skip navigation
April 5, 2016

On Aspiring to be a Comrade


Shirley Gunn was the only White person we met with on our South African Learning Exchange last month. She is a former member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, Zulu for “Spear of the Nation”), which was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Shirley introduced herself to us by declaring, “I was a bomber and a sniper. I blew up government buildings”. She then went on to describe her life as a comrade in the fight against Apartheid and the South African Apartheid government. She described her early work in intelligence gathering and subsequent exile to Botswana, training in Cuba with the MK, and how she and her infant son were detained and tortured by the South African government. After apartheid fell, Shirley participated in the Truth and Reconciliation process and then founded the Human Rights Media Centre where she documents the stories of South Africans in relationship to apartheid.

Shirley was fierce! Even after all she was put through, she is still passionate about liberation and unapologetic about using violence as a means to create it. And I have to say, as a peace-loving person, I was challenged by this passion and belief in the use of violence to affect change. In fact after the presentation, one of our cohort members commented on the look on my face and how it was clear that I was having trouble squaring liberation and violence. And to be honest, I found myself thinking that Shirley set a really high bar for being an ally.

And then she was asked a question about this very issue, about being an ally. I remember that Shirley leaned forward in her chair and proclaimed, “I am not an ally. I was never an ally, I am a comrade. I was tortured and fought side by side with other MK members. I am a comrade!”

In the weeks since our return, I’ve been thinking about the difference between being an ally and a comrade. In the mainstream movement to end gender-based violence, White people are often referred to as “aspiring allies” so I’ve been thinking about this designation in relation to ally and comrade. This reminds me of something that happened several years ago.

At that time, the Coalitions from several northeastern states where meeting two times per year to discuss racial equity in our movement and in our organizations. Each Coalition was represented by a White person and a person of color. Mostly, the Executive Directors were White and the other member of the team was a person of color. Our meetings were facilitated by our colleague, Sujata Warrier. We were meeting in Providence, Rhode Island and during our lunch, which had been brought in, it started snowing. Really quickly several inches of snow accumulated and the meeting space organizers let us know that we would have to cut our meeting short so their staff could go home before the roads closed. Right away, every women of color (and one White woman) jumped to their feet and started cleaning up the lunch. And the Executive Directors, who were mostly White women continued talking. I remember feeling terrifically conflicted – my upbringing and values taught me to be among those who would do the cleaning up, but I was new to my job and I was worried about my status among the White Executive Directors. That day, I chose status over what was right. I just sat there.

Shirley Gunn, I think, would’ve done it differently. She would have gotten right up, and in fact she might have used shame or even violence (!) to get the other White women off their butts to clean up. She would have been a comrade, not an ally or an aspiring ally. And so this story gives me some clues about what it means to be a comrade. Really, ‘aspiring ally’ asks too little of me. The fact that I merely attended that meeting made me an aspiring ally. Getting up and cleaning up with the women of color would have made me an ally. As an ally, I would have been willing to roll up my sleeves and do the right thing, maybe risking some of my social cache with the other Executive Directors. But to be a comrade is to be fierce and to take action to upend the status quo. As a comrade, I would have gotten right up to clean up and I would have demanded that the other White women clean up. I would be willing to risk social standing, ambition, and acceptance by my peers to do the right thing.

Cleaning up from lunch is not exactly the same thing as blowing up a building. But in my world, challenging the long-held habits and assumptions that are both the foundation of the mainstream movement to end violence against women and girls and substantive dysfunction of this movement just might be tantamount to setting off a bomb, albeit a cherry bomb. That I can do.

Art by lizar_tistry