The Ally Code of Conduct
Dreamers Adrift > Undocublog
by Tina Vasquez
If I’m being honest with myself I know that I’m a shitty ally. There was a time when I was more involved in the movement. I attended marches and panel discussions. I went to see amazing people like Jorge Gutierrez when he and other DREAMers participated in a hunger strike outside the LA offices of California Senator Dianne Feinstein in order to bring attention to their plight. When it was over and Jorge spoke about the challenges of being undocumented and queer, his voice cracking, I couldn’t help but cry while standing on Santa Monica Boulevard with so many others, truly moved by his passion and the tenacity of all the Orange County DREAM Team members who participated in the fast. Almost exactly one year ago I attended the “Intersecting Realities: Visions of Immigrant Narrative” art show at the UCLA Labor Center. Upon entering the Center, the electricity in the air was palpable; I’ve never felt anything like it. It was so apparent that something truly special was happening in that room, as if I could physically feel the strength and unwavering spirits of all the beautiful people present whose bravery was inspiring others to come out of the shadows and mobilize.
When I see the work that allies like William Anderson are doing in Alabama, the attention he’s bringing to HB 56, his unmatched enthusiasm and passion for social justice, it becomes abundantly clear that I could be doing so much more. Really though, I’m not doing much of anything. My activism takes shape in the form of writing. Any time I can pitch a story to an editor about undocumented youth, activists I know, or immigration reform, I do it and currently, that is the extent of my “activism.” When I initially spoke to William it was for an article I was writing for my hometown newspaper about Alabama’s HB 56. I was excited by his drive to affect change and I’ll never forget something he said during that interview, something that never even got printed. He said, “I don’t like being painted as this great human being for being an activist. Why wouldn’t you use your privilege to fight for the rights of others?” This is something I now think about often.
Maybe my writing is enough? I don’t know. What is a good ally? How can someone like myself best use their privilege to help others? When thinking over these questions, I thought of a question I believe to be equally important: how can we become better allies? And by that I don’t mean physical acts we can perform, but problematic behaviors that we can correct. After racking my brain, I’ve compiled a list of questionable behaviors I’ve encountered in my dealings with other allies; behaviors that all allies should be conscious of and be called out on.
Let’s. Do. This.
Own Your Past as a Racist/Homophobe/Sexist/Etc. and Don’t Make Excuses for It
Hugo Schwyzer is a gender studies professor at Pasadena City College who fancied himself a feminist leader – not an ally, a feminist leader (that alone is problematic to me, but that’s another topic for another day). He helped organize SlutWalk Los Angeles, he was frequently interviewed about his involvement in the movement and the challenges facing young feminists today, and he wrote for various influential feminist websites (and continues to). The problem? In a past interview he revealed that he used to sleep with his students. That’s bad enough, but in an old blog (that he severely edited after the controversy surrounding his involvement in the movement exploded), he admitted to trying to kill an ex-girlfriend. Can these behaviors be forgiven? Sure, I guess. My problem, and the problem that many other women are having with Schwyzer, is that he’s routinely blamed his actions on drug addiction and alcoholism. Rather than accepting full responsibility for his actions and being able to move forward from there, he totally cops out and contends that he was out of control at the time, suggesting that his actions were out of his control as well. I call bullshit on that. If you’ve aligned yourself with a social justice movement, yes, you should be honest about your past, especially if it is one that includes abusive behavior towards the people that you are now in solidarity with. But, you should not make excuses for this behavior. You need to own it and not only expect, but accept that it will take time for people in the movement to trust you, if they choose to at all.
In other words, how you reveal your past can sometimes be more important than the past you’re revealing. A good friend of mine once told me about an awkward conversation he had with a fellow artist, an outspoken ally heavily involved in the undocumented movement. He revealed to my queer, undocumented friend that in his younger years, he used to beat up gay people, but his tone wasn’t solemn or apologetic. It was more like, “Hey, look at me! Look how far I’ve come! Aren’t I amazing?” Uh, no. You were an asshole then and if you don’t take a more respectful approach to revealing your problematic past, you’re going to be dismissed as an asshole now.
Understand that You are NOT Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, or Anastacio Hernandez Rojas
To me, this seems simple enough, but the fact that so few allies fail to recognize this perplexes me and frustrates me. More than 60 percent of the people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities and though it’s wonderful to have white folks involved in social justice movements, please do not tell the world that you are Troy Davis. You will never be falsely accused of a crime and then sentenced to death for the crime you did not commit. You are not Trayvon Martin; you will never look suspicious walking in a gated community and you will never be gunned down in broad daylight as a result. As difficult as this is to say, I feel compelled to: women of color, chances are this will not be your fate either. As women, we experience violence differently. Even as young women of color, it’s difficult to understand the dangers that young black men face. You are in danger too, but it’s different. So yes, please, everyone wear your hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon, but unless you are a young black man living in the United States, which apparently is reason enough to be gunned down, you are NOT Trayvon Martin. If you are an American citizen, what happened to Anastacio Hernandez Rojas will never happen to you. You will never be handcuffed, tasered, and killed by border patrol simply because you are an undocumented immigrant. We are not these people. We are angered by what happens to them; it inspires us to organize. We are in solidarity with them, but we are NOT them and we need to understand that their realities will never be ours.
Understand that Your Privilege is Always Present
There are allies who truly immerse themselves in the movement, who care passionately about their undocumented brothers and sisters and are willing to do whatever it takes to fight for their rights. This is a beautiful thing, but you cannot operate in the movement without understanding your privilege and being constantly aware that your privilege sets you apart. When you participate in a civil disobedience I have no doubt that undocumented folks respect your actions, but you have to participate knowing that you have so much less to lose. Your arrest will not lead to being deported to a country you barely remember. Your rallying and marching will not put your family at risk of being torn apart. You have to be aware of this and when this is brought to your attention, you cannot become defensive. You cannot argue that the risk you’re taking is tantamount to the risk of undocumented activists; you cannot pretend that your ass is on the line in the same way.
Don’t Hog the Shine- Also, It’s Not About You
If you are an ally heavily involved in the movement and you are given the opportunity by the media to bring attention to the work that’s being done or the efforts being made by your group, give that opportunity to an undocumented person you work with. My friend Minhaz Khan (the wonderful man behind this blog) is of the opinion that there is room for everyone in the movement (something I agree with). He also believes that there is room for allies to take leadership positions within the movement. Respectfully, I disagree. I think undocumented people should be running their own movements. I believe that when media opportunities arise, they should speak on the issues that affect their lives and allies should fall to the back. Their work is important and meaningful too, but it’s not about them. Allies thinking it’s about them is more prevalent than many realize. I once had a young, white ally from Alabama request that I refer to him as a “documented DREAMer” in an article I was working on because referring to him as an “ally” would “belittle” the work he’s done for the movement. I wanted to say, “Motherfucker, are you for real?” But instead I chose to not use his interview at all.
Allies: if the undocumented people you work with want you to take a more prominent role, want you to serve as their mouthpiece- then by all means do so. But if something is up for grabs or a media opportunity arises, a good ally would consult the undocumented folks they work with and offer them the opportunity to speak their truth and take advantage of a new opportunity because really, as American citizens we have so many fucking privileges and we run so much that the last thing we need to be running is your movement.
Do Not EVER Say You Are Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Undocumented people have a voice and if you’re operating under the assumption that they don’t, then you’re clearly not listening.
Tina Vasquez is a freelance writer from the Los Angeles area. She often writes about queers, sustainable food, feminists, and other progressive issues.