“But I’m an Ally!”

“But I’m an Ally!”

CFI Ontario recently announced plans to don drag at Toronto Pride. Initially, this was meant to be in support of the trans community. Zinnia Jones has a wonderful post up explaining the problem with the initial intention as well as with CFI Ontario’s response. Since she did such a great job addressing those issues, I want to talk about something a little different on this post.

I’ve recently had some unsettling encounters with people that claim to be allies to different groups of people. The commenter Bridgette on this guest post over at Skepchick is a good example of what I’m talking about. Bridgette is indicative of the exact wrong way to be an ally.

Her comments completely derailed the comments and made the majority of the discussion about cis men’s feelings when that was not the issue. And she did it with faulty reasoning to boot. She repeatedly used words common to feminist conversations, but she was misusing them. When called out on it, she kept doing it. Derailing is a common tactic used by MRAs and other bigots who don’t like being called out. It’s unnerving to have someone who claims to be an ally using the same tactics as the oppressors.

She also claimed that she stopped being friends with people who were against gay marriage because she’s an LGBT ally. As I replied to her there, not being friends with people doesn’t really do much for us queer folks. In fact, all it really does is make it so she doesn’t have to deal with them anymore. Unfortunately, we still do. And this is a function of her privilege that she is not recognizing.

Sadly, this type of thing is not uncommon. I’ve often had discussions with people who claim to be queer allies but have not at all examined their own privilege. And inevitably people who claim to be allies get offended when their good intentions don’t manifest in unending thanks from the marginalized people they claim to be allies with.

If you are an ally of any kind or you want to be an ally, here are a couple of tips to make sure you’re actually being an ally and not just a self-absorbed privileged schmuck:

  1. Listening is fundamental! Shut the hell up and listen. When the people you claim to be an ally with tell you you’re doing it wrong, the response is not “no I’m not.” It’s “okay I will try to do better.” And then you have to figure out how to fix what you’re doing wrong—do not expect them to teach you.
  2. Intention is not fucking magic. When you accidentally bump into someone and knock them down, the proper response is not “why were you in my way?!” but “I’m sorry.” Intention is irrelevant because the outcome is the same. The same is true of being an ally. Even if you have the best of intentions, the outcome could range from mildly offensive to actually reproducing oppression. Don’t get defensive about things—it happens. Just admit it, apologize, and try not to do it again.
  3. Acknowledge your privilege and use it to subvert oppression. This means that if you’re a cis man and you’re in a group made up of other cis men and they start talking shit about women or queer people or another marginalized group, you fucking speak up about it. When you see oppression happening, do something about it. In order to see it, though, you have to be aware of your own privilege and be paying attention.

Finally, you don’t get to decide if you’re a good ally or not. It’s not up to you, and it never will be. It’s not about you. It will never be about you. If that offends you, imagine living in a society that tells you that on a constant basis.

 Featured image from GLSEN.

By Will
Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

32 Comments

  1. I don’t think self-declared allies know how much it hurts when they say “if you don’t start being nicer to me, I’ll stop supporting your entire group”, (yes, someone’s actually said that exact thing to me). It’s the adult equivalent to stamping one’s feet and holding one’s breath. I’m sorry (not), but both options being presented are actually the same, so I might as well chose the one which at least assures the self-declared ally leaves me the fuck alone.

    • I’m always astounded when dudes I’ve never met or talked to before will, in a flamewar, start telling me I’d better be nicer to them because they’re my allies. I usually respond that I’m the one who decides who my allies are. One even said, “It’s a shame, because you almost made me like you.” Oh gosh no, what have I done! You almost liked me!!

      I also had a dude I knew in real life explain, online in the forum for our atheist club, what a terrible bitch I was when men, who didn’t even HAVE to listen to women, did “and even agreed” with me sometimes, and then “in return, she has not been nice to them at all.”

      There’s a difference between “ally” and “benevolent overlord.” And we know which one you really think you are.

