I Don’t Have to Be Part of Everything

Trying to be an ally has been a learning experience. I started out thinking I could do no wrong as long as I cared about whatever community I wanted to support. I put so much faith in my ability to empathize that I assumed it gave me license to defend a cause in any way, and I didn’t think twice about speaking over other people or acknowledging that I can never truly understand someone else’s experience just because I watched a moving documentary about it. As long as I genuinely cared, I reasoned, how could I go wrong?

I’m still learning, but I now realize it’s not that simple.

One lesson I’ve learned only recently is that I don’t have to be part of everything in a community I want to support.

I repeatedly see this issue come up whenever a marginalized group tries to have a space or a conversation of their own. One of the most recent examples was the Twitter campaign #BlackOutDay, where Black people shared pictures and stories about themselves to celebrate Black beauty. The campaign was so popular that it’ll now become a tradition for the first Friday of every month, with the next one happening April 3rd. But on the first day of it, many white people called the whole thing racist and complained that a “White Out Day” would’ve been shut down instantly.

Another example was YouTube’s #DearMe campaign launched in honor of International Women’s Day. Though anyone could participate, the campaign featured multiple women YouTubers giving advice to their younger selves as a way to encourage young girls. After watching the video, I scrolled through a string of comments complaining that if there was an International Men’s Day, people would be screaming sexism from the rooftops.

Honestly, I get where they’re coming from. I’m white, so you wouldn’t see me tweeting pictures or stories of myself as part of a Black Out Day. It wasn’t meant for me. And that isn’t the first time I’ve felt excluded. While reading about organizations representing LGBTQ+ communities or Disabled communities, I’ve noticed applications for opportunities that sound really cool. Then I realize the opportunity is meant only for people who identify as part of those communities. Feeling that sense of exclusion, I’ve wondered the same thing that some people on Twitter and YouTube did:

Why is it okay that there are opportunities or conversations meant specifically for certain groups, like Black people or women or LGBTQ+ folks or Disabled students or any other marginalized people? Why isn’t this just another form of harmful discrimination?

There’s a fairly simple answer here. Though every marginalized community is certainly unique and faces its own individual struggles, most of which lie outside of my experience, what I can say is that all of them have a long history of being overtly oppressed – of being, well, marginalized.

These communities were not granted rights from day one, but had to actively fight to attain them – and are still fighting today. They are people that have to continue asserting that their lives matter, that they deserve to be treated as equals to white people, nondisabled people, straight people, men, whatever the majority in question happens to be. These are people who, in many cases, have spent much of their lives feeling the same sense of exclusion that I felt for only one short moment.

So, maybe a better question to ask is, why shouldn’t these communities have a space of their own?

The truth is, as a white person, it’s rare that I feel excluded. I can easily find other white people to talk to, watch tons of movies starring white people, and go to many schools where I’m likely to make a lot of white friends. Same goes for being straight, being nondisabled, and probably for many other things I’m not even aware of.

As a woman, I’m going to face some challenges, like earning equal pay, dressing how I want without repercussions, and generally making my own choices about my body. And it’s really nice to have a community of other women to talk to about these things, to have some spaces of our own for our thoughts to be heard and understood, because that hasn’t always been the case.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t value what men have to say or that men aren’t also important to me or that men don’t have their own specific challenges. It doesn’t mean anything other than what it is: the simple fact that I enjoy having opportunities to talk to other women and discuss challenges that women face. There’s nothing insidious to read between the lines unless someone puts it there.

That’s why I’m not going to begrudge others for having their own communities that may not always include me, and I don’t take it as a personal insult when they do.

In fact, if I want to be part of a wholly inclusive, equal, and diverse society, then I should be thrilled to see that there’s now room for other communities to grow and to nurture their own future generations. I should be happy that other people are getting some of the opportunities I’ve always had. I should be excited that I’m getting to learn about a diverse array of perspectives that are different from my own.

Honestly, I still struggle with understanding the role of an ally sometimes. I mean, I don’t even know if writing this post is ironically counterproductive to my message.

But more and more, I feel that if I want an equal society, I need to be willing to step aside and give other people the space to talk. It’s okay if I’m not part of every conversation. And it’s also okay if sometimes my only role is to listen and learn.

Am I right about this? What do you think about the role of an ally? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and thank you so much for reading.

Learn More
#BlackOutDay on Twitter
#DearMe on YouTube
Chescaleigh: 5 Tips for Being an Ally
Chescaleigh: Here’s Why #BlackOutDay Was So Incredible
Everyday Feminism: 10 Simple Ways White People Can Step Up to Fight Everyday Racism
Witty Bitches: Level Up Your Allyship
Everyday Feminism: 10 Things All Allies Need to Know
Feminist Current: How to be a (Male) Feminist Ally
Redemption Pictures: How I Became a Jesus Feminist
TransWhat?: A Guide to Allyship
ElloSteph: How to Actually Be an Ally
Huffington Post: 10 Reasons to Give Up Ableist Language
Ask an Autistic: How to Be an Ally
Hannah Witton: How to Be a Good Ally

(Photo: Copyright Abrinsky cc // Unaltered)

3 thoughts on “I Don’t Have to Be Part of Everything

  1. It was a bit hard tracking your thought from the introduction but if I understand the topic correctly, then my opinion is that it may actually be more harmful than good for these communities to have these types of events.

