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In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together

Nicholas Powers Aug 15

Issue 216

Dear Allies,

You deserve praise. Yes, you. I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able-bodied, I’m liberal or middle-class. I’m some combination of privilege, I’m part of the problem.” No, you’re not. You deserve praise. 

Why? Because when I need help, you’re there. You’re the white woman yelling, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” at the intersection as cops warily watched. You’re the men at Slut March, eyeing the crude street guys to shut up. You’re my best friend, who held my hand at the Silent March against police brutality. 

I’ve known you my whole life. My family knew you and before them, my ancestors knew you. Without you, our freedom wouldn’t be real. It was you, our allies, who came to our meetings, who marched with us, were beaten and arrested with us, who lost jobs and family for siding with us, and sometimes, who died with us. 

I’m writing to you because today, we talk so much of privilege and identity. It seems there are endless open letters online telling you how or how not to be an ally. It’s become hard to say this one truth: You’re family. Thank you. 

How did we get here? Where you’re seen as a potential oppressor instead of a friend? We tell you to check your privilege but also use your privilege. We tell you to decenter yourself from our dialogue. We tell you not talk to media and get at the back of the march. And you do because, yes, on some level, it rebalances our voices. But it’s gone too far. 

You show up, but after being browbeaten, you leave. Or you stay but shrunken to fit a small role. You become invisible or silent or scared. But we need you strong and loud and powerful. We’re not looking for you to be a savior. Bono’s got that. We do need you holding our hands at the front of the march. Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together. 

Role Reversal 

We are the Left. We try to reverse the values of a self-destructive world. To treasure those who’ve been thrown away. To see those who have been hurt be healed. All true. But left unsaid is that we who’ve been injured sometimes forsake liberation for spite. 

When we, minorities, enter a leftist space, we go through a dizzying role reversal. The qualities about us that were a target are suddenly celebrated. Skin color, hair texture, body type, foreign accent, sexual orientation are all evidence of the Struggle. Narrating our pain can, at its best, lead to enlightened identity politics. At its worst, identity chauvinism. 

I saw this at a Left Forum panel where a speaker said that Black writers had been corrupted by “the influence of Jewish intellectuals.” Silent tension filled the room. Shaking my head, I began to jot down a rebuttal. Halfway into it, I looked at him. He had long dreads. He wore a dashiki. The scent of Egyptian musk floated around him like a cloud. I stared, a little too long, and thought: I used to be you. 

The first liberal space I entered was college. I grew dreads. I wore so much non-Western clothing I looked like a Lonely Planet guidebook. Incense spilled out of my dorm room. The Koran and a stack of Afrocentric books were piled on my desk. I learned to transform the confusion of being a minority into the weaponized language of resistance. My tongue was a switchblade. And I cut, cut, cut.

It was my allies who I hurt the most. I battered them with rhetoric. I forced them to walk on eggshells. Until Brad, with whom I spent long evenings debating politics, sat up with me until sunrise and finally said, “You have a chip on your shoulder.”

I side-looked him, eyebrows arched. Who was this privileged man to tell me shit? He was raised in a leafy suburb on Long Island. I came from a boarding school for the poor. Who did he think he was?

But I listened. He sounded afraid and hopeful. Like a man trying to coax a jumper off a ledge. He said my defensiveness could be self-destructive. He knew what it was like to always be on guard. I knew he knew it. I remembered his stories of coming out of the closet. Not sure if he’d be loved for his true self. And watching others, to see if it was safe for him to be him. He lived life as a target too. 

I didn’t change overnight, more like zigzagged my way to maturity, shedding along the way the reactive flexing on allies. But I never forgot how I acted because over the years, I met, over and over again, in anti-racist workshops or progressive panels, more identity chauvinists. They talked over everyone. They assumed their pain guaranteed their authority or the accuracy of their analysis. 

Few allies checked them. Tension would fill the room. People sulked away from meetings. Tired. Hurt. Confused. That ugly energy spurted up at Occupy Wall Street, at Left Forum panels. Recently on a livestream of a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Democratic National Convention, Black organizers told whites to get to the back of the march. Again the tension tightened people’s faces. It is the silent centrifugal force that breaks the Left apart. 

Love is Thicker than Blood

“My father is such a fucking racist,” she said and half-laughed, half-grimaced. She was driving through Brooklyn to move to a new apartment. I sat and listened to her say how old-school he was. How he didn’t get it. 

“Jesus,” I said. “You make him sound like Darth Vader.” She smirked, saying he’d probably lightsaber her hand clean off if he saw her with a protest sign. As we cackled in the car, I thought about why we become allies. Sometimes, it’s for redemption. We want to forgive ourselves for acts we committed. Or acts we should have done but didn’t. Sometimes we want to relieve the guilt of inheriting unearned privilege. Sometimes, we are human mirrors who reflect others and that radical empathy becomes rage at injustice.

