First Chapter of Becoming an Ally   (from Second Edition 2002)

Why Write a Book About Becoming an Ally?

My first reason for writing this book is a dream. This dream is a deep, driving force in me, and I know many others share it. The dream is a vision of the world I would like to live in, a world based on cooperation, negotiation, and universal respect for the innate value of every creature on earth and the Earth herself. This is a world where no one doubts that to hurt anyone or anything is to hurt yourself and those you love most, a world where everyone works to understand how everything we do will affect future generations.

I am what is called an “activist.” I like to live my commitment to my dream. I often distrust language, because I am tired of hearing the same words I use-“respect,” “cooperation,” “justice,” “equality,” “the people”-with their meaning co-opted by exploiters. However, it is time for me to converse with a wider network than those I can know face to face. I have something I want to say.

I have a vision of how my dream can come about. It is not detailed, because it is not for one person to predict the path of consensus. In general, though, I long to see all of us who are giving our work, ideas, energy, and lives to a society which benefits the rich and powerful, rise up together and say: “No more. We can develop social, political, and economic structures that benefit everyone, and we will. We want to take on the challenge of moving towards equality, and we will. We are by far the majority; we can change things.”

Between me and my dream stands a high wall. Its name is “Divide and Conquer.” We have learned all too well to despise and distrust those who are different from us. Ironically, we have also been taught to despise and distrust people like us. This is because we have been divided even from ourselves. We distrust ourselves. Rather than looking within, to our own thoughts and experience, we accept the word of “the experts.”

The second reason for writing this book is anger. Again and again I see examples of division among oppressed people, as in the images at the beginning of this chapter. Incidents like these rob me of hope. How can we take back our world and reorganize it to benefit everyone if we cannot even talk about our different forms of oppression without getting tangled up in the net of competition?

When I see people competing, claiming their own oppression as the “worst,” or attacking the gains made by other oppressed groups, I see us all running on a treadmill. As long as we try to end our oppression by rising above others, we are reinforcing each other’s oppression, and eventually our own. We are fighting over who has more value, who has less, instead of asking why we must be valued as more or less. We are investing energy in the source of all our oppressions, which is competition itself.

The truth is that each form of oppression is part of a single complex, interrelated, self-perpetuating system. The whole thing rests on a world-view that says we must constantly strive to be better than someone else. Competition assumes that we are separate beings-separate from each other, from other species, from the earth. If we believe we are separate, then we are able to believe we can hurt another being and not suffer ourselves.

Competition also assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings. Those who “win” can take a “higher” position, one with more power and value than those who “lose.” It is a short step from accepting hierarchy as natural to assuming that exploitation is just. It becomes right, even admirable, for those who have more power and value to help themselves to the labour, land, resources, culture, possessions, even the bodies, of those who have less power and value. The result is a class system, where power and privilege increase as you go up the ladder, and those standing on each rung take for granted their right to benefit from the labour and resources of those below them. Class will be discussed further in Chapter Five.

As long as we who are fighting oppression continue to play the game of competition with one another, all forms of oppression will continue to exist. No one oppression can be ended without all ending, and this can only happen when we succeed in replacing the assumptions of competition, hierarchy, and separation with cooperation, an understanding that each being has value beyond measure, and the knowledge that we cannot harm anyone or anything without harming ourselves.

The connection between different forms of oppression is often seen in the liberal sense which denies differences, ignores the continuing presence of history, and blames individuals-“We’re all the same, all equal, everyone has problems, let’s just decide to get along.” I have found it difficult, when speaking in public, to say that all oppressions have one root without my audience hearing me say that all oppressions are the same, or equal. People often feel that their oppression has been belittled. But I am not saying that all oppressions are the same or equal; equality means nothing in this context, for how would you measure? I certainly am not saying that we all have problems and should just learn to get along; this denies a long, complicated history and all the terrible scars that need healing, collectively, before we can live together in peace. What I am saying is that all oppressions are interdependent, they all come from the same world-view, and none can be solved in isolation. We can either perpetuate a society based on competition, where some win and some lose, or we can work toward a society based on cooperation, where winning and losing become irrelevant. In the first scenario, oppression will continue to exist for almost everyone. In the second, it will fade away, because it serves no purpose.

