Understanding love is as important as understanding power and oppression

I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out how I fit, or should fit into the world. As a child, I had a burning desire to know this (in the sincere way many children do), but I began to seek out answers with more intention and focus when I entered my early 20s; it was around this time I also began to see some of the inequities and injustices of the world more clearly (including how I experienced them) and become involved in what people sometimes call social change work.

Like many young activists, I found myself going through the anti-oppression training social justice groups and organizations provide for their volunteers and staff to help them understand how systems of power and privilege affect people’s lives and experiences. For many, it is the starting point for understanding what the social justice version of allyship is, and why it is important for anyone committed to working with other people to make the world better, or at least to try to make it a little less worse.

Allyship is a person with privilege acting in solidarity with a marginalized, oppressed, or exploited person or people. To be an ally is more than an identity; it is a commitment to act that recognizes that a movement for justice must be led and informed by the people who experience injustice for it to be meaningful and liberating. Allyship is an important part of social change work today, and as someone who has been involved with social justice movements for over 15 years, works for his own liberation as a racialized person, and strives to be an ally to other people working for theirs, I think how social justice movements think about allyship and activism is often at conflict with itself, and needs to change.

Power, oppression, and love

In our current moment, the social justice version of allyship focuses on power and oppression. With the help of anti-oppression, more people now recognize and can name the elements of privilege and marginalization that create “power-over” and “power-under” dynamics in world and how they shape people’s lives. Modern allyship tries to subvert these dynamics; people who benefit from unearned power and privilege in the broader world or are free from certain kinds of violence or oppression are asked to accept supporting roles in activist communities and contexts. This creates space for people who are marginalized to challenge things that their allies may be uncomfortable confronting because of the ways they are invested in or benefit from the status quo. Modern allyship asks allies to speak less and listen (and learn) more, and this is generally a good thing.

But healthy and sustainable models of allyship (and activism) need to focus on more than “power-over” and “power-under”. They need to also include “power-with” ways of being and understand and embody love. That doesn’t mean ignoring over/under forms of power or assuming everyone is equal; they are not. However it is love that enables us to be empathetic and authentic. It is love that can connect us to people who share our values, even through dissonance and conflict, both of which will arise in long term organizing and working for a better world.

I am not describing a love that is sentimental or saccharine; in order to love justice, you must also hate injustice. Anger, frustration and conflict are natural responses to injustice, violence or trauma and there is no shortage of it that come from oppression or marginalization. It is not a love that tolerates abuse, or leaves the abuses of power unchallenged. I am also not talking about a love that is unaccountable or based on superficial harmony; there is no love without truth, authenticity, or accountability, and we cannot be in loving relationship or fully redeemed by love without committing to these things. When we try to achieve the façade of harmony by avoiding depth or conflict, or by emphasizing appearance over substance, we sabotage the kind of love I am describing.

Anti-oppression and identity politics are important tools that can help us understand the world and people’s experiences in it, but they move us forward only if they also deepen our ability to imagine something beyond the abuses of power.

To think of power as something applied over someone by someone else, and as something some people have and some people don’t is ingrained in the western psyche. It is a way that capitalism and colonialism are rooted in our thinking, even in the most radical or progressive of spaces or people. When we as activists fall into power-over/-under without love, we often model behaviours and dynamics similar to the ones we are working to overcome. It is a mindset that separates, compartmentalizes and dehumanizes, no matter the context.

“…[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

~Audre Lorde

Although laypeople pay more attention to activism and allyship in moments of crisis or spectacle, the health of social movements is built on long term organizing. A culture that cultivates healing and nourishment in the work and community over the long term is vital to our ability to leverage moments of opportunity, and this is the first thing we lose if we don’t include love as a core part of how we embody activism and allyship.Some may assume the people who leave social justice work because of dynamics like this are allies whose privilege awards them the ability to choose whether or not to engage with the realities of the struggle, but I’ve had friends share stories with me that challenge this narrative. A friend who identifies as queer told me they stopped engaging with the queer community in their city because of the norm of shaming and leveraging power-over based on identity. I’ve had female friends also say they have chosen not to organize as actively in feminist circles because of similar dynamics.

Almost every activist or ally I know has had a conversation about people taking space from or leaving movements because of burnout. This can come from being overworked or constantly looking into the darkness of oppression, but a culture where claiming power over and/or shaming people is commonplace is another reason people leave or don’t engage with social change movements. Speaking truth to people’s actions so they can change or be accountable is rooted in love, but shaming people for their earnest mistakes or having a different understanding is based on power-over/-under and is done in the absence of it.

