On Being an Ally

by Cara on April 19, 2008

in blogging, feminism, race and racism

Last week, I noted that BFP’s blog had been shut down. And I said that with regard to the situation that caused her to close it, I did not know what to say. Later on in the day, Holly put up a post on the topic. And after reading it, and reading the thread, I did know what to say.

And I didn’t say it.

A few months ago, I wrote an article for an anthology that is currently shopping around for publishers. It’s called The Importance of Allies: A Call to White, Straight, Middle-Class Feminists. It’s about just what it sounds like: the fact that the mainstream feminist movement has been overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class, and though I do think that we’ve made progress, and though I do think that more of an effort is being made, we haven’t come nearly as far as we think we have. I think that a lot of the article is outdated now, and that’s a shame — not for me and the damn article, but because I gave us more credit than we deserved.

My eyes have been opened.

In this article, I provided a lot of very basic but clearly-necessary tips on being a better ally. As anytime there is an Open Letter to White Feminists, white feminists come along and ask “but what are we supposed to do?”, it’s sorely needed. I offered my advice — rather basic things, addressing the mistakes I commonly see made, spelled out very explicitly. The part that I emphasized most was the importance of speaking up. This is, after all what allies are for. If you hear something racist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/classist/etc., it is your job as an ally to say something, to fight back and treat that remark as seriously as you would if it was about you. When you see an ally being unfairly attacked, it is your responsibility to come to their defense.

And I have failed at my own advice.

Reading everything this week, there was much extended comment on the responsibility of “big bloggers” in particular. Joining Feministe, this is a strange time for me. I don’t think of myself as a big blogger, though I do admit that in the feminist blogosphere, I seem to be becoming more well-known than many. And there is absolutely no denying that I am now writing for a “big blog”. For this reason, I realize now that in the same way I cannot call out white feminists without taking a good strong look at myself, I cannot call out big bloggers without admitting or changing the fact that I am a part of the problem.

So far, I have been a coward.

I think that we are past the point of using pseudonyms. Though I know it’s what BFP wanted, and I wish we could have respected that, it seems rather silly to pretend that everyone does not know who we are talking about. And in any case, Amanda seems to want her name used.

I do not know either Amanda or BFP. I have had no more than a few brief exchanges with either of them. I am not writing this as either of their friend. I have nothing to gain here, and in fact do have something to lose. I’m not saying this because I want a pat on the back — I do not want a pat on the back, do not think I deserve one and hope that you keep that in mind — but because it’s the hard and unflattering truth. I hope that this will not put professional relationships on the line, and maybe I have been underestimating my colleagues. But I am disappointed in myself to say that this is why I have stayed silent — fear for my own ass. Battle lines have been drawn, as has been painful for me to watch, based on skin color and/or blogrolls. But (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I am not on the side that I am “supposed” to be on.

I’ve been thinking about these relationships. And while I was reading BFP’s last blog post yesterday, I was thinking I should write about this, I should write about this, I should write about this. But I was still thinking about my goddamn self. And then I read this post by kissmypinapple. And something she said struck me very hard and it hurt (emphasis mine).

Anyone who paid attention to what BFP was saying would know the issue was responsibility and feminist community. We failed her. Miserably. And now there is one less brilliant feminist in the world. We turned our backs on a woman who needed us, choosing instead to give Marcotte a pass. I understand that Marcotte with the same publisher as a lot of feminist bloggers. I understand that she’s a colleague. But, why wasn’t BFP a colleague?

And I realized what a fucking ass I was being.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that this is one of the hardest things for me to say about anything of importance. And you won’t hear it a lot. But I was wrong.

Amanda was one of the very first feminist bloggers I ever started reading. Before my blog reader expanded and I formed a handful of favorite bloggers, she was my favorite, my one and only. I have learned a lot from her, have referenced, used or built off many of her ideas — with citations. I have a lot of respect for her as a writer. If she’s reading this, that may end up getting lost. But this comes from a place much closer to love than hate.

Many have made this into an issue of plagiarism. It has been stated numerous times by numerous bloggers that plagiarism, at least in the sense of word-for-word copying, was not the original grievance. I don’t think that what she did constitutes plagiarism. From reading her final post, and from reading the one before it, BFP also does not think Amanda is guilty of plagiarism.

But that’s not the point, and we need to stop skirting the issue.

Have I seen some ugly attacks on Amanda? Yes. Have I seen people use the word “plagiarism” as an accusation? Yes. Have I seen some people who actually do appear to be engaging in “character assassination”? Sure. But none of them are the key parties in this mess. They were not BFP, and as far as I can tell from my extensive reading, they were not the other women who originally raised this issue. And I have seen far too many people fail to acknowledge that. I have seen far too many argue the exact opposite.

