Oct 1, 2022
Content Warning: Queerphobia
I recently returned from a summer of research in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia with some questions in mind. What are the limits of allyship? What happens when values collide? More generally, how can we hold true to ourselves and our values while upholding the struggles of people who deserve our support but whose values we might not share?
We can begin to answer those questions by acknowledging that life is an exercise in negotiation. From infancy to the deathbed, we are in constant encounter with other people and their diverse opinions, perspectives, beliefs, desires, decisions, requests, demands, and biases. Most people’s “success” in life, however you want to define it, depends to a large extent on their ability to reconcile (or sideline) their own interests, beliefs, and needs relative to those of others—whether these be interpersonal, social, political, etc. As the saying goes, “we live in a society,” and one of the corollaries of this truism is that we must often accommodate ourselves to others for the sake of peaceable social relations.
Due to the advantages conferred by privilege, some people are free from the daily burden of negotiation and compromise based on identity. White, straight, cis, and able-bodied people—to arbitrarily pick just a few identities—are made to prove themselves a lot less than are racialized, queer, trans, and disabled people. If you care about diminishing that harmful differential, it’s important to understand what it means to be an ally to those on the disadvantaged side of that line. Being an ally as a person advantaged by the privilege attached to certain identities means stepping aside for those without that advantage so that they can be heard. It can also mean using your privilege to advance others’ interests. You can do this by giving platforms for people ordinarily silenced to be heard or by taking their place on the frontlines of direct actions. In general, allies must be able to prioritize the interests of marginalized and silenced people above their own when the stakes are higher for the latter.
While these are general truths, they become especially evident in situations of intercultural encounter, when the identities, interests, and expectations carried by people of radically different backgrounds are often in marked contrast, if not explicit contradiction. This raises the question of what allyship means in situations in which core values differ between allies and those they want to support. I am referring especially to the fact that many marginalized communities around the world are engaged in important struggles for social rights that should be supported by potential allies while, at the same time, harboring discriminatory attitudes that contradict the values or identities of those same allies. To explain what I mean, let’s take an example from my own experience.
I am a White, bisexual, college-educated, Jewish, cisgender man who has had to navigate many a different social ecosystem in my time, from my rural conservative hometown which was once the KKK capital of Oregon to my wide-ranging travels in Latin America and the former USSR. Guess which two of the descriptors above have caused me the most trouble? Queerphobia—and, within the queer community, bi erasure—is the norm in most of the world, and most of the US too, though you couldn’t necessarily tell from within the bubble that is Eugene, meaning that I have often had to obscure my bi identity for sociality’s sake. Antisemitism, too, is just as widespread; I have been to plenty of places at home and abroad in which to out myself as Jewish might have been as dangerous as displaying my bisexuality. Still, in Oregon, by and large, I can be who I am without worrying about consequences.
Now pivot to an Indigenous community in the rural Andes-Amazon interface of southwest Colombia, a place called the Sibundoy Valley and a people called the Kamëntsá. During the summer of 2022, I conducted three months of ethnographic fieldwork with the Kamëntsá, staying with a host family in a rural district of the valley and investigating processes of cultural reproduction and territorial autonomy within the community. I situate my work within a tradition of activist anthropology, seeking to bring attention to both the problems and the resistances at work in this community. I view the struggle of the Kamëntsá as important and worth upholding, a belief to which my research is wholly committed.
But despite my feeling of commitment to the community and the bonds of allyship that link me to my Indigenous friends there, I was not free to express my identities with the same liberty as in Eugene. Like most rural and Indigenous communities in Colombia, the Kamëntsá practice Catholicism, albeit a syncretic variety that incorporates prehispanic Indigenous elements. The prevailing views of gender and sexuality in the community are those of the Catholic Church, which is not known for its progressivism in these matters. If I had outed myself as bisexual, it could have compromised my relationships in the community and given rise to mistrust, if not outright endangerment. My ability to work with the Kamëntsá in the interest of supporting and platforming their movements for social rights, environmental protection, and cultural and territorial autonomy is directly contingent on suppressing an aspect of my identity—my bisexuality—that many in the community would judge me harshly for. Likewise, I could not be honest about the fact that my partner at the time was a trans man. What would my collaborators think?
This dynamic is characteristic of many engagements between allies and the communities they wish to support. It forces us to ask where our loyalties lie and tests the limits of our ability to compartmentalize and sideline our own values in favor of those of our collaborators. Where does this leave allyship?
It once again comes down to negotiation. Here I present a solution that may seem controversial to some: unless your safety and dignity are on the line, humble yourself. Recognize that we all have learning to do—you as much as people whose beliefs you might stereotype as irreconcilable with your own. I am not asking you to doubt your values or integrity, just your claim to moral objectivity. And recognize, also, that if changing the world is your objective, you will have to learn to stand in solidarity with those you disagree with. Life is a series of negotiations and some call for sacrifice. It seems a small sacrifice to me, however, to temporarily suppress my bisexuality in the interest of supporting my Kamëntsá friends, for whom the stakes are much higher than they are for me. With that said, I am privileged to be able to hide that aspect of my identity without much trouble. Others do not have that privilege, so their answer to the question of when to sideline one’s own interests for others’ will look different from mine.
Beyond my field site in rural Colombia, this dilemma has relevance for all of us interested in activism and allyship. It’s an ironic truth that leftist circles are often especially bad at enacting the kind of inclusion and tolerance of difference that their members pay lip service to. By dividing themselves over minor differences, leftists are shooting themselves in the foot. Only by learning to put interpersonal issues aside and getting used to a little discomfort—an inevitable feature of all social life—can leftists fulfill their duty to allyship and help strike a blow against the systems of oppression that seek to divide us but against which we must all stand united.
Copyright (c) 2022 The Student Insurgent | Source Code | Mastodon | Instagram | Twitter