Monday, May 9, 2016

Allyship: The Oppressed Aren't Your Educators

A few days ago a friend and former classmate posted this article on Facebook and asked for open discussion.

Image and Article by Margaret Jacobsen
A conversation then occurred in the comment section between myself and another former classmate, who felt that the author might have been overreacting in some instances to what was just genuine curiosity from some people. For example, a lot of the encounters the author talks about are people commenting on or touching (without permission) her hair. Without probably realizing it, this former classmate pointed out a problem area for most majority persons trying to be good allies. It is not a minority individual's job to educate the majority, who are usually too lazy to bother learning anything outside their personal experience until a minority person enters their sphere. Curiosity is not an excuse to put the burden of your understanding onto others. If you are curious, educate yourself. In an instance such as this, my friend opened up an opportunity for dialogue and in such situations it is probably okay to ask questions. However, in the instances that the author describes, people think they are engaging the author in conversation when really they are making the author's existence all about themselves, "Hey, you're different than me, tell me why." Not to mention the violation of personal space involved in touching another person.

This article resonated with me because I do happen to have a fascination and respect for African-American hair. There can be so much style, power, and expression in the way people of color wear their hair. Natural, relaxed, weaves, extensions, wigs, and lots more aspects that I have yet to educate myself on. (I also happen to have hair like straw, as the author describes some of the individuals she encounters.) But I don't just walk up to my friends and ask them to tell me about their hair. And I certainly don't just put my hands in their hair. So I've read articles, listened to podcasts, read books, and watch documentaries. For example, on the topic of black hair I listened to a Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast with Lori L. Tharpe you can find here. Lori L. Tharpe is co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America

I haven't gotten to read it yet, but it's on my (way too long) To-Read list. I also watched the documentary Good Hair. Admittedly, I was assigned to watch this doc in my Film & TV Analysis class, but it was already on my (also way too long) To-Watch list. If you are interested in this topic like I am, the documentary or the podcast is probably the quickest way to acquaint yourself with it and learn why when you ask a black woman, or man for that matter, about their hair, you are asking a whole lot more than you realize. 

Making the effort to educate yourself can actually open up much more meaningful conversations with your friends. Saying, "I read this book/article/saw this movie/heard this interview and would like to know what you think," is much more effective than basically asking someone to educate you about some facet of their oppression. If you want to learn more about being a good ally to oppressed groups/individuals, check out the article 10 Common Things Well-Intentioned Allies Do That Are Actually Counterproductive on Everyday Feminism (Hint: we've been talking about #4 here).


Samuel said...

I was just talking about something like this to a friend. I read an article by a white woman who had an African-American woman join her yoga class. In the article the author invented a scenario in her mind about this "heavy-set black woman" who obviously just came in to do some yoga. The author, who talked about wanting to help this poor woman, came up with elaborate assumptions about her based solely on race. Instead of helping out, the entire article was about this white woman's feelings. She went on a big long rant where she thought she had cracked some racial code, or something, and ended up in her house crying, or something.

The point I'm trying to make is that yes, sometimes when the majority has general curiosities, it can often come across as condescending, and completely ignorant, when they assume all minorities are alike based on television and their few experiences around them.