The Unicorn Ally
The Unicorn Ally
By Hannah Wilder /
Sep 18, 2015

I’ve been interested in oppression politics and social justice activism for a while now, both from the point of having things that directly affect me and that I want to change in society, and from the point of being an ally and trying to help other people do the same. And I’m enormously grateful that oppression activism exists and that it’s doing awesome things, so this isn’t a critique of the entire movement as such. However, as a ‘movement’ (as much as there is a unified thing there, in the sense of there being a group of people with certain shared values, rather than just pockets of people doing their own thing), we project certain messages about what it means to be a good ally, which I’d like to discuss here. I believe the messages are well intentioned and have reasons behind them, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the combination of the contradictory messages we use to put our allies under scrutiny makes ‘succeeding’ at being a good ally a theoretical impossibility – merely leaving allies with the possibility of different contexts and gradients of failing. I feel like I’ve been trying hard to be a good ally for a relatively long time, and that it’s a permanent losing battle. Instead I’m coming to prefer returning to my previous roles of ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘friend’. ‘Fellow human being’. That sort of thing. They’re things I feel I do ok at.

The first thing you get told when you even start going in that direction is that “Being an ally is hard work. You need to continually keep trying”. And I’m ok with that. Honestly. I’m ok with spending hours reading blogs, books, re-questioning my values, learning a whole load of new jargon, arguing with people, flagging problematic situations, attempting to be sensitive in conversations, trying my best to be supportive, and not use the wrong words, and keep reading, and learning, and all of that permanently on repeat. That doesn’t bother me – it’s all good. What being a good ally shouldn’t be is “theoretically impossible”. At the point where you’re trying as hard as you can to do all the good ally things, but still failing, there’s something systematically wrong in what we demand of our allies.

One of the things I hear frequently is “It’s not the job of the oppressed person to educate you, go educate yourself”. And I can totally see where that comes from – no, it’s not the job of the oppressed person to do anything. And, yeah, it’s not the job of the oppressed person to fix the oppression – the oppression is wrong in itself, and society as a whole should fix it (and it should really be the job of the people *doing* the oppressing, rather than the people being oppressed). I know, I know, I agree. But. I find this blanket statement highly problematic anyway, for a few different reasons.

The first is the assumption of ability there. I happen to be educated enough to understand varying levels of heavy jargon. I don’t have any conditions that prevent me from reading for hours. I happen to have the luxury of sufficient free time in which to do this. So telling me to go read up on something is kind of ok. But you know what? Most people don’t have that level of luxury. People are busy, you know, surviving themselves. They don’t necessarily have laptops, broadband, and ample time in which to make use of those things.

The second is the seeming unawareness of *just how much different shit there is to read out there*. I spend a *lot* of time reading, and the way I feel about this is that I’ve learnt a few issues in depth, at the cost of a billion other issues out there that I may or may not have even heard of, or I’ve heard of but don’t have the time to research properly, because – fucking hell, each of these requires, like, multiple lifetimes to really get to know in-depth. We’re talking like, multiple entire academic careers of critical analysis. If our demands were simple – you know “fat jokes are bad” level of complicated – then I can understand the original demand. If our demands are “educate yourself about the intersection between gender-based oppression and body oppression, as discussed by a number of prominent feminist authors” *without even pointing people in the right direction* because “that’s not the job of an oppressed person”? We have a systematic problem.

My third problem with it is that there are contradictions within our own movements. So even if you jump through the hoops of reading the ‘right’ books and blogs etc. etc., there are disagreements between activists about which terms are and aren’t appropriate. However, people are adamant enough about their preferences that if I use a term that exists within the movement in front of an activist who prefers a different term, I’ll get my head bitten off. The way to win is to not play.

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon.

The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression. The latter relies on a process I think of as Oppression Top Trumps. Oppression activists do tend to genuinely stick to the principle of paying the most attention to the people with the most experience within a particular axis of oppression, and I think this totally makes sense and I think is really awesome. It should be women talking about women’s lib, etc. rather than other people putting words into their mouths. So, to avoid getting my head bitten off, the first process I engage in, in order to speak, is justifying how issue x is one that’s personally affecting me – winning Oppression Top Trumps – which then lets me pick the words I use without anyone telling me they’re the wrong ones. In fact, having won Oppression Top Trumps on issue x, I then gain the right to correct other people’s words on an ad hoc basis. I do not, in general, write about issues that I can’t win Oppression Top Trumps about, because even if I care about them and I’ve researched them lots, etc. etc, I will by somebody’s definition probably get them wrong. In fact, the only reason I can possibly get anything right, is by being oppressed enough that my ideas are not open to questioning.

What’s more (this isn’t satire, I genuinely notice myself doing this), there are only a selection of oppressed people I’m allowed to speak to, and they’re the ones where I’ve done over a week of reading on the relevant oppression issue. They’re the ones I will probably offend by using incorrect terminology, but I won’t offend them as horrifically as the ones where *gasp* I’ve done no reading at all, because I’m just aware enough of my own ignorance to expect that I’ll unknowingly say horrific things, but I don’t know enough to identify what the horrific things *are*, so… So I kinda sorta just don’t speak to them. Or, like, I speak to them about kittens. There’s probably a flame war somewhere about kittens too, but it seems to be a fairly neutral topic in most social circles. Um. Yeah. Not joking.

So. Dear oppression activists. Please stop telling off your allies at every available opportunity. The only people who will be negatively affected are the people who are *actually listening*, and I’d hesitantly suggest that we’re not the problem in the first place.

From the point of view of being an oppressed person who has allies herself, here’s what I will try to do:

-I will do my best to educate my allies. These aren’t random people off the street – they’re people who are taking a lot of time to learn about specific things that affect me. And then they go off and do awesome things, like support me and stand up for me. So, no, I don’t think it’s their job to educate themselves. I think it’s my job to train them. Seems only fair.

-I will give my allies cookies. Seriously – I don’t like the whole “bah, you’re just doing the right thing, you shouldn’t get cookies for it”. Yes oppression is wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s my friend’s job to learn everything they can about my particular corner of oppression, the issues that come with it, and to try and do things to change it. Doing that isn’t the base level – doing it makes them *awesome*.

-I will accept that nobody gets things right 100% of the time. They’re still learning. I’m still learning. It’s ok to talk. It’s ok to get things wrong. They’re my allies – I believe that they’re not doing it maliciously. It’s not ok to hurt me, but I will flag things when they arise, and I trust them to respect my feelings. It’s also ok to ask things, because that’s how people learn about this stuff.

I don’t suggest it as a universal list. People come into this from all sorts of places, and defensiveness and rage can be perfectly natural responses, even towards well-meaning people. However, what I’d really like, is for us as a movement to collectively stop looking for unicorns. Cause, you know what? My allies are amazing, and I love them. And some of the time they get things wrong, but they try really hard, and I think that should be appreciated.

As for the label? I’m not sure I want it. There are things that as an ‘ally’ I find difficult to do – like *gasp* talk to people – that as a friend or as a human being, I’d find straight-forward. There are also things that as an ‘ally’, I seem to have to tolerate, in a way that I wouldn’t when I’m just being me. So I think I might personally discard the label for the time being, until either the demands change, or I find value in it again. So – I’m not your ally. I’m merely your sister or your friend.

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