I am a white male. I am also a feminist and a black rights comrade. I have something to tell any of my fellow white males who want to join the fight:
Don’t expect to be trusted by everyone you’re trying to help.
In the wake of the election, there seem to be many of us who have a new or intensified interest in equal rights, and in combatting racism and sexism in this country. That’s an excellent thing. I hope that one of the good things that comes out of this realization that xenophobia and Othering can be used to win an election, that the monster of racism is larger than we’d thought, is a solid, consistent push to slay that monster.
By all means, let’s end racism. Let’s end sexism while we’re at it, and Islamophobia, and queerphobia, and all the isms that turn us against each other. That’s the game of the power elite: Have us attack each other, while they sit in mansions and enjoy the fruits of our labors.
But the idea that we white males are serious and trustworthy this time is going to be a hard sell to people who have been pushing for civil rights for centuries.
For one thing, we’ve betrayed them in the past, repeatedly. One of the advantages of privilege is that we can choose when to be involved in the battle. As whites, we can decide to be allies for a while, and then stop when we lose interest or it becomes too threatening. Black Americans can’t decide to stop being black.
Where were we when Eric Garner was gasping for breath? Where were we when Ruby Bridges was having slurs tossed at her? Where were we when Emmitt Till was being beaten to death?
Some of us were fighting along with people of color, but many of us were quietly enjoying our privilege.
Likewise, as males, we can decide to support feminist issues when it suits us, and then take a rest when it gets to be too much work. When our male manager makes an inappropriate joke about a female employee’s cup size, do we take a stand, or do we chuckle along awkwardly? In recent week, there have been multiple cases of women wearing hijabs being attacked in public… while bystanders do nothing. Where have we been during these incidents?
We too often hesitate to commit at a deep level.
In the wake of the election, I saw a lot of liberals embrace the notion of the safety pin. Wearing a safety pin indicates to others, particularly those at risk, particularly the marginalized, that the wearer is a safe haven. This is well-intentioned, but it was followed by a wave of criticisms that amounted to: Far too little, far too late.
We need to show a deeper commitment than wearing a safety pin.
Furthermore, we white males have a tendency to make things all about us. Black activists can speak their mind… until they start making generalizations about whites, and then we start our responses with “Not all whites” or “Hey, I’m here” or “Well, you’re just being ungrateful now.” We likewise parameterize conversations with women with “Not all men”: “Rapists are responsible for rape, and I’m not a rapist.”
Good for you. You’re not a rapist. You’re not a member of the KKK. Seriously, good for you. It’s not about you.
Stephen Covey, a famous white man, is credited with saying, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
I have seen this in far too many conversations. I have been in this stance myself as well. I have been more focused in how to position myself well, in how to defend my own position, than in listening to others tell me their experiences and how to help.
Over the last few years, I have been actively working on this. In conversations with women, people of color, and other persons against whom the white male power elite is constructed, I try to park my ego at the door.
It’s difficult to do, but I hear more now than I used to. When someone says, “White people are evil” or “All men are part of the rape culture,” I gain more understanding in listening and exploring than I do in trying to prove myself one of the Good Ones.
Indeed, when I have insisted that I’m one of the Good Ones, I either get shut out entirely or I get a tired concession. A pat on the head, and a cookie.
It’s easy to ask why, if marginalized people are going to be skeptical of or even outright reject our help, why should we help?
Because it’s not about us, as individuals. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because people of conscience should not rest while other people are being victimized.
It’s easy to do the right thing when we’re going to get the reward of praise and accolades. It’s much harder to do the right thing when we’re placing ourselves in a more vulnerable position. I’ve been insulted and mocked. I’ve gotten snarks and eyerolls.I’ve also learned:
I’ve also learned: It’s not about me. Most of those insults and eyerolls are directed at a lifetime of Helpful White Men who are only interested in assisting if there’s something in it for them.
Sometimes I forget and get upset. Part of privilege is the expectation of prestige. When people fail to recognize that, it’s easy to take it personally.
Again: It’s not about us, as individuals. It’s about us, as a group. No, we can’t change our race or our gender any more than anyone else can, and no, it’s not fair. But it’s understandable. We have to earn trust, and that doesn’t happen through a handful of slogans and a safety pin.
If you’re looking for trust on your own recognizance, try to reconsider your role. If you’re looking for pats on the back for being one of the Good Ones, you’ll be disappointed, and rightfully so. If you want to do the right thing, though, swallow your ego, and remember that other people have been through a lot more nonsense than you have been.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Photo credit: Pixabay