The Challenges of Allyship

A reflection by Lindsey

Doing life with people is hard. It’s tremendously difficult, especially when trying to live at the intersections of power and privilege. An ally is a person who sits at these intersections trying to listen, trying to learn, and trying to be present. Sometimes it’s essential to be an advocate for the people closest to you.

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s just plain weird to think of myself as Sarah’s “ally.” The word doesn’t come to mind when I think about our relationship. But then I think about everything I’ve learned from Sarah about life with chronic illnesses, surviving sexual violence, and negotiating rapidly changing ability levels. The more I learn, the harder it is for me to not care. I even find myself incredibly invested in causes I never knew existed before I met Sarah. I want so badly to cast aside my own prejudices and advocate zealously for the dignity of every human being.

Except it’s not that easy.

I can’t turn off my own story. I can do my best to foster compassion, to create space, and to listen, but I’m always living in my own story. So often my story gets in the way. It’s hard for me to look at how power and privilege block what I’m able to see. Most of the time I really don’t want to see from another’s perspective.

In the past several months, I’ve watched Sarah grow towards becoming a late-deafened adult. Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about deafness, the Deaf community, and Deaf culture. It’s amazing how I’m seeing a part of the world that I’ve never seen before. And it’s also hard to realize how I’ve lived my whole life simply assenting to a view that hearing is a superior way of being. In reality, there’s something mysteriously amazing at how deafness enables a different way of experiencing the world, even as my experiences of silence remain remarkably different from Sarah’s.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about allyship lately. As I reflected recently, learning to be who I am as a white person taught me a lot about being who I am as an LGBT person. Sarah also recently introduced me to The Help. And I continue to think about how allies can let our own stories get in the way even when we have the best of intentions.

At a meta-level, The Help already raises big questions about whose story the author is actually telling. Abilene Cooper, a black maid, brought a lawsuit against author Kathryn Stockett on the grounds that Stockett had represented Cooper’s life story without permission. Watching the film adaptation of the book, I found myself asking a lot of questions about being an ally.

To quickly set up my observations, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone) is trying to make it in publishing. She takes on a job writing a cleaning advice column to gain some more experience. Skeeter doesn’t know much of anything about cleaning, so she gets permission to ask her friend’s housekeeper Aibileen a bunch of questions. She realizes that she would love to write about what it’s like for black women to work as maids in 1960s Mississippi because their perspective hasn’t been heard before. It’s new, it’s fresh, and it deeply connects to Skeeter’s own relationship with the maid who raised her. However, Skeeter jumps into her project with both feet before she realizes what she’s doing. She’s a bit taken aback that the maids she knows aren’t keen on speaking with her. She goes to the courthouse, figures out what she’s doing is illegal, and proceeds more cautiously. Aibileen cautiously agrees to start sharing stories.

I see a lot of myself when I look at Skeeter. She jumps in with gusto before taking any time to listen and learn. Shortly after Sarah had found out that one ear is medically deaf, I saw a story flying around the internet about a “fake interpreter” working at an Ebola conference. I was furious, so naturally I shared the story on Facebook with a guarded statement of “From what I can tell, this interpreter doesn’t seem to be doing a good job. ASL-fluent friends, what say you?” I was definitely not prepared to put my foot in my mouth after I learned the interpreter is a Certified Deaf Interpreter working on a team with another signer. But my friends corrected me, asked me to change something in my initial comment, and took some time to explain to me how Certified Deaf Interpreters work with a hearing interpreter. The hearing interpreter signs an initial English-to-ASL translation to the Deaf interpreter who then polishes the ASL such that it’s more intelligible for native ASL users. As it turns out, using Certified Deaf Interpreters is a best practice. Being an ally means learning, sometimes putting yourself out there, quickly putting your foot in your mouth when you screw up, and listening some more.

Being an ally is not fun, and it frequently means sitting with the discomfort that you are wrong a lot more than you are right. It means working to perfect your “I’m sorry. Please let me know what sort of corrective action I need to take,” muscles. I’ve had to own my story of privilege time and time again as I reflect why I didn’t understand something that should have been so plainly obvious. I’m so grateful for everyone who has had space to correct me when I’ve screwed up, and I’m profoundly humbled by the way folks have responded to me during times when I’ve missed the point entirely.

I’d love to be a part of the solution in making the world more welcoming and more hospitable to people who are different from me. But in order for that to happen, I need to learn how to position my story such that it makes space for other people to share theirs.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Author’s note: This post has been edited to remove some unintentionally vidist references that negatively portrayed blindness. If other folks see places where my language has fallen short of my goal, please consider taking to the comment box to let me know what I’ve done unintentionally and suggest some alternate ways of communicating the same meaning.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Allyship

  1. Lindsey, thank you for this! The process of learning how to be an ally is indeed complicated – requiring a great deal of silence and discernment. Thank you for putting words to this, and for helping us figure out how to be an ear and a voice when we are needed.

  2. I thought it was humble of you to write this from the perspective of BEING an ally (and often messing it up, as we all do) rather than writing from the perspective of NEEDING better allies in the LGBTQ community. I see a lot of ally-bashing, micro-aggression, and lack of grace for allies in general. I think that no matter how marginalized we ourselves are, we are always potential allies for someone else in a different position, and we all have a lot to learn. Thanks for this. I’m always amazed at how quickly you two pump out this good quality blog material!

    • Thanks Beth. I think being LGBTQ has definitely influenced how I understand being an ally in other domains. I have the experience of knowing firsthand about the kind of allies I desire. Being a good ally is really hard!

Leave a Reply