On the night of the Oscars, a user of a community-driven music blog I write for made a “list” (basically a vehicle for driving site-wide discussions) asking his fellow commenters to discuss the fact that Sam Smith had just won the show’s award for Best Original Song. In the thread that followed, one user argued that “if you were going to pander to the LGBT crowd, Lady Gaga would have been a better shot" (Gaga was nominated for “Til It Happens To You,” a song she recorded for “The Hunting Ground,” a film about sexual assault survivors on college campuses). Although this accusation of “pandering” was by no means the most blithely offensive comment made in the list (read the thread if you must), it made me consider its implications. Lady Gaga has undergone a fair bit of scrutiny from the queer community for her involvement with gay rights over the past half-decade or so. What, then, does it mean for a person to be an advocate for the LGBTQA+ community when that advocacy is framed as being a “vehicle for their voice,” standing up loudly for a group of people of whom she may not be a part? In other words, what happens when someone speaks up for a community without the approval of its members?
Of course, the idea of speaking outside of the community is less applicable to Gaga herself, as she has been publicly out as bisexual since at least 2009. However, the criticism still stands: if one is prepared to fight for the civil rights of an entire group, they must be prepared to represent that group adequately. We’ve seen some similar criticism of Hillary Clinton’s purported commitment to the rights of Black peoplein the country she aims to lead, especially after two people involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement confronted the presidential candidate at a fundraiser, criticizing her past stances on Black crime; similar questions have been asked of Sanders. There’s been a fair bit of critique levied at “male feminism” — not the concept as a whole but a sizeable subset of supposedly feminist males — as a vehicle for those who “assum[e] that their opt-in respect for women will entitle them to legions of adoring lovers.” Basically, if one group is fighting for the rights of another, some members of the first group will probably tread on the second’s toes in some way, usually unintentionally but often harmfully.
That kind of “treading” happens very publicly every so often at Princeton. A few weeks ago, ‘Prince’ columnist Zeena Mubarak criticized the campus bellydancing troupe Raks Odalisque for “reinforc[ing] outdated Orientalist stereotypes,” among other complaints. Similarly, midway through last semester, Alfred Burton, writing for the ‘Nass,’ slammed Terrace’s yearly Drag Ball as “an environment so often at the root of transphobia… reduc[ing] the people dressed in drag to jesters.” Both articles drew their fair share of criticism, the former in fact inspiring a response from the officers of Raks in the same issue of the ‘Prince.’ Much of this criticism was, put simply, dumb — one of the most-upvoted comments inthe threadread, in full, “This is an early April Fool's piece, right? If not, what a pathetic attempt of being offended.”That said, I’d like to discuss one criticism I’ve heard levied in more private discussions — that of speaking against people who purportedly stereotype an oppressed group without actually consulting anybody in those groups before talking.
I’m not going to spend too much time critiquing the strictly logical arguments made in the pieces themselves. I think there were solid points made in both (particularly complaining about the crowd butchering the Arabic language and straight men dressing in drag for kicks), and I think there were less solid points made in both as well (comparing Raks to a strip club or implying that all drag shows at Princeton would perpetuate transphobia). However, I find it somewhat odd that even if Mubarak or Burton are part of the cultures or groups they’re ostensibly supporting here, they don’t mention it in their pieces. I do not know if Mubarak is involved with belly dancing or its culture in any way, and I do not know if Burton is trans. Regardless of their identities, though, by not involving themselves (or, for that matter, anyone else involved in bellydancing, “Arab culture,” the trans community or drag shows) at all in their pieces, they are essentially confronting these issues from the outside. Their articles, in being written without an experiential perspective, are unavoidably written from an impersonal one.
Which is all well and good, of course, if the claims accurately capture the experiences of the respective groups the articles are attempting to defend. However, from my own personal experience, for the most part I’ve seen the opposite to be the norm. I have friends in Raks who have told me about Middle Eastern students who have thanked them for “reminding them of home.” I have fervently feminist friends outside of Raks who appreciate, in the words of one commenter, that the company treats “bellydancing as a joyous event, not as some sort of oversexualized, immature, attention-seeking ploy.” Similarly, my friends who are trans or non-binary have spoken overwhelmingly in support of Drag Ball put on by Princeton’s LGBT Center and Pride Alliance. Almost all of my cisgender friends very much appreciate the event as a way to explore gender identities different than the one as which they identify. One of my closest friends on campus, who at the time of Drag Ball this year was preparing to come out as genderqueer, used the event as a means of becoming more comfortable with gender identities they had which were not the ones assigned to them at birth. After the event, they felt more able to present themselves as genderqueer, gender-fluid and third-gender.
All this is to ask: how does one act as a good ally or advocate of a group to which they do not necessarily belong? An exhaustive guide is far beyond the scope of this long-form piece, but one thing to remember is to always keep in mind the thoughts and experiences of the group with whom you are allied. As Black Girl Dangerous creator Mia McKenzie writes in a post about ally theater, “Listen. Solidarity is action. That’s it. What we DO in solidarity is all that counts. How people with privilege listen to what marginalized groups ask of them and do that is all that counts.” While it’s great to speak out against bigotry and oppression in general, it’s key to make sure the way you’re speaking out aligns with the way that people directly affected feel about the issue. For example if I, as a Jew, were hurt by the presence of bacon in the dining halls, I would love for non-Jews to speak out against that presence. However, since there are a good number of vegetarian options in Wilcox and since I believe that there are a lot of more serious problems facing me and my people today, I would not look particularly highly of someone not directly affected by the “issue” protesting this indecency — especially at the expense of the opportunity to protest other anti-Semitic issues that exist today.
So, in order to properly fight for the equality a community desires, one must be willing to make sure that what they are saying is consistent with what that community believes needs to be said. If a writer wants to protest the “Orientalist stereotyp[ing]” of a bellydancing troupe, she should make sure that those for whom bellydancing is an inescapable and invaluable part of culture at home — herself included in that group, if appropriate — feel that this is an issue worth examining. If a writer wants to denounce how a drag show succeeds “at the expense of those who are not born cisgendered,” he should check in with those who identify as a gender different from that assigned to them at birth — including himself, again, if he is part of that community — to ensure that they do in fact feel as though the event perpetuates an oppressive culture. After all, as The Anti-Oppression Network puts it, “allyship is not an identity — it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.” An ally must speak out often and loudly — but what that ally says must embody the lived experiences of those they claim to represent.Will Rivitz is a sophomore from Brookline, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.