Let’s talk about cookies.
Humans are social animals. We need an ongoing connection to others, and a sense of belonging in community in order to thrive. These needs are powerful enough, that if we’re not getting them met straight up, our subconscious will find sneaky ways for us to try to access belonging and connection, even while our conscious brain pretends that we are doing something else.
This is often the case with folks who want to be allies, and their need for cookies.
For folks who don’t know: ‘asking for cookies’ refers to the phenomenon of folks with particular privilege (say, whiteness or cisgender status) performing acts of (what they think of as, or actual) allyship for folks who are disprivileged in that area, and expecting rewards or praise (‘cookies’) from the oppressed people/group, or at least admiration from other privileged folks.
Cookie-seeking includes things like folks congratulating themselves on social media about their ‘act of kindness’ towards a disabled person, or expecting praise for raising adopted Black children or being friends with a trans person, or expecting appreciation for their intervention/interference in an act of microaggression*.
Often, the powerful need to be admired, valued, praised, seen to be doing good, sneakily gets higher consideration from our brains than does what would truly help the situation, or help the person targeted.
A note on the workings of privilege: Often, we talk about general categories of oppression/privilege, and only consider whether we are privileged as a yes/no question. But there are multiple points of oppression/privilege within many larger categories (e.g. for disability: the ability to walk, see, speak, hear, breathe well, retain information; needing pain or symptom management; fatigue, etc.), that individually and cumulatively affect how we are seen and related to, what resources we can access, and how vulnerable we are.
The web of privilege is a complex organism, constantly adding positive or negative associations to a person, based purely on small points of knowledge or visual cues; those associations are always undeserved. Those of us who are disprivileged in an area frequently need allyship from folks who aren’t (even from folks whose privilege is conditional or temporary) — because we are often disregarded and discredited as people who can even speak about our experience or about what we need, never mind as folks who might be listened to when we make requests or set boundaries.
Like many folks with multiple marginalisations, I’ve had the opportunity to compare shifts in assigned privilege, e.g. when I used a wheelchair vs. when I walked (even with a cane), or when I was assumed to be white vs. assumed to be an immigrant of colour; those shifts are dramatic. Assumptions about a person’s credibility, their good or ill will, their ability to communicate or even process information, how safe vs. how violent/dangerous they are, change significantly based on which category we are assigned at the moment.
So while I can’t check off a lot of categories where I’m privileged, the points of privilege I can access (mostly conditionally or temporarily, but still; my access to white privilege alone makes a huge difference) do significantly help protect me in many encounters with strangers, and sometimes posit me as a person with some authority. These points are huge in terms of how many/few microaggressions* I experience daily, and so are the many ways in which I could make use of those privileges.
(E.g. when I am ambulatory, I am given more credibility as I am advocating for (unblocked) ramps. When I communicate well verbally, I am listened to as I insist on ASL interpretation. When I am perceived as white, I am assumed credible and not-dangerous as I report or protest violence against people of colour.)
And I do regularly notice myself fucking up, or about to fuck up, acts of allyship. E.g., one day I caught myself about to comment on an acquaintance’s social media post, with an explanation of how transmisogyny is different from the misogyny experienced by cis women and folks assumed to be cis women. …My acquaintance is a trans woman. (While I am a non-binary trans person, who doesn’t experience transmisogyny.) She really didn’t need me to explain this distinction; she was living it. But my subconscious need to be seen as ‘getting it’, by her and other folks reading the post, temporarily overwhelmed my good sense and my consideration of what would be genuinely helpful to a person describing her experiences of oppression.
So, as a person who has regular experience with fucking up, I’d like to share my observations on the issues involved in allyship and cookie-seeking with whomever would find this helpful.
1. The best acts of allyship are whatever an oppressed person, or group, has explicitly asked for.
And they centre the oppressed folks, not the helpers. So, whenever possible, ask the person experiencing a microaggression, if you know them personally, about what would be helpful. If you don’t know them, look online or in physical publications to see if the situation you want to respond to has been talked about in terms of ‘best ally practices’, by the disprivileged group.
And yes, some events can call for immediate action — e.g. if someone is being physically or verbally attacked, and it can feel like there is no time to check with the victim — but even then, what can seem like ‘obvious’ action to take might not be. Calling the police (including pressing the emergency call strip on transit) can work well if all involved are white cisgender middle-class non-sex-working people who also aren’t mad or autistic. But if the attacked individual is a poor Indigenous person, or a Black trans woman, or anyone with visible signs of mental illness or neurodivergence, the police might mistreat the victim (or others present), and even if they don’t, the attacked person might feel vulnerable and afraid and be seriously unhappy with you for calling the cops. So, check whenever possible. And educate yourself ahead of time on ally mistakes vs. helpful actions in common situations.
