All across my Facebook feed, twitter, and the editorial pages of the country’s more left-leaning newspapers, white settlers are donning red feathers and declaring “I support Idle No More!” Congratulations, friends. Have a cookie for acknowledging oppression exists, and that those who experience it have a right to resist. (Give the cookie back if your comment was along the lines of “I support Idle No More, but…”)
All snarking aside, I think those of us who think of ourselves as activists, leftists, progressives, or just all-around tolerant people, need to talk about allyship. Being an ally means supporting the struggles of those who experience a form of oppression you benefit from.
Rule number one is that you listen to the people you’re supporting. You can offer your support, but it’s up to them. They owe you nothing.
Recently, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair urged Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to end her hunger strike, because in his judgement Stephen Harper’s government had taken “a step in the right direction.” No one asked for Mulcair’s advice. As a white man and as a politician, his opinion is usually given more weight than that of other people, especially that of a Native woman. Instead of helping Chief Spence and those he claims to support, he decided that being an ‘ally’ gave him the right to say “this far, and no farther.” That is not allyship, it is entitlement.
Idle No More is a series of events in a long history of struggle for self-determination and decolonization on Turtle Island. Although the demands around Bill C-45 are important, we potential supporters need to be aware that this struggle doesn’t end there. Like all liberation struggles, the fight for the liberation of the Native peoples of this continent will not be over until the structures of power that oppress them are destroyed. Those of us who benefit from those structures will not survive intact.
Should decolonization succeed within his lifetime, Thomas Mulcair, MP, head of the NDP, will no longer exist. Neither will I. (I’m rather looking forward to it.) That is not to imply death or deportation, though either would be payback for centuries of genocide. Rather, the systems of knowledge we believe in, the customs we abide by, the institutions we inhabit, the economy we depend on, the languages we speak, the identities we claim; all of these are colonial artifacts. Even de-centering them from their assumed positions of neutrality and dominance would shake us to the core. But their place on this continent (and ours by extension) is unearned, and their displacement is a necessity.
This is what we sign up for when we decide to work for the liberation of others. This is not just a matter of keeping the pie intact and giving some oppressed group a slightly bigger slice. Equality and justice require such massive transformations that those of us who benefit from privileges due to our race, gender, ethnicity, class, ability, sexuality, or anything else will lose ourselves along the way.
But we need not assume that just because others are gaining something we will be worse off. Change is difficult, of course, and even losing things you didn’t need anymore can hurt. But we have a lot to gain. In a recent blog post, Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of student activism, wrote about how being asked to name his preferred pronouns – a first step towards trans* liberation – gave him a sense of possibility and freedom, even though he generally benefits from everyone assuming his gender correctly.
Liberation struggles are, first and foremost, necessary for people who experience oppression. Obviously. But those of us with various privileges can also benefit from freedom from the structures we’ve been bound up in. Only, getting there requires listening to people we’re not used to hearing when they say things we don’t want to hear, holding our tongue when we want to claim ‘but we’re not all like that,’ standing up to our powerful friends and colleagues when they perpetuate oppression, and yes, embracing our own destruction.
On that last point, a note: saying “Yo, fuck white people” doesn’t erase your white privilege. Believing that you, as a straight person, shouldn’t speak for queer people doesn’t absolve you from standing up to the homophobes in your classroom who take your silence for approval. Being politically correct is not enough, but shifting our thinking from aiming to be inoffensive to wanting to advance liberation can be a big step in actually getting there. Hear that, Mr. Mulcair?
In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at firstname.lastname@example.org.