Don’t Be My Ally*

Several lifetimes ago I went through voluntary training to become a white ally to people of color. Although much of the information was instructive and eye-opening, I never shook the feeling that something about the entire proceeding was off. For one thing, the only admissible structure of oppression was race. All of the other familiar sea creatures that inevitably crawled out of the personal-encounter dragnet–class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, among others–were declared, prima facie, irrelevant to the overwhelming problem of racism, a declaration that made race itself abstract, strangely disembodied, and reductively binary. But there were bigger problems. The biggest was that any dissent from the politically correct perspective, no matter how tentatively offered, was immediately, reflexively interpreted as evidence of the dissenter’s privilege. The ally induction, like the classical psychoanalysis and communism of old, was a realm in which there could be no legitimate critique. This is a tale we moderns know well. 

Lately I’ve seen a lot of discussion about allies in the Mormon feminist world, and I’m not a fan. The language of allies is thin, too thin to sustain meaningful human interaction. If you are my ally and bear no other relationship to me, countering or undoing your privilege becomes  the entire basis of our relationship, and that, paradoxically, dooms it. Asking someone to identify as an ally or identifying oneself as an ally is an immediately flattening move, reducing a human encounter to a single dichotomy of privilege. Inevitably some allies tote their ally(ship? hood?) to enhance their own status and credibility, and some usurp the voices of those they ostensibly champion. Just as inevitably some of the allied tell their allies that their only role is to shut up and listen, to demand nothing, not even explanations that might cultivate deeper understanding. This is, to put it mildly, bad strategy, and far worse, it’s bad ethics. But the very model of allyship, every time I’ve seen it enacted, makes reasonable disagreement impossible. Precisely because the countering or reversal of privilege is the whole basis of the interaction, any disagreement from the ally about any issue is immediately attributed to the ally’s privilege. Who then is the ally? What can he or she say but what the allied has already said? And precisely because the countering of privilege is the whole basis of the interaction, I’ve seen the emphatically allied revolt against their token status, tired of being sought out and impersonally championed by overeager allies for whom they are finally nothing but their marginalization.

These failures aren’t simply the failures of human nature, though they are that. They are failures of allyship itself, which founders because it’s subsumed entirely in abstractions about privilege. Allies are the cousins of citizens and comrades, their whole mutual being and understanding exhausted by a concept.

In recent years I’ve been unsettled to see how often Mormon feminism roots itself more deeply in in various secular feminisms than it does in Mormonism or in Christianity. I’m unsettled because I suspect these secular formulations of justice are indebted to abstraction in an ultimate sense and thus utterly inadequate to who we are. If we are nothing but our relations of power, then we can hope to be nothing better than allies to one another. I hope it hardly needs saying that this is grotesquely inhuman. No one serves, sacrifices for, or loves a mere ally. No one gives her life for, or to, an ally. For these deeper, truer levels of our being together we require other terms: sister, brother, wife, husband, father, mother, lover, friend. I like to hope that Mormon theology, with its embodied God who shares crucial aspects of our being, might be uniquely situated to help us think beyond the limitations of an allied-comrade model, in which our relationships to each other are completely exhausted in an abstract ideal. Abstractions are unavoidable, essential, and always potentially cruel. For that reason, and many others, let’s all strive to make our feminism a little more Mormon.


*Actually, in real life if you, a man, were to approach me and offer your allyship because I’m a woman, I hope I would be gracious, just as I strive to be gracious when a man opens the door for me, again, presumably because I’m a woman. I believe in being gracious and offering generous interpretations of motive whenever possible. So if you prefer to identify as a feminist ally, please, whatever you do, don’t take this as another indication that you’re doing it wrong. I’ll probably just try to take our relationship to the next level–acquaintances, friends if we’re both lucky–but to absolutely no level beyond that, because I’m Mormon, married, and deeply, happily, constitutively bound by covenants of chastity. Just so we’re crystal clear.

**Actually, in real life no man has ever approached me and offered his allyship, and I expect that no man ever will. I am immensely relieved in that expectation. Even in a context of, say, a feminist gathering to discuss allyship strategies, I would be alarmed and put off if a man I did not otherwise know stuck his hand out in greeting and genially proposed himself as my ally. Precisely because allyship is such an impersonal posture–orienting to structures of privilege rather than to more usual modes of relationship (acquaintances, fellow Mormons, fellow Christians, fellow religious people, fellow investigators of religion, fellow conference attendees, fellow speakers of English)–it would come off deeply wrong, weirdly instrumental and intrusive. I hope this post has begun to show why.

53 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Yes!! In reading this, I started to copy a dozen different sentences to highlight quote in linking the post, but as I read, it just kept getting better and better. I heartily echo Kristine’s amen.

  2. This articulates so well many of the issues I have with ‘allyship’ within and without the Church. My [entirely sincere] question is: what does Mormon feminism look like? To a degree, it’s a personal question, but since I tend to line up pretty neatly with the positions of ZD (as opposed to, say, Hudson), I’m deeply curious to hear your thoughts.

