OPINION: To ally without flattening

Cameron Gorman

Love is a strong, deeply good thing. It is the catalyst for so much selflessness in the world, for so much red positivity. Of course, like so many other things that are good at their roots, this doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes morph into something else entirely. Like sugar twisting itself into a cavity, love can be so passionate that it can strangle us. Love can cause our vision to be blurred by rose-colored glass or by pining. We can love someone so much that we inadvertently smother them.

When we proclaim ourselves as allies of a certain group of people — such as those in the LGBTQ+ community, people of color or women — it is, in my mind, inarguably something that comes from a root of good intention. We are putting ourselves into the firing line to support people whom we look up to, whom we care about, whom we recognize as wonderful and whom we want to support. And yet, the word “ally,” at least to me, doesn’t summon itself with a purely good taste in my mouth. I wonder why that is? Of course, I cannot claim to know if this is the same feeling that all people have when they think of the word. That means I’m left with one conclusion — I get that hesitant sourness from a fear of my own. It’s a simple introspection, but one that is often overlooked: In someone’s work as an “ally,” how close can they come to tokenizing and flattening the very people they want to lift up?

If you consider yourself an ally of people of color, for example, how much of that ally stuff is grouping all people of color into a box and presuming to know all about them? You may know some women, and you may consider yourself a feminist. I say more power to you. But remember one thing: Knowing some women does not mean you do know (or need to know) all women or the collective experiences of all women. It would be impossible!

When I look back at my own flawed history, I see points in my life when I was still developing this theory. You see, nobody’s perfect, especially in understanding other people. And that’s the point! There are some people whose experiences I will not ever be able to fully understand, because I have not lived them. But it’s better, in my mind, to accept that fact than to pretend that, somehow, I can understand precisely what their experiences mean. That’s presumptuous. To do so would mean flattening so many individual, intricate, lived experiences into one smoothed-over collective.

Sure, it can be scary to be honest and say, “I don’t know.” But it’s better to do that than to put on an air of all-knowingness. People are just that. People. Every single person who is a woman is an individual, with different lived experiences. So, OK. You may “love” women. But remember, this, ally. Remember this, self. “Women” is not a person. And people come first.

Cameron Gorman is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected].