Allies and/or The Golden Rule

Dear President Trump,

At work we’ve been pushing harder and more persistently on social injustice lately through a handful of initiatives including the gender equity committee I told you about several months ago and a recurring Diversity Café, which happened yesterday. The topic was allyship and in preparation we were to listen to a 2017 NPR Code Switch podcast, Safety-pin Solidarity: With allies, who benefits?. The Café went well overall. The discussion was fairly lively and some people took some risks. I found the new/old (as in new to me but apparently not really new) idea of ‘courageous space’ in lieu of ‘safe space’ to be useful. Though respectable, the number of folks who attended was smaller than previous Cafés (around 35) and it was a much whiter, more psychology-heavy group with fewer men than the past couple. I don’t know why. It might have been the topic, but it could also have been the location (an old, hard to get to, part of the hospital), the driving rain, or people wanting to catch up on impeachment trial news instead.

As I’ve been letting this particular conversation about allyship stew in my head, I keep wondering whether “allyship” is something that really needs a special name or if it isn’t all of a piece with being a decent, empathetic person who’s willing to support and step up for others. This idea didn’t get raised yesterday or in the podcast, but it’s been bugging me. I don’t want to get hung up on semantics and maybe if it’s useful to some people to see themselves as allies (i.e., they find that designation or identity useful because it reminds them to step up and out of themselves). However, coming back to the podcast title’s question of “With allies, who benefits?”, I wonder how much the label “ally” is to help privileged people (recognizing that privilege is dynamic and can depend on context) feel better about being privileged and to give them/us a prosocial identity label to hang onto. Isn’t living by The Golden Rule enough? Do we really need some catchy label signaling political woke-ness?

In laying this out, I’m reminded of how squirmy I’ve always felt about my college’s motto, which is “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare” (Latin for “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister”). Talk about a power trip – ‘I, the ally, am the bestower of ministering and thou shall not minister unto me because, well, that would mess me up.’ Shit. I’m sure it was well intentioned and in its time probably something of a feminist manifesto (an all women’s college founded in 1870 would have been seriously pushing against lots of tides and would have wanted to have a motto that was empowering for the students), but it certainly sets up a crappy power dynamic.

One of the women on the podcast said she rejects the whole idea of allyship because it reifies and reinforces societal power dynamics and this is definitely in line with my discomfort with the ministering mess noted above. I do think, though, that it’s somewhat different from the idea that the label might be a security blanket for traditionally privileged people (i.e., white, cis-gendered, straight) and might distract from the idea that it’s important to be a decent human being to everyone. Maybe I’m splitting hairs and obsessing over something that doesn’t need such attention – not sure.

Either way, I’m going to pull this around to something that’s front and center for all of us right now, which is that I don’t have the sense that Pelosi was being an “ally” when she chose a diverse group of House Managers. I think she was being a smart, strategic politician who understands optics AND who wanted the best people for this job representing the House at this critical juncture. I also think she’s a decent human being and wanted to some key folks in the spotlight where they’d have a chance to shine.

May we be safe to grapple with power dynamics.
May we be willing to be decent human beings to everyone.
May we be healthy and strong and not get too bogged down by semantics.
May you not freak out and bomb anyone else.

Tracy Simpson

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