Tag Archives: allyship

The Cistakes of Allyship

“I don’t believe in allies. I want to see people operating in solidarity. That’s something totally different.” ~ CeCe McDonald, March 2018

 

I know, it’s been a hot second but finally some research and work updates!

In the spring 0f 2018, Leland Spencer kindly invited me to be part of the special issue “Transcending the Acronym” he was co-editing for the journal Women & Language (Issue 41, no. 1).  This special issue assembles critical essays seeking to expand our understandings of the LGBTQ+ acronym and identities. In the issue’s forum section, several of us were asked to respond to a provocation essay by G. Patterson, “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies” (pp. 146-150).  These short forum essays raise, at times, uncomfortable yet important questions and invite future research. Below is an excerpt from my own response to this provocation essay. I strongly encourage you to check-out this fantastic issue in its entirety!

Many of us in the academy desperately need to re-evaluate our commitment to social justice, specifically to rethink the usefulness of “allyship.” As someone whose research engages media representations and the state’s surveillance of trans people, I continue to wrestle with my own subject positionality and questions of accountability. I self-identify as a White, cis, masculine-of-center queer who is a non-U.S. citizen, and has benefitted from class and European privilege all my life. The communities that inform my research are primarily poor, trans communities of color with limited access to housing, health care, and secure employment. Given these differences, I regularly contemplate in what ways and/or to what extent my scholarship is guilty of extracting value from the voices and labor of trans people (of color). It is precisely these questions, which point to gross discrepancies in material privileges, life chances, and survival, that I want to consider here: particularly how cis scholars can, to use the language of Black trans rights activist CeCe McDonald, operate in solidarity with trans people.

            1. Join university committees and actively advocate for genuinely inclusive campus cultures. Too often “diversity” committees function merely as a façade, which allow universities to celebrate diversity and inclusion while ignoring how institutional violences continue to harm marginalized populations. Moreover, those who choose to serve on these committees are often multi-marginalized and faculty of color who are already over-burdened with service commitments. When I joined my campus’ LGBTQ faculty committee, I was not surprised, but still disappointed to find that the majority of members were White, cis, straight folks with “good intentions,” but who had thus far failed to address issues like the lack of gender-inclusive restrooms in the student union or the exclusion of trans people from domestic partnership benefits. While it is imperative that POC and LGBTQ perspectives are represented on these kinds of committees, it is equally crucial that those claiming allyship do the work of researching issues, talking with and listening to trans people, and assertively tackling the concerns raised and solutions proposed by those they claim to be allies with.

            2. Regularly incorporate intersectional trans voices and topics in your syllabi. I consciously incorporate transgender topics in all of my courses. In Introduction to Media Studies, for instance, I discuss how the celebrity of Caitlyn Jenner problematically exoticizes trans experiences and reasserts the narrow confines of “acceptable” trans visibility as White, wealthy, and binary-identified. In my Sports Communication class, we look at how “fair play” rhetoric is leveled against trans women athletes to assess the ways that sports are a political, not just a cultural arena. Constituting a key component of critical and social justice focused pedagogy in the classroom, exposure to marginalized perspectives helps students sharpen their critical thinking and civic engagement skills. Skyping-in trans guest speakers, such as Kye Allums, who was the first openly trans NCAA basketball player, to share their lived-experiences is a valuable way to do so. No matter the class, incorporating the perspectives and experiences of trans people should not be the exception, but the rule.

            3. Use your institutional privileges to invite and adequately compensate trans people. Giving trans people a platform to tell their own stories challenges the hegemonic knowledge production that takes place in the ivory tower. If you benefit from the relative job security of a tenure-track line, consciously use start-up funds and grant money to invite trans speakers to campus. Recently, I co-organized with a student to host the #BlackExcellenceTour featuring CeCe McDonald and fellow activist Joshua Allen.

Securing funding for speakers like these often takes extra time and effort because universities typically do not value the experience of young, trans and queer people of color. In our case, we had to cobble together funds from over ten different programs. Many trans rights activists exclusively rely on honoraria to pay rent and cover basic living expenses. Do not haggle down their fees, especially when your department or school happily pays such fees to “established” public figures. Advertising to the whole community to attract larger audiences to these events is an effective means to enact publicly accessible scholarship that reaches beyond pay-walled academic journals and high tuition fees.

