Monday, February 22, 2016

Allies

I know this has been said before and it's probably been said better. But I'm going to say it too.

If you, as an ally to someone's cause, have ever threatened to withdraw your support because someone was mean to you, I can assure you that we don't want you.

  • "But if you're so hostile to people who just want information, that's no way to get them in your corner!"
  • "But you need us! Your movement is too small to succeed without allies like us!"
  • "Have you ever thought about how your outreach makes us feel? You need to be careful or we might feel like you're shaming us."
  • "If you can't be nice about educating people, maybe you just shouldn't be an activist."
And these comments aren't even sarcastic paraphrases. I've heard all of these in the comments of my YouTube, in the reblogs on my Tumblr, in the @replies to my tweets, in the responses to my articles: People, far and wide, who step into a subject largely ignorant expect to be coddled, and if you ever ask them to take your personal comfort into account or take responsibility for their own education, you will often immediately be chastised. Usually to the tune of if you're going to be like THAT, I don't have to listen to you.

What's also notable is how often people will interpret straightforward comments as "anger" or "hostility" when they are already feeling uncomfortable asking the questions. And I mean they're asking the questions that center themselves in the conversation. To use asexuality as an example since that's what I'm most experienced in advocating for, I will sometimes receive queries such as "Does that mean you think sex is disgusting?" or "So, is this a purity thing?" I immediately interpret these as the querier believing my orientation is primarily about judging them, and though I answer their questions, they are already defensive when they ask the question. They already believe that my orientation is a quest of some kind, and that it exists to claim a moral high ground, and that my activist message is largely focused on denying something to them or expecting something unreasonable from them. It's incredible how often responding to someone without being particularly warm OR cold will result in "WHOA, you've lost your temper--I'm just asking questions, calm down!" It's also amazing how often they interpret educational efforts as evidence that you are angry, and use it to start a fight with you--which they will then use to pigeonhole everyone like you as so unreasonable that your cause is poisoned to them.




And here's the thing. We, the people carrying the banner and spreading the message, aren't poisoning anything. There are certainly individuals who attack other individuals, and sometimes people whose concepts I agree with behave in a way I don't like. (Most notably, it drives me up the wall when other asexual people are homophobic or transphobic or sex-shaming or elitist while advocating for asexuality.) But when someone's first contact is to mock or laugh at me--as in the above screencap--it's obvious they came into the scene with a negative opinion of the subject matter and they're now standing there with their arms crossed saying "Oh yeah? Then educate me. Right now. While not addressing my entitled attitude or the bias I entered this conversation with. While quietly ignoring MY hostility as I accuse you of harboring too much of the same. While dealing with me as the latest in a long string of people who don't want their minds changed even though they're holding a sign that says 'but I'm open-minded!'"

And the smugness with which they announce that they will now refuse to accept any education on your subject because people like you are too angwy is especially telling. They went into the conversation aggressively because they wanted to provoke you, and they came away from it with their preconceived notions "confirmed": People like you do not deserve their attention or respect (JUST LIKE THEY HOPED), and it has nothing to do with their approach and everything to do with an inherent flaw in you, people like you, and/or your opinion. Being angry or speaking out about your mistreatment renders you unworthy of their time, because your priority should always be their perception of the interaction.

This is not what an ally does.

Not that I have any illusions about whether snotty people who are "just asking questions" are trying to be allies, but some of them actually seem to think they are being fair. They're convinced that they're objective and that their refusal to educate themselves is "skepticism," and they believe it's our job if we want support to answer questions without reacting also to the bias surrounding them and to patiently, individually hold their hands as we connect them with the answers they claim to want. I've had people insist that I should be cheery about being doubted "since there's no evidence or studies about this," and when I both point out that a subjective experience with a label does not need "evidence" to be respected AND that there HAVE been studies about asexual-identifying people (with, you know, links and names), the person will almost invariably refuse to look at the links and engage instead with my supposed irrationality and hostility.

Answering your questions is not hostility, even if I don't type a smiley face after it, and even if I imply or outright state that you should have looked this up yourself. Am I mistaken for believing an honest seeker of information would look for studies about a topic before blurting "you can't say that, because there aren't any studies"? Even when I point-blank ask them why they're ignoring the dozens of studies I'm pointing them to, they lecture me about how they were trying to be an ally but my refusal to be kind ruined it forever, and they have now expertly concluded that the movement as a whole is not worth respect because of how we react to being sneeringly interrogated.


If you would like to be an ally and you've ever described the marginalized group's treatment of you as the key piece of why you support them, you need to zoom out a bit and remember the central reason for that group's activism. If a feminist must mention the issue of toxic masculinity's effect on men, point out how patriarchy hurts men too, and take care to #notallmen every conversation before a man will feel comfortable supporting feminist causes, they're not actually a feminist ally. If an anti-racism advocate needs to remind a white person that they do not hold them personally responsible since they didn't own slaves, acknowledge that sometimes black people harbor prejudice against white people, and point out that #alllivesmatter every time we discuss police brutality against black people, that person is not actually advocating against racism. And if an asexuality ally needs to be explicitly told that we aren't grossed out by them having sex, that we don't believe we're better and purer than them because of supposed lack of animal urges, and that it's completely natural and permissible for them to ask us endless questions about our genitals and sexual habits and experiences and intentions to reproduce, that person is not actually on our side.

