I started re-reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, if you are not familiar with this book you should definitely check it out. I have been exploring for a while now what it is to be a cis-gendered, heterosexual, white male; one of the ways I find useful is to also be able to place my experience in contrast with other people’s experience of the world. I find that getting a peek into the lives of authors like James Baldwin and Ta Nehisis Coates has helped me to witness a different reality that I am living; it has also made me question and re-evaluate if I am being a good ally? Also, how am I living my privilege?
I was discussing with a colleague, whom I respect enormously, about how the Baldwin book was bringing stuff up and how I could not even imagine what it would have been to be a gay black man in Harlem in the 1960s. I also continued to say that I would never be able to know what it truly means to be a visible minority in any time period let alone the Baldwin combination; I was then replied with a very serious “Well I believe that I can know what it feels like to be a Black man etc.” I have to admit that I was shocked and made very uncomfortable seeing as it was coming from a man that looks exactly like me (red beard and all). He then went on to tell me that when he converted to Islam he felt more welcomed in the Muslim community than he had ever felt in the past, and thus he was able to know what it felt like to be any Muslim in Canada. Also his reading of Malcom X’s biography had let me see the reality of the black man and was thus in tune with the African American experience of the world.
It is here that I really see intersectionality and privilege and how if I am a minority (e.g. – Islam) in one section of my identity, it does not mean that I am allowed to then say I am able to know the reality of a black man in America or even an Arab Muslim in Canada. This also shows how, as white people, we are not aware of the privilege we embody. We are use to being the norm where most people speak from; we are used to only hearing our voice in history etc. I find that it is important to read about others experience of the world, but it is not our job to speak for them. This is not what an ally does; we have to become aware of this and to act accordingly.
I read a great article on the internet (Dear White People: Your Comfort Makes You Bad Allies by Donyae Coles) that discusses how this comfort makes us bad allies, let me explain a little. It is all great to post stuff on the internet, to share articles, donate money to different causes, etc. These are all things that are comfortable, and I think to a certain extent they are not that effective either.
If you want to donate money, that is great, but maybe you should go to a community center in an area in your city that you know is serving underprivileged populations, see what they need instead of assuming that you know what might be best for the community. If you are active on social media sites, don’t unfriend people that do not agree with you. If you are scrolling down your feed and you notice that a friend has posted a story about how men are challenging masculine standards with a certain action and then one of his family members/friends puts a really backwards comment, challenge them. It is hard for people to challenge and confront the racists/misogynists/homophobes/islamaphobes/etc in their lives, seeing as how you are not related or friends with this person gives you maybe the opportunity to say something that they might not be able to.
There are many good actions that we can do as allies, but I believe that the two most important ones are to not be afraid to get uncomfortable and to take care of your shit. If you are white, you have some racial bias in you and that is Ok, it is not your fault (during your whole life you have been a witness to racist imagery in the media, casual remarks, and micro agressions that have been ignored). Your refusal to look into it however, has a totally different view of responsability and what your role is towards it. This exploration has made me get into extremely uncomfortable discussions with some of my friends (I mean these are my peeps and I never thought that our discussions would shift like that); they have been moments where I have been able to check in with myself and realise the work that I have to do. I have met also new people that have helped nudge me in the right direction; their support and knowledge has been so valuable for me.
I think that it is enough for me for now. Life is so strange sometimes, we think that we are having a pleasant discussion and we are suddenly taken into choppy waters with someone we thought was like-minded. We are responsible for being the person that can hopefully nudge others into doing this messy uncomfortable work, it is so necessary and there has never been a better time than now!