Dear Alyssa Milano: Will You Be My Co-Conspirator?

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Commentary The Politics of Politics

Dear Alyssa Milano: Will You Be My Co-Conspirator?

Imani Gandy

Firing off some tweets, circulating petitions, giving speeches, and raising awareness about various issues is a perfectly admirable and safe endeavor. But if you really want to help LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and everyone who lives in the intersections of those identities, we need you to do more.

Alyssa Milano stepped in it last week.

In a misguided attempt to show solidarity with people with certain identities, she proclaimed she actually was a person with those identities.

The kerfuffle started with what I believe was an admirable effort by Milano to show support for transgender people last week on National Women’s Day.

And it ended in utter disaster.

“My transgender sisters! I am celebrating YOU this #NationalWomensDay!” she tweeted on March 8.

Then, a Twitter user named Kirk asked her in response if she was transgender.

She replied that she was—along with a whole host of other things that she decidedly is not.

Oy vey.

First, I applaud the sentiment. It’s true: People shouldn’t be afraid of what they don’t know or understand. Especially as this country remains in the midst of a panic about transgender people—what with the bathroom discrimination bills, the trans military ban, and religious conservatives’ claim that employers should be permitted to discriminate against transgender employees because of their gender identity, to name a few—it’s great that someone with Milano’s platform is attempting to show solidarity with trans people.

But she did it wrong. Full stop. And when called on it, she did not issue an apology or promise to do better—to actually work and help the communities she claims to be fighting for. Instead, she spoke over them, diminished them, and centered herself in a conversation that shouldn’t have been about her. Ultimately, she behaved the way so many white feminists before her have behaved: poorly.

Because the bottom line is that she’s not trans. She’s not a person of color. She’s not an immigrant. She’s not a lesbian or a gay man, and she presumably does not have a disability.

And as many critics pointed out, her claiming marginalized identities as her own erases the people who actually have those identities.

She may be an advocate for immigrants, people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ people, but she is not those people. She is a wealthy white cisgender heterosexual non-disabled woman. An employer will never fire her because she is transgender, as the complainant in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC was. Milano will never be at risk for deportation because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided she is no longer eligible to remain in the United States, as Minerva Garcia was. She won’t be turned away from an adoption placement agency because the agency is “faith-based” and has a religious objection to placing children with same-sex parents, as Kristy and Dana Dumont were. She has never been forced to file a lawsuit to force a business to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires wheelchair accommodation, as Diane zum Brunnen was.

She simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be a vulnerable person trying to navigate those spaces. And by proclaiming that she is one, she is unintentionally making a mockery of those who do.

As writer and activist George Johnson aptly put it, “No. You are an advocate. Be ok with that. This isn’t the way to say you are with us. You can’t just fake an experience you don’t have. You don’t navigate any space like these groups. This is the ‘I don’t see color’ approach which is oppression and erasure.”

As Twitter users began to express their displeasure, Milano took a stab at an apology on March 9:

She went on to say that she had intended to invoke Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet who said, “Whatever you love, you are.”

But Alyssa, you didn’t just “identify with.” You identified as. You literally said, “I’m trans. I’m a person of color,” when you are not.

And then two days ago, she made it even worse.

When asked about how the media handled her tweet about belonging to a litany of groups that she does not, she started tweeting about pure intentions and being silenced. She then asked for the benefit of the doubt before apologizing “to those who were offended by the words I chose to show my forever allyship.”

Oh, Alyssa.

First of all, allyship is not a mantle you can claim for yourself. It’s certainly not something you can claim “forever.” It’s not an award you are given. It’s not just supporting, or even just advocating for, vulnerable people.

It’s a process. It’s a series of actions that demonstrate you are willing to decenter yourself and ask what the communities you claim to be fighting for need you to do. You have to show you are willing to get your hands dirty in order to dismantle what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Second, you must learn the difference between intent and impact. Your intentions may be as pure as the driven snow, but if your intentions negatively affect the communities you claim to be passionately fighting for, then your intentions mean bupkis. Any notion you “meant well” and therefore are above criticism is not only dangerous, it’s patently absurd.