  3. I’ve long considered myself an ally to Mormon feminism, or at least made a conscious effort to strive to be one. There’s no question that my efforts sometimes fallen short. But I have sincerely never tried to use whatever tentative status I might have had as currency, nor to usurp the voice of the Allied. This post resonates deeply, in that my own experience recently has taught me that many who thought of me primarily in terms of being an ally did not (much to my genuine surprise and dismay) consider me a friend. In the movement being an ally and being a friend have come to feel to me like non-overlapping venn circles. I’ve also come to realize that, as much as I value the idea of being considered a good ally, given the choice between being considered an ally and a friend, I’ll take friend any day.

  4. Eve, I love this. You illuminate so many aspects of the issue. So… is only with great trepidation that I offer a quibble. (Seriously, this feels like I’m offering to touch up the Mona Lisa.) But here goes.

    You make a distinction between Mormonism a secularism and suggest that Mormon feminism is adopting secular tactics. You may be right, but I think the real answer is closer to home. It is not so much a question of Mormonism or secularism, but rather good Mormonism or bad Mormonism. When we are not at our best, we tend to descend into a superficial tribalism, making one another offenders for a word and excommunicating people for minor heresies. But when we are at our best, we are inclusive, self-confident, competent, and gracious.

    Does this make sense, or have I misunderstood you completely?

  5. Eve, please write about feminism every day. Actually, I’d be pleased if you wrote anything about anything every day. 🙂 I love your writing, and when I agree with your point it’s icing on the cake.

  6. As a child of the ’80s, being an “ally” means more than being a cheerleader, it means you will go to war to defend your allies. What we need is a resurgence of the Rebel Alliance. Eve, you will make a formidable Princess Leia. I’ll start up the Millennium Falcon. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

  7. Yes! Thank you Eve! Since my husband started the journey of Mormon Feminism right by side, my closest relationship to an ally has been one of complete love and friendship– a unified team. While I know this is not everyone’s experience, it has been mine. Your perspective resonates with me. Thank you for your contribution to the ongoing dialog that is Mormon Feminism.

  8. Some of the discussions have been valuable, too.

    The entire concept of ‘a person you are allying with does not exist to satisfy your curiosity’ or ‘when you deal with someone in pain, are you speaking to make yourself feel better or are you listening to help’ are both useful to keep in mind.

    I am not a fan of oppression Olympics. I am not enamored of musc of privilege discussion and analysis.

    But at the same time, I see someone mans plainsing and claiming to be ‘more feminist than thou’ and I think there needs to be some counterpoint.

    I think essays like the OP are valuable to progress the discussion.

  9. Great post, Eve! Taking a page from your post, I will strive to be a friend to feminism (a friend to feminists) rather than an ally.

  10. Eve, with this:

    I’m unsettled because I suspect these secular formulations of justice are indebted to abstraction in an ultimate sense and thus utterly inadequate to who we are. If we are nothing but our relations of power, then we can hope to be nothing better than allies to one another.

    you’ve beautifully isolated my difficulty with Marxist thought, and much the identity politics that grows out of it. It’s not that the concepts and critiques aren’t useful, it’s that they’re so blasted reductive — all we are is entities acting in power relations, and everything we do can be understood by understanding the matrix of power in which we are imbricated. It’s not that this isn’t useful to work there, it’s that if we stop there we’re left with a vision of humanity as automatons determined by power apparatus, and I just don’t buy it.

    anon for this (#15) — this is disheartening to hear. I take it as axiomatic that relationships trump ideology, though I suppose others don’t. At any rate I hope you stick with the cause despite whatever negative experiences you’ve had.

    I like ECS’s vision of allyship as the Rebel Alliance, and I would like Chewbacca to be my feminist ally, even though I think he’d do a bad job of shutting up and just listening.

    Great post!

  11. I don’t really like the “shut up and listen” sort of rhetoric, but I’m not sure that I really agree with you about the futility of allyship (or maybe I’m not following). If you are attending a course or seminar to specifically learn how to be an ally, I don’t really see that as a time to talk or to argue. It’s a time to listen to the voices and experiences of a marginalized group that typically doesn’t get to have their voice heard. So although I don’t like “shut up and listen”, in some respects, I agree with the sentiment. You can always write your objections down to think about later.

    And I don’t see any reason why allyship (as an abstract between you and a group of people) can’t blossom into friendship (between you and an actual other person that belongs to a marginalized group). When that friendship (and accompanying respect, kindness, and trust) are present, you can have all of the explanations, all the disagreements about approach and privilege.

    But before friendship, respect, kindness, and trust? To me, being an ally means listening, learning and supporting.

  12. Thanks for writing this, Eve. So clear and lovely, expressing ideas that were muddy in my head and that I couldn’t articulate.

