How to Fail at Being an Ally
As I wrote last week, people who do not identify as allies cause undue and often unintentional distress in marginalized groups. Some of them might be indifferent, some might not. Either way, in their case, it’s a simple lack of awareness. Presumably, one would expect more from fellow activists or self-identified allies, right?
Wait, do I hear a mass eye-rolling from Internet-land?
Indeed, if you know anything about the matter and/or have engaged in enough social justice-related activism or even just dialogue, you know that half-baked “allies” are often worse than the simply ignorant.One problem that allies can have is not checking their own privilege. Even when deliberately trying to be anti-sexist or anti-racist, an ally can be quite blind to their own bigotry, assumptions, or behavior.
Once, at a conference, I met a man who, upon hearing I wrote for this site, remarked that he knows how much we deal with and proceeded to apologize for his penis. I took a moment to quell my annoyance, then responded with a very flippant joke about how men always make everything about their penises, immediately following it with a clarification about how odd it is to have to comfort someone about their genitalia. I pointed out that we didn’t know each other and were in a public place, so his “sorry” had put the onus on me as the female feminist to clarify that I don’t hate men and am not opposed to penises. We talked further and I explained that I found his remark to be more than slightly off-base, including but not limited to its ciscentrism. He got defensive but then nodded along. As we parted, I promised to attend his panel the next day.
The panel was comprised of two women and the man, the latter of whom served as moderator. At this particular con, mods often participated a great deal in the actual talking, but he crossed the line. He spent most of the time talking and expressing his own opinions loudly, brashly, and with much vulgarity. His fellow panelists barely got a moment to speak beyond their introductions; when he wasn’t speaking right over them, he couldn’t even remember their names, referring to them as “the librarian” and other generic terms. Later that day, when I ran into him in a hallway, I decided to just call him out. As I spoke, realization dawned on his face; he was somewhat chagrined and said that he hadn’t even realized what he had done until I pointed it out: apologizing for his genitals might be useless and potentially embarrassing to me, but nigh literally erasing women’s voices was blatantly sexist.
Similarly, there are men out there who will “apologize for their entire gender” (as if they had the authority to), straight people who declare their distaste for those “boring breeders,” and even white people who say “kill whitey” and cis people who say “die cis scum” without a trace of irony — and yet will turn around and impede the voices and actions of the very marginalized groups they claim to support.
In the case of the more hyperbolic statements, the very words that these unhelpful allies to marginalized groups choose to use in order to pledge their allegiance can be an impediment. Those who do not yet support or who actively oppose the group will hear them and say, “See? Their arguments so hateful and reductive, therefore they are wrong” when said arguments might not have even been posed by someone who was a part of said group.
Being a good ally means realizing that you are the reinforcements, not the primary corps. Allies are called upon to speak up and out when no one of an oppressed group can, but otherwise, they should talk a bit less and listen a bit more.