You are hanging out with your Savarna friends and someone makes a tasteless joke about “those people” and then debases economic reservations. You are with “the boys” and the conversation turns to malicious gossip about one of the female colleagues. Your uncle (or aunt) posts a joke on the family WhatsApp group about “the gays”.
By now, of course, you must know that you have a duty to speak out, but surely you can let it slide just this once? What’s the harm if you’re generally a good person and you aren’t the one saying the offensive thing? If you are reading this piece, you have likely read enough internet call-outs equating your silence with propagating the harms of sexism/casteism/homophobia, even if you don’t personally hold those beliefs.
The importance of our peer groups in shaping our views is understated. Sometimes, however, engaging with our non-politically aware family/colleagues/peers is exhausting. Sometimes, you wonder if speaking up in a place that seems removed from marginalized people would actually make any difference at all.
By speaking up in exclusionary spaces, we drive home the point that bigotry, even in private, is not okay.
Speaking up in such spaces where the marginalized person is absent, however, is an important thing an ally can do. Because of our privilege, we have access to many spaces where marginalized people are either absent or made to feel unwelcome. At times, people may not be ‘out’ about their caste/queerness/gender identity but may be severely impacted by the hostility of the conversation. By speaking up in such exclusionary spaces, we drive home the point that bigotry, even in private, is not okay.
At other times, when these identities are known, their perspective may be viewed with suspicion because of their ‘bias’. An ally, however, has a chance of being better perceived because of their privilege. As we do not have a direct stake in the politics at hand, a viewpoint expressed by us is more likely to be seen as being “objective” than the view of someone who is directly affected by them.
While this perception is something that we must fight, it also opens conversations in spaces that are ordinarily exclusionary and dismissive of marginalized persons. We can lend our support to what the marginalized person in the group is saying, and making sure their views don’t go unheard.
When asked about their silence in personal groups, however, several people mention the loss of social face as a factor that influences their decision to not speak up. I have personally experienced that being seen as a “social justice warrior” may, over time, make some people less likely to listen to what you have to say. This is particularly true if the people you are engaging with have strong opinions. My left-leaning views, for instance, have often been dismissed as “brainwashing” by right-leaning friends and family.
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It is harder to have conversations like these when the people you are engaging with are close to you or are in a position of power over you. Close relatives may be affronted at their views being contradicted and may question your masculinity if you appear to be too “protective” of women.
Close friends may wonder about your sexuality or gender identity if you are a cishet man who questions their sexist or queerphobic beliefs. Savarna friends and relatives begin parroting their tired old arguments about “merit” and “economic reservation” at the mere mention of caste, even if the context of the subject is completely different. Confronting an employer or a professor about a problem is a whole different ballgame. Hostility in these instances is a real disincentive that must be accounted for.
The key to tackling such situations, however, is not to remain silent. Aggression as a tool must be sparingly used (something that I have learned the hard way) regardless of how offensive the situation is. As allies, however, we must focus instead on patiently breaking down the biases and stereotypes that we encounter.
several people mention the loss of social face as a factor that influences their decision to not speak up.
Instead of direct confrontation, asking open-ended questions and using humour may work well in making a point. It is also important to keep in mind that changing perspectives is not easy, and requires patience and sustained effort.
Of course, there are situations that do warrant confrontation. Behaviour that directly affects the safety and dignity of marginalized persons must be swiftly responded to, as the impact on the marginalized person assumes priority here. There are also some people who are reluctant to change their beliefs regardless of the amount of evidence that you provide them with.
After a point, an ally may judge it best to focus more on limiting the harmful behaviour of people than on altering their beliefs. When it is fit to use confrontation and when more pacific methods must be tried is a subjective and situational question. Consulting affected marginalized persons is a must in these situations, as you do not want to inadvertently make things worse. The bottom line of allyship is simple: the needs and experiences of marginalized persons must always take precedence. It is only by living out our beliefs in our personal lives that allies can truly make our work meaningful.
Good allyship, however, requires us to be mindful of how we use our voices. While there may be circumstances – such as those described above – that are hostile to hearing the voice of the marginalised, it does not mean that their voices should be appropriated. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that we should speak for others. As an ally, the most important thing that we can do is pass the mic, shut up and listen.
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Featured Image Credit: Samantha Sophia at Unsplash. Source: Medium