Your job, as an ally, is to sit in the back seat and let the activist from the marginalized group drive the car. Stand in solidarity with them, argue with and advocate against those you may be able to educate, and do your best to avoid spreading harmful stereotypes. But don't ever engage with activists with expectations that they must carefully woo you personally before you'll support them, and don't ever pretend you're a supporter if you threaten to withdraw your allegiance anytime an individual member of that group isn't nice to you. If you believe any individual from that group represents all of them and that every member of their group is constantly under evaluation as to whether they deserve your allyship, you were thinking of them in a prejudicial, dehumanized way anyway. 

If someone from one of your own groups could disagree with you aggressively and still come away from the conversation without you blaming your own group for the hostility, you should be able to see this--just like you shouldn't have an argument with me and forever after distrust asexual people but not white people or women. (And I realize that's not the best analogy because if we're arguing about asexuality then you're going to see me as representative of asexuality, not women or white people, but this does happen to people sometimes, especially when the detractor is looking for excuses to stereotype.)

I do represent asexual people with my platform, and I understand that. That's part of why I'm as "well-behaved" as I am (and I wince while typing that). It's also part of how I got my platform in the first place; people are less threatened by those with more tolerance and longer fuses, and I've always been more patient and less prone to anger than most people. And I don't think it was necessarily the best way to approach activism, even though it worked. As you can see from some of the above comments, some people think I'm aggressive and hostile and bitter just because I'm addressing the issue at all, while others think I'm too tolerant of the bozos. 

There isn't really a perfect balance as far as I can tell, because I could bend over backwards to be nice and there would still be people who felt like my message was judging them and immediately feel attacked (and behave as if I attacked them). Therefore, I just choose what feels like the right balance every time I have a conversation about this, and part of it is always based on what words the other person chooses to engage with me. It is incredibly easy to see, with all my experience, when someone is coming into the conversation with a prejudice, and sometimes that person has no idea they have a prejudice, while other times they know it very well and are looking to confirm it. I handle those situations very differently from each other, because I can also tell if someone is there to learn or if someone is there to invalidate. 

When in doubt--and even sometimes when I can tell they're there to harass me--I treat them like they're genuinely looking to be educated. If they are there to snot at me and confirm their own biases, they will always escalate to stronger, more dismissive language when I behave like their queries were authentic. And this is not on the same level as me rejecting that I should "behave" while engaged in activism. Yes, they should be polite, but if they're not, I can still address the core of their question if it isn't rooted in suppositions about us that they won't let go.

The bottom line here: Allies will agree with the message even if they don't agree with individuals in the movement, and they will never announce their intention to "punish" a philosophy by leaving the movement or acting against it because someone was either mean to them or refused to coddle them comfortably enough. And one more thing: You don't get to "identify as" an ally as a way of protecting yourself from criticism. If you do believe you are an ally of a movement and someone who's part of that movement tells you something you're doing is hurting it, your first inclination should be to examine what you've said/done, not shout back that you are an ally and have a right to your belief. Of course, that person can be wrong, even if you're the ally and they're the marginalized person; for instance, I once disagreed with a lesbian about whether someone else was allowed to call themselves a lesbian even though by that person's definition she wasn't a lesbian. I find that sometimes lesbians "deny membership" to people because of biphobia (e.g., they say a bi woman who married a man can't be queer because marrying the man made her straight), or because of transmisogyny (e.g., saying lesbian trans women can't be acknowledged as lesbians because they supposedly grew up as straight men and have the privileges a straight man has). I disagree with lesbians who say these things in favor of other lesbians who identify as lesbian, even though I am not a lesbian myself. And I have been told by the occasional activist that I don't really support lesbians if I disagree with their interpretation of lesbian identity.

I think the point there is that it doesn't actually matter what I think. As an ally, I support whatever interpretation makes the most sense to me, as I don't believe I'm lesbophobic or something because I support trans lesbians and don't refer to them as men. Someone who requires me to be transphobic before I'm lesbian-friendly isn't someone I want to ally with; I believe I'm still an ally for lesbian people even if I disagree with someone's exclusionary version of definition politics. But I don't get to decide those things within their community, and I don't have any intention of withdrawing my support for them because some lesbians disagree over who is really in the club. Expecting them to behave and believe as a monolith is part of what makes someone very much not an ally. Goodness knows the asexual community disagrees on things all the time, and as an activist I frequently find myself saying "I believe this, others in my community believe this" so I can acknowledge that I am both an individual and a spokesperson without hurting my community.

Center others in your allyship and support them how they ask you to, not according to your own standards. If you are really an ally, you're already doing this because you believe it's right, not because someone is constantly making sure you're kept in cookies.

No comments:

Post a Comment