by Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
AFO Content Writer
With rainbow capitalism in full swing this Pride Month, corporations have been doing their best to cash in on a newfound interest in queer consumers. From phone companies like Verizon to shoe brands like Adidas, which is sponsored by countries like Russia, a place where anti-queer state and interpersonal violence is well-documented, corporations are creating rainbow logos in order to appeal to queer communities, and I've been thinking hard recently about what it means to care. And not just care as a passive onlooker watching the world crush friends, family, and other community members who belong to different identity groups than I do. No, I mean a real, devoted effort to provide care to those who are not as well-off and who deal with things I may not understand in their full complexity.
How do I support people effectively?
How do I show care in a way that makes a positive impact in people's lives far beyond just making me feel better about myself?
I ask this because, for all the flak that I and many of my friends give those people who like to wield their allyship like an identity, I am sympathetic to folks who feel unsure of how best to be in solidarity. Of course, it is easy to tell someone to just shut up, listen to communities they are trying to be in solidarity with, and then leave them with no other directions for where to start. I say this not to judge anyone from my communities who has had this reaction to a self-proclaimed ally coming to them, asking for a handbook, and being unwilling to take feedback. I have had this exact reaction and it is one rooted in an understandable frustration with how little effort passes for giving a damn about marginalized people.
But, in the case of someone who genuinely feels intimidated by how best to be in solidarity with folks not only because of how ostensibly difficult it is to do but also because they are uncertain of what counts, how do they proceed? How do they support those they care about when it seems both confusing and difficult?
For the purposes of this piece, I am going to assume the person interested in committing to allyship, being in solidarity, or supporting intends to act in good faith. They want to support but feel unsure of where to go and the usual answers given by frustrated community members make them feel as though doing so is an Olympean task.
One example from recent memory that might illuminate some answers to these questions concerns the recent passing of the Queen of Creole Cuisine known as Leah Chase, who died June 1st at the age of 96. Throughout her well-celebrated and extensive culinary career, Ms. Chase ran and owned the much beloved Dooky Chase's Restaurant, a staple of Louisiana cooking and a highly regarded site of African-American art. While the culinary and community support Ms. Chase offered to patrons of her restaurant would provide ample material for reflection, that is not the aspect of her establishment I want to focus on.
What I am more interested in are the ways in which Dooky Chase's Restaurant acted as a haven for political activities during the Civil Rights Movement. During a time of heavy segregation in the 1960s, Ms. Chase's restaurant existed as one of the few locations where races could mix and members of the Civil Rights Movement could congregate without significant backlash. The space that Dooky Chase's Restaurant offered can tell us a lot about how to enact solidarity and good allyship.
Because, if one were to boil down Ms Chase's activities to their simplest elements, all she was doing was providing good food and a space for those who needed safety and a place to do their social change work. While that may seem insignificant on the surface, the impact of such actions is far from trivial. Although movements can often be remembered for their larger moments of controversy or public exposure, the hours upon hours of planning and care work that are required to make them possible is staggering.
For every march in Ferguson, Baltimore uprising, or Women's March, there were hundreds of hours fraught with tense disagreements and debates on direction which allowed such events to not only happen but for their respective movements to sustain themselves far after the march was over. And the lifeblood of these movements often relies on having a place to eat, a place of safety where people can congregate and imagine, even if with some difficulty.
As such, Ms. Chase and her culinary activism suggest that: allyship and solidarity, while potentially vast and complicated in how they manifest, do not have to be difficult in practice. Providing food, shelter, and respite from a cruel world can be part of the larger web of care work that allows for movements to survive and thrive and makes better futures easier to imagine.
This shouldn’t, however, give the impression that being in solidarity with others comes without difficulties. As much as I praise Ms Chase's supportive work, I cannot stress how dangerous providing such a space for activists must have been. And, if the second example I offer for analysis says anything, it is that enacting solidarity and being an ally often comes with a cost.
Throughout the mid 1980s and early 1990s, Ruth Coker Burks served as a caregiver to hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men abandoned by their families, during the early years of the AIDS crisis. Whether by burying the ashes of people left without graves in her own private cemetery, serving as an impromptu pharmacy for needed prescription AIDS drugs, or literally staying with people in their last moments, Ms. Burks provided support as best she could, often without any official funding or support. At her core, Ms. Burks was just a woman doing her best to help provide dignity for those who, labeled as miscreants and pariahs by society, deserved better than the treatment they received from others. Her work is a rare documentation of a time period in which many lives were lost due to the inaction of those who thought themselves better than others.
While Ms. Chase's culinary ventures remind us that allyship and solidarity work need not be difficult or complicated, Ms. Burkes' caregiving provides a harsher but needed reminder that supporting others will likely be difficult. Being an ally or acting in solidarity with others takes effort and, I am inclined to believe, that is the point.
If you have read this far and hoped for me to give you an easy truth to swallow-that being an ally is not complicated and requires doing little at personal cost-then I am afraid I cannot help you. Because if you are the type of person who is looking for an easy answer for how to help others, I don't think you are here for the right reasons. If you are looking for an easy way out-as I will shamefully admit I have looked for on many an occasion-then this isn't the piece for you. These are probably not the conversations for you.
But, if you are someone looking to enact solidarity, allyship, or whatever term you use to describe providing care for those who struggle in different ways than you, then look to these examples as starting points. Take stock of how much impact was provided through the simple act of providing space and food for those who needed a safe haven in a hostile world. Take note of how taxing and difficult the process of providing care to those literally losing their lives due to oppression has been and likely will be in the future. Sit with any discomfort you might have at the prospect of actively being an ally and don't turn away from it.
Because, for those who live through oppression and the malice of our current world, there is no easy escape from harm or discomfort. There is no easy way to opt in or out of dealing with the world's bullshit. And if you are an ally who gives a damn, I think it is worth forgoing some of your own comfort so that others can live with the promise of safety.
Ultimately, that is what I think being an ally calls for: sacrificing the security afforded to you by structural oppression in order to better support marginalized people in the ways they need, including reevaluating how your own life and identity have been designed to enable their suffering. If your allyship ends at doing what is comfortable and ignores the necessary self-reflection to question your complicity and the complicity of others in harming people, then you are not practicing allyship. You are looking to win brownie points with marginalized communities all while avoiding the risk demanded by allyship and solidarity.
Being an ally, being in solidarity, is active, providing the care for folks who this world has sorely deprived of any comfort. Whether that comfort be as simple as fine Creole cuisine or a kind presence in one's last moments, it is a form of care that an ally needs to center. Not themselves or their ego but the people who need care. That is what allyship, what solidarity means in its richest manifestations.