    I don’t know if I’ve been much of a Mormon feminist ally, but I have been treated as a friend by many wonderful Mormon feminists, for which I am grateful.

  13. Has American feminism theorized itself in terms of the racial identity stages articulated by William Cross? Does the typical path to becoming a feminist in this country involve an encounter with sexism, the search for a positive identity and, once achieved, a sense of equilibrium and willingness to serve as an emissary? Do feminists debate this final step in this Cross model, since it suggests the transition from anti-sexist (oppose patriarchy) to non-sexist (equal opportunities for all genders)?

    Would a Mormon feminism that rejects a model of power relations hearken instead to the Book of Mormon warnings of what happens to those who seek power? Where does Mormon feminism find its inspiration for questioning the established order, given that this kind of questioning in the Book of Mormon is most often associated with the cunning devices of the devil? How can a Mormon feminism find its way in a world that rejects the values of a Zion society and conceives of charity as little more than a social obligation?

  14. Thank you for the many kind words. I’m sure I’ve been treated more kindly than I deserve!

    Enna, I appreciate your willingness to dissent from the general tenor of the comments. (For one thing, we Mormon feminists need a better model of reasonable dissent and a lot more practice at it. But that failing’s hardly peculiar to Mormon feminists.)

    You may be right that allyship/hood deserves more credit than I’m giving it. I do like your points about the possibilities of allies becoming friends and about there being an appropriate time to listen. At the same time, whenever I’ve been in an ally-building situation, I’ve felt really uncomfortable, and that discomfort has felt similar whether I’m being educated as the ally or whether other people are being educated as my allies. To me the entire situation has felt scripted and contrived, something to be awkwardly endured and quickly forgotten, not like any kind of basis for friendship or even conversation.

    A bit like this:

  15. sterflu, those all sound like excellent questions. Each could easily be its own post. I’m afraid I’m not well situated to answer any of the questions in your first paragraph since I don’t know Cross’s model and I know just as little about what might constitute a typical feminist trajectory, even a typical Mormon feminist trajectory.

    Your questions about possible intersections between Mormon feminism and the Book of Mormon are provocative. Some work’s been done on that front by Joe Spencer at FMH (I’m struggling to find the content on their site and my browser’s not cooperating). As you may know he does exquisite close readings of scripture. Off the top of my head I’m not aware of other attempts to put the Book of Mormon and feminism into dialogue, but if you’re curious I’d start by searching the terms in Dialogue’s archives to see what’s been done.

  16. Mark Brown, that sounds right to me, that when we are not at our best selves we degenerate into what you aptly call “superficial tribalism.” In accordance with my expressed desire for a more Mormon feminism, I also very much like that you make Mormonism the encompassing term and see our failures and divisions as specifically religious failures to be kind, generous, and understanding. That too seems right to me.

  17. Speaking as someone who is learning this lesson for myself, when it comes to being an ally to groups I myself am not a part of, there is a lot that IS uncomfortable about being an ally. It is a deliberate step outside of your own comfort zone, your own privilege, your own assumptions about the social place you take for granted. You cannot be an ally without facing that discomfort.

    And what discomfort you face is really small compared to the burden borne by those you are aiming to help.

    I really think the “ring theory of kvetching” applies. Dump out, comfort in. If you are an ally, you are by definition in a bigger ring than those you are wishing to ally to. The discomfort you encounter might be something you need to sit with for a while, or dump out to those who are in outside rings (and aren’t going to turn it into a session of bashing or criticizing a group that is not there to speak for themselves at the moment) or to God.

    Take notes on your feelings, they’re valid, see if there’s a place you and the group you wish to help can speak about the difficulty and discomfort you’re having, and see if you can work towards a deeper understanding. But don’t dump -in- on those whose burdens are already heavy and who you are supposed to be helping, and don’t take their spaces over with your needs. If you have to, step away from “allyship” until you can process things for yourself.

    And of course, none of that means you can’t establish interpersonal relationships on their own terms with individuals who want them with you.

  18. I like this, and agree that a relationship that’s solely based on allyship (i.e. differences) is not one that’s going to get very far or be very meaningful.

    The main problem I see with this concept of allyship with regard to feminism lies in what feminism is. Now I don’t want to wade into rough water with this, but I think it’s safe to say that feminism is a collection of opinions and world-views that don’t devalue women or deprive them of equal and fair treatment. My point is that anyone can be a feminist as it’s a matter of opinions and actions which can be chosen.

    Racial traits and sexual orientation, however, aren’t chosen or even changeable, and in those contexts being different but allied makes some sense, I think. Talk of allyship in feminism I fear is a thinly-veiled method of control and actually harmful to successfully making the change in the world that feminists desire to see.

    Great post!

  19. Capricornus makes an excellent point (and I here need to credit Galdralag for bringing the same point to my attention), one that didn’t even occur to me as I was drafting the post.

