Dear Allies and Adversaries: You’re not Unsafe, Just Uncomfortable
The difference between feeling unsafe and uncomfortable is one we need to explore more as many people in the world are awakening to what it means to be an ally. Allyship is about standing with populations, with whom you do not share a common identity, and helping to create spaces for them to share their experiences and empowerment. Recently, I was involved in a discussion where a participant, who is working diligently to understand what it means to be an ally, stated the following, “I also want to be intentional about making sure I show up in spaces where I feel safe.” This raised an eyebrow for me and let me explain.
The person who made this statement was a White woman, who I will refer to as Karena (see what I did there?). I immediately thought to myself, what exactly would make you feel unsafe as an ally. I tried to be empathetic and at the same time authentic about how this statement made me feel. I often ask myself if she had been on the stage with more people who look like her, would she have used the word safety? Especially in our current space where people who look like me feel more unsafe than ever. Newsflash, I’m Black. I decided to process her statement more in depth and provide some clarity for anyone who thinks the same way.
Often when allies come into unfamiliar spaces, they are nervous. The questions that they tend to ask themselves are as follows:
1. What happens if I make a mistake?
2. Are they going to accept me as I am?
3. How will I know if my work is making an impact?
4. What steps do I need to take to make sure I am not harming anyone?
5. How will I know if my contribution is making an impact?
I have never heard from an ally a direct question about am I safe in this space? I believe part of the reason a person would ask this question is because of their bias and how you view who it is that you intend to help. You need to check yourself. Remember, thoughts are things, and in this situation, many of them are rooted in bias which perpetuates an -ism. What if I told you that the populations you are serving ask themselves the same thing everyday when they are advocating for their cause? I say all of this to say, I understand why Karena was asking, but I do not accept her perspective and here’s why? Allyship is a risk that you take, it’s a step that you make in righting wrongs, and it is even riskier for the people who you are attempting to support if they welcome you to the cause. If you show up as an ally, you have some privilege that the group you are allying for does not, and you need to beware that when in the position of an ally, if you use your privilege wrong, it could hurt our cause which is directly related to our safety. Because of this potential threat being imminent, we’re scared and feeling unsafe, you’re just uncomfortable. Just because you show up, doesn’t mean our shit won’t blow up and you could be the catalyst if you don’t check your biases and your privilege.
The Difference Between Feeling Unsafe and Feeling Uncomfortable
To feel unsafe means that you’re mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotional being is in harm’s way. Something has happened to you in that moment that made you feel as if you are going to lose something whether material or physical. It means that a harmful action is imminent, or has surfaced that caused you pain or loss.
To feel uncomfortable means that you are out of your element and feeling somewhat incompetent, at an experiential disadvantage, and learning something new that makes you rethink everything that you once knew to be truth. It’s a time of transformation if you are willing to accept it for the purpose of your own growth. You see the evidence put before you and read the signs, and you are convinced that you might’ve been wrong all along! Like being the only White person on a panel of Black activists and you keep asking yourself the 5 questions stated previously in this article. This is the intro to begin checking your privilege that has always made you feel comfortable. When one is in a space of oppressed populations, recognizing privilege can make you uncomfortable, and it should!
When you are in a position of feeling anxious first breathe, do what you need to in order to relax, and then ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I in immediate danger or being threatened?- If the answer is no, you’re uncomfortable, if it’s a yes, you’re unsafe?
Important Note: If you are in threat of losing something because you intentionally harmed someone else because you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic or other form of asshole, you’re in danger of losing something because of your harmful actions, you’re not an ally and it is self inflicted. This message does not apply to your situation. This is a situation where it takes perspective to understand that as human beings harm is often met with defense, especially for marginalized populations who are always being put in such positions. The message in this article does not apply here.
2. Am I actually afraid or just confused and I don’t like the feeling of being in a space of uncertainty and unknowingness?
a. If Yes is your overall answer- You are uncomfortable
b. If the answer is yes to the first part of the question and no to the overall question- You might be unsafe.
I don’t want anyone who reads this article to think I’m picking on allies, my goal here is to help you understand where you are in your journey. You need to know the difference between safety and comfort and examine your privilege in the process. The goal here, is to provide some clarity for what you might be feeling. The message is also for adversaries of social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion because trust me you need clarity too. After watching the video with Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper I felt it was important to share this perspective because some of you definitely need clarity in your lives.