For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

Something I hear regularly from progressive men:

“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do as a feminist/ally. Some women say I should be fighting for women’s rights, but others say that that’s not my battle and that instead I should apply feminism to work on men’s issues–but others say that that’s appropriation and ‘what about teh menz.’ Some say I shouldn’t be a ‘white knight’ and defend women against sexism, but others say that it’s my role as a person with privilege to stick up for those without. They don’t even agree on whether or not I can call myself a feminist. The only thing they agree on is that I should listen to marginalized people, but no matter what I say or do, a marginalized person will disagree. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother, since no matter what I do I’m doing it wrong.”

(Substitute “men” for “white people,” et cetera.)

I sympathize with this. When a bunch of people are telling you what to do with an air of authority and they are telling you to do contradictory things–speak out, shut up and listen, stand up, have a fucking seat–it makes sense that you might just give up.

Here are some thoughts that might help you figure it out.

1. There is no activism rulebook.

One reason marginalized people are giving you contradictory messages is because there is no activism rulebook. This isn’t a board game where you just have to play by the rules (with perhaps some minor variations permitted) and follow the path to the end. That’s why the very topic of this article is so frustrating to many activists/marginalized people–when they feel like would-be allies are asking them for a concrete, simple step-by-step guide to fixing oppression (an act of unpaid intellectual labor, by the way), they feel like these would-be allies don’t really want to do the work themselves. They want to color-by-number, not paint originals.

There are a lot of legitimate disagreements among activists about what the best way to do activism is, and what the most important issues to focus on are. Should we try to get marginalized people into positions of power in politics and business, or should we work on dismantling those institutions? Should we be calm and friendly, or angry and confrontational? Should we work within flawed institutions to make them better, or should we create new ones? Should we address the “low-hanging fruit” issues (i.e. same-sex marriage) first in the hopes that they will make the more difficult issues more accessible, or should we go straight for the most urgent, least “sexy” problems? Should we work on acquiring “allies,” or should we say fuck it and make direct change ourselves? Do you catch more flies with honey or vinegar?

While there’s data on some of these and, I think, more compelling arguments in favor of some rather than others, the point is that experienced and knowledgeable activists disagree. So of course you’re getting told different things. There is no activism rulebook.

2. Marginalized people don’t all agree with each other.

There are many reasons why different marginalized people have different (but equally strong) opinions on activism and allies’ place in it. They might have had different personal experiences. They might have different intersecting identities. They might have different political and philosophical values that inform their approach to social justice.

People who share a marginalized identity are not all alike. When allies demand a Unified Field Theory of Ally Activism from them, they’re actually engaging in outgroup homogeneity bias–otherwise known as stereotyping. Of course women are giving you totally different opinions on how to fight sexism. Women aren’t all alike.

As a useful exercise to help you develop your empathy, try to figure out what’s causing the marginalized people you know to disagree with each other on something. For instance, I’ve found that most of the women and nonbinary people who strongly believe that men shouldn’t claim the “feminist” label are those who have been most harmed by “feminist” men who have infiltrated their spaces to get laid or feel special. Trying to actually understand the disagreement can take you from throwing your hands in the air and whining that “I guess I can’t do anything right” to acknowledging that people’s personal experiences shape their political views and that’s okay.

3. Marginalized people are not born with a magical complete understanding of their oppression.

“But you always say to listen to marginalized people!” you may protest. Yes, I do. Marginalized people are uniquely qualified to comment on their particular marginalization because they’ve lived it. Because they’ve lived it, they can explain to you exactly what it’s like and how it’s affected them. And because they’ve lived it, they’ve often done a lot of thinking and learning about how oppression works on a systemic scale. Your average woman probably understands sexism better than your average man, and your average person of color probably understands racism better than your average white person. (Caveat: research has not been conducted. At least not by me. But I feel pretty confident about those claims.)

But experiencing something firsthand doesn’t necessarily confer understanding of how exactly it works. Just because you can drive a car really well doesn’t mean you know how cars work, or how to fix a car that doesn’t work. Having a lot of experience with broken-down cars will gradually lead you to learn much more about how they work than someone without that experience, but it’s not going to be complete. And just because you can fix a passenger car doesn’t mean you can fix a semi.