    So thinking aloud here: Because race is unchosen and inescapable–because we’re all stuck with the biology of our skin color and with the enormous social meanings that attach to that biology, whatever we think or feel about those meanings–an allies model makes a certain sense (although I’m still a curmudgeon about it). But transferring the allies model to feminism introduces an incoherence because feminism (unlike race and gender) _is_ chosen, is a set of ideological commitments rather than a biological and social inheritance.

    One way to phrase that incoherence is this. Can men be feminists? Or can they only be feminist allies? Clearly not all women identify as feminists. What if I as a woman decided to identify not as a feminist but as a feminist ally? That would seem strange, although like many strange things it could be mightily entertaining. 😉

    In any case, thanks again to Capricornus and Galdralag for refining my thinking on this point.

  20. You choose anti-racism and anti-homophobia, too. That still doesn’t put you in the same “ring” as black people and gay people, as far as who centrally affected by the problem you’re fighting, and who has both the most to gain and the most to lose in regards to the fruit of its efforts.

    I’m afraid that Capricornus’ point confuses the name of the movement on the one side with the distinction of the central group affected on the other.

  21. I love this message. Any post that attempts to take the substantivizing “-ment” out of “movement” is welcome to many of us.

    Mark Brown and Zillah have also added important dimensions: “What does Mormon feminism look like?” That question highlights the danger of not only abstraction-oppression inherent even in a word like “feminism,” which we all employ with a different range of meanings, but also the danger of relying on secular forms. Without some abstraction the world would be incomprehensible, and there would be no way for us to come together in thought, but there are, in keeping with the Star Wars clue running through the commentary, “alternatives to violence,” even word and thought violence. You put it so well, Eve, when you said, “If you are my ally and bear no other relationship to me, countering or undoing your privilege becomes the entire basis of our relationship, and that, paradoxically, dooms it.” It’s too easy to get trapped in a circle of unproductive binary abstractions. Maybe we cannot do without them for a time, but we should be wary of what we call into existence. I agree with Zillah that any Mormon version of feminism would have to rely on personal choice. I prefer to think of myself as a friend of women and their/our concerns, not of feminism or even of feminists, as those two words carry too much historical and political baggage. I do so while respecting the fact that others have reasonable grounds to prefer those terms, perhaps specifically for their historical and political baggage. I’ve found that focusing on women I know personally rather than the ideologies that have sprung up around women in general, has kept me more grounded and open to alternative views.

    As you pointed out, Eve, so much of our discourse (including the way we now use the word “discourse”) emerged out of the discourse of secularized justice. The only thing I’d call your attention to—and this will border on thread hijacking—is that modern Christianity (including popular religious social justice movements like Liberation Theology) and Mormonism have a lot in common with practitioners of secularized justice in appealing to a form of “justice in an ultimate sense.” As Nietzsche pointed out (and if he wasn’t right about anything else, he was right about this, at least from a cultural-historical standpoint), secularized forms of justice, like Marxism and modern socialism, are forms of (Reformation) Christianity taken to their logical conclusions: they are philosophical Idealism masquerading as Materialism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as modern Christianity and its atheist outgrowths have improved the world significantly over the past five centuries, however else they may have damaged it. Traditional Mormonism has identified with its Idealist cousins, but Mormonism is, to my reckoning, with its notions of eternal physicality and, as you say, an embodied G-d, primarily a Materialist religion at heart. That’s both liberating and terrifying: no ideas but in things. There is no religion outside of Paganism (and maybe Buddhism) more Materialist than Mormonism, even though we do make some provision for more classical forms of theology and a more anagogical approach to morality. However, in keeping with Mormon Materialism and by way of example, consider Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants: it isn’t really about marriage at all, when you get down to it. It’s about the very terrifying near contemporary Kierkegaardian assertion that faith is not a matter of pinning down ultimate reality, but a matter of obeying every word and law that comes from G-d, whether that means marrying multitudes or murdering your innocent child (both of which the Lord mentions specifically in this Section). It’s this latter belief in a higher, apparently morally different world that creates the problem: G-d demands our obedience, no matter the sacrifice or how much it might offend our sensibilities (which may or may not include our early twenty-first century educated notions of justice), but he also expects us to determine largely the direction of his kingdom and the nature of our associations with each other: his only stipulation there is that it be based on love of him and each other. (Mark Brown hit that spot perfectly with his post about being a good or bad Mormon.) Striking a balance between the two is life as a Mormon.

    It’s not that we can’t learn anything from our secular counterparts, but if we’re serious about possessing the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and if we’re serious about the divine nature of modern scripture, we’d do much better forging our own way with those as guides, and leaving behind others’ abstractions and formulations, which, however sincere and carefully wrought, often end up looking quite pseudo-intellectual when brought under the light of revelation. (And yes, this may mean distancing ourselves a bit from even non-secular feminists.) Otherwise we’re in danger of being those dreaded pearl-trampling swine.