    I’m always torn when I see them, because on one hand, it can bring to light the uniqueness of character and struggles that a particular population can contend with. However, on the other hand, if your goal is to fit in among the crowd and be accepted and not questioned, then putting yourself out there declaring that you are unique goes against that goal.

    One example I can recall clearly is one interaction I had with a homosexual male. The fact that I label him as both homosexual and male is one of the ways that I show very subtle discrimination (instead of saying, for example, I recall clearly an interaction I had with a person, or a friend, or something to that effect), that can allow for differences of opinion. If I didn’t know he was homosexual (or if I didn’t know he was male such as with how such things are possible on the internet with usernames being sexually ambiguous), would I act differently around them? If it was just any other random person, would I be treating this person just like them? On one hand, I would want to say yes I would, because if it really isn’t a big deal, then it isn’t a big deal. On the other hand, saying that I would ignore such a thing, which is something that they may cling tightly to as a source of their identity, belonging, and struggles, is another. It is extremely difficult to treat someone as just another member of society if there are constant reminders that they are not just another member of society.

    Thus the battle between the two ideals – Do I treat them as though they are just another member of society, or do I treat them as a special part of our society with unique challenges that I must be cognizant and aware?

    Towards your question, overall, I’d probably still agree with your conclusion and actually a bit about your premise. While the effect is ultimately what matters, as a human being, intentions are also taken into consideration. What matters with intentions is that if your goal is to genuinely help a community, then you would be open, willing, and adapt your approach and actions to help suit that community. Many times that means that you do absolutely nothing at all for the community, except talk about it, defend it, or sometimes just think about it. Other times there will be a rally and a call for action where you can have a more active role. If people do not want my help, then my interference will do more damage than good. If I try to be helpful anyway and force myself into the situation, then that says more about me and my values and how I view myself than my heart and concern for the cause. I am not perfect and I may screw things up more than I help, however, if my intentions are right, then I will screw less things up and help more as I continue with the community.

    As with any relationship, it is a two way street. The community must be opening, welcoming, and patient with you as you try to find your place and part within it just as we must be open, honest, and adaptable as we try to find where we can play our part. If either side is unwilling to allow the other into the relationship and unwilling to budge, while it may still possible to work together, it would be an unproductive and probably unhealthy relationship.

    I am all about asking questions and receiving feedback. Sometimes I take it worse than I should and I react inappropriately, but I am generally always appreciative to learn about how my actions affect others and looking for options and opportunities to grow and to present solutions. Glad to see your first topical blog post and I hope to read more of them in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, it was a bit hard for me to figure out if I wanted to talk about something specific – spaces, conversations, opportunities, campaigns – and I think it got a little convoluted because I ended up rolling them all into one but addressing various aspects throughout the post. Ugh complicated! But I’m glad my basic point got across.

    Yeah, I understand exactly what you’re describing. I’ve struggled with the same thing, honestly. I think it comes down to the tension we experience whenever someone seems “different” or “other” to us for whatever reason – culture, skin color, gender, sexuality, whatever. But we still want to relate to them on some level, so we focus on similarities or emphasize our shared humanity. Then it gets tricky because in doing this, we’re ignoring the things that are different or unique about that person and that they might consider to be part of their identity, as you said. (Mostly just paraphrasing here to make sure we’re on the same page.)

    Personally, I always find this dilemma annoying when I see it in myself because I think it really comes down to being uncomfortable about someone else’s differences, and to me, that really shouldn’t be something that makes me uncomfortable. Yet even when I want to, it can be hard to know how to bridge the gap between my experiences and someone else’s. (And I’m assuming that you also want to bridge the gap.) But it seems like the only way to get over it is to keep doing it, however awkward it is. Keep challenging your discomfort until it diminishes. You’re probably gonna make mistakes, but it’s a necessary part of the process. I think it’s fine to focus on shared humanity and similarities as long as you remain aware that they’ve had a different experience of the world than you and are open to that. Nobody wants to be treated as being “other” or less than human.

    Communities having their own campaigns/conversations/etc. does tend to highlight those differences and make the gap seem wider. But I think it’s really important that marginalized communities DO highlight the way their experiences might differ from the norm. Other people being uncomfortable/awkward/confused about it is not a good reason for them not to do it. I would’ve never realized how much racism is still a problem if it weren’t for other people talking about their experiences of racism. And I’m so grateful that I know that instead of living in ignorance, even if it does make me feel uncomfortable and sometimes hyper-aware of myself as a white person. That’s really my own problem.

    I like your description about being an ally to other communities. However, I think it’s good to always examine good intentions and not just use them as a cop-out from actually learning from the community. I’ve seen that happen before. And, though I do agree that it’s very helpful if members of the community are willing to dialogue and engage and accept that you’re going to make mistakes, I don’t think it’s necessarily their responsibility to do that. That can be a very draining process when people have already had to live much of their lives being exposed to other people’s insensitivity or ignorance or maliciousness. Some people are willing to do that, but it is asking a lot, and I’m not sure if we should always have that expectation.

    I hope that made sense! I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to talk about this stuff!


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