Lately, I've been thinking a lot about privilege and what it means to be an ally. Let's start with a definition. An ally is someone who is a member of a privileged group and advocates for or supports people who do not enjoy that same privilege. Last week my Facebook newsfeed seemed to be blowing up with stories about allies and privilege left and right and while I know I'm one of dozens of bloggers to blog on the subject, I spend my work days advocating for a community of which I'm not a part and most of my free time surrounded by male feminists, so I've had a lot of opportunity to consider what makes a good (or in the below examples poor) ally. Here's what you need to know.
1) Everyone has privilege. #intersectionality Required reading: White Feminism
Everyone. Deal with it. This article was inspired in part by experiences I've had as a woman working with male feminists and in part by experiences I've had as an ally working with gay people, trans* people, and people of color. Education, economic status, age, beauty, body size and ability, health, these are all forms of privilege too. And here is a common misconception: privilege is not an accusation. Good people can have privilege in a variety of situations simply because of the way society is constructed.It's whether you recognize and what you do with your privilege that matters. This gets into a larger conversation about intersectionality that is slowly but surely beginning to take place in the progressive movement. If what we're really talking about is not men, or white people, or cis-people, but privilege can you BE a feminist without acknowledging the disproportionate systematic challenges that face people of color? I'm inclined to say no. Recognizing and accepting your own privilege is the first step to being an ally.
2) You don't deserve a medal.
A couple of weeks ago I posted the above GIF on my tumblr. A colleague posted it on her Facebook wall. Then it BLEW UP. A self-proclaimed male feminist took exception. And thankfully most of my colleague's Facebook friends took exception to that exception. Here are some of his choicer comments:
"I get what the "author" (can you be an author just for posting a gif with a caption on tumblr?) is trying to say here, but I think it comes from the same kind of place as punk kids getting mad at other punk kids for calling themselves punk and not actually being punk enough for the former's liking. Or maybe it comes from the same kind of place as anti-gay activists saying that gay marriage will take away from the worth or sanctity of straight marriage." "I don't honestly think it matters, though. Jerks exist, and it's sad, but considering how much shit many guys get in most places of this country (let alone the world) for identifying as a feminist, the last thing I'd think anyone would want is to turn someone off from being willing to openly identify as such." "I don't care about your experiences because this situation isn't about your experiences. Not every situation is about someone's experiences, and not everyone has to talk everything out. If you'd like to correct me and explain how your experiences make it okay for you to be critical of others, feel free, but for now what happened here was that I had an opinion and you attacked me over it. That's all I see - that's my experience, and it makes it tough to want to engage anyone in discussion about feminism at all."
Until this guy launched into his defensiveness, I totally got where he was coming from. As an ally it can be extremely frustrating and even hurtful to be met with suspicion and mistrust when you are genuinely trying to make the world a better a place! But here's the thing. It's not YOU personally who is being met with suspicion, it is decades of paternalistic allies who want to co-opt [people of color, LGBT people, women]'s experiences and make it about them. These are the same people that when confronted with accusations of insensitivity dismiss them with "you should feel lucky to have me on your side."
As the "author" of this GIF, I can tell you exactly what I meant. It's great (beyond great, should be de rigueur) if you consider yourself a feminist, but show me don't tell me-or at least don't expect me to be impressed by the mere proclamation. Everyone should be a feminist, everyone should support gay rights, and that should be obvious to everyone. If you believe you deserve gratitude for your basic human decency you're doing it wrong.
3) Know what you don't know.
This Piers Morgan interview with trans activist, Janet Mock was all over my Facebook feed last week, although I don't know how much traction it got in the mainstream media. Morgan makes some pretty classic mistakes when interviewing Mock, repeatedly referring to her as having been a boy or man, referring to her birth name, and focusing on her physical transformation and her surgery specifically as the point when she "became" a woman. Piers Morgan comes off as not only trans-ignorant, but also pretty sexist. The whole interview can be summarized as, "Enough about your body, what does your boyfriend think of your body?"
I'm not saying that to be an ally or even a good person you need to sit home and pour over feminist theory or read every press release put out by the NAACP, but if you're gonna talk about these things, learn about them. It would have taken Piers Morgan 20 minutes on TransAdvocate's Facebook page (or I don't know, skimming the book he was conducting the interview about) to know that some of what he was saying to and about Mock was not okay.