  22. I don’t have any interest in reading the “Ally” post at fMh — I used to read the blog, but much of the content there has lost interest for a believing member of the Church, even a fairly liberal feminist like myself — but I have been following the discussion here with some interest.

    As a result of reading this post, I read fMh’s latest post yesterday, followed it up with a second reading today, and left a comment. A commenter had expressed some tensions with the Church community. In response, another commenter had suggested that she should visit disaffected Mormon sites.

    So, with this discussion in mind, I wrote a comment suggesting that rather than immerse herself in the dark parts of our history, she may want to make her relationship to the church a matter of prayer. You can’t get any more Mormon than that. One of the most basic, central parts of our practical theology is the importance of personal revelation.

    When I clicked “submit,” the comment went into moderation, and hasn’t made it out, although other comments made afterwards have posted.

    So, based on this one example, I’d have to agree that certain very vocal feminist groups in the Church have left the teachings of the Church behind, and have other goals in mind.

  23. I love this post and I love seeing so many commenters that I haven’t seen around in a while (Hello, ECS!).

    But the best part of this poast was that you articulated what my husband has been trying to say for some time, but I couldn’t really understand. He posted a few years ago at Exponent and got eaten alive in the comments, but I couldn’t see why he was so upset (and still is). I thought the commenters made good points about his privilege, etc. and because I saw him as an “ally,” I believed it was his duty to listen and be supportive of feminists.
    This is the type of conversation we need to have more of around the bloggernacle.

    And I second the request that you write something everyday. I love your writing.

  24. The idea that there’s danger in expressing ideological commitments as social commitments—whereby relationships to abstractions masquerade as relationships to people—is fascinating; I’d love to think more about the ethics of this.

    I’m not yet sure whether I’m willing to abandon the model of allyship entirely; I’m willing to entertain arguments for and against. But I do worry that, in Mormon feminism in particular, our “allies” are sometimes silenced and sidelined, and especially that the men who are the most committed to feminism end up flagellating themselves endlessly for their privilege where the men who don’t care at all continue blithely defending the status quo. If only women are allowed to speak about gender, we perpetuate the idea that only women have gender. I know I don’t want to belong to a feminism that excludes men’s voices entirely or that brooks no critique.

  25. You choose anti-racism and anti-homophobia, too. That still doesn’t put you in the same “ring” as black people and gay people, as far as who centrally affected by the problem you’re fighting, and who has both the most to gain and the most to lose in regards to the fruit of its efforts.

    So then maybe the question is whether, if you’re white, you can be an ally to people of color and an anti-racist yourself, or whether you can only be an ally to anti-racists. Similarly, if you’re straight, you can be an ally to LGBT individuals, but can you be an anti-homophobe yourself or only an ally to anti-homophobes?

    On the one hand we have unchosen classes of people and on the other hand chosen identities that express commitments to ideals:

    people of color—anti-racists
    LGBT people—anti-homophobes

    (This is just a heuristic—the terms and their definitions could definitely be refined.)

    I’m not trying to advance an argument here myself—I’m just trying to clarify what I hear people saying. One argument I’m hearing is that feminist is the analogue to anti-racist where woman is the analogue to person of color, so, theoretically, men can be feminists if they’re committed to feminist ideals in the same way whites can theoretically be anti-racists. On the other hand, I’m sure there are those who would argue that “feminist” isn’t really an analogue to “anti-racist,” and/or that only people of color can properly advocate for the status of people of color and only women can properly advocate for the status of women.

  26. Great points, Kiskilili.

    Hopefully this doesn’t derail the conversation too much, but I have been thinking about how much debate there is around the specific identities that people choose to express commitments to ideas. For example, what is the difference between calling yourself a feminist, a humanist, or anti-sexist? Some people try to draw very distinct lines by saying that only women can truly contribute to discussions about feminism, but everyone can contribute to broader questions about gender. Yet, I have to wonder if there is value in having these distinctions or different layers to the general conversation.

  27. One other comment on the post: The comparison to psychoanalytic theory strikes me as apt, in that the theory allows for no critique, since all critique is construed as resistance. There’s undeniably a colossal amount of unexamined privilege on the part of members of the church. Even so, it seems dangerous to construct a system in which any critique is automatically rejected out of hand as a sign of privilege.

  28. The point, to me, is remembering who is central to the effort you might claim to be a part of. The rest is an interesting exercise, but if you forget or steamroll the people who are supposed to be central, or re-center the focus of the movement on yourself rather than those you hope to advance, then in that moment, that action, you’re not advancing them, not actually -being- very feminist/anti-racist/anti-homophobic.

    And we’re all going to slip up, and slipping up feels awful. And sometimes people might not be very nice about it.

    And at that moment, yeah, you might need to do some self-care, sit with the hurt of it for a while, do some figuring, learning, healing for a while. And you might have a friend from that group who you can bring your hurt to as a friend; that’s up to your relationship with them and how they feel about it.

    Maybe it would be a good thing for MoFems, male and female, to gather some resources on dealing with ally pain. It’s going to happen. You’re sharing someone else’s burden, and it’s a complex problem. You’re going to get hurt doing it, and I don’t know how anyone could expect otherwise, though they might not expect exactly how it’s going to come. Sometimes it’s going to come because you hurt someone else and didn’t mean to, or because you didn’t live up to your own ideal and didn’t even know that what you did was a way to fail. That’s part of a way that this crap is so thick. But you don’t muck the crap out by flicking the bit that got on you back on the people who are already buried in it, even if it was a slip up, an accident, or even a deliberate flick in your direction that got you in the first place.

    And, again, none of that precludes establishing personal relationships and friendships outside of labels and groupings and movements and ideologies.

    If you want to have a relationship that isn’t doomed, get to know the person, sure! If they want a relationship, great! That’s on its own terms.

  29. Eve,

    I feel like maybe you are attending the wrong sort of allyship events 🙂

    I agree with Rune that these types of experiences, by their very definition, are uncomfortable and awkward. How could it not be? In my experience, it’s when you are willing to stay through the awkwardness and keep coming back in good faith, that eventually that uncomfortableness starts to fade. To be perfectly honest, starting out as a TBM, I was really uncomfortable on ZD and fMh at first! And then, as an ex-Mo but still pretty sheltered, I was really uncomfortable on ally and non-Mormon feminist blogs. And even now as a pretty liberal feminist, I still find myself a bit uncomfortable in intersectional areas where I’m less familiar.

    I don’t like the idea of a Feminism (big F) that doesn’t allow critique or men’s voices. I absolutely believe that men can be a feminist. But if men are entering a Feminist space as allies and supporters, maybe that’s not the best time for critique.

  30. To add another wrinkle to the discussion of parallels and disconnects among race, sexual orientation, gender, and feminism: I’m also wondering about the pitfalls of making the unchosenness of an identity the basis of activism. The obvious model here is race, but again I wonder both how well it transfers and how well it works for race in the first place. So much of the debate over sexual orientation has come down to this question. Some gay activists stake their claim to legitimacy on the unchosenness of their desire. Who would choose to be gay, they ask, when the social costs are so high? It’s a good question. But I also know gay women who are very insistent that their homosexuality is a deliberate choice. (For the record I know no gay men who claim they choose to be gay, although they may exist. What to make of this seeming difference between gay men and gay women, I have no idea.)

    Transsexuality and religion offer other complicating examples to the model of chosenness. Transsexuality as we usually think of it seems both chosen and unchosen, a choice to conform the body to an unchosen an ineradicable and inescapable sense of how that body should be. Religion is another great case to think about, because it’s so obviously both very deliberately chosen by some and a deeply unchosen, ineradicable aspect of self for others. (No matter what choices I make from here on out I will always be deeply Mormon, in some sense. I imagine many reading this may also feel that inescapable Mormonness.)

    Thanks to everyone who’s engaged in the discussion. My thoughts and responses here have been pretty scattershot, and I don’t mean to ignore anyone, but I need to go feed my family and put kids to bed. I’ll try to come back later for more.

  31. I was actually rebutting Capricornus, and perhaps was not clear. I was objecting to the parallel he attempted to draw between the movement on one hand, and the central group on the other, not necessarily the aspect of chosenness.

    Who is the central group that bears the burden of the problem the movement is against? Who experiences the brunt of the problem, and who will reap both the movement’s successes and its failures in full. On the other hand, who is involved in the movement but is not it’s center and does not bear the same burdens and risks?

  32. Rune, apologies if I wasn’t clear, either. I didn’t mean my thoughts on agency and identity as a response to any particular comment, simply as another aspect of the issue I’d like to consider.

    Regarding your and Enna’s thoughts on the meaning of discomfort, I’m wondering if you and Enna would indulge me in an analogy. If so, let’s compare the discomfort a privileged ally might feel learning about her privilege with the discomfort a repentant sinner might feel confessing to the bishop. In both cases there’s what we might term legitimate discomfort. Acknowledging our privilege or our sins is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Being accountable is hard work.

    But let’s imagine further, in one of the scenarios discussed at FMH, that things go awry in the confessional. Maybe the bishop gets prurient and starts pressing for unnecessary detail. Maybe he imposes excessive or bizarre forms of penance. Maybe he’s simply dismissive or sarcastic about extremely personal and sensitive feelings. So the confessor walks away embroiled not just in the legitimate discomfort of her sins but in illegitimate discomfort about the manner in which those sins were treated. She’s a sinner, but the institution was flawed, and it failed her.

    Why couldn’t something similar happen at an allies group? Isn’t it just as possible that allies might be both obtuse in and blinded by their privilege and mistreated and failed by a flawed institution or model?

