A few years ago, I was having my bedroom remodeled. I was getting a room with walk-in closets and a full bathroom, and I could not wait until it was completed. Every day I would rush home excited to see the progress and admittedly anxious to get inside of my room. Finally, the day came when the contractor said I could step inside the room and when I walked in everything looked beautiful. I begin to thank him for his work, and he said, “We are not finished. We will be back tomorrow to add a second coat of paint to the walls.” In my naivety and rush to be inside my room, I thought the space was complete, and he said, “Oh no, Hannah. Two coats of paint are always better than one.”
This interaction came to mind when I read Alyssa Milano’s response to a person that asked her was she transgender after she made a tweet that said, “My transgender sisters! I am celebrating you this #NationalWomensDay!” Alyssa response to the question, “Are you transgender,” was “I’m trans. I’m a person of color. I’m an immigrant. I’m a lesbian. I’m a gay man. I’m the disabled. I’m everything. And so are you, Kirk. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or understand. No one wants to hurt you. We are all just looking for our happily ever after.” Then she followed her tweet with a line from a poem by Rumi, “This is a subtle truth. Whatever you love, you are.”
I’m trans. I’m a person of color. I’m an immigrant. I’m a lesbian. I’m a gay man. I’m the disabled.
I’m everything. And so are you, Kirk.
Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or understand. No one wants to hurt you. We are all just looking for our happily ever after. https://t.co/znkQizV37k
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) March 9, 2019
When I read Alyssa’s tweet, I had to pause. Surely, we were not going through this again. Understand, it was just in late December of 2017 that Alyssa did the exact same thing with Langston Hughes poem, Let America Be America Again. In her posting of the poem, she highlights a stanza by Hughes forgetting the central focus of the poem that Hughes places in parentheses, America never was America to me, almost as if he wants to draw particular attention to that part of the poem. By cherry picking the part that she wanted to highlight, she missed the entire point of the poem. Hughes is not merely writing about the greatness and tremendous potential of America. However, Hughes is writing about two things in extreme juxtaposition to draw a glaring difference in what America says it is and the reality of what America truly is for Black people.
I wrote about this topic in a blog titled Dear Alyssa, Please Stop With Your Performative Twitter Social Justice. To my surprise, Alyssa shared the blog on her Twitter feed.
I took quite a bit of heat from some of Alyssa’s followers for that blog, but I felt confident that I was saying the right thing. I believed that Alyssa and I had an understanding and she recognized that what she had done was incorrect. We even started following each other on Twitter. (Click the tweet below to follow the complete thread.)
Thank you, Alyssa for responding. Do you understand, after reading my blog, why highlighting that particular part of Langston’s poem was problematic? Do you understand how that erased the central focus of his poem?
— Hannah Drake (@HannahDrake628) December 29, 2017
As someone that considers herself an ally I believed that Alyssa was open to hearing my opinion and in fact we chatted on Twitter and emailed one another and had an open, honest dialogue. I am not above working with anyone that has a misstep. That is part of life. As we are learning to navigate a world that is fueled by differences, there will be some mistakes made. I believe in the quest for justice and liberation there is room for making mistakes and correction.
So, to read her recent Twitter post was disturbing. Did Alyssa not understand my initial blog? When she said that she was sharing to amplify my voice, was that for show? When she said she saw me and was listening, was that a lie? How can she not understand as someone that considers themselves an ally to say that she is transgender, or a gay man or disabled, etc. is wrong? Oh no, Alyssa, that is not how allyship works. You are not the things that you listed. Can you be supportive? Yes. Can you stand with someone that is transgender? Indeed. Can you empathize with the issues that Black people face? Sure. Can you use your platform to bring awareness to problems that disabled people face? Of course. Are you those things? No, you are not. You don’t just get to put on these groups like an haute couture gown and take it off when it no longer suits your agenda. I don’t ever get to take off my skin. I don’t get to wake up and say, “Today I am not going to be Black.” Every day that I awake, I am aware of my skin color. In fact, my skin color alone can be the deciding factor in whether I live or die on any given day. My skin is not a costume for me. My skin is my reality. So to tweet that you are those things and then once again back your tweet by a cherry-picked line from a poem written by Rumi is an insult.
