For me, the most important exercises in being an ally do not rest in the times when I’ve been successful, stood up for others, or challenged inequity. For me, being an ally means constantly revisiting the times when I’ve failed to be an ally. Some of those times are due to ignorance — they happened in my pre-awareness phase. Some of those times are due to inexperience — not sure how to address something that I know is wrong. Oftentimes, they are due to inability — my lack of courage and strength to stand up for what is right.
I’m an ally-purist. I believe that being an ally is more than just putting up a sticker on your office door. It’s more than a rainbow keychain. It’s more than saying you have a _______ friend (insert Black, Asian, Gay, DisAbled, etc) or that your ______ (same inserts) thinks you’re cool. Being an ally means acting and reacting; moving forward and reflecting backward; and stepping up when you’ve failed. Being an ally means calling more attention to your failures than your successes. So, I’m coming clean here and calling out a few of the many, many times when I’ve failed to be an ally. Reflecting back doesn’t mean wallowing in the past. Rather, it means learning from the past so that we don’t repeat it.
My senior year in college, I went through the “trying to be down” phase. I was the 21 year old who called things ghetto. I’m sure at age 21 I referred to things as gay, lame, or crazy. I was too ignorant to realize my own ignorance. And, at age 21, I was supposed to be an adult. In a few months after graduation, I was attending a major urban university and beginning my internship in a very openly gay and supportive school. Despite having attended a diverse undergraduate college and being somewhat involved in the multicultural organizations, I was ignorant. My years spent in a predominantly Irish/Italian Catholic town — one in which race, ethnicity, social justice, equality was never brought up — kept me sheltered from the rest of the world. Heck, it kept me sheltered from the bustling city just miles from my own doorstep. I grew up with negative stereotypes about Blacks, Latinos, people with disabilities, individuals who identified as gay, the poor, the formally uneducated, and even negative stereotypes about my own Asian people. My earlier college years never challenged me on those notions, and I continued to hold on to them through my senior year in college.
I remember — very well — sitting at a dining hall table with a number of Black and African American women who I worked with in my last year of college. I remember trying to be cool. I threw around racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and hurtful remarks. At one point, a white woman who was sitting with us turned to me and said, “Liza. That’s enough.” I remember saying, “I’m just kidding. They know I’m just kidding!” I was too ignorant to even realize I had gone too far; instead, I blamed the group of women for “not being able to take a joke.” Yea, I was that girl…. Needless to say, those women never talked to me for the rest of the semester.
While I remember that day so well, I don’t remember the day I realized I was a total jerk. I remember having feelings of sadness, embarrassment, and shame. It wasn’t a particular program, moment, book or speaker who woke me up; rather, it was a progression of learning that made me realize what I had done back in 1997. In 2000, I had gone to a shopping mall to do some wedding shopping, and I saw one of the women who had sat at that original dining hall table. She approached me with a smile, surprised that we were seeing one another in this random shopping mall. We hugged, and she said, “It’s so good to see you!” I felt embarrassed. I wanted to say something at that moment — apologize for my rudeness, my ignorance, my stupidity. But, I couldn’t find the words. Our encounter was brief, and after she walked away, I began to cry. Though she didn’t seem angry or upset (and she could have chosen to walk by me and not say anything), I felt ashamed. In 2009, more than a decade from that first encounter, I got back in touch with this woman as well as with a few others who sat at that dining room table. I wrote them lengthy apologies for what I had done, what I had said, and what I had failed to learn back in 1997. None of the women said they remembered that day at the dining hall; I have never forgotten it. There was something very healing about asking for forgiveness. To acknowledge when I have failed as an ally, and especially as a newly reformed social justice practitioner, has been the most impactful exercise of my life.
Facebook has a funny way of challenging former behavior. Recently, a friend of mine from elementary school posted a photo of our 3rd grade class at the State House. Individuals tried to figure out who was who — the bad haircuts masked many of our former faces. Quickly, a number of friends who, much later in life came out as LGBT, began to talk about ways of knowing they were gay back in those photos. I began to reflect on the many students who still feel unsafe coming out as college students. I felt the need to call out my own behavior by apologizing for not creating an environment where my former 3rd grade classmates felt they could be who they authentically were back in school. They waited — for many reasons, I’m sure — until they reached adulthood to date partners of their same sex, marry, and start families.
One particular person — a man who I have known since 1st grade — has always stuck with me when I think of LGBT ally work. I remember sitting on the bus with him and watching school yard kids play “The Fag Test.” I remember this distinctly because I had refused to partake in it. Essentially, a classmate would take your hand, palm down, and begin to vigorously scratch the top of your hand. If your skin peeled off, leaving an awfully painful mark, you were NOT a “fag.” If you made the person stop before your skin peeled off, you were “a fag.” I didn’t want to take the test. I feared pain. I feared being called “a fag”, even though, truthfully, I had no idea what that word meant. I just knew it wasn’t good to not have the mark.
I lost track of that male friend, but had connected back with him through some other mutual friends much later in life. I remember someone telling me that he had finally come out of the closet. I made a snide remark (one I had learned from a college friend) that “D is so far in the closet, he has discovered Narnia.” I thought it was funny, clever, insightful. Never did I think, or own, that it could have been hurtful, offensive, ignorant. I see my friend now, in a loving relationship with a wonderful man and now the father of 2 beautiful boys. Though we all knew, somehow, that D was gay, even when we were little, it was never spoken about in our lives. I think of D whenever I fail as an ally to the gay community. I think of D whenever I fail to speak up against homophobic remarks, “funny” jokes, or witness the pain of a student still living an inauthentic self.
Allies don’t rest in the joy of a job well done. Allies continue to reflect on the ways in which we have failed to stand up for others, failed to speak up for ourselves and our identities, and failed to create space for dignity and respect. Though it hurts to reflect on those moments, those moments keep me grounded in what I am called to do — to serve a greater good, to serve a greater version of myself, and to serve a greater purpose on our planet.
In what ways have you reflected on past behavior that has shaped your current behavior?