    To put it in other words, perhaps where we disagree is on the question of whether there can indeed be a legitimate critique of the allies model or whether any discomfort experienced in an allied context is, de facto, an indication of privilege. Given that I think the only true and living church of God on the earth has ended up with some terrible, terribly human flaws, I’m pretty sure that other institutions, models, and practices that make no such lofty claims have, too. But maybe, as Enna put it, I’m simply going to the wrong allies groups. I’m actually eager to read a vigorous defense of the allies model showing me where my critique fails and what it isn’t take into account.

  33. I see where you’re coming from. A couple of things, that i thought I’d already touched on but might also benefit from clarification.

    A person’s interpersonal relationships with individuals are their own animal to navigate. If you feel a personal relationship with someone who is part of a group you seek to be an ally to is being personally abusive, by all means, set your own boundaries there.

    The analogy you present also doesn’t directly work in a couple of crucial places. First of all, you create a parallel between the Bishop (who represents the church) and some unspoken individual who I assume represents the marginalized group. This doesn’t exactly work because the Bishop is in a position of structurally-(and spiritually)-reinforced place of authority over the confessor, where the erring would-be-ally is in the place of socially-reinforced privilege in the other scenario.

    The second important distinction is that you say the Bishop and the system in your scenario failed the confessor. The Bishop and the system are suppose to be serving the confessor, and they erred badly in doing so.

    But a social justice movement does not exist -for- its allies. Its purpose is not to serve its allies, raise its allies, school its allies, or necessarily prioritize energy towards allies in any way.

    It may have good reasons to help allies along, but that is a means to an end, and besides the would-be-allies are by definition in a strong position to help -themselves- first. Allies do not need to “confess” to social justice movements, but they do need to align their actions with what is in the best interest of those that the movement is actually for. Otherwise they’re not allies. They can still be decent people, they can still make it a personal goal to generally treat individuals well on a personal basis, but it does not make them allies to the social justice movement.

    And if a person cannot be an active ally, then the decent, even honorable, thing could very well be to avoid being a burden while they do their own learning and growing.

    And, (sorry to keep beating this drum, but I feel like the distinction is both difficult and important,) there can still be a difference between allyship and friendship. Someone you wish to ally to does not owe you an acceptance of either, and an acceptance of either does not indicate an automatic acceptance of both. Friendship is personal, allyship is purposeful.

    And how an individual weights the relative importance of the two is personal to them, and is entitled to their own boundaries.

    Seeing that boundary for LDS people is, I think, especially hard, because we’re really not that practiced at establishing healthy boundaries in the first place, and good intentions and a desire to love and befriend can motivate a conflation of different kinds of social relationships.

  34. To the matter of critique, yes, but allow me to share an analogy that came up on the fMh blog discussion.

    A couple of comments there asked if even an experienced baker might not appreciate input on how to improve their product, and intended that as a general argument.

    But what experienced baker -would- appreciate people who are strangers to the kitchen and lacking her own level of experience constantly knocking on the door, and trying to tinker with her recipes and methods?

    For starters, and again the biggest problem with the attempted analogy, the baker isn’t baking for anyone outside of the kitchen. There are no outside “consumers” of what that kitchen is producing. The ones in charge of making the cakes are the ones who have to eat them. They’re also the ones who know the equipment they’re dealing with, the dietary needs and limitations of those the cakes are actually for, the chemistry of the recipes, and a whole bunch of things that have already been tried and don’t actually work.

    Now, maybe the baker could work faster with more assistants, people to go buy ingredients, keep the pantries stocked, and maybe there will be leftovers to share. Maybe an assistant hangs around long enough that they start to learn more and more about the way the kitchen works, and all of its needs.

    But it would take a level of trust offered by that baker to someone who has taken the time to really learn their kitchen and learn their needs and the purpose of the cakes, before input from that person could possibly be particularly useful. And if the baker is taking too much time talking to the pantry people about better ways to organize the pantry, then they’re not making the food.

  35. (Please forgive the typos and redundant wording in places. It’s getting late and the kidlets got me up before the crack of dawn today.)

  36. Rune, it seems to me that we’re still talking past each other. I don’t really know what I can say further either to remedy that or to make my position clearer, so I’m going to bow out, at least for now. Good luck with your kidlets.

  37. I didn’t directly address one thing yet, (there’s a lot to this,) and maybe that’s what you mean.

    You asked if any discomfort is an indication of privilege? I don’t think that it automatically is, no, and I didn’t claim so. I do think that it -is- unavoidable that you will encounter pain in allyship. Again, you’re attempting to help pick up a huge burden of caustic flaming crap. You’re not coming out of that unscathed. But no, I don’t think that it is automatically a sign of privilege to experience that pain.

    However, it is -very- easy to fall into an -exercise- of privilege in how you deal with that pain, and who you expect to help address it, how, and when.

