Working with Siobhan’s ‘7 questions for earnest allies’

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Back in July, following the killings of two Black men, Anton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, and the protests and discussions that ensued, Siobhan Rene shared a post on her blog, titled 7 Questions for Earnest Allies.

The questions are simple, yet crucial, each one prompting a deeper inquiry into the intersecting web of privilege and injustice that make up our individual lives, our communities, our societies, and together, if answered honestly, forming a blueprint for the kind of changes would-be allies could make.

I worked through these with my tarot cards – face-up, as Siobhan would have it. And I thought I’d share my reflections, with the aim of encouraging others to try out this exercise and work with these questions too. Know that these are simply the rambling thoughts and feelings of a white woman and are largely self-focused, as is the nature of the questions. They are also a work in progress, to which I will return. What’s important, obviously, is the work that comes after.

NB. I’ve pulled the questions from Siobhan’s post, and a very edited selection of her explanatory words (in italics). It’s important to read her actual post to fully understand what these questions are designed to prompt, and, crucially, the spirit in which they are offered.

Cards shown are from the Circo Tarot, the Wild Unknown Tarot, Thea’s Tarot and The Collective Tarot.

1. What creates safe spaces for you?

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I began with the King and Queen of Pentacles. I was born into a foundation a place of complete, unquestioned safety and stability, a happy family nestled snug within the dominant culture of middle England. White, straight, comfortably resourced. A mother who nurtured, a father who provided. A lot of love. A comfortable place where I always knew it was okay to be myself.

There were hard times, sure. My coming out wasn’t the greatest. There were many years when I had a deep sense of not belonging and on many levels, I still do feel that way when I’m with my family. But still. I have never been unsafe. My upbringing gave me a foundation of safety.

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The privilege of a stable home life and parents/guardians who love you unconditionally is not a ‘white’ thing. People of all colours, all demographics, may have been gifted this solid foundation. To this I add the Emperor, because beyond my family home, I was also told by society that I was acceptable. That doors were open to me, that I could express myself freely, that I could wear what I wanted, go where I pleased. I am a queer woman who doesn’t always feel comfortable showing her hairy legs and sometimes decides it’s best not to hold hands with her partner, but even in those moments, I can make myself safe, I can blend in. I can hide the signs of my ‘otherness’ and be accepted and safe.

Similarly, I claim the space to be alone when I choose, I draw boundaries and have these respected. I take the space I need to think, to write, to idle about. I can be the Four of Swords, tuck myself away, decide I need some ‘me time’. When I can’t have this – like right now – it becomes a big deal, a tough challenge, something I vocally struggle with. Yet, this struggle is short term. And ultimately, I am safe.

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Because of all this, I can inhabit if I choose the joyful, experimental, adventurous space of the Page of Wands. I can express myself, speak my mind, try new things, go on adventures. I have a safety net. My boldness is not always as bold as it feels or looks. Would I take the risks I have in life, would I quit my job to focus on tarot, would I move to Skye, would I express myself loudly and proudly on the internet, had I not got a safe place to return to if it all went wrong?

Honor that. Do it consciously, though. And remember that there are entire groups of people that never get to ask themselves this question. Maybe it never occurred to them that their safety matters. (It does.) Maybe they can’t yet imagine a reality where it does. (It does. And so does yours.) Remember entire groups of people who don’t have the option to back away. Not without spiritual and psychological bypass. Remember these people and let those memories inspire you to go, truthfully, to your own edge.

Have faith in what you need. But have doubt too. It’s easy to feel like any level of discomfort is intolerable. Explore your edges when you can and they will grow. The bigger your capacity to feel safe in spite of discomfort, the bigger your capacity to hold a space where another can feel safe too.

2. What creates safe spaces for the marginalised?

You may not know the answer to this question. This is not the place to guess or to try to understand in a vacuum. Whatever you find, remember that even the most well-meaning ally can do a fair bit of damage if they don’t ever explore their own beliefs.

In the words of one of my favorite teachers Betty Martin (taken totally out of context btw!) before you make a comment or take an action ask yourself ‘who is it for?’ Who does the comment or sentiment support and how? ‘Who is receiving the gift’?

My feelings echo Siobhan’s here. It is not for me to write what creates safe spaces for People of Colour and others with marginal identities I don’t live with.

