I want to start this letter by naming that I am trying to talk and write in a way that is acceptable for you to hear, in the way dominant culture taught me to write and express, a way that often masks my true voice. Yet, I do this consciously and with love and grace for us both, because I hope that though we start this path in a place where you are most comfortable, we will journey to the bridge between our multiple worlds.
One of the most difficult aspects of living at the intersections is being perceived as always being in opposition. For example, someone at the intersections might complain about disability access AND need information in Spanish, and then may offer challenging perspectives on the topic at hand. Even when trying to make bridges, when explaining what they believe they’ve figured out about dominant culture in order to share an understanding of why they don’t fit into it, they are perceived as only promoting identity politics (focusing on what makes us different from each other) versus being “a team player” or focusing on what we have in common.
Looking deeply at harm that you help perpetuate involves a willingness to be cracked open and even to fall apart. What happens all too often is that in our rush to make it better, to feel better about each other and ourselves, we ignore the cracks or tape the pieces back together – but in roughly the same shape/way it was before it fell apart. Those of us at the intersections appreciate the effort, we do, but we still don’t fit there, even though it looks messier and like real work has been done.
I’m not sure how to explain what listening REALLY means. How do you ask people to sit and witness pain and hurt while knowing that they are part of the system or society or group of people who caused it? How do you ask someone to not rush to “making things better” or “figure out tactics to move forward”? How do you ask someone to pause long enough and deep enough to really be uncomfortable with not knowing?
Staying with the hurt, pain, shame is what makes a truth and reconciliation process so powerful. It’s a commitment to not check out or focus on the future of how things can be better. It’s a process of remaining still and deeply feeling.
There are millions of us out there and yet it is difficult to find books, movies, or any form of media that reflects who we are, what we look like, our struggles, and our gifts. This invisibility is internalized into a distancing that we create from each other. It’s part of how we become oppressors of each other and ourselves. This isolation is an inherent struggle we are continually trying to grow through. This means we are often learning at the same time we ask you to learn. We cannot always be teachers; sometimes it needs to be enough for us just to learn on our own.
It is one thing to acknowledge your privilege but it’s another thing to name how your actions are grounded in systematic oppression, such as ableism or racism or queerphobia. As an ally, it is powerful to name assumptions and cultural interactions you’ve been taught are essentially ablest, etc. For example, Disabled people are made to feel like an exception needs to be made for us to participate. Like we gather about other people’s dreams, expectations, and desires and create a nuisance of ourselves to contribute or take part. The act of inclusion is not making an exception to adapt your life for minutes or hours to include someone different, but a commitment to asking yourself what about your life requires those “adaptations” or “inclusions” to be made in the first place.
What is asked often of allies, is to make space for that which is different from you. Allies are asked to be present and help “make space for other voices”, on-line, in the media, in-person, and in your neighborhood. Allies are asked to also recognize that you have the privilege to create this space for others besides just for yourself. However, part of being an ally means acknowledging that every time an exception is made, it is the beginning of change, not the accomplishment of it. Making an exception, to “include” others, is the basis of ableism, racism, queerphobia and other forms of discrimination. It’s one of the foundational pieces upon which discrimination is built upon because one is utilizing their privilege to create space for another person’s difference. Making exception is rooted in privilege and discrimination and next time around, it could easily not happen at all. Change is when we are expected to already be there, when it is expected that we stay together, when it is expected that we have radically different experiences.
You don’t always need to respond, but just hold what I share. Mistakes will be repeated. All of us grow in a cycle, like a spiral, and it can feel like we’re traveling around and around in circles, rehashing the same territory, making the same mistakes. However, it’s our ego’s involvement which makes us think that we are stuck in the same pattern and that we can’t move on. Learning to forgive ourselves is essential to being an ally. Forgiveness along with an understanding that with each mistake, in each conversation, you are making shit happen for both yourself and for those that are taking the time to call you out. It’s a powerful process if it is done with humility on both sides.
The more privileged a person is perceived as being, the more power they are given for attempting to be an ally. It’s just how it goes. Those of us at the intersections or part of oppressed communities who rarely see people take the time to understand, can enthusiastically respond to someone who makes that offer. As an ally, you need to realize this is a temporary thing. That you can’t stay in a place where you maintain all of your power and our admiration and really do this work. In fact, you know you’re succeeding as an ally when you realize you have less power in a situation because that means you’re power-sharing. You’ll know you’re succeeding when the changes you’ve made to open your life to difference start being challenged by others like you and you must take up the torch of education and causing discomfort.
Listening, power-sharing, getting out of the way (not always being the leader), discussing mistakes and making an effort to decentralize your needs and desires to participate in what is best for the whole group, is what being an ally is all about.
Hoping Openly Possibility Everlasting (H.O.P.E.)
© 2014, Written by Naomi Ortiz