Ally: that word does not mean what you think it means.

Being an outspoken, visible atheist doesn’t mean you’re committed to social justice. Being an outspoken, visible atheist who likes to pay lip service to certain social justice issues doesn’t mean you’re a model social justice warrior. Exhibit #129,334: JT Eberhard.

There was an incident at a recent atheist conference that made JT uncomfortable, so he turns his discomfort into an occasion to lecture a justifiably angry black woman atheist on how to deal with “ignorant” questions by “naive” visitors.

I am so, so tired of seeing shit like this happen. Not really this, per se:

The problems all started when, during the Q&A of Mandisa Thomas’s talk, a woman asked her what black people were doing to fight black on black crime.  Was the woman’s question naive?  Yes.  Very.  And the naivety resulted in her asking a question that certainly had racist undertones, even if the woman was not intentionally being racist.  Mandisa handled it well.

But then, during the Q&A of Darrel C. Smith’s talk, Bria Crutchfield stood up and proceeded to give the woman an angry tongue lashing.  This went on for about five minutes (or maybe it just seemed like that long).  While Bria did answer the woman’s question, it was very embarrassing to the woman and trailed off into a number of red herrings such as “I’m here, get over it” as if anybody was suggesting that Bria or black atheists were unwelcome at the conference or silently sneered at by…anybody.

I mean, I’m not tired of seeing women like Ms. Crutchfield get their rage on in a clearly rage-worthy moment. I’m tired of high-profile, privilege-blind “skeptics” presume to play the Great Communicator and “rationally” explain to the hysterical “other” types how we’d all get along so much better if only they could be nicer to people who insult their humanity.

What other information might we like to see about the incident in question? From a commenter at JT’s blog:

Seeing that you stated that you left the room during Bria’s “outburst” I assume you did not hear her breakdown into tears at the end. I also assume that you were not present at the beginning of Bria’s talk where she apologized and clarified a few points.

If you would have witnessed the entirety of the “event” I don’t think you would have seen it as anything other than Bria’s frustration in having to educate people in a place that she hoped was already beyond that. It is often our “allies” that we get the most frustrated with, since for better or worse, we hold them to a higher standard because we hold them in higher regard.

When you want to see someone get angry about something because she just loves to have an excuse to get angry, keep following this blog. It happens sometimes. Ms. Crutchfield’s “tirade” was not the behavior of a woman who was looking for a fight and happened to get her wish; it was the reaction of a woman who was at the end of her rope, has had more than her fill of this derailment tactic, and knows far better than JT what it really means when someone asks about how blacks are combating “black-on-black crime.” In the comment section of Jen’s post, PZ Myers understands the feeling:

I’ve been where Bria was. No, not specifically, I’m a white dude…but I’ve had those experiences where someone says something so clueless and stupid and offensive that I’m rocked back and don’t rebut it right away, and then the rage simmers and builds and has to erupt somewhere. Usually, for me, in a blog post. Bria just erupted in a Q&A.

That question — “what are black people doing to fight black on black crime?” — is outrageously stupid. It’s the equivalent in inanity of a creationist telling me that evolution is just a theory, or that if evolution is true, why are there monkeys? It’s the kind of question only someone totally ignorant of the subject on which she is pontificating could ask. Naive? Fuck no. Dumb as dirt and a dozen times as damaging. She needed something more significant than just information — she needed a kick in the ass.

Jen points out that JT’s criticism is a load of tone-trolling, and that he has a long history of refusing to learn anything from private explanations of social issues which he has demanded from his friends. Anger isn’t the problem, nor is it inappropriate to call out public displays of racism in an equally public setting. The issue here is not that Ms. Crutchfield was unfair to the “what about black-on-black crime?” questioner—even JT admits that Bria answered the question!—it’s that her anger made JT uncomfortable.

Sometimes, making people uncomfortable is the only way to make them think. That is assuming they’re willing to learn anything new, which it appears JT isn’t:

Lately there’s been a lot of this attitude in the atheist movement, that every misstep out of naivety or ignorance, even if it’s insulting, makes someone a prime target for a shout down in a “public room” – as if humiliation and shame, while sometimes the proper tools, are always the proper tools.  When did we forget that people in the atheist movement are our friends and allies?

Basically, every clause in the above quoted paragraph is full of wrongness and dishonesty. Ain’t nobody got time to explain everything that’s erroneous about what he just said. I will address this much: it is not up to JT Eberhard to decide who is a friend or ally to Bria Crutchfield or anyone else dealing with real-life shit that he doesn’t understand. An ally is as an ally does, and a halfway-decent ally in this case would have listened to the substance of her anger rather than tell her how she “should” feel about hearing an insulting question for the umpteenth time.

If you bail out on ally-ship because someone got too angry for your liking, you weren’t really an ally to begin with. People who are paying attention to racism, misogyny, heterosexism and misogynoir (specifically, hatred of black women–I love learning new words!), and most especially those who have to deal with this shit in their lived experiences, have every right to be angry, and those who are “just asking questions” which have been done to death a million times already, have given up the right to play innocent.

Want to be a good ally? To start: shut up and listen. For example: try expending more mental energy to understand the anger of someone who’s reacting to racism than the one who set her off. In the information age, where Google is the best friend we always wanted, it is increasingly inexcusable to be uninformed about social justice issues at the time we bring loaded questions into a public setting. The mental gymnastics required to assume such questions come from a place of naiveté, rather than hostility, are a waste of oxygen and glucose.

Without anger, change would be impossible.

One thought on “Ally: that word does not mean what you think it means.

  1. I think we need to boot the word “ally” right out of activist vocabulary. What it should mean is “I help you as much as I can, in ways that you tell me are useful to you in your specific situation.” What people like Eberhard twist it into is “I’m doing what I feel like, let me tell you what you need done, don’t criticize me because I’m an ally!” If being a “friend and ally” is all about what it does for you (gets you an in with the group, shields you from criticism, cookies and hugs) then you’re not worth half a damn.

    Too many people use their ally card for selfish ends. People who are effectively helping are doing so for the right reasons and don’t need a label or a cookie.

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