  2. Well, this happened to me just last night at a friend’s BBQ. One of our friends is something of an activist and is arranging for a night march to raise visibility for some important issues. One of the people hanging out expressed feeling left out of all of the “take back the night”-type marches, because men typically aren’t invited to them.

    “So, you’re taking back the night from the take back the night people?” I asked. “That’ll show ‘em.”

    And then we had a socially awkward thing where I’m the “feminist” and no one else really saw the big deal, and for the rest of the night I got a lot of “good natured ribbing” about women and equality and all that.

    A friend at one point asked “How am I supposed to be a good ally if they won’t let me participate?” As if the only way to support women is to crash their safe spaces and tell them how good an ally you are…..

  3. Following up on Quietmarc’s post, this makes me think of another good tip for allies: It’s not about you. If your participation wouldn’t help, then don’t take it as a personal insult if you aren’t asked to participate. Even if you think your participation would help, it’s still not an insult if you aren’t asked to help, or even if you offer to help and are turned down. It just means people don’t agree with you about what would help. They might be wrong, but pressing the issue will never help.

    I know, we all hate to be excluded. When there’s a women-only feminist event (or equivalent for another group), even if it’s in another country, I feel a bit of that sting of social exclusion myself. It’s natural. Tribal instincts run deep, but it’s not impossible to overcome them. Just think about, which of these is more important:

    -A number of women who have suffered severe abuse from men feel safe at this event, where they won’t have to worry about seeing anyone who might remind them of the misogyny they suffer outside it.
    -A male “ally” doesn’t feel the sting of social exclusion from not being asked to go to one of these events.

    Since feminism is about helping women, it should be obvious that the former goal is the one they’ll go with. (Substitute as appropriate for any oppressed group.) Because it’s about them. It’s not about you.

  4. If I’m in a group that is sufficiently sexist/racist/etc and “speak the fuck up”, the end result is the same as when simply declaring that I’m not friends with them anymore, which wasn’t very ally-like. They would shoo me out and increased the bond of the bad isms between them. Only my intention was different, and after this post I could feel great about being ally-like _and_ not having to be around those people. Instead I could spend a lot of time with them and painstakingly go through the baby steps of helping them figure it all out. But this hasn’t had the warmest welcome when suggested.

    • Of course it doesn’t have a warm welcome. It’s calling people out. But what’s the alternative? To say nothing? And it doesn’t have to be “sufficiently sexist/racist/etc”. It can be people with the best of intentions who say something that they don’t realize is wrong because of their privilege. I’ve had this happen numerous times.

      No one is perfect, no one will feel comfortable to speak up all the time. And that’s okay. I’ve been in situations where I felt that speaking up would be putting myself in a physically dangerous situation. And I didn’t speak up in those situations. I’m only one person and if people are willing to get violent, then speaking up isn’t going to do anything to change their minds. So, that’s not really the issue in my eyes.

      The thing is, a person cannot be an ally and not work at it. You cannot just throw your hands up and give up when people “shoo you out.” If you do, you’re not really being an ally. Being an ally isn’t just a label one gets to wear because they don’t like prejudice. It’s something people have to take on fully and work to maintain.

      And like I said at the end, if you think speaking up hasn’t had the warmest welcome, imagine being one of those marginalized people who has to deal with ACTUALLY BEING THE THING that people detest. Talk about not getting a warm welcome!

      • Thank you for responding, I think that helped. I guess my post was a reaction to the feature of blog posts where they make a conclusion of complicate things in list form with simple rules or points. The exceptions scream at me. And the exceptions usually in some way concern me, for reasons that are becoming clear when reading blog posts like this.

        • Yep, exceptions are important, and I am glad you bring that up. This is just meant as a nudge to allies (I try to be an ally myself!) to remember some general rules. These are not meant to be universally applicable to every single situation. ;)

    • It’s not wrong to decide you don’t want to hang out with someone because of their attitudes (I’ve done it myself), but some people try to paint that as a type of activism.