And remember intersectionality. The reason many marginalized people do activism that is not intersectional and fails to account for the members of their group who are even more marginalized is because being a white woman doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a Black woman or a trans woman, and being a cis gay man doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a bisexual genderqueer person (and look at who we’ve primarily got leading feminist and LGBTQ movements). Many male allies get confused when, for instance, a Black trans woman tells them something about feminist activism that contradicts something a cis white woman said. Although the Black trans woman isn’t necessarily “more right” than the cis white woman, it’s quite likely that she’s getting at a piece of the puzzle that the cis white woman can’t see and hasn’t educated herself about. When someone who faces multiple forms of marginalization is telling you they disagree with you or someone you trust, listen up.

4. Listen to a wide range of opinions from marginalized people.

The dynamics I discussed above are why you should expose yourself to different voices as an ally. Some men read a few cis white women on feminism and think they’re done. No, they’re not.

Worse, some men listen to a few women who claim that short skirts and alcohol cause rape (yes, there are many women who buy into these myths because it’s comforting) and then feel validated in their belief that people can prevent their own assaults. Remember what I said about marginalized people not having a magical understanding of their own oppression?

You’re always going to find Black people who claim that young Black men just need to pull their pants up and be nice to the cops, and trans people who think that you’re not “really” the gender you identify with until you’ve had The Surgery, and women who don’t think they should have the right to vote, and so on. If these are the only marginalized people you listen to, you’re going to make a lot of other marginalized people pretty angry at you, and for good reason.

5. Listen to those further left than you.

I think that paying attention to opinions that seem way too “radical” can be a valuable exercise. First, you might find that you agree. Second, even if you don’t agree, you’re going to learn a lot about the dynamics you’re trying to address.

For instance, I once read (and was at times frustrated by) the book Against Equality, a radical queer response to same-sex marriage activism and other attempts to include queer people in traditional institutions. I’ve thought for a long time that same-sex marriage should never have become the focus of the LGBTQ rights movement–for many reasons–but I just couldn’t get behind some of the claims made in that book. For instance, some of the authors believe that not only should we not have focused on marriage equality and repealing DADT, but that we should actively avoid expanding these institutions to include queer people because these institutions are bad and harmful and therefore queer people should not join them.

I found that incredibly patronizing, and I also think that that excuses discrimination for the sake of a perceived greater good (namely, queer people not getting involved in marriage or the military). However, I also think that reading these essays gave me a new perspective on the potential harms that institutions like marriage might do both to queer people as individuals and to the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole. I may not agree that we should actively prevent queer people from being able to get married (and, anyway, that ship has sailed in the years since I read that book), but I know more now. And if I were an ally, I would be better prepared to do activism that actually helps rather than harms.

5. Listen, but make up your own mind.

What all of this comes down to is that, yes, you should listen to marginalized people, but they can’t do your thinking for you. They especially can’t do your acting for you. You’re going to have to take ownership of your opinions and actions, even though that means that someone will disagree. Someone will always disagree.

“But marginalized people say that I disagree with them because of my privilege.” Yes, sometimes. But I distinguish between two sorts of disagreement–the knee-jerk “no this feels bad stop saying that” sort of disagreement, and the thoughtful, considered sort where you actually sit down and discuss ideas with people and process those immediate feelings that you had and decide, no, this isn’t what I believe. If you’re constantly experiencing that immediate disagreement with marginalized people’s ideas–that disagreement that makes you want to lash out in anger or ignore what they’re saying–lean into that discomfort and figure it out. But not all disagreement is that.

Decide whose opinions you most respect, make sure that those people aren’t always the most privileged members of a particular marginalized group, and discuss with them. For instance, I find that the people whose opinions I most respect are the people who crave justice and not vengeance, who love nuance, who openly admit when they’re doing activism out of self-interest (I don’t trust anyone who says they never do that), who frequently criticize the groups they belong to, and who are comfortable with changing their minds. If someone like this disagrees with me, I put a lot more stock in that than if it’s some random internet person who enjoys name-calling.

But, yes, people will disagree, people will dislike you, people will use social justice language to discredit your opinions. Sometimes their use of that language will be valid, and sometimes it’ll be a form of weaponization. You won’t always know, so consult with someone you trust to be both kind and honest, and keep going.

Your primary goal as an ally needs to be something other than getting anyone’s approval. You’re not here to get people to like you. You’re here to get shit done.

~~~

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For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong
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