Rumi’s complete poem states:
If you want money more than anything, you will be bought and sold.
If you have a greed for food, you will become a loaf of bread.
This is a subtle truth. Whatever you love, you are.
Rumi’s poem has a much deeper meaning and is certainly not saying because I love disabled people, then I too am disabled. It is not saying because I love Black people and People of Color, I too am Black and People of Color. It is not saying because I love transgender individuals, I too am transgender. He is writing a poem that invokes the reader to search their heart. What you love and chase after will consume you and you too, will become that thing so seek and chase after the good things. Not things that are temporal but things that have longevity. Seek goodness, kindness, love, and peace. Love those things so that you can become those things. It is a poem that requires the reader to search inside of themselves and question what are the things that they love because that is what they will become. Alyssa’s interpretation of this poem is basic at best and an insult at worst. She would have been better off merely posting the poem and asking her followers to search their hearts when it comes to transgender issues and problems of racism and disabilities. She could have used the complete poem to challenge her readers to examine themselves. The poem reminds me of the Biblical Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Rumi is challenging the reader to search themselves. When it comes to dealing with issues of racism, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities, hatred against transgender individuals, a part of the work is to get people to look inside of themselves, to ask themselves the hard questions and then be able to be honest with the answers that are revealed. Why do I hate Black people? Why am I upset that two people love differently than I do? Why am I discriminating against disabled people? Why do transgender people make me uncomfortable? That is how you start to change things when people stop looking outwardly and start looking inwardly. If you consider yourself an ally, Alyssa that is part of your work. How can you get people that refuse to see someone like me and that refuse to see themselves to acknowledge they have some issues they need to address?
Alyssa’s tweet caused an uproar online, and since we have been here before, I was once again foolish enough to believe that surely, she would say, “I did it again. I apologize.” Instead Alyssa posts a series of tweets excusing her behavior, and in fact, her comments almost read like, “I’ve been good to you people.” (Click tweet below to see complete thread.)
1. I learned it doesn’t matter how pure your intentions are, or your 30 yrs of advocacy work & activism, if you use well established poetic license & nuance the very people you passionately fight for will be uspset because you didn’t say it the literal way they’d prefer. https://t.co/zzhPOPvGLn
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) March 12, 2019
It dawned on me that as helpful as Alyssa wants to be as an ally, she has not done the inner foundational work to search inside of herself and that is why we are here again. Alyssa was catapulted to “Twitter Social Activism Stardom” after sharing the hashtag #MeToo to bring awareness to people that have been victims of sexual harassment and assault. However, the “Me Too” movement was started by a Black woman named Tarana Burke over a decade ago.
In her quick rise in social justice circles, her continuous missteps show me that Alyssa has no foundation on which to stand when it comes to being an ally. Her activism is a house of cards built on sand. It is easy to commandeer someone else’s movement as your own. It is easy to go online when you have a vast platform and post something that “sounds” progressive and get thousands of likes and retweets. It is easy to comb through poems and pick a line or two that may help undergird your tweets. It’s easy to dress up in a handmaid’s costume and not see how your real life actions are not indicative of supporting all women. It’s convenient to post a Martin Luther King quote that makes you feel good. It is easy to do all of those things without doing any of the real work. Moreover, the real work doesn’t start on Twitter. It doesn’t start with a pink pussy cat hat. It doesn’t start with some catchy sign held up at a protest. I dare say it doesn’t even start with a hashtag. The real work begins when you first look inside yourself and challenge yourself to be better, to do better and to do something.
My challenge once again to Alyssa, if you want to be an ally, do not start with anyone else until you start with yourself first. As I stated at the beginning of this blog, two coats of paint are better than one. This is the second coat of paint, Alyssa. I hope it sticks this time.
Additonal Readings for Allies: