Friday, January 03, 2014

On Allies: May there be ever more in 2014

Yes, I know. I missed the year-end reflections on all I had learned in 2013. I have also missed the new year resolutions moment.  However given my recent readings and discussions, and in the spirit of optimism, I have decided to kick off the year with a post about allies.

As an ally to various causes that are not intrinsically my own, I come to this topic with some degree of understanding and experience.  When it comes to supporting causes in countries like Egypt or Guatemala or the Democratic Republic of Congo, I am not always fully educated about the complexities. In case of my support for equal rights, as a straight cis-woman, I can't even in my imagination experience what my LGBTQ friends do on a daily basis. And in case of racism, Mandela's death reminded me of my time in apartheid South Africa and how the experience of racism changes by location, period, structure and individual.

And yet as someone who discovered the theory of intersectionality soon after being disillusioned by mainstream Western liberal activism at university, I can also see that there is a way forward. At university, I had found little room for my experience as an Indian woman whose life did not fit the easy 'oppressed over there' category. As a foreigner who did not buy into the 'American dream' and planned to leave after finishing my degree, I could also not be categorised in the 'good immigrant' slot. There was also very little room for an Indian with a 'nice' education in many of the anti-racism groups as many believed my university education and Indian-ness inoculated me from racism in America (To be fair and honest, yes, it did and still does protect me from the worst excesses of structural and individuated racism in the US and various other countries). On one hand, few groupings, both in or outside India, represent my personal concerns and interests. On the other hand, my experience at the margins means I experience a range of micro-aggressions (and major discrimination) based on gender, class, race, nationality and so on on a daily basis. No surprise that intersectionality is the most logical way of explaining my liminal existence.

But living liminally is also a great advantage, I have learned. One finds points of contact, recognition and identification in the most unusual places. Liminality also ensures that I am always aware of my structural privileges and of my acute disadvantages, and am conscious that these are constantly changing based on my location and surroundings. I have learned to negotiate both my privilege and its lack with relative expertise, barring of course the regular, still unforeseen glitches.

This has also taught me how to be an ally, for causes where my support may be necessary but any intervention may well be unwelcome.  In no particular order, here are the rules to be an ally that I developed for myself (and apply):

1. Listen first. And listen hard. There may be points of similarity between struggles but my first job is to learn everything I can about another's cause.

2. Even if I know a lot, or even more than a local interlocutor, keep my mouth shut. It is not my struggle and often 'offering insight/help/suggestions' is seen as and can really be a form of appropriation.

3. Offer tactical and practical support, but do not insist on it. Know about how to deal with tear gas? Offer the information. Have experience about protest safety? Extend that knowledge. Lawyer? Medic? PR expert? Offer my expertise but don't take it personally if it is rejected. At the end, it is NOT my cause.

4. If I am allowed to participate and get involved, don't feel smug. This is not about me, it is about the people who are fighting and will continue fighting when I have left (An aside: my pet peeves include the entire genre of war/revolution/civil war stories and films where the generally Western hero jets in with good intention, 'grows' by being part of someone else's struggle - often even gets to lead it - and the story ends when he/she flies out).

5. Don't make a fuss when I am rejected. And for god's sake don't get on a high horse because my good intentions didn't cut the slack.  Remind myself: this is not about you!

6. If allowed to participate, ensure that I do not - by my knowledge, expertise or personality - end up at the centre of the movement/group/struggle. Even in a protest march or demonstration, my place is to the side of the key players, not at the front and centre.

7. Don't expect gratitude or indeed any acknowledgement. I chose to join someone else's struggle and it isn't their job to reward or even acknowledge me for my 'generosity.'

8. Keep reminding myself: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU (rinse and repeat as necessary).

However, the biggest lesson that I have learned - and apply to myself - is simpler: compassion. Perhaps I should clarify that I use the term loosely to indicate the range of meanings it evokes for me from the Indic traditions, including that of karuna, samvedana, and dayavirata.

Over the years, I have realised why so many Indic texts describe compassion as a difficult experience and idea. It is because compassion demands far more than most of us imagine: an ability to feel another's pain without centering ourselves in that suffering. In simple terms, for me compassion is about feeling the pain of another, of approaching them with a view to ease that pain, even if only by recognising and acknowledging it clearly. Compassion, in this definition, requires suppressing the need 'to do good' by appropriating another's decision-making and agency. Compassion in this sense insists that we allow the injured party to make their own choices, even if it means they reject us. After all, any pain of rejection we may experience will still be a miniscule fraction of their agony.

As I continue to fight my own battles, and stand as ally for those I care for, I sometimes forget that my allies can offer me the same kind of compassion.  It is easy, I know, when one is hurting to believe that any offer of support is another micro-aggression, another attempt to appropriate one's narrative and suffering. In those instances, it takes an enormous effort for me to accept that I too have allies. After the initial surprise at their response, I am always grateful for their compassion.

I end with a poem written by an ally after I had another unpleasant real world encounter with prejudice. As I raged on twitter, Sandy Nicholson tweeted this to me:

Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun!
Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun! / Stare at me all you want. I choose not to give peace a chance.

And the only thing really evolving is information, From matter to animals to humans to technology.

It's all really just about storage space, and if that's all you have planned for yourself then I've already won this fight.
You can talk to me about progress if you want but the end of that timeline is our extinction either way.
so don't be so eager to iron out all the creases.
I choose instead to get pissed off when my friends are cornered

by a the kind of meat and potatoes idiocy that should really be boring by now. Never mind offensive. It's boring.
I choose not to let logic and decency form a callous over the part of me that gets angry.

I don't just want to win the war against casual racism I want to leave it looking like a knife fight

I want to cut trombones from victory laps And I want to have fun doing it
So bring me some sharp stuff I'll forget how to hold it properly and prick all my fingers but I'll do it honestly.

I may not win the battle, but I'll fight it so you know for sure whose side I was on (it was yours)

It did exactly what allies are supposed to do. Offered recognition of my hurt and extended compassion. And it reminded me that I am not alone.
Happy new year!

PS. Another lovely tweep, MJ Berryman storifyed the poem and it does read quite amazingly in tweets so do look it up.


  1. Great post-found you through a linked in contact-am at work and will read properly when at home!!! Brill though on my brief scan. More please!

  2. This is an excellent, thought provoking read. Thank you :).

    1. Thank you. Much appreciated and do come by again :-)

  3. This is an excellent, thought provoking read. Thank you :).