      And there are times when leaving IS a type of activism.

      It takes some self-awareness to realise when you’re doing something because it’s for the best, or when you’re doing it just because it’s best for you.

      • Yeah, I think this is an important point to make! Thanks for this. =)

  5. honestly, i’m getting the vibe that this bridgitte chick is just dumb and wants attention, and this thing, and the solutions in the article, don’t have anything to do with social politics at all, and that all you have essentially posted is ‘the steps to not be a bitch who craves attention’

    • You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, even if it’s wrong. =P

      I posted this because it’s a trend I’ve noticed lately with people claiming to be allies and doing things allies shouldn’t be doing. If you want to read into that some other motivation, there’s not much I can do to stop you.

      I also don’t appreciate your sexist language, so please refrain from doing that in the future.

      • Here’s another, completely irrelevant to our topic, opinion. this community has never had any idea how to handle sexist language efficiently, to make tradeoffs between political correctness and succintness.

        Instead of saying bitch, perhaps i could have said shrewish, but that has the same problems. But I cannot possibly refer to the media trope of ‘shrewism’, which is utterly relevant to the image of a person i’m trying to convey, without using sexist language, or reinventing the definition of said trope, using long strings of words, or my own terminology, on the page right here.

        and one more: A significant reason rural america rejects this community is because of language worry. like a quabbling community of academics, it is utterly incomprehensible from outside, and that comes off as ‘uppity’. The constant worry of sexist language stifles discourse and creates distrust, and it comes from the fact that to express myself, i need my own long strings of words or my own terminology.

        why am i going on this tangent? because it’s incredibly relevant to me. The only reason it’s ‘this’ community rather than ‘our’ community is not my sexuality, but rather because I want people to listen to me.

        okay, descending back into relevance: i honestly think my trend is more likely. if i’m getting anything from my interactions with high schoolers – it’s that being an ally to be different and to get attention is en vogue. As i see it, it’s been co-opted as the newest of the endless stream of topics lapped up by teenagers in an attempt to challenge orthodoxy and get attention.

        now, i suppose my trend is irrelevant if the allies you’re pissed at are adults. maybe it all depends on how old bridgitte is.

        • That’s a whole boatload of victim blaming there. And it’s not just sexist because of the presence of the word “bitch” but the way it was used.

          “Political correctness” is something people whine about when they want to be assholes and not have to answer for it.

          • it is impossible to simplify the whole of gay activism in america into a ‘victim/perpetrator’ paradigm. large scale socioeconomic conversations cannot involve one party saying ‘oh la la, the bourgeoisie did this to us, we are utterly without power or self-determination’. That’s ridiculous. nobody gets anything if everybody sees themselves as the victim.

            In any matter, my comment was flippant because i was rushing out the door as i wrote it. Conflating badly worded statements and being an asshole in all cases is one of these ‘stifling discourse’ things i’m talking about. But yes, essentially what I’m saying is I want to be able to be an asshole and not have to answer for it, if i’m only being a little bit of an asshole and it allows me to clearly express myself, to discuss things with the community, while running out the door.

            the sentiments i’ve expressed come not merely from this discussion, but stumbling time and time again when talking with a friend who has decided he needs a whole bloody pronoun to himself, learning the language of the lit crit community, and an embarassing criticism of a girl looking rather man-like because the person i was talking with referred to her as her, while she neglected to mention she was trans. if these people weren’t my friends before they became significant parts of the community, if these people didn’t know i was closeted, these would have been damning offenses. i would have stuck out like the redneck at the dinner party – after the first sentence, nobody would have talked to me. it is really hard to become friends with this community if you don’t ‘have an in’, and one of the reasons is because y’all have this language (for example, the following used to be you guys, but i changed it to make it genderless. i didn’t catch it the first time. would you have?).

            a third controversial opinion: much of this community does not deal well with external criticism. they jump quickly to thinking of themselves as victims, they instantly jump to the multifarious and easily crossed rules of speaking right, in a sort of subconscious ad hominem, and don’t take a moment to think that yeah, i might really be hard to get along with sometimes, and i might be on stable enough ground to change that.

            anyways, is my theory of the ‘vogueness of the ally’ in line with your experience?

