Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Role of the Ally as Interpreter

There’s a communications gap that needs to be addressed.

It’s not just that the outdated model of color blindness in regards to race, of the taboo of acknowledgement of prejudicial behavior (self and other), and the definition of racism or oppression as overt acts of violence, has long been tossed on its ear by academics and activists, alike.

It’s that those in power, both actively (those wielding control through their influence, wealth, etc.) and passively (those most associated with a ruling class by default behaviors, cultural, or racial affiliation), have not yet received definitive word of this abandonment and rethinking of the best approach because they haven’t had to. Or rather, they have, but they haven’t been forced, they haven’t been compelled to change except for those actively engaged with the changing notions on race relations by personal inclination, be it intellectual or emotional.

The loudest voices calling for change are very, very familiar with this new approach and have been fully inculcated into it as the starting premise of the discussion. And, while attempting to address de facto oppression and deep-seeded micro aggressive behaviors is both noble and absolutely critical, it creates a situation where the passively powerful and uninitiated are, as a matter of default, at fault and participants in a systemic problem that villainizes them (the uninitiated beneficiary) immediately.

Now, given the concept of systemic oppression, this is a correct assessment of the situation. Unfortunately, the very human, personal, and emotional issues and reactions at play in both leveling and being on the business end of accusations of oppression, whether gender, sexual, racial, class, etc. are extremely intense. As a result, the priority of creating a communications consensus, that everyone is working with the same basic premise and, therefore, intellectual toolkit to disassemble society’s ills, is usually left by the wayside in the name of righteous indignation.

Now, this is not to say that failing to address this communications gap is going to prevent progress, far from it. The largest growing demographics are those already on this particular page. (Although, as an aside, I do catch myself wondering what will come along that puts them to the right of a social issue. The passion on display tends to be more of a hallmark of intractability than an emphasis on adapting to new ideas, an intractability that, by the nature of time, turns these people into a future generation’s conservatives. e.g. The grown up hippies of the baby boom that insist they fixed racism and environmentalism and colonial violence and that’s why they’re pushing back against today’s elements looking to continue their work. The insecurity of realizing you didn’t kick it all is strong, the realization that you’ve gotten too tired to continue is likely even worse, the absolute unwillingness to hear this from a generation that is, and until you die will be regarded as, children, has to be nearly impossible). So, there is an inevitability that’s at work here, some compromise between “sides,” such as they are, will manifest with the same sort of self-leveling exhaustion as always. This is, ultimately, a good thing because obviously no side is immune from the allure of simplistic extremism, no matter how close to the angels their perspective keeps them.


What this does do is create a polarized climate, vividly so. As the definition of racism changes, and the introduction to this new way of understanding it (well, new to most people, not new to humanities scholars, this has been their bread and butter since before the Cold War), comes as an accusation rather than an explanation, it has the nasty backlash of putting those that are passively in the position of power, or beneficiary of oppression, on the immediate defensive. This runs the very, very real risk of making them active oppressors, using their voice and vote to stand in the way of social movement or legislation that could start to rectify some of the greater issues at play.

While the burden of change itself is on that of the passive beneficiary of oppression, the burden of changing their minds, of reaching them, of coming to them in their own intellectual space and redefining it for them, one person at a time if necessary, falls on those already aware of the new paradigm. (Or at least more aware, to say anyone fully understands it is a bit of a reach, to say anyone knows how things will end up even in a best case scenario is fantasy wool gathering).

Is this fair? Absolutely not. To say that the oppressed, whoever they may be, in whatever form it may manifest, need to also now get through to the very people benefiting from their own difficulties is likely too much to take for a lot of people.

So, if I can presume and overreach and step on toes: if there’s a role of ally, or this ally, especially an ally that is more naturally aligned in any capacity with the oppressor and/or passive beneficiaries of oppression, it’s doing this leg work. It’s listening to the (if you’ll forgive a simplistic descriptor) oppressed party, of engaging with the issues intellectually, thinking of it as an act of work, of academic effort and patience. This is more productive, and definitely more helpful than exercising your chance (as ally) to play fist-balled revolutionary, purging anger on the villainous ideological apparatus and its masters. That is the privilege of the victim.

Addressing that communications gap, doing that work, is a crucial role available for us, (if I can presume), the ally.