On privilege, criticism, and the challenge of being a good ally

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Being an ally is hard, but never as hard as being a person who needs allies.

I've been on both sides, so to speak. As a gay man, I've been grateful to allies. As a non-Indigenous person, I've tried to be a good ally to Indigenous people.

I've dealt with straight friends who fall silent when homophobia is spouted, offering: "It's not my battle." This is sort of true. I don't want people necessarily fighting my battles for me, but I want them to stand beside me. However, speaking up for me is not fighting my battle; it's showing me that I'm supported. Supportive allies can help empower LGBTQ people, but trying to lead the battle is not empowering. It implies that we can't stand up for ourselves. It's a fine line.

Like I said, being an ally is hard.

It can also be hard for straight people to stand up in the face of homophobia when they can never really know how this kind of hatred impacts LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people don't have a choice in the battle if we want to live our lives openly and without shame. I'm always grateful when an ally stands up with/for LGBTQ people. But, an ally knowing that it's "not their battle"? That's privilege.

But it's a privilege that doesn't have to be exercised.

I have a number of Indigenous people in my life that I count as friends, fellow scholars, and colleagues. I would like to think that I'm a good ally. Am I a perfect ally? No. Sometimes my privilege veils me from the "whole picture." I've been called out on my privilege on more than one occasion. It was hard. Sometimes really hard. I have felt embarrassed, even ashamed, when I realized that I might have actually been doing damage when I thought I was doing good. But that's part of being an ally. It's a never-ending process. That's because it's a learning process.

If you ever think you can stop learning, then you're either finished being an ally, or you're an arrogant a-hole.

When the media covers Indigenous issues, the comments sections online come alive with racism. The trouble being, these arrogant a-holes think their racism is truth and fact. Ignorance and racism around Indigenous issues has been recycled for generations.

Here's an example of a letter to the editor in response to a story on Indigenous issues:

"The Indians made way for a superior race. The burden of maintaining those of the race who still survive is annually growing heavier. Year by year they depend more largely on the government for assistance. As long as they were left to themselves they hunted and fished and were self-supporting, but the government has taken such good care of them that they have grown intolerably lazy, and have no disposition whatever to go to work."

Sound familiar? Well, that is from the Toronto Evening Telegram July 5, 1884. Replace some words with "txt spk" and it could have been written yesterday. It seems racism is the only renewable resource the majority of Canadians can get behind.

I struggle with this a lot. I'd love to ask these people: What do you get out of thinking like this? How do you benefit from being willfully ignorant? How does your mindset make your life better? However, if I'm completely honest with myself, I used to have many of those same racist opinions.

Sometimes I still need to take a step back and engage in some honest reflection. Critical reflection is part of the learning process. Unfortunately, I don't always like what I see in the reflection. It's tough when you realize that ally and a-hole aren't mutually exclusive.

It's hard when good intentions are met with criticism and even suspicion, but that comes along with being an ally. When an ally walks away from those challenges and criticisms, it can be heart breaking, but the ability to walk away comes along with an ally's privilege.

Sometimes allies who walk away will reflect, regroup, learn and come back. Luckily for those of us who need allies, the best ones always come back.


Chris Wright grew up in a conservative home in Toronto (Treaty 13) - Conservative PMs and MPs over for dinner and up to the cottage kind of conservative. He is now a PhD candidate with a fundamentally different perspective, examining the impact of Indigenous peoples on the expansion of the British Empire. He blogs at http://myonepass.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter as @ChrisNotWrong

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