The idea that one form of oppression, or even one person’s oppression, can be solved independently, is of great benefit to the rich and powerful. This belief is enough to keep oppressed people fighting and jostling in competition with each other, never reaching a point of unity where we can successfully challenge those with more than their share.

Reverend Martin Niemöller, a Nazi prison survivor, recognized this:

“First they arrested the communists-but I was not a Communist, so I did nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats-but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then they arrested the Trade Unionists-and I did nothing, because I was not one. And then they came for the Jews, and then the Catholics, but I was neither a Jew nor a Catholic, and I did nothing. At last they came and arrested me-and there was no one left to do anything about it.” (Bartlett 1980:824)

I regain hope every time I see someone reach out past the boundaries of their own oppression to understand and support someone else’s struggle. Hope is my third reason for writing this book.

I have a fourth reason for writing about becoming an ally. Through my own journey of recognizing first my oppression, then my role as an oppressor, I found written work that helped me understand my own oppressions and the process of liberation from each one. I found excellent literature on unlearning racism, and good workshop materials for unlearning heterosexism. I also found a few writers who are working to understand and communicate the complex interrelationship of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class, and a growing literature of personal accounts by individuals coming to grips with their role as oppressors.

What I have not found is a critical analysis of the relationships among all forms of oppression, or of the journey from fighting one’s own oppression to forming an alliance with others. Not everyone who is active against his or her own oppression breaks out of the competitiveness and learns to support others. For those who do, what is the process?

In Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, bell hooks asks for more discussion of the roots of racism in white people, and the process of becoming anti-racist:

“One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness. It would just be so interesting for all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness. In far too much contemporary writing-though there are some outstanding exceptions-race is always an issue of Otherness that is not white; it is black, brown, yellow, red, purple even. Yet only a persistent, rigorous, and informed critique of whiteness could really determine what forces of denial, fear, and competition are responsible for creating fundamental gaps between professed political commitment to eradicating racism and the participation in the construction of a discourse on race that perpetuates racial domination. Many scholars, critics and writers preface their work by stating that they are white, as though mere acknowledgment of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction. I think back to my graduate years when many of the feminist professors fiercely resisted the insistence that it was important to examine race and racism. Now many of these very same women are producing scholarship focusing on race and gender. What process enabled their perspectives to shift? Understanding that process is important for the development of solidarity; it can enhance awareness of the epistemological shifts that enable all of us to move in new and oppositional directions. Yet none of these women write articles reflecting on their critical process, showing how their attitudes have changed.” (hooks1990:54)

Knowledge of this process is crucial to overcoming all types of oppression. If we understood how and why some people choose to give up privilege and become allies, we would have an important insight into social change.

The need to understand this process is behind my effort to generalize from my own experience, and that of others around me, and begin to create a theory of how one becomes an ally to other oppressed people. Becoming an ally is a liberating experience, but very different from liberating your own people and, in some ways, more painful. I want to provide a resource for, and open up a conversation with, others who are traveling this road with me.

In my experience, there are six steps involved in becoming an ally. They are:

1. understanding oppression, how it came about, how it is held in place, and how it stamps its pattern on the individuals and institutions that continually recreate it;

2. understanding different oppressions, how they are similar, how they differ, how they reinforce one another;

3. consciousness and healing;

4. becoming a worker for your own liberation;

5. becoming an ally;

6. maintaining hope.

The remaining chapters will expand on each of these steps:

Chapter Two: Step 1: Understanding Oppression-How did it come about?

A Journal Entry: “They Wouldn’t be Able to Pick Us Off One by One”

Chapter Three: Step 1: Understanding Oppression-How is it held in place?

Chapter Four: Step 1: Understanding Oppression-The personal is political

A Story: Racism and Sexism

Chapter Five: Step 2: Understanding Different Oppressions

Two Quotes: Breaking Silences, Healing

Chapter Six: Step 3: Consciousness and Healing

Chapter Seven: Step 4: Becoming a Worker in Your Own Liberation

A Journal Entry: Racism and Sexism

Clipping: Moving Toward a New Emancipation

Chapter Eight: Step 5: Becoming an Ally

A Journal Entry: How Not to be an Ally, An open letter to the young man who spoke at our memorial rally on December 6th

Chapter Nine: Notes on Educating Allies

Chapter Ten: Step 6: Maintaining Hope