Also, a useful question when there is no time/space to consult, is: what is the smallest, least aggressive thing I can do, that would still change this situation? I’ve usually gotten really good results from just calmly saying (to a racist ranter, to a class-shaming ranter, to a person verbally abusing their partner in public, etc.): “Please stop talking. You’re making everyone uncomfortable.” (Of course, it does make a difference that when I say this, I am usually assumed to be white and female. Intervention mileages vary for folks who are perceived differently.) Small but efficient gestures are good to aim for, if you don’t have direction from the people affected.
And, if you successfully intervened, please do not try to collect cookies from the person affected. If they say “thank you”, it is appropriate to say “no problem” or “glad I could help” and leave it there. Never try to use that expression of thanks as an opening to debrief about the situation with the victim. If you found it stressful — and intervening in charged public situations can be! — debrief with someone who shares your privilege, later.
Though, if you can, offer to stick around for the police interview — if one was asked for, or, sometimes, organised against the victim’s will — and/or to give supportive testimony. People with more privilege will be considered much more reliable in their testimony, and are likely to be able to interrupt flagrant abuses of power by just being present or asking low-key supportive questions. (E.g. “When can my friend go home?” “Do you need to shine that bright light straight into our eyes?”) Offer to do this, though, rather than just assuming the victim wants you to.
2. If you want to offer support to someone in the wake of them experiencing a micro- or macroaggression**, do it as privately as possible.
Unless you can articulate a strong reason to do it publicly. Most of the public ally support offered to folks experiencing oppression seems to fall into the category of cookie-seeking; people want to be seen as ‘being on the right side of the issue’. Sending a private communication focuses more on the actual support, and less on how your words are heard/seen by (multiple) others. If you have a personal relationship with the person affected, then it can be more appropriate to offer support publicly — but even then, watch out for cookie-seeking motivations. Occasionally, it makes sense to offer public support so that folks watching silently receive the message that the behaviour they’ve just seen is not okay — but even then it’s better to direct your public comments at the attacker or make them about the attacker’s behaviour.
And while oppressed folks can respond to micro- or macroaggressions however they can and in whatever way they have spoons*** for, your job as an ally is to keep your temper and not make things worse. Don’t make the attacked person’s life harder by creating a larger mess: don’t insult or shame the attacker, don’t mock them, don’t tell them they should be dead. Instead, if you get involved in publicly defending someone, be clear, concise, and communicate in good faith — as if you are genuinely trying to educate someone who has asked for it. Insults are unlikely to calm or resolve the situation in a way that would actually benefit the harmed person; instead they pretty much guarantee that the person you’re speaking to will have a hard time taking in what you’re saying, and they could potentially take out their increased stress and embarrassment on the attacked person.
Again, if you personally know the person you want to be an ally to, ask them privately what kind of support they could use.
3. Don’t ask oppressed folks to educate you about their experiences.
Even if you know them. Except as a last resort. Most of the time, internet search engines can help you out with what you want to know. If you’re not sure if what you’re reading is accurate, then post a question in an appropriate group or a forum asking for feedback or accurate reading material suggestions; don’t hit up individual oppressed folks for that labour.
4. If a marginalised person tells you you’re cookie-seeking, don’t dismiss their words out of hand.
Tell them you’ll look at your behaviour. And then examine if there was a better way to act — or, if you’re confused, again consult a relevant group or online forum for input on how you could have behaved better. (There are such forums! I know of at least two online “autistic self-crit” groups that serve exactly this purpose; I understand there are also such for non-autistic folks.) Don’t ask people to validate that your behaviour was fine; you’ll always be able to find someone who’ll do that, and all you will have learned there is how to avoid taking responsibility for yourself. Don’t be that person.
Of course it’s possible that the disprivileged person is wrong: misinterpreting the situation due to insufficient information, judging you inaccurately out of spite, or lying. Not likely, but possible. But, for the love of Sylvia Rivera****, don’t assume that’s what’s happening. Just like you shouldn’t assume someone is lying about their sexual assault. Both of those assumptive approaches play into harmful stereotypes and encourage the sloughing off of accountability. Proceed on the assumption of good faith. Question your behaviour; ask others for input. If at the end of that process, you can’t find merit to what the person said to you, you won’t be worse off for having looked for some awareness and done some self-crit.
5. What to do about our natural, but regularly misdirected, urges to seek cookies?
We can get support and kudos — and share useful information! — when in connection with other friends and family who are not marginalised in that situation. Take your story of being aware about transmisogyny to other non-transfeminine people; educate them about some particulars of transmisogyny, and direct them to writings by trans women and transfemmes you’ve read. Talk about having intervened in gender-based or racist harassment with other male or cisgender or white people; share your strategies of what has worked to shut down bullshit like that. Discuss an unsuccessful attempt to assist someone dealing with systemic ableism or classism, with folks who have that privilege, and ask for suggestions of what might have worked better.
Sometimes we want to share like this in a public forum (e.g. social media) that includes people of many different identities, including folks who experience that particular marginalisation. That can potentially work if you stay aware that you’re in front of a mixed audience: include content notes for which marginalisations and which oppressive events you’ll be talking about (e.g. “CN: racism, police violence”); don’t ask for kudos; make the information-sharing or -seeking the main point of your post or speech; try to deflect folks focusing on how great you are. It can be really painful and alienating for marginalised folks to see someone with privilege in that area getting celebrated for having done one, and maybe not particularly risky, thing, when they/we live with the situation 24/7 and do not get celebrated for their/our tenacious survival. (Feel free to even explicitly point out that last point if other privileged folks choose to focus on congratulating you.)
Humans often need to feel good about growth we’ve done, or help we’ve offered. But we can definitely choose the appropriate time/space/company for asking folks to celebrate with us and support us. Let’s try not to create extra obligations for the folks who could use our solidarity and assistance, rather than expectations of new emotional labour.
6. If you are part of an organisation which assists marginalised folks…
…Pay especially close attention to not fucking up the above point.
So many organisations use the folks they are helping as a way to make themselves look and feel good — often at the expense of genuine assistance. E.g. places that trumpet their access policies, including scent-free provisions, but are angry and punitive towards disabled folks who point out when those policies are not being implemented and ask for enforcement. Or, places that supposedly assist poor people in accessing more money or food — but gatekeep what kind and what (small) amounts of assistance those folks can have, and create significant burdens of extra work for their clients as de facto payment for said access — all the while loudly congratulating themselves on what a difference they are making in those folks’ lives. (And how they — supposedly, and non-consensually — are ‘increasing their clients’ independence’ or ‘teaching new life skills’ by assigning them that extra hoop-jumping work.) Or, queer and trans community spaces that proudly display their awards for service excellence — while many of their clients talk about being (even literally) policed or excluded or not seeing people like themselves represented in decision-making positions within the organisation. Especially toxic: the use of ‘helped’ clients — who are not able to meaningfully consent — in promotional literature or videos about the organisation’s services.
If you are a member of an organisation like this, please advocate for changing the energy devoted to the cookie-seeking into energy that’s (more quietly) put into real allyship: e.g. creating and enforcing access, easing the burdens of applying for or collecting assistance, hiring from the marginalised populations you serve.
Some concrete ideas:
Let the folks at your food or clothing bank choose exactly which items they can/want to eat/take home. Maintain the least amount of files on your clients that you can. Dignity is a privileged commodity; share it. Fill out the tiring/confusing/anxiefying paperwork for your clients; find workarounds to get them the most money or assistance; do the legwork in finding out eligibility criteria; patiently advocate with bureaucrats; object loudly and persistently when bureaucratic mistakes cost your clients income; and/or find them free legal help. Bend eligibility criteria or assistance limits where you can. Let your clients define what ‘life skills’, if any, they want to learn, and what they want to put their (often tiny) free time and energy into; don’t decide for them and assign them homework which they have to complete in order to access your help; this is unhelpful and demeaning. Just. Help.
Don’t post condescending or scolding posters in your waiting rooms; don’t talk to your clients as if they are naughty children, constantly in danger of breaking some rule; treat all of them as if they were middle-class folks paying you for help, and who have chosen your service out of an array of such available to them, whose good opinion you actually care about — and address any specific conduct requests to them with politeness and expectation of good will.
Make sure your wheelchair ramp is checked a few times a day to see if it’s blocked; enforce consequences when folks do block it. Post and enforce consequences for folks not observing scent-free policies, including staff. Insist on having an ASL interpretation budget; consider funnelling ‘charity’ fundraising to this cause if needed. (Many organisations insist that their employees participate in various ‘charity’ initiatives — often activities where the money raised benefits popular and robust health charities. Those don’t need help nearly as much as your struggling budget for ASL interpretation or ramps or elevators or power doors or grab bars in washrooms or replacing your cleaning products with unscented and less toxic ones.)
Give priority to job applicants from the communities you serve (and especially applicants who are also BIPOC) — including considering hiring folks who maybe don’t have as much experience/as much schooling as non-community-members, but who are still qualified. Representation — and the material difference this makes to the folks hired — matters so damn much.
7. Consciously consider where you have privilege, and where you are marginalised.
The vast majority of humans experience both oppression and privilege, of various kinds, in various proportions. Own both.
Learn to calmly acknowledge your privilege, and to educate/perform useful allyship around the associated oppression.
Learn to ask for specific assistance and set good boundaries around your marginalisation experiences. I don’t recommend arguing with strangers or acquaintances about why you deserve human rights, or why your oppression is real. This wastes your precious spoons, and feeds those trolls’ feelings of entitlement to marginalised labour and unwillingness to take responsibility for their own education and understanding. Instead, you can ask folks with privilege to step in and educate or advocate or shut that shit down in another way. That’s an ally’s job.
Decide what you will give your fighting-oppression spoons to. You can’t attend to everything out there, but neither can you just give up in despair; this shit show will not get better otherwise. Pick at least one area where you are privileged — to learn more, to consciously donate some labour to. Only you can know how many spoons and how much time you can spare there; don’t fall into guilt or defensiveness over not being able to do more. And pick at least one area where you’re marginalised, and practice asking for help and allyship around it; we all need each other, across the spectrums of oppression, in this fight so we can win.
And when thinking about your marginalisations, and allyship that you want, and what you want the end result to look and feel like for you — consider applying that analysis and offering those acts of allyship in other situations, where you have privilege. That is often the least bullshit way to understand what allyship can look like, what it should result in.
8. Be kind to yourself as you learn to do better as an ally.
Bring self-compassion and a skilled assessment of your actual (not: hoped-for) capacities to allyship opportunities.
But self-compassion is not the same as getting a free pass, or assuming you don’t owe an apology, where you screw up. You will still need to fix things where you break or injure them. So, learn to apologise without hating yourself, learn to accurately assess your capacities for what and how you can do in the future — and do what you can do now without playing a you-fanfare at the folks you’re allying with.
Some useful questions when assessing your capacities: What are your strengths? How much time can you devote to this work per week/per time? What are you emotionally and physically able to do? What doesn’t eat too many of your daily spoons, but is still needed? Which options include your access needs being met with the least amount of self-advocacy? (The more self-advocacy you need to do, the less time and energy you have for the allyship work you’re trying to do. Don’t waste your spoons.) How can you act in concert with others in a way that makes all your spoons go further and lets you build on each other’s work?
9. Get support from your friends and family who also share a particular privilege.
This is where you get to express whatever feelings, cry or stomp or scream or box them out, say what puzzles you, discuss the narratives your brain might be building about it all, confess your guilt or self-hatred and ask for support in recovering from failing. This is where you can ask for cookies. And take them in, and let them fuel you.
10. The purpose of cookies is to motivate us to keep going in our world-changing endeavours.
We need to have those efforts recognised. And all of us need the world-changing to be bigger, get more energy, than individual cookie-collection efforts. If you find that that’s not how it’s working out for you — if you spend less time on useful allyship and more on asking for cookies — don’t hate yourself, that is not useful, but do get support to figure out where you’re going off-track. I promise, someone in your framily or in online communities will have been through similar experiences, and will have solutions they can share.
Because, if you find yourself devoting a lot of energy to collecting cookies, something is injured in you, isn’t working as it should. It’s exciting if you can recognise this without the impediment of self-hatred or shame, which make folks curl up into defensive balls incapable of learning new things. Your cookie-seeking might be pointing to your lack of community, injured self-esteem, post-trauma damage, lack of a useful support network, etc. All of these issues can be solved. (With framily support, with therapy if that’s accessible to you, with peer support in groups and forums, with self-help tools, etc.) You deserve that they should be solved, in a constructive way. And you and all of us deserve a safe and just world that we build together, where we know how to constructively seek support and how to observe good boundaries around emotional labour.
* microaggressions: individual acts of oppression; e.g. being slut-shamed on the subway by one of the other riders; a physical attack against a trans woman; being followed around a store when other, whiter folks aren’t.
** macroaggression: an event, or series of them, grounded in systemic oppression, that happen to a whole group, or that affects a whole group; e.g. carding policies, murders of Black people by the police, inaccessible buildings that house offices purporting to help disabled folks, unsafe water in many of Canada’s Indigenous communities.
*** spoons: disability activism concept referring to the finite energy most disabled folks have. Originated by Christine Miserandino.
**** I first saw this exclamation used by trans activist Freddy McConnell; I didn’t invent it.
Delicious ally cookies. You can collect them from oppressed folks, or you can bake some yourself and swap/share them with other folks doing allyship work.
[Photo credit: Originally posted by user kinggrl to flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/72658241@N00/77843609 . The photo is cropped slightly from the original. Use licence is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cookie#/media/File:Maple_spice_cookies_and_thumbprint_cookies.jpg .]