          • I didn’t bother reading all this. I read the first sentence and rolled my eyes. You’re dumber than box of hair, boo. Perhaps /r/MensRights would be a better fit for your ilk.

        • Instead of saying bitch, perhaps i could have said shrewish, but that has the same problems.

          But I cannot possibly refer to the media trope of ‘shrewism’, which is utterly relevant to the image of a person i’m trying to convey, without using sexist language, or reinventing the definition of said trope, using long strings of words, or my own terminology, on the page right here.

          Pithy! Have you asked yourself why it’s utterly relevant to depict a woman as a shrew?

          and one more: A significant reason rural america rejects this community

          Rural America rejects Queereka?! Between them and every Muslim on the planet, it’s amazing we get any page views.

          is because of language worry. like a quabbling community of academics, it is utterly incomprehensible from outside, and that comes off as ‘uppity’.

          Are you sure you know what that word means?

          As i see it, it’s been co-opted as the newest of the endless stream of topics lapped up by teenagers in an attempt to challenge orthodoxy and get attention.

          And the absolute last thing attention-seeking shrewbitches get is attention. Amirite?

          • why? because it’s the easiest, first thought way to describe the kind of attention-getting prick i’m talking about. why is it utterly relevant to call a shrewish woman a shrew? not because she’s a woman, surely, because she’s shrewish.

            not queereka, but the national pride community your community, and the local community that i interact with, represent. i use ‘significant’ in the method of science. noticeable rather than most important. that community doesn’t get any outside page views, not solely because they’re thought to be reprehensible, but because it is aloof.

            and i don’t understand your criticisms in the last two points.

          • why? because it’s the easiest, first thought way to describe the kind of attention-getting prick i’m talking about. why is it utterly relevant to call a shrewish woman a shrew? not because she’s a woman, surely, because she’s shrewish.

            Have you ever heard a man described as a “shrew”? I certainly haven’t, and I doubt you have. When women are considered “attention-getting pricks,” they’re called bitches or shrews. When men are “attention-getting pricks,” they’re called… nothing. That’s apparently just fine for men. It’s women who should know they’re place and shut up while the men are talking.

          • Shrew: A bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman.

            So yes, it is very much because she’s a woman. Care to try again?

            i use ‘significant’ in the method of science.

            I hope you looked west when you wrote that.

  6. Conflating badly worded statements and being an asshole in all cases is one of these ‘stifling discourse’ things i’m talking about.

    Help! Help! I’m being repressed!

    an embarassing criticism of a girl looking rather man-like because the person i was talking with referred to her as her, while she neglected to mention she was trans.

    Why do you think looking rather man-like is a legitimate criticism of a woman in the first place? Why the heck would you think it was so astute you should actually say it out loud?

    • I had the same question. In what universe is it okay to make a comment about someone like that, no matter what their gender history is?

      Secondly, the fact that imichel is offended that someone did not disclose to him a deeply personal and often private part of her life is pretty silly. Trans* people are not under any obligation to disclose their history, especially not to sexist jackasses who would make incredibly stupid comments about their appearance.

      Then there was this line: “if these people didn’t know i was closeted”

      That explains it. We are dealing here with an epic level of self hatred and internalized homophobia here. This person “doesn’t have an in” because they are unwilling to be OUT.

      • i explained the first in response to yessenia. i’m not offended i wasn’t told – i’m offended that people took my comments as an insult without telling me the context that made it an insult. i was trying to say ‘yeah, she looks cute, to me’, but even when i explained myself, i looked boorish.

        and no, as far as i understand myself, you are not dealing with epic levels of self hate. you are, however, dealing with epic levels of exasperation because i actually feel happier with the friends i have when i’m closeted then those who i have when i’m out, and feel like nobody understands that i’m perfectly fine with that.

