HOW TO BE A GOOD ALLY: Thoughts from the Chicago Theater Community
Good allies. We all need them. We don't all know how to be them. But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts. These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change. Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.
I have to start by laying bare the in-between space I inhabit with regard to privilege. I was born here in America to parents of different races who were also born here in America. I'm cisgendered, heterosexual, and very light skinned. In fact, people are often surprised to discover I'm Latinx. I'm five foot two. No one is scared of me. I have experienced discrimination, but I do not inhabit a body that police deem criminal, that strangers deem threatening. For these reasons, I find myself most often on the serving rather than receiving end of allyship.
The first thing I had to learn as an ally (and that I continue to learn and re-learn) is how to combat any knee-jerk gut feelings of defensiveness that pop up during discussions of experience. My day-to-day experience does not look like the day-to-day experience of a trans woman of color, no more than yours may look like mine. If, during a conversation about identity, people start talking about the privileges afforded to light skinned women of color, and I start mentally skimming through a catalogue of experiences looking for the right one to prove I have in fact struggled, then I'm not listening. If I'm not listening, I'm going to miss the actual point that was being made by mentioning the differences in society's perception of light-skinned versus dark-skinned women. Maybe, in this not-so-hypothetical scenario, I do actually have something to offer up to the conversation, but I've found the most positive way to do so is to wait until the feelings of defensiveness have dissipated. This way it doesn't become a contest, this way no one feels silenced.
Asking questions as an ally can be great. If you are truly seeking to understand and empathize with someone's lived experience you have no reference point for, questions are an essential part of that journey. What I have to be careful of when doing so, however, is making sure these questions aren't phrased as a challenge. "Do you really think that had to with your race?" is an entirely different question than, "I'm not used to recognizing race as a factor, how can I learn to better recognize it?" That said, for as long as I can remember being conscious of race, I can remember being asked about it by white people. I think I embody this very non-threatening, different-but-not-so-different-she's-not-relatable presence in my (white) friends' lives. These questions don't tend to bother me, nor does that role. However, if I didn't hold so much privilege it might be more difficult for me to play the role of teacher. If I ever want to ask someone to clarify how oppression operates in their life or something of that nature, I need to go into that conversation fully recognizing their right to not want to talk about it. I would also say, if you are going to ask your friends of color to explain issues of race and identity to you, demonstrate that you are making other efforts to understand outside of these interactions. (Also also! Remember that people of color are not monolithic. You can ask me about the black experience, but it's unlikely I'll have anything intelligent to say.)
Lastly, I try to remember we all have implicit biases. No one expects otherwise. The path to ridding ourselves of preconceived notions and prejudice is long, winding, and weird. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Be prepared to do some self-reckoning. At all costs, seek to listen, learn, and take care of those around you.
Phoebe González is a Manhattan-born Chicago convert who splits her time between acting and writing when she's not working one or more of her three other jobs. She is about to start rehearsals for Teatro Vista's La Havana Madrid and incredibly excited about that fact. While a student at Northwestern, her play The Next Left was written in partnership with Jenny Avery and Next Theatre, and received its first public reading as an extension of the Agnes Nixon Festival. Her short play Losing it: a revolution was also a part of the 2016 Cherry Picking New Plays Festival at The Wild Project.