Let the Oppressed Speak for Themselves

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were all lynched during in 1964 while working to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi. The three activist were apart of a larger campaign to register African American voters in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. This campaign was a threat to the status quo. Their deaths symbolize the risks activists faced during that time and the significance of allies in the movement. The two Jewish activists from New York died alongside a Black activist from Mississippi.

They died serving a movement firmly grounded in removing social and political barriers for African Americans. They served as allies. Jewish Americans and other White Americans made great contributions to the Civil Rights Movement as allies and leaders in their own communities. Leadership of throughout broader movement was owned by Blacks.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an ally and what it means to be a leader. As an activist across movements, I often find myself serving as an ally. Whether it was an action supporting access to higher education or one to pass the DREAM Act, I have stood in solidarity with activists on issues not directly affecting me. As an organizer, I’ve been tasked with bringing leaders together around a certain cause or issue. As a leader I have served as a voice on issues affecting women, youth and the African Diaspora. I’ve also seen some amazing allies contribute in invaluable ways to movements while respecting their roles as allies and not leaders.

So whats the difference between an ally and a leader? Well this question made more sense to me after sitting in on a session at the Center for Progressive Leadership this past weekend. I’d just finished up facilitating a session on different forms of power and what they mean in the overall progressive movement. The segway into an ally discussion was perfect. Oftentimes individuals care about a plethora of issues. The reality however is that we cannot work on every single issue. We can not take up every fight, we can not own every fight. This is why being an ally and having allies is so important. Three of the key takeaways from the session were:

  • Allies don’t speak FOR other people, but try to make space for people to speak for themselves
  • Allies have less less to lose than the community or person they are aligning themselves with
  • Allies walk the walk, they don’t just talk the talk

I am an ally to many movements, but only strive to be a leader when I can provide authentic ownership.

In progressive spaces I often work with allies who elevate themselves to leadership positions. When you have less at stake than the group you’ve aligned yourself with, I think you should proceed with caution and deference. Now, this concept is harder for me to digest in some spaces. As a Black person, I’m not confused when it comes to who can lead or make key decisions in a movement for my freedom. People identifying and living as Black can and should. That makes sense to me. As a feminist, I’m encountering a different struggle.  I struggle with men who assert their leadership and intellectual position as feminists. I’m questioning what the role of men can be and should be in the movement to end gender-based discrimination towards women. Yes, we need you as allies. We need you to work with other men, open minds and build relationships based on mutual respect.

When men jump to say “we’re also oppressed under this patriarchal system,” I don’t disagree with that. Men are affected by patriarchy in real and oppressive ways.  I just ask that you see past your oppression and serve as allies in a movement to achieve equality and fairness. Can we have our space as women, seeking liberation for women? I demand that we must. Feminism is for everybody, the movement has room for everybody. Build new spaces instead of seeking to own ours. I ask that you build with other men. We need you as allies, to stand in solidarity, not as leaders.We have the ability to speak for ourselves, we need you to speak to men as men. We cannot do this alone.

Oppressed groups have the ability to speak for themselves, they need allies to stand in solidarity. Let the oppressed speak for themselves, trust that they can and support them when they do.


The Oppression Race

oppression [uh-presh-uh n]
1. The exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner
2. An act or instance of oppressing
3. The state of being oppressed
4. The feeling of being heavily  burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, anxiety, etc.

Are you….

A woman?


An older adult?


An Immigrant?

Black/Latino/Asian/Native American?



Living with a mental or physical  disability?

Chances are likely that you have faced or encountered oppression in some shape or form in your lifetime. The institutions of oppression are both tangible and intangible; sometimes we can feel them and sometimes we can’t. I felt the oppression of poverty as a child whenever we went to the welfare office and had to report to a caseworker. I could smell the oppression of colonialism apartheid in the township of Soweto and in a hospital in Haiti. I can hear the sound of oppression whenever I hear music demeaning women and elevating violence. I can taste oppression when I visit one of the many fast food joints planted in low-income neighborhoods across this country. I can see oppression whenever I walk down the street and see people who are homeless right across the street from the White House. Oppression comes in many forms and is experienced in many ways. Simply “making it” in America doesn’t make you exempt from the heel of oppression.

In my experience oppressed peoples have had the tendency to compare oppression. I’ve seen folks literally try to demonstrate why they were indeed more oppressed than someone else.

I’m Black

I’m African American

I’m a woman

What you got? Most of us have something. Most of us can look through our lives and identify how they have been discriminated against because of a group they belong to or an identity they possess. Group membership may have its privileges, but it can also have its pains. The prominent institutions in American society; including faith based institutions, government, schools and civic organizations actively participate in oppressing people.  Leaders across the spectrum have actively inflicted pain. They also actively participate in ending oppression. Oppression is not by happenstance,  much of it is intentional and focused. The depth of polarities is maddening.

There is plenty of oppression to spread around. As I told my friend who inspired this post, I refuse to enter the oppression race. I have enough competitors in the race to stand still. In fact, our line would go around the field twice AND circle it again.

So why do we compare oppression(s) in the first place?

1. The desire to obtain power

2. The desire to gain political power

3. The desire to gain financial power

If you live in this world you see these three things happening everyday. Organizations and individuals profit from oppression without ever alleviating any of its symptoms. Social service agencies, NGO’s/non-profits, socially responsible corporations, the government and the educational system all profit from oppression. Oppression puts food on the tables of professionals and low/no income people. Oppression gets funding for civic engagement and gets individuals hired for jobs they otherwise may have not been considered for. Oppression kills and gives birth the new ideas and approaches.

Not all power is bad, its what we do with it that matters.

However, all oppression is bad. How oppression impacts people also differs. Whether a person eats or lives can lie solely on the institutions with the power to decide to fund or not to fund a project. Whether a person can marry who s/he wants can not be compared to the choice to have/not have a child. The undocumented student and the student in a decaying school system can not be compared. They have unique characteristics, however the systems saying yay or nay are not very much different. Comparisons tend to diminish the experience of one group in order to favor the other.  Ideas of what the world looks like and should look like in the hands of oppressors affect us all. My lynching is no bigger than yours. My inability to fully and wholly choose is no smaller than yours. Let me own my experience, I am happy to I let you own yours.

Until we begin to really identify oppressions impact on every life and organize with a sense of holistic love for EVERY being; we will continue to fail in our pursuits for justice.

Who wins in a race of oppression?

No one.