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.
I’m a man, I care about equality; but every time I try to help I seem to say something slightly wrong and I feel like I get crucified for small mistakes. That makes me say less, for fear of damaging relationships or my reputation. I know I can’t be perfect, why does everyone expect me to know everything? And where and how can I actually make mistakes without hurting people?
I hear you. There is actually a lot to learn, and everyone stumbles in the process, so you’re not imagining things. It takes courage and humility to do this work, but I promise the rewards are worth the effort. First, let’s talk about context so you understand why people are reacting to your mistakes the way they are.
Before you try to do anything, it will help to understand the concept of emotional labor. One of the big challenges for men (for everyone, really) is to experience the world from a perspective that we might not have access to ourselves. Mixed up in that challenge is the fact that women, in particular women of color, have been doing the work to change society, educate allies, and—oh by the way—try to survive and thrive in an unequal world.
Imagine being a woman of color in this world. You would probably hear a range of men asking for a range of help in a range of ways. Where do you start? Who’s sincere? Is he really coachable? Are you emotionally ready to dive back into all of the little traumas of your life? How exhausting will it be? If an earnest guy shows up and doesn’t know what he’s doing, why are you the one who has to help him when he’s part of the system (perhaps unknowingly) that’s hurt you? He’s making an extra 20% on the dollar, he can easily afford to go get a master’s degree in social change or take a class on gender equity (this is a jab, but it’s also true—what level of education have you sought?).
End scene. You can see how it is actually unpaid labor to help men learn this stuff. Most women have done this kind of work every single day of their lives. Most still grit their teeth and do it because it’s necessary work; but they also need you to get up to speed so you can help do the really serious work.
My experience in feminist circles has shown me that most women give us white men far more benefit of the doubt than we probably deserve. I’ve certainly been flagged for some unconscious behavior, but if I’ve done my homework and I show up willing to learn, I have always been treated kindly. So I suggest that we as men need to do our own homework before we ask for help in orienting ourselves in the work.
There’s a great book called “Some Men” by Michael Messner that lays out the decades of work men have done as allies to feminism and equality. In it he tells an allegory about a village by a rushing river. The villagers notice that children and women are crying for help, drowning in the river. The women of the village begin rescuing the survivors and healing their wounds. The men of the village notice this is an ongoing problem, and so they line up to help. The women tell them they are managing the triage. They tell the men to go upstream and fix whatever is causing the problem. That’s our work as men, we have to go upstream.
If women could end inequality, it never would have existed in the first place. Inequality is a men’s issue. Men often have access to rooms that women don’t. We need to be fixing the cultural and systemic problems in our society. That can be policy at the corporate or governmental levels, or it could be dismantling a culture of sexism around the water cooler.
Every ally needs to map out their journey a bit. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be woke. It takes time. Prepare yourself with as much knowledge as you can. After you’ve done as much as you can, it’s time to look for places where you can just show up and listen. Ally networks or equality events are a great place to start.
The more you start from “I’m here to learn and understand”—the more you will be granted the benefit of the doubt when you do make mistakes. After you’ve learned a bit, start asking where you can go upstream to fix the problems you see. On your way upstream, see how many other men you can pull along with you. That’s the work.
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