It’s not enough to fumble your way through allyship, ignoring all the signposts and the people waving their hands frantically telling you to slow down and think about what you’re doing. As activist and historian Blair Imani noted, “If you can’t listen to the very people you passionately fight for and then move forward with humility, you need to do other work.”

Third, criticizing you is not “eating one of our own.” The notion that we cannot criticize public figures with large platforms because doing so distracts from the real enemy is a classic silencing technique. I am quite capable of critiquing your comments while also pointing out that the Trump administration is a boil on the ass of humanity. In fact, I engaged with you in an effort to help you be the ally you say you are. And I would argue that calling you in—as best as one can call in a celebrity with whom one has no personal relationship—is more useful than calling out MAGA numpties on Twitter. You, at least, seem to be capable of growth and critical thought.

If you know me, offering gentle criticism isn’t exactly my strong suit. I’m more like a bull in a china shop when it comes to this shit. But I put my best foot forward:

Despite my best efforts to be kind, Milano didn’t take it very well. She did exactly what I hoped she wouldn’t do. She got defensive.

Hoo boy.

I’d like to put this to her: Alyssa, if a man reacted to you the way you reacted to me, you would be livid. If a male feminist blew you off when you tried to offer constructive criticism about his feminism, you would want to scream from a rooftop because men routinely silence women. Right?

Well, white women routinely silence Black women. You did it to me this week.

As soon as you—a famous actress with more than 3.5 million followers on Twitter—start complaining that people who live the very identities you put on as a costume for performative purposes are silencing you, you reveal yourself to be not an ally, but a harmful performative bystander. Because in reality, it is you who are silencing and erasing us.

So the question is, why do you think it’s OK to treat a Black woman this way? Why do you think it’s OK to ignore and snipe at the women of color, LGBTQ people, and disabled people who tweeted that your choice of words was harmful? Why did you ignore the white women like writer Courtney Enlow who explained that your behavior was an example of classic white feminism and doing more harm than good?

You could have pledged to listen to the members of marginalized communities who were expressing their displeasure. You could have offered an apology—a real apology, not one of those “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apologies. And that would have ended it.

You could have gained trust and been an example of what allyship looks like. You could have shown other celebrity feminists how to be humble and how to absorb criticism and sincere efforts to help you develop your feminist praxis.

But that’s not what you did.

Instead, you spent Tuesday morning telling all the people who told you they weren’t offended by your words how much you love them and sniping at the people who were trying to offer you constructive criticism. You responded by saying you’re going to do what you want and say what you want because you’re pure of heart and that’s all that matters.

Well, that’s not all that matters. Words matter. Language matters. How you interact with marginalized communities matters. You should be talking to members of marginalized communities, not talking at or over them.

And while it may be difficult to publicly admit you made a mistake and reacted badly, I hope that in private you are reflecting and that you have people—people who aren’t cis, straight, non-disabled, and white—who are willing to take the time to talk to you about where you went wrong.

Firing off some tweets, circulating petitions, giving speeches, and raising awareness about various issues is a perfectly admirable and safe endeavor. But if you really want to help LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and everyone who lives in the intersections of those identities, we need you to do more. We need you to be better. And the truth of the matter is, we’re hoping for you to do more and be better—because when white people get their hands dirty, it helps marginalized folks.

As Feminista Jones aptly put it, “I am not interested in white allies. What we need is co-conspirators. What I need is for people to come and work with us in the trenches and be there alongside us. It’s not about being on the outside and saying, ‘Yes, I support you!’ It’s about ‘not only do I support you, but I am here with you, I am rolling up my sleeves. What do I need to do?’”

When you’re a co-conspirator, you put your body in between police and people of color. You speak up when you see ICE agents demanding the papers of immigrants. You say something when you see a person of color being attacked by a white supremacist. Being a co-conspirator is more than pink pussy hats and rousing tweets.

Are you ready to get into the trenches with us, Alyssa? If so, it’s not too late to reflect and apologize. We are under siege, and we could use all the help we can get.

But what we don’t need are people who think they’re helping who are actually harming, and who refuse to listen when they’re told as much.

So what’s it going to be? Do you want to be my co-conspirator? Because I would welcome it. I, and others like me, need it.