Related reading: How Black People Keep Each Other Alive, an illustrated journey through Hannah Giorgis’ essay of the same name, by Charlotte Gomez.

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To explore this question just a little, I draw on my experience as a queer woman, which may or may not provide overlaps. The Three of Cups, the Ten of Cups, the community that loves and holds us and accepts our love in return. The spaces where we can be with folks who understand or have had similar experiences. Reaching out to others within those spaces. A glance, a touch, a message that says ‘you’re not alone’. The spaces where we can laugh and use our own language and express ourselves just as we choose (even as I’m writing this I’m realising how toned-down I am these days, without my queer family around me), sing our songs, create our art, plot to bring down the society that forces us into these places. I know that for queer and trans folks, community spaces can be a lifeline. They do not substitute freedom to take up space in the outside world, they do not necessarily provide safe spaces to be alone, they do not by themselves create safety because life does not only exist in these supportive bubbles…and in the light of Orlando, these words feel laughable, but still. Community spaces – real, online, whatever – are vital.

3. What’s in your shadow?

So many things. The intersection of privilege, fear and ignorance is a fertile ground for the qualities and tendencies I’d mostly rather not explore. Here are some that came to mind today as I looked through my cards.

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One of these is the self-centredness that comes from not having to worry. Tucked up safe with me and my own a la the Four of Cups, I can choose when I have the energy or even the will to be political. I can look close at the injustice surrounding me and be outraged…or I can sc/roll on by. Sometimes I engage, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I justify this under the banner ‘self-care’, like the Four of Pentacles perhaps – but there’s a fine line between caring for my needs, and choosing apathy. Sometimes I know darn well I just don’t want to bother. Because bothering means caring, and caring means becoming aware, and becoming aware means making connections, and making connections means holding up a mirror and oh man I just want to enjoy this nice cup of coffee in peace. I feel myself making those choices and often, I am fully aware that I have the capacity to engage and learn and work with that mirror.

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Another shadow is arrogance, a sort-of opposite. A Knight-of-Swords quickness to decide that I understand, to leap on the latest injustice, to begin proclaiming and attacking with a sense of righteousness…yet not having taken the time to listen, to learn, to understand the many layers of complexity at work, the ways I may be part of the problem.

Also: I have a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Of tokenising, appropriating, wrongfully speaking for someone, or offending. I want to be seen as a person who gets it, and gets it right, as a Good Ally, I want to be someone who never makes a mistake or has to be called out. But this isn’t allyship. This is ego. Under the guise of supporting the mission of folks who are fighting for life, I expend large quantities of energy fretting about how this or that action or statement might reflect on my self, and so I do nothing, say nothing. The times I’ve not acted because of this fear, because of this ego, are many. This fear, for me, is one aspect of the Eight of Swords.

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4. How do you work your shadows?

What supports you in seeing all of yourself? What do you do to process darkness? Screaming in water? Sparring? Journaling? Inquiry? Spellcraft? Energetic cord-cutting? How do you replenish afterward? What or who reminds you that you are amazing? Regardless of what you do, explore, or heal? Tally these things. Engage them in the forthcoming dark moons. Without the hashtags and media coverage. With nothing but your ritual tools and open heart to witness you. How will you do your work?

As Siobhan says, it’s the work that isn’t blogged, (re)tweeted, photographed, that will move me through those shadows and into the place of genuine service I wish to reach. The silence, where I’m reading or listening rather than speaking. The practicing of standing up for one person here, gently calling out a friend there, living the truth I believe in and being prepared to get it wrong.

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Stepping backwards from the Knight, to a humbler Page of Swords, knowing she doesn’t have it all straight yet, but open, curious, listening, watching, learning and honing her sword of truth. Aiming for the King of Swords, the Mentor of Feathers, a place of understanding, but being prepared to make mistakes and learn through experience, through getting my hands dirty along the way.

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Stepping backwards from the Four of Pentacles, also, to the Three. Self-care is great, but community care is vital. There is no individual liberation without the liberation of all. I can’t lift myself if I’m not also lifting you. Joining in. Sharing space. Finding ways to support from behind where appropriate, from the front where appropriate. Teaming up. And knowing when it’s not my team. Finding that role that is of true value, which may not be the brightest or the loudest. Conversation. Reducing the white noise in my feed and finding the voices that are educating, provoking, pushing at those comfort zones.

