In the collective project of working to make the world a better place, in the project of supporting marginalized groups we aren’t part of, what is being an ally? Several years ago, the writer and activist Mia McKenzie wrote a beautiful piece on her blog, Black Girl Dangerous, laying out the things that people attempting to be allies should and should not do, including a list of ten key items, two of which are “shut up and listen.”
What I will try to talk about here is what attempting to be an ally means to me personally, and that starts with feeling like an asshole.
Attempting to be an ally begins with this feeling because, to be one, you have to be a member of the group that wields power, privilege, and oppression against the oppressed group. For me, as a white person, this lies most starkly in my color. There are other ways I attempt to be an ally—in support of the LGBTQ community, for example—but in this essay, I will focus on the color line. So I go through life attempting to educate myself, to listen, to engage in dialogues, speak out, call out, support, donate, contribute time and energy, and invariably I mess up. I mess up all the time.
I mess up because I’m a human with blind spots, and when it comes to the mechanics of oppression, maybe nothing makes us more blind than our privilege. Not so long ago I said something inappropriate and white-blind on Facebook, and a friend called me out. Instantly I knew he was right. I thanked him, I apologized, and once again I felt like a prize asshole. But the important thing is that, thanks to my friend, I got a little less blind.
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Of course, feeling like an asshole is never the point; it happens, but it’s unimportant. It’s a byproduct of awareness, it’s a growing pain, and we can’t be derailed by it. White guilt may be unavoidable, but it’s not my motivator. I attempt to be an ally not because of guilt but because of love. I care about other people, and I want the world to be better. That part is straightforward.
I had a number of motivating factors for writing House of Rougeaux, and one of those was wanting to do something to counter white-protagonism—that key piece of the architecture of racism, in which the vast majority of protagonists in books (or movies, TV shows, etc.) are white. But a white writer writing about black characters, as I did in Rougeaux, necessarily treads on some very thin ice. Time and again, white writers, including the well-intentioned, have reinforced racist notions as a result of their white-blindness.
As my editor, Neesa Sonoquie, pointed out early on, there is no way that even the most informed outsider can speak to the black experience, nor contribute anything new to the already brilliantly rendered canon of black literature. She’s right. So why the hell did I proceed? I proceeded because I had a story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to see if, by going about the project in a responsible manner, I could make something of value.
By “responsible” I mean two things: writing from an informed place, and seeking and incorporating the feedback of readers of color, black readers especially, who would call out the inevitable instances of white-blindness in the writing.
What do I mean by “an informed place”? This is a wildly subjective judgment on my part, but it consists of a combination of many years of reading African American writers; many years of conversations with friends, coworkers, colleagues and students; listening to interviews and well-investigated radio stories; and engaging in research that specifically related to writing my book, from sources written primarily by black writers from African countries, Canada, the U.S., and the Caribbean.
All this brings me to a certain level of education that on the one hand, I value highly, and on the other hand will always be only the tip of the iceberg. So while I write and live from an informed place, I also write and live from a naive place. The process of learning is, and has to be, neverending.
Attempting to be a white ally in a racist world also requires neverending self-reflection. It’s no secret that we all grow up in a sea of social conditioning, and when we’re old enough, and aware enough, we can start the process of deconstructing the layers of bias we’ve accumulated. To this end, we must carefully consider any feedback we get from the outside. Getting called out for something can hurt, because the truth can hurt, but as they say, the truth will set us free.
As I mentioned before, I had many motivators in wanting to write House of Rougeaux. My attempts at writing from an informed place helped me understand the historical contexts of my characters. What research couldn’t teach me, though, was anything about my characters as individuals. Like many writers, I didn’t feel like I created my characters, so much as I discovered who they were. I had to find out what motivated them, what their values were, their relationships, their sense of humor. I had to know what they liked and didn’t, their strengths and weaknesses, and I did this by groping around in the dark of my imagination, or into that alternate universe where characters come from, or whatever that space is that creates fiction. The more I got to know them, the more I could talk about what happened to them. They became like intimate friends.
Take the character of Guillaume Rougeaux, for example, a black gay man living in Montreal in the 1800s. What could I as a contemporary, straight, white, female writer possibly know about what it was like to be him? Of course: nothing. But, like the others, Guillaume became my friend, and so I tried to write about my friend. This piece of the literary journey that I’m describing is a departure from the notion of attempting to be an ally. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s another version.
A few months ago, I heard an excellent conversation on a podcast about how no one can decide if they themselves are an ally—that’s up to the community they’re attempting to support. That makes absolute sense to me. I know I attempt to be an ally, I know I attempt to write responsibly, but maybe that’s all I can know. Others will be the judge.
Featured Image: Reynier Benitez