When I first heard about this and first read Amanda’s article, as someone who reads both bloggers that this was originally about, I too was struck by the similarity to BFP’s writing. I didn’t know whether it was on purpose or not; I hoped that it wasn’t and I still do. But I saw it. And I knew that it had the potential to get ugly. I hoped that it wouldn’t. I hoped that it would be addressed responsibly.

As a writer and as someone with quite an ego of her own, I also understood that the automatic reaction might be defensiveness. I would like to be able to believe that I personally would have handled this type of situation in a somewhat gracious manner, but I can’t say for sure. Like many other people, I understand and appreciate the situation that Amanda found herself in. But saying that — and meaning it — doesn’t erase the problem, and we need to stop using it as a justification.

I do not think that the reaction that ensued is justifiable. I cannot justify it. I cannot agree with it. I look at the thread on Holly’s post with horror and profound sadness. When it came to the original issue, I could see both sides even as I leaned towards BFP’s. Now, the reaction of the other side has been just plain wrong. This is where things got ugly, and this is where I got angry. I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

I am angry/upset about the accusations and vitriol directed at BFP, who took every single effort to keep this situation civil. I am angry/upset about what I perceive to be a purposeful denigration of her work. I am angry/upset about the allegations of jealousness. I am angry/upset about the comparison of WOC bloggers standing behind BFP to right-wing attack dogs, as though this was about bringing a certain person down by any means necessary, rather than a valid concern and justifiable anger — as though the criticism is coming from a place of privilege, rather than a demand to be heard in a community that would rather not hear it. I am angry/upset about the attempt to silence those with an honest grievance, because whether agreed with or not, it deserves to be heard. I’m angry/upset that the anger of those standing behind BFP has been misrepresented as hate and lies and therefore ignorable. I’m angry/upset that people who know their history, who are educated about racism within the feminist movement, who know better, seem to be making every effort to repeat all of the things we claim we’re past.

And perhaps most of all, I am upset about a lack of apology. I was hoping that after having time to cool off, there would be a retraction and a correction. I don’t think that “sorry I was being an ass” would have covered it at that point. But it would have been something. Instead, there has not even been a blog post. Instead, the behavior has been continued.

I’m avoiding using her name because though I am talking about Amanda, I’m also talking about many others. I am angry/upset at these members of the feminist community for their similar remarks. Some of the comment threads have been vile. I am angry/upset at us, white feminists, for not properly addressing this. Yes, I am upset and angry with myself. Because I know that I can do better. I know that we can do better. We are supposed to be in this together, and as BFP said, we have been actively ignoring and rejecting the responsibility we have to others. When we do that, we are no longer behaving in a way that could be called feminist.

And I do not think that this is okay.

I reread this post and realize that most of it is actually about me. It’s only partially about community building, a failure to women who deserve for us to work with them, or the silencing of dissenting and marginalized voices. BFP wrote about all of that and it deserves to be read and it deserves to be heard. This post is mostly about me because I feel that in my silence, I have participated in silencing. I feel that I too am responsible, and I want to own that. And of all the things we need to talk about, silencing is up pretty high on the list.

This post is also about me because I am desperate, like Holly (for whom the tactic failed, and so I don’t have high hopes), to make it clear that this is not an attack but a criticism that is made and needs to be made precisely because of my respect for the people involved. We all fuck up. When I fuck up, I don’t think that letting me get away with it is respect. I read somewhere earlier this week — and I apologize because I looked everywhere and could not find it again — that we need to stop looking at criticism and using criticism as an attack, and instead see and use it as love. And I think that love is precisely the right word to describe demanding accountability and improvement from your community.

Please. Let’s be accountable. Let’s be better.

I want to be a good ally. I don’t think that this post makes me one by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, the difficulty in facing it has shown me how far I have to go. But without writing it, I know that I can’t even honestly claim that desire.

So here it is. This isn’t easy, and it’s also about as honest as I get. Do with it what you will.

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{ 17 comments }

1 Redstar April 19, 2008 at 6:54 pm

You should post this as part of Angry Black Woman’s Carnival of Allies.

2 Cara April 19, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Thanks Redstar; I’d been considering that.

3 Rebecca April 19, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Word.

I think that’s one of the best responses I’ve seen to this entire fiasco.

4 Kristen April 19, 2008 at 11:21 pm

Cara,

This is why you are my favorite blogger. I can always count on you to be honest and empathetic. I know you don’t want a pat on the back, but you’re getting one anyway.

