(The Root) — "You're being divisive!"
When I raised the racial issues I saw in the Occupy Movement, I was barraged by accusations of being divisive. We have to work together, my critics said. Identity politics is bad, they tweeted. It's not about these differences; it's about the big banks, they said.
While I didn't necessarily disagree (although I am 100 percent pro-identity politics), I did find the idea that I was being divisive because I'd voiced concerns to be problematic. My critics claimed that Occupy was working toward racial justice; how could I say these things about people who were allies?
The answer: easily.
The idea of allies in social-justice battles isn't new. An Ally (I'll capitalize it to identify it as a title) is one who doesn't belong to the persecuted group but nevertheless seeks justice and equality for them through support and action. White Allies marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Male Allies fought, or fight, alongside women for equal opportunity. Straight and "Cisgender" Allies protest and voice their opposition against the unequal treatment of the LGBT community.
Oftentimes the marginalized need Allies in order to achieve their goals because of their small numbers relative to the population. Allies swell ranks and create a chorus of dissent, and together they force change to occur.
The subject of Allies should be weighing heavily in the social-justice discussion right now. On Monday, MSNBC host Chris Matthews directly confronted the Republican National Committee's chairman, Reince Preibus, on the GOP's racially tinged attacks on Barack Obama and the dog-whistle attributes of certain ads. Many within the black community, myself included, praised Matthews.
But I would be remiss not to acknowledge his #AllyFail in the past. He's made problematic offhand comments here and there, but he famously stepped into the fire when, after President Obama's State of the Union speech in 2010, he stated, "For an hour I forgot Obama was black." Not seeing color isn't a compliment. It implies that if you did see my color, there could be an issue — but since you don't, now I can be looked at as equal.
Before the Matthews-Preibus brouhaha, on Aug. 18, MSNBC host Chris Hayes made this statement on his show, Up WIth Chris Hayes: "It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other." Hayes, who has covered voter suppression a great deal, has shown himself to be an Ally — but with this statement, he perpetuated a dangerous myth that he later apologized for, joking that Republicans and black people corrected him. In this particular situation, Hayes was trying to highlight issues regarding race within the Republican Party — issues that I agree need to be called out — but in his incredibly well-meaning statement, he stepped into yet another #AllyFail.
But then there's the Rogue Ally.
The Rogue Ally adheres to the Ally rules except for one problem: Rogue Allies don't quite understand how their privilege affects their understanding and actions. They don't see how the language they use and arguments they make become problematic, a hindrance to the now-shared cause.
Trust me, I know. I've been a Rogue Ally. Just recently I had to be checked on a pro-choice argument I was about to make about a Politico op-ed that accused Barack Obama of being an "abortion extremist." In attempting to help, I planned to throw out the common argument "No woman wants an abortion," not realizing that in making that statement, I was playing into the shaming of women who have their personal reasons for seeking an abortion.
The right to control their bodies doesn't need any disclaimers or justifications. Choice is choice. Luckily I keep folks around me to make sure I don't end up being that guy.
So how does one be an Ally? I came up with my own guide, which I use when I throw on my Ally hat.
The EJW Super-Simple Ally Rules (#EJWSSAR)
1) Speak out when you can. Speak out even if it may be uncomfortable.
2) Seek counsel from the group for which you're being an Ally. Listen to their critiques. Try to understand …
3) … and when you don't, simply be quiet until you do.
In possibly my favorite episode of South Park, "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson," Stan repeatedly attempts to apologize to Token, his black classmate, about his dad's usage of the word "nigger." After being constantly rebuffed, Stan finally walks up to Token at the end and says this:
Token, I get it now: I don't get it. I've been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but I'll never understand. I'll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the n-word. I don't get it.
It's OK not to get it. I try to be an Ally to numerous groups, but sometimes I just don't get it. But I don't have to get it. If there's a widespread thought or understanding accepted by the majority of a group as their truth, then my lack of understanding is a personal issue. I may not be at the forefront of the fight during those times, but I will support the work and actions of those who do understand.
We need Allies. The marginalized can't be left to speak up for themselves every time. But along with being an Ally comes a responsibility. Remember that.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at TWIB.FM and subscribe on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.