For those of us who are not journalists there's a lesson to be learned:come from a place of listening and ask questions. And I don't mean "what does your genitals look like?" I mean, "what do I need to know?"
4) See people for who they are not what they are.
Start watching this video at 1:30
One of my pet peeves in life is when someone refers to their "gay friend." Like, "this is my gay friend, Steve." Maybe I've just reached a critical mass of gay friendship where it no longer makes sense to make that distinction, but it seems to me that that person's function in your life should be being your friend, not being gay. My problem with "gay friend" is that it essentializes that person into a gay stereotype and functionally objectifies them. (Things on my shopping list, "flashlight, screwdriver, gay friend" you never know when you'll need one around!) It's important that we see things like race and gender because they pervade our culture and are too infrequently discussed. However when all you see is race or gender, that can be equally problematic.
In the above video Kansas Senator Pat Roberts tells Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy that Murthy would feel "right at home" in Roberts' hometown of Dodge City because they have Indian doctors there too. He was 1/2 way to telling him he enjoy his people's breads and curries. Yikes.
5) You're going to make mistakes. When you do, own up to them.
While Piers Morgan's initial interview was pretty inexcusable because you'd think as a journalist he would have done some research, it is also not surprising. Our society does a crap job of talking about real trans people and their stories and as a result misconceptions abound. Look, you're going to make mistakes. I've done some things that looking back are absolutely cringe-worthy. I work in LGBT politics and it wasn't until recently that I understood how offensive it is to use the word "tranny." I'm not proud of that, but I shared it because it illustrates how even the best intentioned among us (and I'd like to count myself in that group) can mess up royally. The trick is to learn from it. Piers Morgan's insensitivity could have been a great teaching moment for both him and his audience, but instead his defensiveness and self-righteousness made him look like a total jackass.
No one expects you to know everything. Some of the sweetest men I know who would never mean to say something to offend me have uttered some pretty boneheaded sexist things. The difference between mainsplaining/me not talking to them for a week and an honest conversation that brings us closer is an apology. Sure, it's not great to offend someone, but when you do; apologize, learn from it and move on.
6)You don't get to decide what's offensive.
Speaking of intentions, the road to hell is paved with the best of them. What's so painful about watching this whole incident unfold is how genuinely and misguidedly hurt Piers Morgan is by the accusation that his original interview of Mock was offensive. However as Mock brilliantly points out, "being offensive and being kind are not mutually exclusive things." When it comes to any sort of privilege, you have to remember we're not just talking about one interaction. We're talking about years of systemic, deep-rooted oppression.
When Piers Morgan asked Mock about her surgery, it may well have come from a place of curiosity and interest in her life story, but what many of Mock's followers heard was, "Because you are a woman,a transwoman, and a woman of color, your body and its most intimate details are up for public discussion" and "You were not a 'real' woman until your body looked the way society expects a woman to look." I've had this discussion with my mother who occasionally insists on using the word "fag" to describe someone who is acting dorky. Yes, I know what she means by it but the people at the next table don't and at very least you are subtly reinforcing the idea that gay is wrong or bad even if that's not a belief you hold. Bottom line, when it comes to privilege if people are offended, it's offensive. And by the way, Piers Morgan, screaming over them is not the best solution.
7) It's no one's job to make space for you.
Did you hear the one about the male women's studies student who never showed up to class because he was intimidated by being in a room full of women and then sued the Professor for failing him? Nope that's not a joke. That actually happened. Required reading here. My favorite quote from the story?
“I believe if you want to attract more males to these courses, you have to work with them. My request for accommodation was reasonable.”This is obviously a ridiculous extreme but it speaks to a larger phenomenon. As an ally it's no one's job to make you feel comfortable. There will be spaces where you are not invited at all and there will be spaces where you don't get to dictate the agenda. Yes, it is just good sense for men and woman to work together for gender equality, but it's not women's job to find a way to include men, it's ally men's job to find a way to work with us. The fact that this man expected to be catered to only underscores his privilege. You want to be part of space that is tailor-made to accommodate men, or white people, or cispeople, or straight people? GO OUTSIDE LITERALLY ANYWHERE IN AMERICA. You're in my house now. You don't get to come in and rearrange the furniture to your liking.
As I said before, we're going to mistakes. These, and others. What I appreciate in an ally and what I aim for myself is striving to do better, knowing that issues of sex, gender, race, body and class will always be fraught with pitfalls. So I leave you with this excellent video about using your privilege in the right way.
Ally Love and Mine,