What’s been going on in this latest krfuffle has left me deeply disturbed by and disappointed in the feminist blogosphere. I was a frequent lurker on BFPs site and I will miss how she challenged me to see the world differently. I’ve withdrawn from a number of spaces where I had earlier found solace. To me (and I recognize that I am not the definer of Feminism), feminism is about fighting oppression generally. So I don’t really feel intellectually safe in those spaces any more.

In any event this is what I said about this ages ago on Feministing and I really have nothing to add to it:

“It is my obligation as a person who calls herself “progressive” to listen to the voices of the marginalized. To recognize that the many benefits I enjoy as a white, upper-middle class, educated, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied (etc.) woman come at the expense of those who do not share those privileges.

It is my obligation to not just hear, but also listen without reflexive defensiveness to those that are not heard because of the privilege I benefit from every single minute of my life.

It is my obligation not just to listen but also to underscore, direct attention toward, and respect those same voices.

Even when I disagree with them…even more when I disagree with them, because my voice, my opinion, my perspective will be heard over theirs and honored for reasons that have nothing to do with truth or falsity of what I am saying but only because I am who I am.

This is an obligation. Not an attempt to rebuild bridges between feminists, but an obligation to acknowledge and address our own privilege regardless of its origin.”

5 lauredhel April 20, 2008 at 9:05 am

So much word. I truly don’t have anything to add, just wanted to say, “Yes.”

6 Jay April 20, 2008 at 9:53 am

Feedback is an investment in the relationship. If we are really allies, we have to listen to the feedback and commit to the relationship.

And Kristen is right about our obligations. We don’t exist in a vacuum. None of us holds the banner of progressivism or feminism by ourselves but we all hold a piece of it. We are obligated by our own positions to listen to those voices, as we would ask others to listen to our voices.

7 amandaw April 20, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for this. It has disturbed me deeply to see the white, “mainstream” feminist blogosphere fall into line behind “one of their own.” As kissmypineapple said — why wasn’t BFP one of their own?

Are we unable to criticize each other? Or can we only criticize each other when it’s “insiders” doing the criticism? It’s been rather obvious the entire damn time that the whole WOC community, bfp included, was seen as an outsider. That is how they were able to be compartmentalized. It wasn’t a sister pushing a sister to pay attention to how her actions affect the family. It was a group of outsiders who colluded together to take down an Important Person, and the issue was irrelevant.

I hate it. I hate that tactic. I hate that mindset. I hate that as things have cooled down, we’ve gone back to the same ol’. I think some of us have had our eyes opened a stitch, but there has been no real change that I can see. We have continued as normal, allowing the woc community to be its own community, and not counting it as our community. The sisters and brothers we are ignoring, neglecting, erasing, are disowned, fuck, not even “disowned” — because that implies they were important to us at some point. They have never been. And this whole debacle has made this very clear.

8 Al April 20, 2008 at 11:36 pm

You’re right, I’m sure that wasn’t easy.

But it is so exactly where things need to operate from once and for all. I guess the benefit of this scenario (and I really hate to say there is a benefit because I don’t see a direct one), would be around the idea that this is not at all about a conversation coming to a conclusion, it is instead about it finally beginning.

The way you have laid things out here is hopefully the perspective the conversation occurs in. Otherwise we are once again back to square one.

9 tigtog April 21, 2008 at 1:40 am

Thanks for this, Cara.

Amandaw:

It’s been rather obvious the entire damn time that the whole WOC community, bfp included, was seen as an outsider. That is how they were able to be compartmentalized. It wasn’t a sister pushing a sister to pay attention to how her actions affect the family. It was a group of outsiders who colluded together to take down an Important Person, and the issue was irrelevant.

Yes! It was so dismissive.

10 konstanze April 22, 2008 at 9:07 pm

I really appreciate your taking a stand here.

11 whatsername April 23, 2008 at 2:15 am

It’s a start Cara. And a far better start than many others have put forward. I for one am with you on this.

12 Roy April 23, 2008 at 10:51 am

Great post, Cara. It’s not easy to expose yourself like that, in my experience. To say “I was wrong about this and should have done differently”. At least, I know that I’ve found it really difficult and painful to do so at times.

I do have a question, though:

Thanks for this. It has disturbed me deeply to see the white, “mainstream” feminist blogosphere fall into line behind “one of their own.”

I confess that there are probably posts I haven’t read on this, but… well… my impression was that most people were agreeing that AM’s behavior was inappropriate at best, with the exception of a tiny group of ardent AM supporters. I remember three people in the feministe thread who were on about how AM didn’t steal, etc, but most of the comments I saw were disagreeing with that stance.

