It’s not about cookies: The politics of allyship

…if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in.

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Carleton faculty meeting 1958-59.

(Note: we’ve altered identifying details of some of our experiences to avoid pointing fingers at particular people, because we are about critiquing systems and institutions, and not about blaming individuals.)

Dear blog readers: you should know (or maybe you’ve already guessed) that we’re the kind of people who do a lot of “diversity work” at our institution. (Another way to put it is that the institution asks us to do a lot of that work. Or that, because of our bodies and our identities, some of the work finds us in ways that it doesn’t find others.) This is a story all about how “diversity work” makes us think and talk a lot about what it means to find, establish relationships with, and work alongside allies.

Case in point. Two emails sent out this year to all faculty and staff. One about a “Faculty Diversity Lunch” and one about an informal social gathering for LGBTQA+ identified staff and faculty. For the latter one, A was spelled out to indicate “asexual.” Both of these emails got responses (from different people!) that went something like, “Hey. I noticed that you didn’t include allies. Um, you didn’t include ME. Did you mean to do that?”

And yes, people, yes. Yes, there were conversations among both groups of organizers about whether allies should be explicitly invited. And yes, both groups decided that allies were not to be included in these spaces.

The “hey, what about ME?” response got us talking YET AGAIN about allies. We believe that if you consider yourself an ally, you don’t need to ask that question about whether allies are included, especially if the invitation does not explicitly include allies. We believe that allyship is a process, not an identity. We believe that sometimes allies just need to listen and not comment.

But apparently it is really hard for allies to not want credit–to not want to be seen and recognized as such. The curious, ironic result of allies’ self-declarations is that they end up centering the dominant identities they embody (#notallwhitepeople, #notallmen) rather than  interrupting or dismantling systemic oppression. It gets to the point where individual exclamations come together to sound like a collective gasp and refusal: “#notallinstitutions!” i.e., surely here at Carleton we’re better, kinder, and less racist.

We recall a conversation where, at one point, we felt the need to point to the imbalances of service work for faculty of color, especially in helping students (of all races and backgrounds) navigate complicated interrelational conversations around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Please note: when we do this kind of testimonial work on campus, we’re not asking for pats on the back or sympathetic clucks. Rather, we’re making a case for why the institutional structures that we have now interpellate us–faculty and staff of color–differently. And the emotional labor that we expend is not inconsequential to the ways in which we can (or can’t) balance the rest of our workloads.

At this point, one of our white colleagues, perhaps in a moment of intended alliance, said, “Hey! I do this work too!”

Here’s what we heard when our white colleague said that: your critique of the system is incomplete because I’m not included; you’re not giving me credit for helping you with this work; you are critiquing your allies and our good intentions.

And here’s what we would like our colleagues to understand–that our testimony wasn’t a claim for recognition. Rather, it was a critique of the system that demands our emotional labor unequally, that produces the unevenness through racialized, gendered and sexualized processes that are already on the ground, and then refuses to see that system or that unevenness.

We were pointing out how that burden of supporting students to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege falls unequally on faculty of color. Indeed, even if we’re all doing equal hours of work of supporting students dealing with racism, for example, it still feels different to do that work as a faculty person of color. For Anita, these moments always bring back memories of what it was like to be a student of color at a HWCU, memories that tinge her current interactions. Adriana struggles to figure out how to communicate useful strategies while recognizing that those strategies sometimes participate in girding the system. (For example, she certainly has catered to white fragility on more than one occasion, in order to help colleagues better hear and understand what’s at stake in conversations about race.) White faculty have a different experience. Even if you’re the most empathetic white faculty member, mentoring students of color and white students through interrelational issues won’t raise the same memories or lead to the same embodied responses. In addition, you often have more authority, something reflected in the better teaching evaluations that white faculty receive, particularly when teaching about diversity (see Schueths et al. and Jones-Walker).

In moments like this, the presumed ally wants to be different and wants to be seen as passing some sort of test. But look, we don’t need you to pass a test. We need you to listen, to acknowledge that you heard us, and to recognize that the points we brought up are worth considering. Instead, the White ally in our example said, “My department has great practices; you don’t know my department.”

It’s true. We are only two faculty and we are not everywhere. However, we hear about the experiences of many of our friends who are women of color on our campus and on campuses across the country, in many different disciplines and types of academic institutions. There’s also national data that shows that faculty of color (and women faculty with regards to gender issues) are spending more time and energy on this kind of emotional labor. So when someone  says, “You don’t know me or my department,” what we hear is, “Don’t judge me or hold me accountable. *I* don’t fit the national data.”

As we discussed this, we imagined what an ally might have done in this situation. First and foremost, your support shouldn’t require a thank you from us. As a self-anointed ally, standing up to support underrepresented voices should just be what you do. You don’t get cookies for being an ally. Really, if you’re asking for cookies, you’re not an ally.

Second, an ally might recognize the risk entailed in sharing racialized experiences in predominantly White spaces, and acknowledge our truth. It may not be your truth, you may not quite understand or see it yet, but trust and respect us rather than disbelieving and undervaluing our experiences. If we’re saying this is how we feel the burden as brown women faculty, you don’t say, as a White faculty member, you’re not alone, I totally understand, or I’m doing the same work–because you’re not doing the same work.

Third, if you find out that there’s a gathering of folks with a marginalized identity and you’re not included, feel free to write back (as some of our colleagues did) to say that you support the efforts, that you are willing to support any actions the group decides the campus should take to better support the group, and that you understand why that gathering isn’t for you.

In conclusion, if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in (thanks, bell hooks!).

P.S. We don’t want to imply that we have always been or will always be perfect allies. We have certainly hurt people we love and respect because of our refusal to see our complicity in oppressive practices or systems. We’re also always learning and we owe a million thanks to our friends and co-conspirators who have spent hours and hours educating us about our privileges and lack of understanding on various issues. We appreciate your love, labor, patience, and forgiveness.

Inspirations/Sources:

Sara Ahmed. (2012) On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2015) offers us the concept of the HWCU (Historically white college and/or university)

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs and Yolanda Flores Nieman, et al (2012) Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, CO: UP Colorado. *particularly recommended for our White faculty allies*

bell hooks. (2008) “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.” Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLMVqnyTo_0. Online.

Cheryl Jones-Walker. (2016) Teaching Difference in Multiple Ways: Through Content and Presence in Transforming the Academy. http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Transforming-the-Academy,5886.aspx [Also, this book has a chapter in there by Anita…just FYI!]

Joya Misra et al. (2011) “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work” http://www.aaup.org/article/ivory-ceiling-service-work#.VzZDQT9fmXe. Online.

April Schueths et al. (2013) “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” Sociology Department, Faculty Publications. Paper 236. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/sociologyfacpub/236. Online.

Kathleen Wong. (2007) Emotional labor of diversity work: Women of color faculty in predominantly White institutions. http://gradworks.umi.com/32/88/3288033.html Online.