Dear Queer White People,
I’m back! Did you miss me? I’m here to talk to you about how being an ally is a lifelong commitment doing the work, personally and politically, to create a just world. Specifically, I would like to talk about one white queer making news lately: out State Senator Tim Carpenter.
Here’s some context. In June, Senator Carpenter was physically assaulted when he tried to take photos of protesters taking down statues at the Capitol in the middle of the night after being repeatedly told not to do so for the protection of those involved. The next month, Senator Carpenter co-authored new proposed legislation that “would make damaging or defacing any structure, plaque, statue, painting or other monument of historical significance on public property or maintained by a government entity a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine.” When this legislation was announced, state senate candidate Nada Elmikashfi and other progressive and radical activists like myself, took to social media to critique Carpenter. The proposed legislation is clearly an attempt to “get back” at the people who harmed the senator by making the action they were participating in at the time he was assaulted a felony. Senator Carpenter did not take well to these critiques and began responding in strange ways to Elmikashfi and me, such as repeatedly sharing screenshots of MLK quotes. Carpenter’s social media responses got so out of control that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin got involved to condemn his behavior. He eventually released an apology.
I want to specifically talk about one tweet Carpenter sent to Elmikashfi in response to her critique of the legislation. He states:
“Sorry Nada-you don’t have a clue. I got legislation passed making it a felony for vandalizing churches/cemeteries-was that racial then-no! I’M ALREADY AN ALLY &don’t have to prove it to you. What if MLK, LGBTQ, Gandhi statues were smashed- would you feel the same? Bet you would!”
Dear queer white people, if you have to scream I’M ALREADY AN ALLY at a Black woman, you’re probably not actually an ally. Carpenter is not the first person to claim that one does not have to prove they are committed to social justice to any single person nor to claim that past actions solidify one’s claim to ally for life. I am here to disabuse you of these ideas. Being an ally is an active state of being requiring constant work (internal, interpersonal, and public) and engagement. When you behave in ways that do not align with the values of supporting those whose oppressions differ from yours, you are not being an ally. By introducing legislation that would further criminalize actions being primarily taken up in this moment by Black and radical activists, Senator Carpenter is not being an ally. This doesn’t mean he has never acted as an ally in the past nor erase any previous good he has done, but one’s previous good does not ever remove someone from critique especially when that person is actively attempting to harm marginalized people.
Let me be extraordinarily clear: This legislation would harm marginalized people. Here in Madison we already see the way local and federal law enforcement apply the law heavily in regard to Black and radical activists, such as in the case of Yeshua Musa who was charged with two felonies for allegedly entering businesses on State Street with a megaphone and a baseball bat and allegedly threatening to do damage to their property if they did not give him free food (which he shared with houseless folks) or send money to his Venmo account. Musa could have easily been charged with disorderly conduct and perhaps banned from these businesses, but instead authorities went with felony extortion of money and property—property here being food. He could go to jail for 40 years. Forty years. Any attempt to increase the reach and power of the prison industrial complex is absolutely a threat to justice and liberation in this country. Carpenter, therefore, is not behaving as an ally so long as he is supporting this kind of legislation. Period.
But what does this have to do with the average queer white person who does not have the power to write and introduce legislation? It means that no matter how many protests you’ve been to or events you’ve organized or money you’ve donated or Black friends you have, you can do wrong; you can do harm. It’s inevitable. We mess up. Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture and in our minds that it comes out in all sorts of unexpected ways. When someone tells you have done or said something racist, when they tell you that you are not being an ally in this moment, do not scream, “I’M ALREADY AN ALLY & don’t have to prove it to you!” Do not pull out your resume of good things you have done before as if they cancel out the harmful thing you’ve just done. They do not. The only way you get to be considered an ally is to be one and keep being one, over and over and over again. Even when you mess up.
I tell my students that being an ally is a relationship not simply to a community but to individuals. In some ways, it’s like being a friend. You don’t get to tell me that you’re my friend, I decide if I consider you a friend based on the way you behave and treat me and I am allowed at any time to withdraw my understanding of you as a friend if you engage in harmful behavior. Senator Carpenter is no ally to me or my communities so long as he supports this kind of legislation, but he can be an ally again by changing his behavior and approaches, and by learning and doing better. And in the end, that’s all I’m ever asking white queer folks in this column: to do better, be better, continually.
Ally is not something you achieve, a certificate that says, “I did it! I stopped being racist!” Being an ally (or comrade, accomplice or whatever language you prefer when talking about how you align yourself with marginalized folks) is a commitment to justice that is hard and uncomfortable, but dedicating ourselves to addressing and resisting all oppressions, not simply the ones that impact us, is the only way we can achieve collective liberation.
Your local fierce black femme on a mission,
Dr. Sami Schalk is an Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at UW-Madison. Her research focuses on disability, race, and gender in contemporary American literature and culture, especially African American literature, speculative fiction, and feminist literature.