          4. If your research is drawing from the voices and experiences of trans people, give credit where credit is due. I want to reemphasize Patterson’s point about the importance of acknowledging trans people’s intellectual labor. This begins with proper citational practices. For example, when referencing trans and queer of color critique as frameworks of analysis, acknowledging their origins in Black and women of color feminisms should be a given.  This also entails listing our trans research informants as co-authors in our publications. Because individualistic tenure requirements incentivize predatory and exploitative academic behavior, White cis scholars can and should deploy their leverage to undermine academic hierarchies, especially those who are already granted tenure.

Undoubtedly, these are only small and incomplete steps scholars can take to make the academy less cis-centric, transphobic, homophobic, and racist. But in so doing, we can ensure that alternative epistemologies produced by trans people do not just accumulate “diversity capital” for neoliberal universities and individual scholars, but actually benefit the communities from which they emanate. As CeCe McDonald reminds us: “interrogate your privilege, whether it’s your class privilege, your race privilege, or your gender privilege” (interview with the author, 2018). By scrutinizing how our privileges inform and censor our everyday (inter)actions we can become better co-conspirators, and less self-serving allies.

 

To cite this article: Fischer, M. (2018). “The Cistakes of Allyship.” Women & Language, 41(1), 159-161.

 

 

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A Note on Positionality, Allyship, and Accountability

As my dissertation has been my steady companion for the past two years, I have certainly learned a lot about the toil of writing and the ability to endure in one’s biggest moments of academic defeat. I freely admit that the writing process itself has been a struggle. None of it was easy or particularly enjoyable. It actually made me question more than ever whether I still believe that academia is the right place for me. Yet I am proud of how the project developed and I sincerely hope that it contributes to a better understanding of trans experiences and why trans people are so vulnerable in encounters with state agencies. Sitting down to write the project’s conclusion – and grasping after that long sought thin silver lining at the end of “dissertation writing hell” – forced me in particular to reflect on my own (research) positionality, the politics of allyship, and being accountable to the communities I engage with.

The nightmares caused at times by the lack of confidence in my own project mostly stemmed from an astute awareness of my own positionality as a privileged, white, cis-gendered, queer scholar researching and talking about disenfranchised trans-communities (of color), which I am clearly not a part of. While I was always cognizant of that fact and while immersing myself in feminist and critical sexuality studies has significantly altered the way I approach research and writing, questions of positionality and the insecurities related to them are the ones that have haunted me throughout and I continue to grapple with them. After all, I knew that “sourcing” my interviewees for knowledge and writing about these communities would help me to present my work at conferences, publish journal articles, and ultimately receive my PhD. Should “I” really be writing this project? What really “qualifies” me to do so?

Despite good intentions and the ability to be self-reflective of our own research practices, sometimes we do not always do justice to the communities we study and/or are in allyship with, whether intentional or not. I recall a particular call-out – or maybe phrased more kindly call-in – moment via social media in which I had shared one of Janet Mock’s recent blog entries, titled “A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015.” In her blog post, Mock powerfully addresses the epidemic of violence against trans women and juxtaposes it with the meteoric rise of transgender celebrity and visibility.

better-ally

I had prefaced my post with, “Maybe Janet Mock should just finish writing my dissertation” to allude to the incredible poignancy of her words. One of my grad student peers, himself trans, commented how wrong my comment appeared and how alienated it made him feel because it seemed like I was just using Mock’s prose to serve “my end goal of finishing my dissertation.” My initial reaction to this public call-out on Facebook was one of defense and anger. Another cis-gendered feminist colleague of mine was quick to come to my help and assured me that she did not interpret the post in the same way. I spent the rest of that evening frustrated on my couch pondering over how to craft an apologetic reply, feeling personally attacked and the sincerity of my allyship questioned. When I look at the thread of replies that followed now, I kind of have to laugh because it’s pretty bad – me still clearly on defensive, trying to uphold my allyship as unsullied.

In hindsight, this encounter turned into a very “teachable moment” for me in completing this project. I realized how off-putting and selfish my post could appear to trans folks living and breathing these experiences everyday. No one is prone from avoiding mistakes like these. However, it is also not the job of those directly affected by marginalization, injustice, and state violence to educate and “enlighten” those protected by white, cisgender privilege. If one really cares about allyship and has a sincere investment in it, especially as a white ally in relation to marginalized queer communities of color, a key realization is to accept and acknowledge that allyship has its limits – it’s easily adulterated. Particularly, when allyship simply gets abused as another means to selfishly claim credit: the reminder of speaking with and not for or at the communities we are claiming to be in allyship with should be ever present. Sometimes it is better (and necessary) to shut-up and listen. As hard and as uncomfortable these conversations are – I’m ultimately glad that someone did call-in with me. To be continued.

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