How to be an ally

Being a good ally is not obvious. Maybe you’re a guy and you’re interested in feminism, or perhaps you are white and you are outraged by all the casual racism you see in your day to day and you want to help. This is amazing and this is good, but there is a lot of political etiquette that you need to be aware of.

Myself, a cishet male gender academic have struggled to let go of the entitlement and privilege that comes with being a man when entering feminist groups. I want to share some lessons that I have been taught and discovered in trying to become an ally. It is not exhaustive and highly personal, I have much to learn, but this is what I have:

1.     You’re late to work

You turn up to work on time at 9am and you discover there is a giant rock in the middle of the worksite.

You and your department start to think of ways to remove this giant rock. You try a few things, change your minds, try others, and there is some progress but still, the rock remains.

At 3pm, after you and your team have been at it for hours, Rodrigo from accounting turns up. They offer you suggestions on how to remove the rock, they clearly want to help, but you’ve already tried that this morning, you’ve already had that conversation within your team.

You humour Rodrigo and explain everything that has already been tried and great, they’re now up to speed!

But at 4pm Miranda from human resources turns up.

Then Saanvi from cleaning at 5pm.

By the time the Garry from logistics arrives at 6pm to offer you the same damn suggestion the other three already have you are beyond frustrated! You don’t want to spend more time telling people from other departments about how you’re going to fix your rock problem than actually fixing your rock problem.

If you’re a person of privilege, you’re late to work. Many of your suggestions, ideas, and solutions have already been discussed or tried before. If you’re late, sit back, observe, and help by following instructions if someone actually needs you – often they don’t.

2.     Always explore the option to shut-your-mouth

Because you’re late to work, a lot of what you have to say may not just be unhelpful or be something everyone already knows, it may actually be incredibly incorrect, offensive and/or hurtful.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening. If you have been permitted into a safe space and you come from privilege you will actually learn the most by listening. It is important to observe and realise that as an ally, there are strong political reasons for why you will not be leading the meeting, you’re there to support.

Men, white people, the able-bodied, anyone (and that means everyone) who has privilege either needs to get behind or get out of the way.

3.     Realise that you are not entitled to a space in feminism

There are many feminists who believe that by virtue of being male, men cannot be feminists. There are also many feminists who disagree.

So how then should you as a man react to a woman telling you that you are not a feminist?

Your behaviour needs to be feminist. Number one lesson for any person of privilege who wants to be an ally is to recognise that the sense of entitlement they carry needs to go. What better way to humble yourself than to recognise that you are not entitled to be called a feminist? That “feminist” is perhaps something best said about you than something you call yourself.

As such you will find many feminist spaces, services, clubs or even employers who will not hire you based on your sex. You need to accept that your presence can also undermine the safety of a space, that in something like a support group, your very presence may very well be menacing.

Letting go of your male entitlement is a feminist act. Don’t call yourself a feminist, be feminist. That also means taking “feminist” off your Tinder profile! Don’t use feminism to pick up.

4.     Consider when, where, how and to whom you ask advice or disagree

Like above, you are also not entitled to other people’s advice or time. It is easy for a man, or a cis-heterosexual who wants to learn to be less racist or less cissexist to turn to their trans or female friends and ask them to help, right?

Sure, but what you are doing is asking them to put in emotional labour – work – to educate you on something you should be educating yourself on. It is not women’s responsibility to mother you into becoming a feminist, you should be doing this on your own.

If you turn up to the worksite to volunteer to help remove the rock, the staff aren’t going to be very happy about having to teach you how to help. Come prepared, school yourself.

If you have come to an agreement with a friend, or it is an appropriate moment of a discussion to ask for a someone’s advice then okay, but always remember you are not entitled to that.

5.     Let Google put in the emotional labour to educate you

Okay, so there is something that you just can’t get out of your head. You really disagree with the group’s idea of men, or white people. Maybe you feel they’re too combative, angry, and instead they should just be “nicer” to convince more people?

If you find yourself in this or a similar position, do everyone a favour and let Google teach you. Before taking your argument or disagreement to a person of colour or woman, search to see if there is any literature on it already. Often when I have had a problem with a feminist principle, a quick Google reveals all I need to know on the subject. Sometimes I change my mind, sometimes I don’t, the point is that I took the time to educate myself first.

If then, you still have a significant disagreement, still consider if the when, where, how and to whom are appropriate and always frame your disagreement as an issue that you want to learn more about. Make your piece and then listen attentively, recognising that no one is obliged to explain or argue with you.
There are surely many other principles and rules that people of privilege should know, but in my journey as a gender academic and man visiting feminist spaces, these are some of the most important.

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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