I guess I’m just a little puzzled- I’ve seen many, many blogs expressing support for BFP, and expressing the opinion that AM should have linked to some of the many, many WoC who were doing this work for far longer, and very few blogs that have clamored to “fall in line” behind AM, but I keep seeing comments suggesting the opposite.

I hate naming names, but, outside of Hugo and Lindsey, who else was jumping up to defend AM? At over 100 comments in, there were only 5 people, including AM, falling in line, and two of them left single line comments like “I support you, AM”. There were lots of people saying things like “I like you, AM, but you didn’t handle this properly”, and even more saying “You were totally wrong about this, AM.”

I’m not trying to be contrary, but I’m just surprised, because my reading of this particular controversy was that this was one of the few times that it felt like most people weren’t just siding with the white, “mainstream” feminist blogger, but were paying attention to some of the bigger, underlying issues. Was I wrong on that?

13 Cara April 23, 2008 at 11:06 am

As I said in the Feministe thread, it’s very, very difficult to focu on the biger issue when the smaller one has yet to be resolved — and so many white feminists insisting that we no longer talk about AM and talk about the big issue can be extremely annoying as it implies that there is nothing left there to discuss — AM has not addressed the situation, so clearly there is. I also think that people are upset that many have not covered the issue at all, covered the issue but only in the “bigger” sense and saying little more about the specifics except that BFP will be missed and they don’t think Amanda is a plagerist, or are promoting her book. That is a lot of white feminists. And as I said in the post, the silence indicates that one thinks the situtation is okay.

14 Brenda April 23, 2008 at 2:47 pm

We all fuck up. When I fuck up, I don’t think that letting me get away with it is respect. I read somewhere earlier this week — and I apologize because I looked everywhere and could not find it again — that we need to stop looking at criticism and using criticism as an attack, and instead see and use it as love. And I think that love is precisely the right word to describe demanding accountability and improvement from your community.

That’s a lovely sentiment; I really like the way you approached this.

15 SunlessNick April 24, 2008 at 8:51 pm

That is a lot of white feminists. And as I said in the post, the silence indicates that one thinks the situtation is okay.

You’re right, and while I’ve commented in some of the “shitstorm threads,” I’ve never expressly said that I don’t think it’s ok. So I’ll say it here. I’ll never know what went through Amanda Marcotte’s mind when she was writing book or article, and I’ll never be in a position to render an opinion on whether she appropriated anything.

BUT

She and her main defenders strawed-up concerns about appropriation into accusations of plagarism (and have managed to get a lot of people to believe it) and again as jealous spite, all the while throwing around a lot of racist framing and dismissiveness. And that’s not ok.

16 Sam April 25, 2008 at 11:41 am

I have to start my comment by saying I’m a big feminist. That’s because in a recent post where I criticize Amanda, I was accused of being a right wing troll.

You know, this issue is NOT just about her book, but also about her other writings and essays where she shows a complete disregard for the reputation of others in feminism, while demanding everyone fluffs her reputation.

In her blog, she doesn’t retract anything, even if she got the facts wrong before entering an entertaining tirade. She’s even denied writing things, yet you go to the cache, and there it is plain as sight. People make mistakes typing something and sometimes leap to conclusions, but responsible bloggers say “I was wrong.” She doesn’t and even censors or flames those that points out the errors.

I agree with the recent letter written, telling white feminists to please stop fucking up. I think we should be more particular because they all aren’t. Just a few. And we have to have the stomach to call them on it without falling apart at the conflict or Amanda’s ugly reaction.

17 RyanRutley April 25, 2008 at 8:53 pm

Cara,

I wrote a big long post, but your spam detector didn’t like it. So I’ll summarize.

1: In the spirit of loving criticism, I criticize your reluctance to speak from the heart. When you do it, it speaks to people. It’s real. The more to speak from the heart, the better this world will get. Don’t forget that.

2: I’ve been away from reading blogs for a while, but recently I poked back into my old favourite, Feministe. I’ve been, unfortunately not suprised, but greatly disappointed at how the recent flare-up has played out. There are a handful of bigger-name bloggers who have many times shown themselves to be weak at detecting privilege (I should mention that I don’t consider Jill to be one of them), and I generally expect them to learn from their mistakes because they’re intelligent people who care. Evidently that’s not good enough.

3: In my disappointment with the bigger-name bloggers, I’ve gone out of my way to read the bloggers who’ve criticized the bigger-name bloggers, and I’ve been delighted with what I’ve seen. I have you (and Sudy, and belledame, and BFP, and BlackAmazon, and on and on) to thank for it. Thank you.

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