Needing less. Needing less validation. Needing fewer thanks. Not needing these things because it’s not about me.

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Morning pages, perhaps. Or something similar. A private journal, where there’s nothing to prove to anyone. A place to dump the mundane and the petty, to get it out of the way so it doesn’t come whining later? Better: to explore the need for validation. The Hermit. White tears do need exploration, but privately. Finding the root, the source. Imagining the root and source for others.

A balance between the individual and the collective – my personal, Aquarian, holy grail.

Rituals that genuinely connect. Explorations of what is uncomfortable. Continuation of shadow work. Something I want to explore. Perhaps in collaboration.

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5. What is your gift?

I have energy, optimism, curiosity, belief in change.

I have practical skills. I can make websites. I can cook for hundreds. I can write. I can photograph.

I have privilege. My privilege has leverage. Pretending it’s not there helps no-one, harms all. Acknowledging its uses turns it into another too (to be used with care).

I can read tarot. Create rituals. Work to help people to feel good. Witness. Hold space.

I created this space, and now I co-create with others who make it so much more than I ever could alone. I want to continually offer it as a gift to the world, an offering to my community, to anyone who finds value and community here. A platform for sharing journeys beyond the regular.

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6. How will you give these gifts?

I will keep reading, keep listening, keep learning. Use my voice and privilege to challenge my own prejudices and preconceptions and those I see around me.

I will shift up, make more space, continually explore the space I’m taking up myself, vs the space made available to People of Colour. I will host and encourage discussion. I will seek out and invite a diversity of voices onto this platform, signal boost those who are elsewhere.

I will be more conscious of the energy I have to offer, so that I can spend less on the same old shit, more where I can see that it is needed. Less ‘adding on’ of the racial justice activism, more incorporating into daily work, into the consciousness that drives my daily work.

I will commit. Activism is not only for the most traumatic times, the times when the media’s eye is on a certain issue or event. The revolution does not happen in these moments. Justice comes slowly, through dedication, through unglamorous work, through devotion. I will commit to this work in all seasons, all weathers.

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I talked a bit in my newsletter about my first encounter with allies. Some of them were the kind to grab a megaphone and organize. Some quietly educated themselves. You might not notice their less visible ally-actions but you saw it in their knowledge of other cultures, heard it in the way they acknowledged systems of oppression in their speech, in their art, in their behavior. This can be as small as offering a choice of diverse decks to a sitter or refraining from posting that graphic auto-playing video.  This can be as big as providing spaces exclusively for people of color at your next big event.

7. What have I left out?

What’s one question you might use to explore allied action?

As Siobhan put it, quoting Betty Martin: Who is this for?

Holding that question at the heart of every decision, every action, every response. Coming back to it when my ego dominates. Putting my needs – which are largely and consistently met – aside so as to make space to understand those whose needs are not largely and consistently met.

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Who is this for? This exercise in its written form was clearly for myself. But in creating space to explore some of those difficult spaces, to acknowledge privilege, to verbalise the shadows I prefer to ignore, I find myself feeling more confident about collective action. Clearer abou what compassion might look like. More committed to educating myself and acting from that place. More determined to find a role that can genuinely make a difference.

Read Siobhan’s post over on her blog: Seven Questions for Earnest Allies.

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3 comments

  1. Julie Slater says:

    Thank you for your candid and thoughtful sharing! I relatw to so many of your insights and look forward to engaging these questions myself.

  2. Siobhan says:

    I am SO gonna try this Face up!!! It would take an entire blog post to explain my reaction to this post. But I will say, one of the first safe spaces I found was queer community in college. It was dangerous at times to frequent the only gay bar in my college town. Morbid as it sounds, it was encouraging to remember the danger. Because I knew I wasn’t alone. We faced it together. Everyone at that place could relate, on some level, to the danger of differentness. It opened a doorway for realizing the ways in which I could relate to many of the people around me. Even though it had seemed that there was no way I ever could. I wouldn’t have made it through such an oppressively homogenized college experience in one of the most racist places in the northeast, without the support of my queer fam.

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