        • So your theory now is that women generally interpret “you look man-like” as a compliment?

    • yeah, i am. i have three people criticizing me, i’m hesitant to log into this site and see what people have been yelling at me, and a minute or two ago, i actually let a tear or two go because i was reliving the emotions of embarassment and rejection i felt when i tried to fit in with this ‘community’. I feel like you’ll toss this off as me living for drama, but i swear it’s not. this feels like fucking high school, and you feel like the bullies. the only reason i _can_ keep talking is because i’ve dealt with these feelings before.

      in the case where man-like is something to be attracted to. imagine we have a girl who likes girl-ness, and a guy who likes guy-ness talking. essentially what i was saying is she looks more my type then yours, so i don’t really understand why you find her attractive. it made perfect sense to me, because i didn’t know this body of rules i keep telling you exist. and then boom, i suddenly learn that given context, i just uttered an insult.

      • “boom, i suddenly learn that given context, i just uttered an insult.”
        Think of it like stepping on someone’s toe and respond accordingly: I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I’ll try my best not to do it again.
        Maturity.

        • it was more of a ‘sorry, i didn’t know.’ (but why are you still treating me like i did know? this feels unfair, i feel like i don’t fit in. i’m, i’m … i’ll see myself to the door.) situation.

          • That part in the parentheses? That’s the part you get to after the toe stops hurting and the person is feeling up to having a conversation about what just happened. Not while they’re still in pain. Otherwise you’re making everything all about you, and that’s not a very caring or mature way to reconcile after your own accidents. Honestly, seeing yourself to the door is a mature and caring response if you can’t do any better.

  7. I would actually say that with straight cis allies I would *prefer* it if they would have friends who are anti-gay as they often have a unique position to explain to those people the importance of LGBTQ rights in a way that us actual LGBTQ people don’t. A lot of bigoted straight people won’t listen to those of us who affects because we’re seen as “biased,” or because they can see why we care since it personally affects us but can’t see why they should care. Having another straight cis person explain to them why it is important to them despite that the fact that they are straight and cis is very crucial to earning us more allies and, with that, more support.

    I’ve seen this purely based on one of those markers: I’m not straight (I’m bi), but I am cis. And I’ve been able to explain to cis straight people and some slightly-backwards LGB cis people why they could care about trans* issues.

  8. Thank you for this, Will.

    Some of these things I had not realized/thought about, and they made me go, “OHHH! I get it now!”

    And I really effing love that feeling. (What can I say – I’m weird like that. I like being challenged and having my brain leak out my ears a little).

    So thank you. And I promise I will try to do better.

    • Thank you for your comment! I love that feeling, too. =)

  9. Ad 3 in the original post (from an ally POV): As several posters have already pointed out, being clumsy about the subverting part can backfire, and simply cause you to be excluded while the oppressors bond over their oppressing ways. The answer to this is a simple strategic maxim: Choose your battles. Know when to fight and when to let slide (which your privilege can let you do) to get people to think rather than get defensive.

    When people get defensive, you see them huddling around arguments they would otherwise not even consider. You see them become irrationally invested in their bad behavior. This is to be avoided. Often there’s a significant social pressure to avoid looking weak or guilty in the eyes of social peers, and this combines with the ‘strength in numbers’ aspect of having the dominant discourse to stand with to create a stiff and irrational mindset in people.

    To avoid it (and to avoid ostracism which will not help your cause) pick at their prejudices and ingrained behaviors singly or in small numbers. Divide and conquer. It’s a longer project, but it does work. One or a few people can be persuaded much easier by reasoned argument, without an audience, and then will be more likely to be on your side if the group as a whole begins acting unacceptably (such as picking on someone, etc.) and needs to be stopped.

    I use this strategy myself, and while not always successful – some times a group is too mired in oppressive behavior to do much – it’s shown a lot of promise for me. I’m working on my coworkers these days. ;-)

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