Activism and allyship beyond the binary

One of the reasons activists get stuck in paradigms of power-over/-under is because we fall into thinking of activism and allyship as a binary. This is a tension within many modern social justice movements and something I still feel strongly in struggling with what my role is, or should be, as a male identified person committed to working as an ally to the modern feminist movement.

One of the many great gifts of the (western) feminist movement is the recognition that the world exists beyond the binary. Feminist thinkers have helped us understand that gender, sexuality, and relationships exist on a spectrum. It is modern feminism that has given us the gift of intersectionality, the recognition that we are not one identity but the intersection of many. However, within a movement that has done so much to expand our understanding of diversity, depth, and nuance, there is a tendency to see people inside and outside of the movement as one of two things: with us or against us.

As an Asian Canadian male who works to try to educate himself about the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and his relationship to it, I have often struggled with how best to be an ally to a feminism that is actually many feminisms, sometimes and often times in deep conflict with itself. It is expected that male identified allies follow the lead of women within the movement; allies are judged by that criteria and accountable for not conforming to it, yet there are deep divides and opposing perspectives among passionate women who proudly wear the feminist label, all of whom have more claim to the word feminism and the label of feminist than myself.

What is the best legal approach to address prostitution: criminalization, decriminalization, or the Dutch model? What is the place of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) within the feminist movement? How does race and class affect the dynamics of power and privilege within modern feminism? Was Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders the more feminist Democratic nominee for the 2016 US presidential election? There are feminists and feminist perspectives that align with my own values and viewpoints, and ones that actively conflict with them.

I do a lot of my own activist work in anti-racism issues now, and it is possible for someone with racial privilege to work with me as an ally without fully agreeing with me on every issue. Allies must listen to, learn from, and elevate the voices of marginalized people to be effective, but it is also natural and reasonable for them to relate issues and stories to their own values and experiences. In a world where movements are filled with a plurality of perspectives and understandings, it is the only way they (and anyone) can engage meaningfully with contentious issues and understand how those issues fit in with their own sense of right and wrong. Without this, we risk become lost in a sea of moral relativism and become reluctant to act in moral cause. Allies do not and should not have ownership over the movement, but they certainly need to have ownership over their own learning for it to be meaningful.

“There is no thing as a single issue struggle because we don’t live single issue lives.”

~ Audre Lorde

The roles of “activist” and “ally” are much more fluid than activist culture often treats them. To realize a full feminism, white feminists must act as advocates for their own voice and be accountable as allies to women of colour. As an Asian Canadian anti-racism activist in my home of British Columbia (Canada), I need to commit to being an ally to First Nations people struggling for their own sovereignty as I do the work of advocating for my own story and liberation. It is very possible for women or racialized people to be allies to (and have empathy for) white men who are struggling with their own economic and class struggles if we embrace an intersectionality that includes love and stewards our capacities for empathy and connection. We can, and need to be both allies and activists in the same moment.

Learning and growth

Part of why it is important for activist/allyship culture and anti-oppression to move beyond false binaries and include love is because it allows people to better learn, grow and develop. Learning and growth are central parts of activism and allyship, and anti-oppression that excludes love puts limits on both; it assumes we are more static in our learning and identity than we are.

Allies are in the position of learners; this is true for activists as well. No ally or activist comes pre-made. It is a journey of growth and change – of (sometimes embarrassing and painful) mistakes and learning. Even for us whose lived experience helps us to cultivate a deeper understanding of some issues, we do not have all-knowing insight into certain topics simply because of our identity (although in activist circles, we sometimes act like we do). As an Asian Canadian I certainly don’t know everything about racism just because I am a person of colour; I don’t even know everything about being Asian Canadian. Even the most established of us have had to learn, and if we are doing it right, are still learning and open to learning. Throughout our lives we can continue to deepen our understanding of certain things, or impede our own growth.

For me today, if I could talk to the activist-ally me of ten years ago, I would be a little embarrassed about what he says and does, and I don’t think I am the only one who feels that way. I suspect I will feel same way about my present activist-ally self ten years from now.

This appeal for love is not about “ally comfort” or centering social justice movements on the needs of allies. Activists and marginalized people are working on their own things and can’t afford to dilute their messages or shift their focus for the sake of ally or outsider education. Allies need to commit to being learners and understand that discomfort is a necessary part of that process. At the same time, if we want to imagine a world beyond the abuses of power, we as activist-allies need to be able to speak truth to each other without shaming one another.