  38. I agree with Rune here. Encountering one’s own privilege is inevitably painful. I think it’s perfectly normal and understandable to feel that pain. We don’t like to think of ourselves as benefiting from unearned privilege. It’s unfair, it’s unjust, we didn’t ask for it, we don’t want to believe it. There are all kinds of psychological and interpersonal reasons for remaining blind to it. When it is brought to our awareness, no matter how kindly and gently, we feel hurt, misunderstood, accused of bad faith, and defensive. I don’t think there’s a way around this. I’ve felt it myself as an educated, able-bodied white woman. We’ll inevitably feel hurt and offended. We need someone with patience, love, and the belief that we’re worthwhile to lead us up our learning curve.

    But it’s hard for the person we’d like to advocate for to expend the energy such patience requires, when they’re already dealing with their disadvantaged position–the constant micro-aggressions against them, the daily uphill slog across what their privileged friends view as a level playing field. Maybe they’ve taken ten (or twenty, or a hundred) potential friends and allies through the process, and they’re just tired.

    It’s going to hurt on both sides. But as a potential ally or friend, I think it’s so important to at least consider just listening to the hurt and anger of the person who is one-down–feminists, people of color, LGBT–without demanding that they tone it down for us, stop being shrill, walk us through their experience and educate us (when they’ve had this conversation 50 times today already).

    I know as a mofem, I sometimes feel like there’s no safe place to put my anger about sexism in society and the church. The way I manage to stay calm, friendly and welcoming of potential/partial/ambivalent/”if only you’d be nicer about it” feminist allies is to remember first encountering my own privilege in other areas.

  39. I’ve been thinking about my own reservations about allyship, or at least the allyship model as I’ve encountered it, and one of the things I have a hard time with is the impression I’ve gotten that a major part of what allies are expected to do is to listen to and validate people’s pain and anger. But if the notion of allyship is to have something valuable to offer, I think we need to get away from this focus on the therapeutic. I’m not saying it’s not important to have spaces where those emotions can be heard. But I’m uneasy with any conceptualization of social justice which is primarily about personal pain, and I’m wondering if it would be helpful to disentangle the two.

  40. “Isn’t it just as possible that allies might be both obtuse in and blinded by their privilege and mistreated and failed by a flawed institution or model?”

    Yes! If you feel like that’s happening after giving a group a fair shot, then find another group! I certainly have left some blogs/relationships because at the end of the day I just didn’t agree with their approach.

    And I don’t think that discomfort is automatically an indication of privilege. But I do think that if you feel discomfort, the first thing to do is *think* about where that’s coming from, rather than critiquing whatever is causing the discomfort, and trying to sit with it.

    The only hard and fast rule, I guess for me, is that a safe space for marginalized voices is never the place for critique – even valid critique. Privileged voices have a ton of places to make their opinions known, and should not co-opt a safe space. (unless, of course, that opinion is solicited.)

  41. Actually, Lynnette, your comment kind of put something into focus in my thoughts. I think you’ve hit on the difference between allyship and activism. I *do* think that the primary role of an ally is to listen, validate, and learn about the experience of a marginalized group. I don’t think that’s so much therapeutic for the marginalized group and it is about expanding the horizons of the ally.

    An activist is the person that has been an ally, become a friend, and wants to make a difference in an active way, by having something valuable to offer, as you put it. Or maybe they are naturally an ally and friend and don’t have to go through the discomfort to get there.

    Of course you could be both at the same time.

  42. I would still -really- hesitate to call it being “failed by a flawed institution or model.”

    For one thing, the groups you’re dealing with are -actually- dealing with institutionalized power imbalances in a broad culture that is -supposed- to be for everybody. The little bit of power that a social justice group has in comparison to that should not be rhetorically compared to broad systemic injustices, even by accident. It minimizes what they’re up against by implying a false equivalence.

    And, again, their social justice movement? It’s not about you as an ally. It is not -for- you as an ally.. If a group is actually trying to cultivate allies and does so poorly, it is -still- not the allies they are failing, it is their own goal, and there may be multiple deep reasons for that. You really cannot fairly say that you’ve been failed as an ally, because that implies that you were entitled to something from someone else. If you are personally hurt by something that happens, that sucks. It really does. Dealing with allies is really flippin’ complicated, and it’s never the only thing going on. You can fairly say you felt hurt, you can say that you didn’t feel like you were making progress really learning how to interact as an ally, you can say all kinds of personal “I” statements, (though, again, be careful to whom, where and when,) but you can’t say that they failed you. It just doesn’t work that way.

    While having allies is useful and even needed, that doesn’t mean that every hiccup and every ally’s pain needs to be addressed as it happens along the way, before they can move forward. That would re-establish the central importance of the privileged group, and imply that the thing that comes first in solving the problems of marginalization is to appeal to privilege.

    And, again again again, if you have a personal relationship involved, address that on its own terms.

  43. Pingback: Don’t Be An Ally

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