case of an avowed ally missing something important, getting called out, reacting defensively (white fragility), and using racist bypassing behaviours (hiding behind an intersectional identity, and avowed commitment to “the cause”). My experiences as a bullied kid don’t mean I have a universal understanding of the issues BIPOC friends experience, and I shouldn’t need to be shielded from criticism of my behaviour, just because I experienced something vaguely analogous. My actions last week of being a brilliant ally don’t give me a free pass from being thoughtless and unkind this week. Being an ally is a commitment that needs to be lifelong, if it is going to have any meaning, and the commitment to learning and continuing to learn and grow doesn’t have an end date.

Bottom line. mental health is serious. We should all take as much care of our mental health as we take of our physical health. Sometimes that means withdrawing until we have the capacity to engage at the level required of us. For a public figure with a wide influence, that level might require more capacity than for the rest of us. Take that time. Do not use poor mental health as an excuse to not listen to criticism. Do not use your own fragility as a weapon against marginalised people. Do not think you understand the universal experience of all oppressed peoples just because you belong to a marginalised group.

Being gay means you experience oppression and marginalisation – but it doesn’t mean you experience oppression and marginalisation in the same way that BIPOC people do. If you have been treated badly, you have some insight into what it feels like for you – don’t assume that you can extrapolate your experience into a universal understanding of oppression.

Do the work. Examine yourself. Listen to criticism. Learn from people who have different experiences than you. Apologise when you are wrong.

*Of course, I’m not “neurotypical”, and sooner or later, the people in the room will work out that I’m a little strange, and they might start treating me differently later.

** This examination of events is my own perspective, seen from great distance, and is possibly factually incorrect in some details. I was traveling when I wrote this, and though I sought support from two friends who were following events more closely than I was able to, all mistakes are my own.

3 thoughts on “On being an ally”

  1. Awesome post. Thank you.

    I have often had to make comments in various forums about what it means to be an ally. And that if you feel “attacked” by the anger of people you claim to be allied with, you are not actually an ally at all.

    Those of us with privilege need to understand how our actions affect the world around us. And just as important as understanding how our words and actions affect people, we need to understand how our silence and inactions affect people.

    My darling wife had been following that whole incident and relayed much of what was happening. And it revealed a considerable lack of understanding of intersectionality and kyriarchy.

    May I share a link to this post on FB/Twitter?

    Like

    1. So glad it was helpful 🙂 Please feel free to share – I really want to encourage people to think about what it means to be an ally, and to integrate the work that needs to be done into their day to day lives.

      It requires work, and we will make mistakes. But the stakes are so high, we cannot afford to take the easy path.

      Like

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