For me it was guilt at acts committed. The boarding school I went to was run by Jesus freaks; the teachers and supervisors radiated Biblical homophobia. So when, inevitably, a boy was caught kissing a boy or a girl humping a girl, we, the students, beat them up or shamed them. They were hastily transferred if not kicked out. 

When I met Brad in college, I was a Nation of Islam fan. He was Jewish and gay, just learning how to be out. I hid my homophobia behind a smile. But I lit up when he came to my dorm. He had a handsome, owlish face, an easy grace about him. He had radar eyes that didn’t miss a thing. I felt a deep sibling love for him and, for the first time, consciously asked what kind of ally I could be to him. 

I did acrobatic readings of the Koran to fit him into my spiritual life. I researched homosexuality. Mom and her old-school Boricua crew saw the books, got worried and asked me if I was gay. But being an ally really began with a simple job. Keeping my friend safe.

One time, Brad was prepping for a drag show. I palmed my forehead as he rolled stockings up his hairy legs, slipped on a long dress, put on makeup and heels. He didn’t shave. He looked god awful. He also looked scared. 

So I held his hand and along the street, faces flashed with hate and disgust. Every time someone stared at Brad with a threat, I held his hand tighter and stared right the fuck back. I was terrified at the rage he had to walk through just to get to a party.

My best friend was in danger for being gay and for resisting gender norms. In the months after, I began seeing homophobia in books, film, hip-hop and in everyday talk. One night, I read and re-read an anti-gay passage in the Koran, got up and threw it in the trash. 

Being an ally meant dedicating myself to his struggle. To learn it. To be a part of it. To fight against straight privilege. To force people in my life to make space for Brad and his lovers at our table. And he did the same for me. 

I think a lot of allies go through this life change, when you go beyond guilt to a place of love. When you reflect each other and it forces other people’s ugliness to the surface. 

Brad brought his grandfather to the African Meeting House where I gave lectures. His parents fed me at their house. Years later, he told me his father made nigger jokes on MLK Day and asked if his nigger friend, me, was doing anything for him. It hurt to hear. It hurts, sometimes, being an ally. I sat quietly for a minute, my face like stone. Brad leaned over, hugged me and apologized for his father. 

Years later, we met at Central Park as thousands of people gathered for a silent march against stop-and-frisk policing. Brad is a New Yorker, he knew how cops looked at me and the risk I take to walk the street. 

The march began. Thousands strode down Fifth Avenue. At times, it was so quiet you could hear shoes padding the cement. Every so often, he or I reached out and held hands. I saw a deep focus in his eyes as if he was looking not just at the march but at the years ahead of us, asking how he could keep me safe. 

The Struggle in the Struggle

“Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech,” white abolitionists told Frederick Douglass. In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled how they said to repeat his story of slavery, and they’d “take care of the philosophy.” I was reading it to prep for a class and chuckled, imagining a Black Lives Matter protester telling Douglass’s mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, to check his privilege. 

We’re not the first to struggle with each other. Every generation of activists learns how to be an ally and how to let others ally with us. The evidence of the Left’s success is that the oppressed speak for themselves and allies know to listen. In order to get here, we needed identity politics as a correction to the totalizing of Marxist-based class analysis. In turn, the use of intersectionality corrects the silo effect of identity politics. 

But the goal was always to struggle together. We feel a deep, human need for a just world. What guides us there is a vision. In practice, it means those who are part of a privileged majority do the work to see minorities beyond the stereotypes. It means we, who are minorities, don’t presume the guilt of allies or see them as potential oppressors. And we need this because any one of us could be on one side of that equation or the other. 

How? Intersectionality cuts both ways. Oppression and privilege overlap the same body. Yes, I am a cis, able-bodied man who is also of color and in debt. You might be a transgender person with a trust fund. We’re both citizens. An undocumented worker may be read as white. So instead of pouncing on someone for a verbal misstep, we can offer each other grace. Instead of labelling each other racists or sexists or homophobes, we can show compassion.

It’s something Douglass did in his eulogy of Garrison. He’d long left the “plantation manner of speech” and become a world-famous orator and moral philosopher. In many ways, he outgrew his teacher but he still paid tribute to the man who first invited him to speak. At the funeral, he said, “I must frankly say I have sometimes thought him uncharitable to those who differed from him. … To say this of him is simply to say that he was human, and it may be added when he erred here he erred in the interest of truth.”

And that is what I think of you. When you, my ally, make an error, I know you do it in the interest of truth. And when I, your ally, royally fuck up, you dap me some credit. When we heal our failings with laughter, we can transform the world. Everyone can hear how large we are inside, how our strength comes from sharing the existential space behind our masks. They can trust our definition of freedom because they can see how we give it to each other. 

You’ve probably heard the saying, “justice is love made public.” It hit home recently. Brad asked me to be the best man at his wedding to Timmy. I’m preparing a suit. I’m plotting a bachelor’s night of debauchery. I’ll walk him up the aisle and after their vows, give him the ring, knowing that this is justice, this is love and this is being an ally.


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