This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
Question: I want to be an ally but I feel like the “woke” community is nitpicky and ironically excluding of anyone who does not “keep up with the Joneses” of their “PC” jargon. For example, how angry they get over the term “sexual preference” (if we are free to establish our own sexual identity, doesn’t that qualify as a preference?) or the #AllLivesMatter or #NotAllMen hashtags, which are obviously true. What gives?
I think that a lot of well-intentioned people might share your frustration with the “woke” community (as you put it) because social justice is an incredibly fluid and evolving subject that is constantly adjusting to new information. This is both its greatest strength but also its Achilles Heel in terms of attracting people to the movement. On the one hand, most problems around all forms of oppression in our society have deep systemic roots because we have been rigid and inflexible, even when confronted with information that contradicts our biases; but on the other hand the fear of making a misstep combined with the frustration that always comes with uncertainty keeps a lot of would-be-allies on the sidelines.
It is interesting that you use the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”, because a 2016 Pew Research Center study found only 24% of PhDs held conservative values. Trends over the last several decades do support the idea that perhaps a bit ironically, “woke” liberalism is actually an elite stance. This illustrates why a college education should be a right and not a privilege. In the meantime, people who currently have both the luxury of time and money to obtain higher degrees need to accept the responsibility that comes with this privilege and not look down their noses at those in our community who do not.
A willingness to both listen and communicate with people who do not share one’s own values is critical. This is the frustration I feel you are expressing. However, to address the examples you give, it is necessary to take a step back and recognize the automatic privilege given to anyone who lives outside of the realm of any oppressed minority. In our culture as it still exists today, that is if you identify as cisgender and heterosexual, if you are white, if you are Christian, typically abled and most especially if you are male. The hierarchy of oppression affects anyone who does not identify as ALL of the above.
To this end, you are right–in a perfect world, “sexual preference”, for example, should not be a triggering term. Our sexuality is no one’s business but our own and we should be free to express it, as long as we do no harm to others, as we wish. But that is NOT the world we currently reside in; therefore, the term “sexual preference” is at least prejudicial and at most dangerous. Anti LGBTQ hate crimes are INCREASING, not the other way around. This indicates that a higher and not lower percentage of our population is targeting people who do not identify at heterosexual for abuse and violence. Therefore, we have not evolved as a society enough to embrace our sexual “preferences”. Although, on a lighter note, young people are more and more comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity, indicating that the “perfect world” may not be a pipe dream, but a future possibility.
Regarding the backlash hashtags that invariably surface with each new social justice wave, again, you are right; #AllLivesMatter and #NotAllMen are empirically true and not offensive when taken OUT of this social context. Within the context of both racism and sexual abuse of women, however, they are harmful because they deny the privilege inherent to both of these statements. #NotAllMen are sexual predators, but ALL MEN are responsible for actively participating in the reduction of the abuse and violence towards women. #AllLivesMatter (and they do!) but only the lives of non-white American citizens are currently at exponentially higher risk of incarceration, violence and death at the hands of our government sanctioned policing and prison system.
Ultimately, at the heart of your frustration, is the simple fact that allyship, like most heroic works, is not easy. It requires tenacity, vulnerability and yes, perhaps MOST importantly, a willingness to both hear and accept that you are wrong. It also requires a sense and sensibility (to steal a phrase) of humility and humor. To keep your wits about you in an ever-changing landscape is enriching and rewarding, both for yourself and society at large.
You also need to understand that allyship, as with so many challenges in life, is never fulfilled by simple intentions. If good intentions solved our problems, both personally and culturally, none of us would struggle with addictive behaviors, broken relationships or really failure of any kind. We all “intend” to be healthy, loving and successful, but those things (mostly) only come with real work. The same is true with allyship.
The first step towards enacting real change is recognizing and acknowledging the systems and cultural norms that are deeply entrenched in both society and our psyches that perpetuate prejudices and oppression. We may, for example, feel the gender pay gap is unfair, but still harbor a belief in “women’s work” or even a preference about women staying at home with their children. Or we may be marching (or kneeling) to protest police brutality against POC but still feel a degree of discomfort with our increasingly integrated communities. We need to root out our own engrained beliefs as well as push back against the larger systems.
Most importantly, we need to understand that most of us do have some degree of privilege and it is human nature to defend our advantages. While ultimately it is a false construct that if we agree that #BlackLivesMatter we are somehow devaluing ALL lives, there are plenty of pundits in place that will happily try to convince you that you are losing sovereignty in this process. If allyship were easy, everyone and anyone could do it. But like all challenges, the payoff to our perseverance can be profound. When we take responsibility for who and how we are in each moment, we really do have the ability to change the world.
Read more of our Ask an Ally series here.
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This post is republished on Medium.
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