I am a white woman in the United States. I may have some mixed genetic background, but I was raised white and have always identified as white, not matter how uncomfortable that was/is for me. I cannot deny the deeply entrenched colonialist background of my ancestry. I have ancestors who came here in the 1600s. They "founded" the towns of Groton and Avery, Connecticut. I have ancestors who cherished their leadership role in the colonizing of Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma. It is deeply painful to me that I have in my possession an historical document in which they are celebrated for blazing the trail to The West. That would be the Trail of Tears the Cherokees were driven along like so much cattle. Less than cattle, as there was no concern at all for their well being. So many suffered and died at the hands of my ancestors.
For the past 20-plus years, I have been exposing myself and attempting to connect to people and cultures which are not of my privileged white ancestry. I have walked away from the imperialist/capitalist/colonial mindset. It's a not always a straight and narrow path. It is hard to undo the brainwashing of one's upbringing and the predominant culture one is immersed in. Still, I've been on a fairly steady trajectory. Rejecting all the premises of capitalism when I was in business school was the beginning of a sea change in that which surrounds my core.
I didn't know it, in the beginning, but beyond rejecting what I saw as a cruel and destructive culture, I was becoming an ally to those who have been oppressed far moer than I have within it. (As a woman, I have certainly experienced misogyny. However, the privileges I can claim as a white person, do have an offset which other people can never have access to.)
All these years later, it is still very challenging to be an ally. Oppression of a people leaves many deep wounds, which are held and expressed differently by each person subject to it. Within each group, these wounds lead to factions; bitterly, hateful opposed factions.
This leaves allies subject to ensured condemnation. If one stands in solidarity with one faction in a marginalized group, the other faction will condemn you.
As an example, if a white person wants to stand in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of this land, one will eventually run into internal factions around topics such as sovereignty, the status of settlers in a decolonized world or Leonard Peltier.
We must remember that there is no one Indigenous view of the these things. Subject to genocide and oppression for hundreds of years, now, the responses are varied. Do you let the US define your sovereignty or not? When you're desperate for resources, or frightened of the power that US is completely willing to wield against you, you may have a different answer to that question than when you are not pressured by these considerations.
Recently, a group I have had some association with ran into one of these issues: Leonard Peltier. If you are being an ally to the Indigenous Peoples, do you support the release of Leonard Peltier from US Federal Prison or not? Depends on who you ask. If you attend the Day of Mourning in Plymouth, the answer may be yes. If you want to stand in solidarity with Idle No More, the answer may be no.
Before I go on, for those wondering how the question of Leonard Peltier can be controversial, I will give the briefest of explanations. I do not claim to know anything, at all. I will only share what little I have been exposed to. Please do not consider me any kind of expert, or my thoughts on the matter anything of import. I share for the sake of giving you a chance to explore on your own. Please follow links and Google away. There is a lot out there. I defer to those directly involved for their wisdom on the question of Peltier.
Leonard Peltier was convicted of assisting in the killing of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. There are many questions about whether this was a wrongful conviction. There is a significant movement pushing for him to be pardoned and/or released. This is, of course, a piece of a larger story of relations between the US and the people we have slaughtered and oppressed for so long. At the same time, there are accusations that Peltier was involved in abusing and/or executing Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. So, some people are of the opinion that he deserves to be in prison and that it is offensive to women to support this man who may have committed violence against at least one woman.
This issue doesn't sit simply as a difference of opinion. There is bitter hatred between being generated over it. As an ally, it is tragically painful to watch and makes for some treacherous territory to navigate.
I have been struggling with how to hold this, as I seek how best to be an ally. Currently, I think that, even if Peltier is guilty of being involved in the abuse or death of Anna Mae - and I do realize they are only accusations, without any evidence - he is not in US prison for that. It is tragic that his most egregious offenses may have been against his own people. However, justice, to my mind, would be for that to be processed by his own people. So, it is not incompatible to believe that he should be freed from US prison and to believe that he may be guilty of these crimes of which he is being accused. Still, this is my perspective as an ally. I cannot presume to know how any of this feels or fits into the life experience of a member of the First Nations People.
Therein lies the rub of being an ally. Sometimes, you simply cannot take a stand on a particular issue. Almost always, you will make a fool of yourself over one thing or another. You will use language in offensive ways. You will misunderstand people. You must be willing to be held in contempt. Your personal discomfort over that is minuscule when held next to the larger concerns at stake. All one can do is build relationships. Be at peace within yourself by holding onto your own principles and maintaining healthy relations with those whom you are working.
Solidarity doesn't mean having all the answers. It doesn't mean aligning oneself with every view of every member of the oppressed group whom you are allying yourself with. Solidarity is building a solid foundation of trusting relations with those who are your strongest connections to that group.
This can be challenging, when you encounter other people who are in a different faction on a particular issue and they feel so strongly about it that they attack you for your way of being in solidarity.
For me, I have learned that if someone is not approaching the people I work with with respect, then they are breaching a basic principle I hold dearly about how to go about generating healing. I am also not inclined to move an inch away from my local solidarity when someone comes along and tries to wield the power of a title to demand deference. That a person is considered a leader, a mentor, a teacher or an elder to people whom I don't know does not mean a lot to me. I don't offer extra respect to them for it. Indeed, if they feel they have to call upon this title they have been given in relation to others as a tool to influence me, I am suspect of their underlying agenda. If you have disrespect me and/or mine, you are not operating in an ethos of respect. If not, there is something wounded and flawed at play. It doesn't mean there is nothing to take into consideration. It does mean that I will not do so from a position of obeisance. And I will not abandon my comrades. If I/we determine there is something to examine, we will do so together.
What then, when you think you have comrades, but they are consistently attacking one another? When it feels like personal power conflicts are at play? When some of your comrades are more consistently responsive to outside voices? When they allow or even draw in outside voices for the sake of pressing their own agenda regarding the dynamic or mission of the group? When internal agreements are tossed aside because one person comes along and challenges them?
For me, that group cannot ever work effectively together. There is too much trust missing. Too little commitment to the covenants we have made with one another. When someone has broken covenants too often, it informs me that I cannot work with them. Perhaps the loss of this relationship will be one piece in an accumulation of experiences which will inform them to consider a different way of being. Perhaps not. I simply know that I can do this most profound and deeply challenging work without an affinity group with whom I feel an unerring trust. As an ally, I am too likely to be tossed around as a pawn in the internal conflicts of the larger oppressed group. When I feel that my affinity group is lacking the needed solidarity, I feel it is time to make a change.
This is one of the challenges of being an ally. May peace and light guide me on this journey.