There are lots of really great, in-depth guides to being an ally, as well as some written to aid specific allies in specific contexts. They make the rounds every once a while, but often don’t seem to reach the people who need them. That’s why it didn’t surprise me that, at Eschaton this past weekend, one of the questions asked of the gender panel was, in essence, how to be a good one.
Don’t get in front of me and talk for me. Don’t stand off to the side and do nothing. Back me up.
It’s quite easy to see the problem with standing off to the side and doing nothing, but a bit harder to see how presumably supportive action can be problematic. I will present a snippet from this weekend — anecdotal evidence, if you will, but useful in illustrating what I mean by someone getting in front of me.
I traveled to Eschaton on the red-eye on Thursday night. Since it was a full flight from LAX to Toronto and I was the second last person to board, I had to look around quite a bit for a place to put my bag in the overhead bin without damaging someone else’s luggage. As I examined the one bin with any empty space, I figured out the best possible configuration in my head — placing a smaller bag sideways — and was about to make my move. Before I could, however, a man suddenly rose from his seat, snatched up my suitcase, and shoved it roughly into the overhead bin. He completely squished the bag I had intended to move and made it impossible to close the bin in the process. The owner of the smaller bag shot me the stink-eye. I said, “Hey, let me tilt that bag,” but before I could, the “helpful” man rearranged the squished bag so that the bin could be closed.
This was a case of someone standing in front of me. Instead of allowing me to do what I needed to do, he assumed that I was helpless and needed his assistance. He may have had good intentions, may have wanted to be nice, may have wanted to help, but in doing so, he touched my belongings without my consent, potentially damaged someone else’s belongings, and robbed me of agency.
He also validated the sexism of a flight attendant who was passing by, who remarked with warmth “See? This is why we need men! I don’t care what anyone says!”
Similarly, some people act for others with the intention of helping in some way, but end up overwhelming the agency of the very marginalized folks they intended to aid. They may do so for what they feel are good reasons, but their over-zealousness is not helpful.
This is especially true when taking into account that many members of marginalized groups might exhibit what is thought to be reluctance to engage but is really deliberation and care learned over years of addressing the issue at hand. In other words, I was hesitant to just shove my bag into an overhead container lest I be stereotyped as a careless woman lacking spacial reasoning.
As a man, he could shove bags into bins thoughtlessly and then correct his mistake without someone accusing his entire gender of some sort of deficiency. The flight attendant didn’t even notice his error; all she noticed was a man placing a woman’s bag in the overhead bin. At the same time, the owner of the bag blamed the man’s carelessness on me while allowing the flight attendant to praise the man without interjection. I would have been better “helped” by the man not assuming that I was helpless.
In other words, if you’re really an ally, try giving the group you’re trying to support a little credit.
Caveat: This was an example of someone who was, as far as I knew, not a self-identified ally. They have their own peculiar way of (not)”helping,” which I will discuss in a follow-up tomorrow.