When Raoul Wieland witnessed backlash against the Take Back the Night march on his university campus, he knew it was time to speak up against systems of oppression.
In my last post, I wrote about what I referred to as the staircase of oppression, a simple framework for thinking about how everyday stereotypes may contribute to and reinforce what are called ‘systems of oppression’ (racism, sexism, classism, etc.). While the model that I described is limited and must be viewed from a perspective that demands more detail and context, I believe it has value as an entry point to critically engage with the roles that we have in shaping a particular type of society and community.
Not too long ago, a group of activists at my university were organizing an annual event called “Take Back the Night“, which is an internationally held march and rally intended as a protest and direct action against rape, rape culture and other forms of sexual violence. As the organizers wrote, “Take Back the Night” will be an opportunity “to heal, resist, and speak out and is for those of you who are constantly silenced and harmed at this school… to reclaim voice in spaces that keep trying to suppress it, spaces keeping you unsafe”.
I was following a Facebook feed that the organizers had started and was soon frustrated by how dark the comments turned. The context of the recent well-publicised attacks on women added fuel to the fire. What struck me as particularly frustrating were the responses by mostly men who were arguing, reasoning, shaming, shouting, pleading and blindly clawing their way out of any sense of shared responsibility for what was happening on campus.
The belief that most men were “good guys” as compared to the deranged pervert ‘out there’ harming women was seemingly leading men to write angry responses to any articles or comments that seemed to indicate that – yes – even they, the ‘good guys’, were implicated in how, in this case particularly women, on our campus still felt the need to ‘Take Back the Night’. In so doing, they began to take up more and more space on the feed, claimed that the organizers were insensitive to and sexist against men and were thus excluding them from the event; I noticed an attitude of ‘be nice to us if you want us to be your allies and attend your march’ amongst many, but of course not all, men.
During Sexual Assault Awareness month at my university, I had the opportunity to write a blog that encouraged guys to speak out and talk about sexual assault. I wrote that “while I struggle to understand sexual assault and the role I play within a culture that allows it to occur, I do know that my gender lends me a certain privilege in our society. I also know that by simply not speaking out against sexual assault I am indirectly contributing to it. So instead of getting offended when I am told that sexual assault is a man’s issue, I am taking action”. I ended it by writing that “I vow to educate myself, to cease being a mere bystander and to start taking responsibility for a system that, while not being of my choosing, I must nevertheless help dismantle”.
While my words were sincere and come from a place of wanting to change what is often a violent society full of injustices, I realize that they will ring hollow until they are backed up by action. I also realize that I have the benefit of exiting and entering this struggle at my leisure. The fact that I am a Caucasian, middle-class man living in Canada speaks to this. I live a very comfortable life and like many other men, harbor resistance to the change and struggle that might come along with the full realization of my role – speak responsibility – in perpetuating and maintaining such systems of oppression that give rise to, for example, rape culture.
Therefore I want to introduce another framework that I/we use at my work with the Really? Campaign: The allyship circle. This is the idea that simple actions such opening your mind to new ideas, listening, asking questions, expressing curiosity, self-reflecting or challenging what is ‘normal’ are in constant conversation with what it means to be an ally. Allyship takes a lot of work, commitment and is a long process.
What we learn from our initial inquiry means little if we do not also start to believe in and value our newfound understandings. For only in this way can we begin to appreciate and honor the diversity we see being expressed around us. This may include making space for, respecting and acknowledging other’s experiences, co-constructing projects and solutions, including and using inclusive language or nourishing relationships with diverse groups of people.
It is my responsibility to critically engage with my own sense of awareness of the community I live in. Not only must I ask questions of others, I must also ask them of myself to challenge my own biases and assumptions about what I believe to be ‘normal’. This is difficult work for we are often blind to the culture that we swim in, as suggested by David Foster Wallace. Systems of oppression are not generated over night and have long complex histories. It is a challenge to understand them; and they keep changing.
The more I become aware of my own involvement in such complex systems that give rise to, for example, rape culture, the more I will be able to actively and effectively challenge the stereotypes, believes, acts, legislation, laws and harmful relationships that perpetuate and maintain them. I might enter a space of mind where the quote by Lila Watson, an Indigenous Australian activist, begins to ring true: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I don’t know about you, but this – awareness, this process, this taking action – feels liberating.
Photo: Flickr/ t3rmin4t0r