This is a story about allies.
Once upon a time, there were two men. Bartholomew and Winston worked at the same office, in different departments.
Every day for months, when Winston passed in the hallway, Bartholomew held his hand out. Some days, Winston would sneer. Others, he’d just ignore it. Once in a while, when Winston was having a bad day, he’s slap Bartholomew across the face. Day after day, Bartholomew offered his hand, and Winston would find a new way to insult and degrade him.
Eventually, Bartholomew gave up. He found other people to be social with. He decided Winston wasn’t worth the time.
One day, Winston noticed Bartholomew and his friends. He realized that Bartholomew was a decent fellow. He went over and greeted Bartholomew, but Bartholomew gave him a sour look and went back to his friends.
Winston was furious. HOW DARE HE! He persisted, crying out to Bartholomew that it was time to set aside their differences, that Winston had come to his senses, that it was time for both of them to be partners. Bartholomew was being petty, he said. Bartholomew was letting the managers separate them, he said. It was a time for mutual respect and understanding, he said.
Bartholomew just shook his head and refused to listen anymore. He had his friends now. He didn’t need Winston. Winston had lost his chance.
If you’re a white man and understand Bartholomew’s position, replace sneers and slaps with lynchings and redlining and incarceration. Replace sneers and slaps with pox-ridden blankets and theft of land and mocking sports mascots. Replace sneers and slaps with rape and glass ceilings.
Then ask yourself: Why should people of color, why should women, trust us just because we’ve decided to declare ourselves allies? Would you trust you?
As a white man who is outspoken on civil rights issues, I often find myself engaged in conversations about race and gender. I have seen the emphasis placed too often on making sure to protect everyone’s feelings. I see expectations set: Everyone should be comfortable to speak their mind. Nobody should feel attacked.
When people who belong to an oppressing group (even if they themselves are not actively oppressors) speak of “everyone’s feelings and comfort,” it sounds to me like a bully telling the bullied that now everyone should put equal work into getting along.
In those identities where I am part of the oppressor group, it’s on me to prove my trustworthiness. My feelings are indeed subordinate to those of the victims.
I was bullied as a child. Adults in my environment gave my bullies and me shared responsibility for making peace. I felt that was nonsense. Time and again, I was the “better person,” only to have the bully return to their behaviors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “be the better person” line.
I’m a white man. I’m not pretending to know what it’s like to be a woman or a person of color. I can find ways to empathize with people in those groups, but I will never have lived my life in their shoes.
I do have characteristics that are oppressed: I’m disabled, I’m LGBT, and I know that I wouldn’t want to be told that I should frame my conversation for the comfort of the straight or the able-bodied. In conversations about race, in conversations about gender, my comfort or my need to be respected shouldn’t be put on a par with that of people of color or women. My comfort and my need to be respected comes second.
This is not to say that all white people are actively racist, or that all men are actively sexist. But we can’t expect people who have been victimized by people who look like us all their lives to just trust us to come to the table with perfect civility.
I used to proudly proclaim myself an ally. I used to tentatively proclaim myself as woke.
I don’t do this anymore. I have come to feel that these things are both pointless and worthless: If I truly am committed to addressing racism and sexism, it will be clear from my words and actions. And if I’m not, then no amount of proclaiming myself will make it so.
If you have to tell people you’re an ally in order for them to figure it out, you’re probably not doing enough to show it. As fellow GMP writer Gretchen Kelly puts it, “It’s like telling everyone you’re funny when you’re not. Or saying how nice you are when you’re not. If you’ve got to TELL people you are something you probably aren’t.”
It’s far too easy to declare yourself an ally; it’s much more difficult to take on the assault that comes with it. And make no mistake, the assault will come from two directions: It will come from the people in your group who don’t want to let go of the comfort and power that comes with racism, sexism, and other oppression. And it will come from the people in the oppressed groups who aren’t ready to accept your handshake just because you’d decided it’s time to make peace.
I have been called a cuck by other white men. I have been told I’m only interested in civil rights because I want to get laid, or because I hate myself, or because I have some other cynical end in mind.
I have been actively shunned by women and people of color. They don’t accept my presence in their space. They don’t believe I’m harmless. I’ve learned not to push or defend myself. I’ve learned, instead, to listen to the rage.
As a teacher, I have many students of color. It is my job and my personal goal to build bridges with these students, but many of them have had lifetimes of experiences of being minimalized by people who look just like me. Trust takes a long time to create, and again, it’s on me to prove my trustworthiness.
Even once I’ve demonstrated my trustworthiness, some of my students have taken that as an opportunity to pour out their rage and frustration at the injustice of the system in which they’re being educated. I have learned to understand that standing where I do means accepting flames of anger that I didn’t personally cause.
It will not get better until white people and men come to understand that. We can’t expect people who have been treated abominably merely because of their skin and their gender their entire lives, including by people who have said they were allies, to simply meet us calmly.
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