Was hanging out Chez Scalzi today, for his post about feminism, and ran across a couple of folks who didn’t quite seem to get the concept of how to be an ally for someone fighting oppression.
At the end of it (or at least the end of my involvement in it) I threw out this analogy:
Frodo needed the Fellowship in order to complete the task of destroying the One Ring, but the burden of carrying the Ring itself was his alone. Just because he was the one with that charge, however, doesn’t at all mean that the rest of the Fellowship was not crucial to his ability to complete his task. On the contrary: the moral of the story is that diverse people needed to band together to fight a common enemy, because no one person could do it alone. Boromir failed in his pledge to help Frodo because he thought he knew better about the burden of the Ring. And so, too, will people who act like they know just as well as or better than a person facing a particular kind of oppression, and thus how best to fight it.
Ages ago, when Return of the King was in the Oscar race, I posted on a movie-awards forum, and was arguing for Best Actor consideration for Elijah Wood (who played Frodo.) Several people argued with me that no, the consideration should go to Viggo Mortensen, because Aragorn was the “real” lead.
I think the attitude underlying that assumption, as well as the argument that the movie had “too many endings” and should have ended at the coronation, is the same attitude getting in the way of people failing at being allies against oppression. Namely, that heroes come in one variety: the tall, manly white dude. Said dudes, of course, are at their most heroic when they are defending the weak and saving damsels and all that, but the arc of the story is about what this hero does and how he changes from the experience. The notion, therefore, that a tiny, emotionally fragile person could actually be LOTR’s protagonist, and not the sword-wielding guy reclaiming his throne, is going to cause some cognitive dissonance.
There’s a common bit of advice to writers: remember that each one of your characters is the hero in his or her own story. They don’t exist just to fulfill a role in your protagonist’s life. Too many writers have not only ignored this, but have insisted on creating all of their heroes from basically the same mold, thus relegating everyone else to sidekick, love interest, villain or victim in need of rescue. Ergo: marginalization.
Straight, white dudes who want to help fight oppression for others, therefore, are advised not to think of themselves as a hero in that narrative. They are not there to save the day and put everyone else in their debt. They are there to help clear away orcs and Balrogs so the story’s actual hero can be free. If you can’t envision yourself playing sidekick while an actual oppressed person plays hero, then you need to back away from the fight until you learn otherwise.
Recognize that, as Frodo was the only one who could understand the true burden of the Ring, if not its dangers, those experiencing oppression are the only ones who can truly know that burden. Oppression for that group has negative effects far beyond the people directly affected by it, and thus it’s imperative on all of us to fight it, but those who want to be allies in that fight need not to assume they know that burden intimately, and therefore have the perspective necessary to make large-scale decisions about how to fight it.