I have been a schoolteacher for the last ten years, and one thing has stuck out for me working in that role; to learn and understand deeply, we need to be willing and able to take risks. Our deepest understandings come from making and learning from our mistakes, and if we are serious about creating activist-allies that have a deep understanding of the world and their role in changing it, activist/allyship culture needs to support this kind of learning.

“Science my boy, is composed of errors, but errors that it is right to make, for they lead step by step to the truth.”

~Jules Vern

“In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.”

~Robert T. Kiyosaki

People don’t often tell you that if you want to make great art, you need to make a bunch of mediocre art first.

When we support a culture where learners can take risks and are accountable to their mistakes, we create places were learners take greater responsibility for their own learning and growth instead relying on a teacher, mentor, or marginalized person to steer their development.

“Safe spaces” are popular in progressive and activist culture, but “safe spaces” have never resonated with me, especially for stewarding learning, growth, and love. They may be useful in processing trauma, but I’ve always been more sparked by the harmonious (or courageous) space where people are supported in the space of risk (credit: bell hooks). “Safe spaces” at their best are about trying to shelter you from the abuses of power; harmonious risk-taking spaces are about working to cultivate courage and a love that reaches beyond healing from trauma alone. The safe space strives to protect people from the abuses of power-over/-under; the harmonious space stewards and embodies power-with. Safe spaces try to facilitate healing and restoration; harmonious spaces work to steward healing and growth.

When we fall into shaming and dynamics of power-over/-under, we actively obstruct the kind of risk-taking, learning, and grow I am talking about. As a result, many activists unintentionally promote an allyship that is based more on compliance than solidarity. True solidarity happens when allies understand the stories and realities of marginalized people and choose to stand with them. It is rooted in power-with, not just power-over/-under. Because of the nature of privilege, allyship and solidarity are always a choice for people of privilege, whether we like it or not.

Rethinking love, power-with, comfort, and conflict

The only way we are going to move past our false binaries and towards a culture of learning and health is to pursue a deeper understanding of love. This needs to be an authentic, connected version of love that goes beyond the gratification-based love that is so popular today amongst the left and centre left. It needs to be a weightier version of love that strengthens our ability to be in conflict with other people, and makes our communities more robust in shared power over the long term.

To do this, we need to transform our ability to be in dissonance. A big part of a person’s capacity for love is in how they work with and through conflict. I’ve had lots of experiences in my life that have led me to this conclusion, but one of the clearest examples of this is in a story a friend of mine shared with me about her and her feminist book club.

“Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark.”

~Audre Lorde

My friend (who is a woman of colour) is part of a feminist book club that meets regularly to discuss books that explore things such as race, class and gender. She and her sisters in the club come from a wide breath of experiences, identities and backgrounds and often discuss very personal topics of depth over the course of their time together.

Through the process, they sometimes come into serious conflict in what they explore, what looks to outsiders like division. However, she describes it not as a conflict that drives them apart, but a conflict that brings them together in greater solidarity. For her, she says it is “what the truest form of feminist discourse looks like.”

This defied my expectations of what might come from conflict arising from discussion about identity, privilege, and oppression; I have seen first hand how activist norms of shaming and claiming power-over in conflict can create schisms between people and groups that last for years. However, what she described resonated with my own experiences working with people who have a deep understanding of how to be in conflict well, and who know how foundational productive conflict and dissonance is to creating cultures of love.

The western version of love sometimes aspires to create moments of safety, renewal, or connection for people in a world of oppression or marginalization. This has its place, but when it is our focus, it becomes a respite for some while preserving long-term strife for others whose identity prevents them from looking away from hardship or oppression. A deeper, more profound version of love is not about feeling gratified or safe, but about being changed; it is about being willing to risk, sacrifice, or change something for the sake of someone other than you.

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

~Martin Luther King Jr (letter from a Birmingham Jail)

“There is no love without risk.”

~bell hooks

We often think of nurturance as a part of love. Recent conservations have stirred about the potential of a nurturance culture to be an antidote to the toxicity of rape culture within our society. The work of Nora Samaran, a Canadian writer from Montreal, has sparked many of these conversations. In her work, Samaran describes the ability of men to make other people, especially women, feel safe, and that she considers it to be core part of modern nurturance.

Although there are things worth considering in her writing whether you agree with her or not, I will say that I have a different interpretation of what nurturance culture is, or what it could be in the west. Her interpretation of nurturance is influenced by her identity as a white woman in the western world and my interpretation is influenced by my identity as an Asian man living in white Canada.

