You’re No Ally of Mine

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Bible (don’t worry, I’m not going to try changing your religion), there’s a parable told about a man who was travelling, beat, and essentially left for dead alongside a road.  Two people walked by individually, neither stopping for the nearly-dead man.  Finally, a third man walks by, helps the man, finds the man a place to recover, and pays the man’s bills.  Jesus relates the story and then asks, “Who, then, was this man’s neighbor?” followed by “And, then, go and do likewise.”

We also saw who was and wasn’t a neighbor – or ally – in rape and sexual assault.  No, I’m not talking just Steubenville.    Or India where bystanders ignored a naked, bleeding couple following a brutal attack.  In fact, famously, it was studied after a 1964 rape in New York City, where despite screaming in a crowded urban area for 30 minutes, a woman was raped and murdered without any apparent action by witnesses, as the following video shows:

While bystander inaction in rape is absolutely beyond understanding, there’s a few things to note. I’m guessing that many of the bystanders in Steubenville, India, and New York felt that they were decent human beings. They would probably talk about how hard it is to be a lone voice, which nobody would contest. But they were no ally of the victim. In fact, their silence demonstrates that they frankly didn’t give a damn about the victim. Oh, sure, they might have in an abstract sense, but when the rubber met the road, they didn’t.

Rape is not the only place where bystanders do nothing. Too often, when a member of a minority group is harassed or belittled, the “good” people who bystanders do nothing. Let me tell you something – if you stand by inactive even for “minor” (ya, right) harassment and bullying:

You are no ally of mine.

Again: You are no ally of mine.

Being an ally isn’t a passive activity that you get to do only when it’s comfortable and nice and you don’t have to risk upsetting a friend or acquiescent. It’s not an activity that you only need to do when you know everyone around you will agree with you. It’s not passive. It’s not just “believing” that people shouldn’t be hurt, abused, raped, taunted, bullied, etc. That’s not enough. It’s not even enough that you, yourself don’t do these things, if you passively agree to them when they happen. You don’t get a “get out of jail card” for callously standing around while someone is hurt just because you didn’t actually say the words / commit the act. No, you sat there and watched someone do something horrible and felt that it was more okay for that horrible thing to happen than for you to get uncomfortable.

You are no ally of mine.

Is being an ally hard? Of course. There is a difference between a weak-willed well-wisher with no backbone and an ally. The well-wisher with no backbone creates no change.

Am I saying you have to respond every single time you see someone being mistreated? Well, yes. Even if it’s dangerous? Yes. Again, yes. Yes, even if it is dangerous. Yes.

Now, I’m not telling you to get into a physical altercation with someone that will just beat the shit out of you. Of course that would be stupid. But you can do things. Whether it is taking good note of the perpetrators to be a good witness, calling the police, asking “is that person bothering you,” or even comforting the victim after the attack, there’s something you can do. But you can’t do nothing. Even if you can’t do everything. If you don’t…

You are no ally of mine.

You also don’t get a pass when someone is insulted or verbally harassed and they don’t seem bothered by it. You see, the victim that is marginalized, abused, belittled, and probably way more scared than you are is a victim. When you’re not that target, you need to speak up or do something for the person who can’t.

Let’s give an example, using race. You and a group of your white friends (pretend you’re white for a minute, even if you aren’t) are eating lunch with another of your mutual friends, who is black. When one of your white friends calls your black friend “monkey lips” or some other racist bullshit. Maybe he’s joking. Maybe he’s not. Doesn’t matter. Your responsibility is to call out the bullshit. Even if your black friend doesn’t visibly appear bothered. His appearance of not being bothered may simply be a coping mechanism, a defense. You, as a person of privilege (white privilege in this case) have a position where you are at less risk personally if you stand up for what is right. So it doesn’t matter that the person without privilege didn’t speak up, you still need to do that. And you don’t need his permission (although if this happens a lot around you, you probably should discuss and defer to him as to what your response should be – but if you haven’t done that, you need to assume you should respond). The only exception to this is if your friend, the victim, says that he’s okay with it. Even if you don’t agree, he’s the victim, he gets to make that call – don’t persist at that point. But up to that point, you have a responsibility. If you just sit there because you don’t know what he wants…

You’re no ally of mine.

Sure, if you tell a friend that his joking is racist, he might get upset. You may even lose a friend. Here’s where you need to know what is important to you. And here is where we find out if an ally believes something because it’s right or merely because of social expectation. If you believe it’s right, you stand up. You take risks. You might get hurt. But you do the right thing. If you value not upsetting your friend more than you value me not getting hurt…

You’re no ally of mine.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s just words or a joke, wrong pronouns for a transgender person (accidentally or intentionally), stereotypes about people, or even something that a lot of people around agree with or laugh at. Even in these “little” things (which are anything but to someone subjected to them daily), you need to speak out or act up. Because they become bigger things. Your silent approval (and your silence is always approval) gives license to see where the line is. If the line isn’t verbal harassment, maybe a slight physical touch won’t be a problem either. And when you don’t speak up there, maybe it will escalate more. You need to speak up. You can remain silent, but just don’t call yourself an ally of mine.

You’re no ally of mine.

Now, you’ve probably not acted at some point when you should have. Change. Seriously. And let the victim of your silence know you are sorry. Don’t expect them to kiss you and tell you how wonderful you are for your new view on life. They probably won’t. You still hurt them, and words that don’t involve risk are still just words. You’ll have to earn your ally status back. You will have to put actions – and risk – to work.

Again, speaking up isn’t always the right thing. Again, you can do any number of things. Anything other than nothing. If you want to be my ally, or someone else’s ally, that’s what you’ll do. I don’t care if your thoughts about me are pure if those thoughts never leave your head when they matter. So let them out. Take the risk. And actually be an ally. You don’t get to be both passive and an ally.

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