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I’m a proud feminist. I believe women should get the same consideration as men, and I fight for their right to get it. I care about all women, and especially the women in my life. I want them to feel supported and loved and valued as equal human beings. And the truth of the matter is that I have those beliefs in the middle of a social system that says the exact opposite to women every day. We’re in a system that has created hundreds of years of well-worn patterns that show women men don’t feel like I do, and have taught women they need to protect themselves from us.
That’s a drag for a feminist man! It would be so much easier if we didn’t have to repair centuries of oppression. But wishing it away isn’t useful. What we can do is try to answer this question: in the context of our history and current society, what’s the best way to show women our support and that we are their allies in life? I’m starting to think the most important thing I can do is have my behavior break from the past and current patterns of oppression.
To illustrate my point, let’s start with a simple example. It’s late at night, and I’m walking down the street. A block and a half ahead of me there’s a woman walking on the sidewalk, in the same direction as me, a bit slower than I am. She hears me coming, and is aware of me, because being a woman in our society means she has to be ever-aware of her safety in a way that men usually don’t. She has been in this situation before–hearing a man walking up behind her at night. In this moment she has to rely on her years of experience to assess the risk she’s in. Will there be an unwanted encounter of some kind? Or will there be no problem? Will the unknown man be aggressive, perhaps violent, or just walk past without incident?
What a crappy position I’ve put her in just by walking down the street. In that moment I can be totally oblivious to what she’s going through. Or, I can be aware and think to myself, I bear no ill will toward this woman, I am not a threat to her, so I’ll just walk up behind her and past her with no incident. She’s safe around me. And she is safe around me. I know that. But she doesn’t know me or my intent. She doesn’t know what I’m planning. What she does know is that I’m acting out a well worn pattern she’s seen before.
When we’re trying to break oppressive systems, intent doesn’t matter if we are playing out a common pattern of oppression. All that matters is we’re living in the pattern. Following a well-worn oppressive pattern but with good intention means we’re expecting the oppressed person to trust our intent is different from all the times they’ve experienced that pattern before. We’re inadvertently saying, “you’ve been bitten before, over and over again, but trust me, this time is different.” Is that the best we can offer in the way of allyship?
If we’re thinking about breaking the patterns, our street scenario could play out very differently. Seeing her half a block ahead, I could cross the street and walk on the other side. So simple! I could make the situation less stressful for her. I can get her out of the position of having to intuit if my dark, unknown figure is trustable. I can free her of some of the burden of looking for escape paths, and getting her phone ready for an emergency call to the police. And I can do that just by crossing the street because I see the pattern and choose to break it.
If we approach life as an opportunity to be an ally to women by breaking the old patterns of oppression, we will start to see these patterns everywhere. The best way to see the patterns is to listen to women. They know them inside and out, and talk about them. If you start listening for them, they’ll become clear very quickly Here are a few I’ve heard and seen over and over again:
• When women talk about the unfair status quo and how to change it and men say something like, you have a valid point, but speaking up in that way, or at this time just isn’t the best way to make change. Wait on that.
• When a woman makes a point in a meeting and a man “clarifies” by saying, “well, actually…” and then proceeds to diminish the input.
• When a woman has a great idea and a few minutes later a man claims it as his own
• When a man plays devil’s advocate in conversations about feminism and oppression
We can break all those patterns–it’s not that hard. When a woman stands up to oppression, break out of the pattern by supporting her choice of action and timing. When a woman makes a point in a meeting, appreciate it and ask her to clarify and extend it. Don’t set up false hypotheticals that are simply there to diminish her argument and protect the status quo.
But the biggest pattern we need to break is the pattern of male silence. Our silence in the face of unfairness is the most insidious and destructive pattern, and the most difficult to take on. Edmund Burke’s famous quote captures it so well, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Our silence when other men are sexist, our failure to speak in support of women when there is unfairness, our silence when oppressed people take a real risk–it’s all we have to do as men to keep things the way they are. Our silence is visible to women as an unbroken wall of male solidarity in support of the status quo. Our silence must end–we must break that pattern along with all the rest. Breaking patterns is a key step on the path to strong male allyship.
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