There is a tendency among some groups of people to label themselves as advocates, or allies, and to use this label as a justification for speaking for others. These people claim to have the best of intentions. They just want to be supportive. To build a better world. To help. But any time you are speaking for someone else, you are silencing that person, because it is your voice being heard, and if you occupy a position of power, that means people are more inclined to listen to you than they are to listen to the voices of the marginalised people you claim to be helping.
I see this come up a lot in disability advocacy, where parents speak for disabled children. In some circles, it is generally accepted that parents are the most important voices and have the most to add to the conversation. Not their children. Not people who share the disabilities their children have. But the parents. And sometimes, the parents ‘advocating’ for disabled children say things that are not very helpful. Things like ‘we need to find a cure for autism.’ Sometimes parents are advocating eugenics and other hateful things, and we are placed behind glass to stare at, but we are not allowed to speak.
There is a certain amount of patronising involved in speaking for someone instead of allowing that person to self advocate. Especially when that person has not asked for your representation or assistance. I see this when I’m talking to someone with a cognitive impairment and someone jumps in and tries to finish her sentences instead of allowing her to communicate directly with me. I see this when someone asks me a direct question and another person answers it. I see this when ‘allies’ make pompous pronouncements ‘on behalf of the marginalised people’ and get angry when we say ‘we didn’t ask you to do that.’
When you speak for someone else, you take that person’s voice away and you dilute that person’s power. When a person who may have put considerable time and energy into communicating has that taken away, the feeling there is not ‘ah, I am so glad someone was there to help me.’ It is bitterness. Anger. Resentment. It is a reminder that certain modes of communication are preferred over others.
It is a reminder that people would rather hear things presented nicely, in an even, friendly tone. It is a reminder that, whenever possible, people will turn to ‘allies’ over actual marginalised people. I see nondisabled people speaking for people with disabilities all the time instead of centring the voices of people with disabilities. Instead of saying ‘well, I am not disabled, but here is someone who is, who has discussed this very issue.’ Instead of saying ‘why don’t you search for people who have that disability handling that topic, instead of appealing to me for information?’ Instead of saying, simply, ‘I am not qualified to address that, but here is some further reading that may lead you to an answer.’
People who position themselves as authorities and use that position to speak for others are not exactly breaking down oppressive systems. They are reinforcing them. They are making it that much harder for us to self advocate. I am painfully aware that there are nondisabled people who talk about disability much more nicely than I do; that some of those very same people even water down my words and ideas and repackage them, without credit, and receive accolades for doing so from ‘allies’ who want to say that they care about disability, but do not want to engage with actual disabled people.
As long as information from a majority source, from someone in power, is available, people are going to turn to that authority for information. And when minorities do claw a foothold, when our voices actually do get heard, we are taken as spokespeople for our minorities, rather than single individuals speaking for ourselves. Because we may be the only people that the majority sees and interacts with on a regular basis. And thus our voices, in turn, get used to suppress and dismiss the voices of people who are different from us, who have different lived experiences and opinions.
I often encounter people speaking for me, both as an individual and as a member of minority groups, who say things that I actually disagree with, very strongly. Who say things that minority groups have actually been actively fighting against for some time, as anyone who pays any attention to our actual words would know. And these people get very angry and resentful when I say ‘please stop.’ Or ‘please educate yourself.’ Or ‘please do not claim to speak for me.’ These people want rewards for their ‘brave advocacy’ when really, I just want them to shut up so that I can hear the voices of self advocates.
When ‘advocates’ claim to speak for me, it makes me feel very small and powerless. It makes me feel like a pawn being moved around on a chessboard. It makes me feel dehumanised and worthless; I am worth so little that no one even wants to hear my voice. No one wants to wait to give me an opportunity to respond, to take part in the conversation. No one wants to invite me to the table. All those ‘advocates’ are so eager to mount up on their white horses that they trample me and no one seems to notice that I’m lying in the dust, breath knocked out of my chest and bruised.
This is what many acts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘ally work’ leave me feeling. You want to hear what minorities think? Let us speak for ourselves. If we want your help, we’ll ask for it. If we want you to speak for us, we’ll say so.