Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Being an Ally

I'm not sure how to say this without being blasted, but I'll try:  I might understand a little piece affecting Rachel Dolezal decision to present as black rather than be a white ally.

I just have one story.  It was about ten years ago.  I had just finished reading The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative and was floored by it.  I couldn't believe I had never heard of her before.  The story is compelling, and it's a good length to offer to high school students.  I was curious if anyone else had tried teaching it to that age level, so I searched for forums where it was being discussed.  Then I unwittingly threw myself to the wolves by suggesting that I'd like to teach it in an English or history class.

The others on the forum were black, something I didn't think necessary to consider until they got very angry with me:  how DARE I consider teaching a book about a black experience when I'm white?

It was all kind of familiar because I've been in the middle of discussions about men teaching books about women - is it possible that men can understand the female experience enough to teach it?  Women can teach books about men because the subordinate group always knows about the dominant group.  Canadians know more about the U.S. than the other way around.  But I contend that it IS possible to look at life from an alien perspective.  It can't be done arrogantly, however, but must come from a place of respect and acknowledged ignorance, read charitably.  Like you can't really get Plato without an understanding of what Athens was going through at the time, we sometimes have to do extra research around people's environment and history to really feel their stories and understand the logic of their ideas.

I'm game to do the work, but I was so strongly dissuaded by this one black community, that I tossed the book aside believing I'm not worthy to teach it.

So it went untaught.

It's a double-edged sword.  If women think men shouldn't be teaching women's experiences, then, since most English profs are men, we might not have books by women on the syllabus.  And then we'll complain about that.  And if people of non-white heritage don't think white people can teach their stories, then they won't be taught - not because teachers don't care about those stories, but because they're afraid of doing it wrong.  And of course it's a problem that this part of the world is dominated by white men, and whites in general, but that's what we've got to work with right now.  Having the stories out there, taught by allies is one way to eat away at the system.

I know there are feminists who don't believe men can be feminists, but I'm not one of them.  I think it's important to get dominant voices (male voices) involved in the cause to help us get anywhere.  Similarly I think environmentalists have to approach big businesses as potential allies rather than threats.  I believe in intersectionality; I believe we can't undo the oppression or exploitation of one group without getting at them all.  Sexism, racism, LGBTQ issues, ablism, poverty, environmental destruction - it's all so clearly interconnected.

But, back to Dolezal.  I don't condone what she did at all, and I think she's got bigger issues under the surface there, but the one little piece maybe I do understand is that it can be hard to be an ally of a group you don't belong to.  People don't always trust you to speak for them if you haven't lived their experiences.  But I'm not sure we have time to do it any other way.


Lorne said...

Your point is well-taken, Marie. I would suggest that you submit this as an op-ed piece to your local newspaper. The topic deserves some well-informed discussion.

Personally, I have little use for the cultural appropriation debate. I think, as you suggest, if one approaches the material with respect and humiliation, a lot of positive results are possible. As Atticus Finch said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Lorne said...

My proofreading skills are atrophying. In the above, I meant to say "respect and humility," of course.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks Lorne, but I was just barely brave enough to put it up here!