I have no recollection of when standing in solidarity with others became a priority of mine. I know for sure that I wasn’t always conscious of my own privileges in the world in relation to those of the people around me, but I can’t seem to put my finger on the aha! moment that pushed me to realize that my experiences in the world were not the only experiences in the world.
I mean, it sounds like a silly revelation that I should have realized years ago.
In academic studies, some scholars argue that this kind of theory of mind – the ability to recognize that other people also have their own beliefs, desires, emotions, and knowledge – is characteristic of the human species. In developmental psychology, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggests that children are in an egocentric stage, where they cannot see a situation from another person’s point of view, from around two years old up until they are about seven years old.
So for something that is universally human and develops relatively early, it may have seemed silly that I had only realized this around high school. But it was a huge deal for me to be face-to-face with my own selfishness, and I became pretty hard on myself – maybe justly so, maybe unjustly so.
In my overcompensation for being self-absorbed, I brainwashed myself.
I can’t assume that people have experiences similar to mine.
The discrimination of other women of color are different from my experiences as an Asian American woman.
I have privileges as an Asian American woman that limit my understandings around the experiences of black and Latina women of color.
My privilege as a cis-gendered woman, for whose sexual orientation was never a target for discrimination, made my experiences distinct from their experiences.
Although I am also a woman of color, I cannot let myself think that my experiences are representative of all women of color. I cannot ever truly understand others because I do not have the same lived experiences as them.
I struggled with all of this. If I could not ever truly understand, then what was I to do? I felt paralyzed, incompetent. No matter how many classes I took to try and educate myself, to not burden others to educate me about their lived experiences of systematic oppression, it seemed like I could never know enough to really do anything and contribute to some meaningful change.
Also, I was scared. What if, in my ignorant and self-righteous effort to help, I was overstepping and hurting more than helping? What if, because I never experienced some specific situation first-hand, I could not speak or act on some injustice in a way that accurately represents the feelings and desires of the people who are most impacted?
I was so intent on trying to be the best ally I could. I was careful. I did my very best as if walking on eggshells.
But somewhere down the line, I realized that all my talk about my privilege, about wanting to be sensitive, about realizing the differences in people’s experiences… all of that led to a greater distance between me and the people who I so desperately wanted to help. But what help was I, when I was so worried about being problematic that I couldn’t even be in dialogue about the change that needed to happen?
I had struggled so much and tortured myself over how to do this ally thing right. It has been years. Years. But in just these last four weeks, I have found myself inching towards a more sustainable model for effectively organizing for change that might not directly impact me.
At the end of my second week in New York, I shared my struggles with wrapping my head around allyship and solidarity. Specifically, I wanted to know how I could do my best work at NDWA as a college-educated Asian American woman who had very little exposure to the world of domestic workers.
Shannan, our site coordinator, gave a brilliant response.
At the time, however, I didn’t realize how impactful her words would be to me. I actually didn’t understand what she was trying to say at first; she had to reformulate her thoughts so us poor confused undergraduates could understand her point.
Once her words made more sense, I felt a lot of pushback.
It was so different from how I thought about the world. She talked about world building. She talked about how our identities might actually not matter. She wanted us to consider an alternative way of understanding ourselves and others beyond the method and language of categorical identities.
Well, yes I know that people are more than the categorical labels that are used to identify them in the world. Yet so many of our experiences are shaped by these labels. These labels might not speak to the essence of a person, but are active in how others see us and treat us. So how can anyone suggest that these categorical identities don’t matter? How can I ignore the privileges that I hold because the world perceives me to be a certain way because I am an Asian American cisgender woman? If I don’t consider how these categories have privileged me, wouldn’t I just become an insensitive ally who oversteps when she doesn’t actually know anything?
There was a lot of pushback. However, I’m not one to verbally and publicly pushback, especially if I don’t feel prepared with a thorough and well-thought response. As a result, this was the end of our conversation. I didn’t think too hard about what Shannan had said.
A week and some days passed. I made meaningful relationships with the women around me. During outreach sessions, nannies shared their grievances with me. I found myself able to maintain conversations about the exploitation that happens to different domestic workers, when I myself had limited exposure to the work.
Was I able to connect with these women in the same way that people who were, or had been nannies did?
But I was able to connect with them. We wanted the same things. We all wanted a world in which domestic workers weren’t exploited. We wanted employers, and the world more broadly, to recognize that their jobs were difficult and required a level of expertise. We wanted domestic workers to be seen as people who also deserve dignity and respect.
Did these women ever question what I was doing because I was Asian American? Did they ask for my credentials in domestic work before talking to me?
No and no.
We talked about the ways in which they and other nannies were exploited. I talked to nannies who had documentation and were working on the books and were fluent in English and had fair employers about how easy and horrible it was that undocumented migrant women with little fluency in English were taken advantage of – not being paid enough, not being treated well, working ridiculous hours, etc.
And then before I knew it, Shannan’s words made more sense.
“This is what she meant when she said that categorical identity labels might not actually matter. Oh.”