For me nurturance is not about feeling safe, but stewarding growth. I see this kind of nurturance when I look at healthy relationships between sons and fathers, and sometimes between daughters and fathers (though the dynamics between daughters and fathers often manifest differently because of patriarchy). I also see this kind of nurturance embodied by couples in healthy romantic partnerships; they motivate each other to grow, both as individuals, and as a couple. This often has more to do with encouraging someone to enter and supporting them in the space of risk than it has to do with staying in or creating a place of safety.

“Security is not what creates life. Safety, safe havens, guarantees of security – none of these give life its capacities. Newness, creativity, imagination – these live on the edge. So does presence.”

~from “Edge Walking” by Margaret Wheatley

“The opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation.”

~Jonathan Larson

This is also how non-white versions of nurturance can differ from white North American versions of it. I am a second generation Asian Canadian, and the ways Asian parents nurture their children can be very different than white people, but no less profound. It is well documented and well discussed that Asian parents often do not emphasize the comfort of their children the same way western parents do. Asian parents tend to place more expectations and strain on their children and say, “I love you” with much less frequency than their counterparts who are white. However Asian parents do commit to deep acts of love, sacrifice and affection to nurture their children and steward their growth.

“I remember mum spending hours by my side, forcing me to study. I didn’t know it at the time, but she read my textbooks every night while I slept, just so she could help me revise… Chinese parents love their children so much they suffer for their child’s future… I can’t imagine mum relishing the fact that I favoured dad [who was white] for his leniency, and it must have hurt whenever I yelled “I hate you”, especially when she only punished me to teach me wrong from right.

The clichéd “I love you” is hollow compared to the loving sacrifices Chinese parents make for their children. This is because their “do more and say less” Confucian culture places little value in words… My own mum exemplifies this. She spends hours cooking for our family but eats only leftovers, and sold her jewellery to afford my astronomical tuition fees. When the Hello Kitty craze hit my hometown years ago, mum even stood in massive lines outside McDonalds all over Singapore just to get me a full set of the collectible stuffed toys.”

~Written by Jessica Li-Shan Driscoll from the Sydney Morning Herald article Tough love and tiger mothers: why Chinese parents avoid those three little words

It is through a love that pushes us to grow and change for other people and that helps us to understand how to be in and process conflict well that we can imagine activist/allyship culture to be something deeper, more transformative, and more robust than it is today.

Reimaging activist/allyship culture

In a world where oppression and privilege degrade our ability to be fully human and recognize other people’s full humanity, I want an activism and allyship that goes beyond just challenging or protecting us from the abuses of power. I want an activism/allyship that deepens our ability to understand one another in our virtues and flaws (for activists, allies, and the non-initiated alike). This can mean speaking truth to power and challenging things and people that need to be challenged. It can mean listening to other people who need to be listened to, even when we are struggling for our own voice and liberation. When we understand our roles as activist-allies, it is possible to commit to both as an act of love.

Many people come to activism through some trauma or hardship in their lives. For me, racism hardened me. I held back parts of myself protect myself from being vulnerable to the degradation and marginalization I experienced. I had to reclaim my ability to be open and authentic later in my adult life, and to do so I had to work in opposition to what people around me thought of as normal. Frustration and anger emerged from my experience, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that anger could give me catharsis, but only love would heal me.

When we collectively understand and pursue power-with and authentic love, allies can grow to become friends. Friends can see things in us that other people cannot, and bring things out in us that other people can’t. Friends can speak truth to each other and call us out (or in) on our bullshit. Friends listen to each other. Friends support us through risk and hard times, but keep us accountable to ourselves. Friends demand our trust and respect. Friends stand with us in the face of oppression. Friends can get into fights and stay together. It is through friendship that we can move from allyship to collaboration. Collaboration goes beyond just bringing people’s resources and individual contributions together; it’s about creating things that never existed before everyone came together.

I get discouraged when I see activism or allyship that focuses on power and oppression but does not act with a robust understanding of love. Like others, I have gone through periods where I have separated myself from movements, or chosen to take space from people who aren’t yet ready to embody the kind of love I’ve written about. However, today I find reasons to hope. Black Lives Matter and Idle No More are seeking out deep form of activism that goes beyond the self-gratified and surface versions of love and empowerment that have come to be apart of modern activism. I feel like people are waking up, or are at least starting to.

Now is the time to reimagine what love, activism and allyship is and could be in the world; it is worth it. After all, for activism and allyship, understanding love is as important as understanding power and oppression.

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