30 days of beautiful: an ally’s promise

Journal  entry 6/24: You don’t get to be comfortable. As long as people the world around are in the midst of the discomfort of hatred and discrimination, I don’t get to be comfortable. There is a reason for the unsettling. It renders me sensitive. 

I often feel I have no entitlement to talk about many types of oppression. To say “I’m trying to understand” seems ingratiating. However, I am capable of being raging mad at oppression I haven’t experienced. For weeks after an intergroup dialogue facilitation course I took recently, I wanted to scream about racism, tear down the 18-wheeler bearing an “Indian” mascot/trademark on my way to work, say something to every insensitive person. During the course, I journaled my rage.

Journal entry 6/23: I feel unsettled and angry for being unsettled–the dialogue this weekend, the ugly things and pain of my peers and I don’t know how to apologize or own up. Everything is touchy, so it’s the bombshells we won’t explode… and is that all cultural competency is supposed to do? Unsettle you and anger you so maybe next time you see injustice, you say something? I don’t think that’s all. We can talk about it and get mad at each other all we want (you! you! you are the problem!) but there’s more to do than be angry and isolated.

Although my intentions are good, I still say the “wrong” things sometimes. Long before my intergroup dialogue course, when it was winter still, I brought up the heterosexism and racism of a family I was working for to a friend. They would only hire skinny, gender-conforming, white girls… the mom made it clear that she would never hire a “fat” nanny. She said, “I have a type.” All her nannies were skinny, white girls. So genderism, racism, sizeism, heteroseixism, and lookism is just the “type” of thing white, rich folks like now? My friend mentioned that their demands for such a “type” reflected on me, my participation in the system; it also said something about me about whether or not I would refer certain people to this family to work. Was I being racist and “gender-ist”? Yes. The internal conflict triggered by my friend’s challenge prompted me to write a poem. Over the next month, I performed it for a couple friends. They begged me to share it. I called it, the “ally’s promise.” If I can understand nothing exactly, I can try to fight and learn. Teach me. 

I promise to listen. I promise to accept your criticism. I promise never to act like I know everything. I promise to do my best. Can you promise to allow me to mess up? I once was talking to a male friend in a bar about sexism and rape culture and at that time, he delivered one of the best compliments I have ever received: he told me that he wasn’t scared to ask questions or make mistakes about it because I wouldn’t get mad or blame him for exploring the issue from a position of privilege. He said I never made him feel stupid or put-down; our conversations were not combative. I consider him an ally. I wish for the same in all conversations, especially when I am the privileged one. Don’t get mad at me; I’m trying to listen. I have a stake in the issue and you can bet your bottom dollar that I can be as mad as you are. 

Transcript:

I’m living with the south wind,
and people made of craters.
She tells me my mistakes are a reflection of me.
I say, there is a family that doesn’t love gays and it’s the truth. I’ve seen it.
But when she’s cutting her hair in the sink so her curls don’t grip her ears
and make her soft, I’m wearing my hair long and kissing men
until we look like opposite sides of the spectrum
with enough room between us to make mistakes the size of mars inside
so I say things that make her angry or quiet
because I don’t know all the words for identity
or how to ask someone what theirs is.

She tells me my mistakes are a reflection of me
until I feel like an irreparable heterosexist
bleeding the same poison into the world that she’s trying to fight

I say, I am ears looking for that truth
and this reminds me in college when the girls at the party
said they would love me better if I loved women so I tried
but their identity wasn’t mine so I wept for worlds I wasn’t a part of,
education I wanted to have and when I feel too white or too straight,
I feel like a lie about equality I’m trying to break,
break myself into not leaving you angry or quiet because
I’m not living the isms you suffer

and I wonder, is this how some men feel
when they speak to feminists who put nails in their eyes
and say, pay for the sins your kind put my sister through?
Are they just trying to understand too?

I dress like a white girl. I wear my hair long.
I’ve never tried to be different, to love someone who scares the world,
to have a love that scares the world. So I’ve never been oppressed.
That’s the way it would seem but when the oppressed begin to look at me that way,
I remember a white man got up to a microphone and said, I was raped.

The picture of privilege can only unravel when we begin to realize
we’re all fighting a hard battle.
I wear my hair long but that’s what makes me feel safe.
What makes you feel safe?
When I was small I would climb into my closet and write poems
until my mother said the lamp I kept in the dark would start fires
in the clothes that hung inside. I’m on fire with poems
and they could all be mistakes but what I want you to know is that I’m trying.

I’m trying to learn all the words for identity and rape,
racism, classism, sexism, and hate.

I knew a girl in college. She taught me a code word for ignorance.
She said it was “frying pan” because that’s what she wanted to do
every time someone made a mistake: smack them upside the head
with a skillet, a pan. She gave me one for Christmas
as a smirk, an inside joke, and it was funny
until it wasn’t because I realized we’re all ignorant.
There’s no entitlement to understanding. No code word for “know how,”
no matter the social matrix you’re born into:

my professor is black, dark chocolate with white women crossing the street
to avoid him at night and he says, my friend was murdered.
They cut off his genitals and stuffed them in his mouth
and that’s how they found his body because he was gay,
and my professor says, That’s when I realized there’s oppression.
Oppression I do not understand and may have even been a part of,
and I thought he knew everything about being put down
because his people are in poverty and prisons and stopped and frisked
and black and minority women are raped at a higher rate than white women….

No, no one knows it all.
Not the way Native Americans passed a peace pipe with white presidents
right before those presidents damned the rivers that fed their fields, lives, and children,
not the way my friend in a wheelchair wishes there were curb cuts in every sidewalk
and an elevator in every building so she could rise to the top,
or a way she could travel in Croatia
and not feel she needed someone to push her or carry her
when the world proved not accessible to her worn hands and ready smile.

How can we all be screaming, understand me,
understand me, understand me
and yet be so afraid of the intersection of our own knowledge
and our own limitations?

I will back away from your frying pan.
I was not born to be omniscient,
born only to dance in kitchen with you.
Teach me the flavors of the universe.
Help me through the moments I know not what I do.
It was Ruby Bridges who said, forgive them father.
We will grow from our mistakes.
It is the only way to hear the many different prayers we pray.

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