I saw the movie Lincoln last weekend. It was excellent, and tellingly the theatre was nearly full two months after the release date.
Apart from Daniel Day Lewis’s eerie transformation into exactly what you imagine Abraham Lincoln to have looked and acted like, the outstanding performance in this film, to me, was Tommy Lee Jones’s depiction of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an abolitionist congressman who had to retract his statements that he thought all races were created equal in order to make the 13th Amendment more palatable to less radical politicians. (He does so with searing rhetoric, but the emotional cost to him and to the black people listening to him is apparent.)
The rest of this post requires a minor spoiler (probably not a spoiler at all if you know anything about Civil War history or are inclined to look things up on Wikipedia). Stevens’s housekeeper and mistress/common law wife, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was black. (This fact is not apparent until nearly the end of the film and is played as a “big reveal” of sorts.)
After the movie, one of the people I saw it with thought that this fact cheapened Stevens’s work for abolition somehow; several others in the party agreed; I caught myself agreeing for a second.
But really, how is acting in the interests of someone you love—not just acting in their interests, but fighting for their human rights when they have less opportunity to do so themselves—a less-than-noble motive?
Taking the original statement further, is it ignoble for Lydia Hamilton Smith herself to support the abolition of slavery, because she’s black and therefore serving her own interests? If we frame the story that way, it’s the privileged members of society granting rights to the less privileged who are the greatest heroes; the underprivileged who fight for their rights are less worthy of praise. (I’m writing in general terms now, because the argument could apply to any social justice movement.)
This reasoning, to me, is obviously wrong. In fact it’s a way in which hegemony is maintained after it’s been officially dismantled. The narrative of already-privileged allies acting benevolently supersedes the narrative of activism by the less-privileged group and thus makes their contribution to history seem smaller, keeping them as a group less visible.
It also ignores the power of personal interactions to change people’s opinions. It might not always turn out so well, but sometimes it takes having a gay sibling, or a child in an interracial relationship, or a feminist teacher, or a trans friend, or a Muslim coworker to change a person’s mind about their bigotry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with reconsidering one’s own bigotry.
Allies are vital to any social justice movement. But let’s not pat them—or ourselves—on the back too much for their detached benevolence. Granting rights to those who have been deprived of them is good; but the struggle by those people for those rights is the heroic tale we should remember.