Shawna Ainsile is afraid of white men. But she’s discovered that they can be allies.
As far back as I can remember, my life has been littered with angry white men who stood in my way. They had their reasons: I was too female, too brown, too Muslim White men stood in my way and they were ugly about it. They were school administrators, police officers, teachers, neighbors and peers. Sometimes they were friends who thought they could save me. They never asked if I needed saving. They just assumed.
White men still get in my way. I expect them to. And I expect it to hurt. I shrink in their shadows. I cautiously play stupid even with men who clearly have nowhere near my education or natural capacity for critical thinking. I pretend I know nothing about what they mansplain to me when I often know as much or more, even when the topic at hand is their profession. Because I do my research.
I do my research because sometimes I will have to drop the charade, but before I do I check my clothes, apply my makeup and cast my eyes down to stay safe. Men are more likely to give me what I need–whether it’s a correctly repaired vehicle or passage on the sidewalk–if they find me pretty and unintelligent. Men are less likely to verbally degrade me if they don’t know my cultural or religious upbringing. So I play quiet and I play white. Unless they have an Arab woman fetish, and they often do. Then I play simple and repeatedly decline their advances as politely as possible.
It’s not just words I’m afraid of. White men are the most violent. They have hurt my body more than any other type of man I have known. White men have cornered me when they realized I was turning them down.
So when I meet a white man, even online, I lay low and keep up my guard until I know more. I am careful to stand in open spaces. To never get caught with my back to a wall. To occupy the exit when possible. To never let myself be surrounded even when I need to awkwardly maneuver white men closer to each other and myself farther away.
I am afraid of white men because when they do hurt me they don’t even know they are doing it. They are so entrenched in their own privilege they believe they are doing me a favor, saving me, bringing me up in the world, and owed something.
I am capable and courageous, but I am also cautious because experience has taught me it is necessary. My fear is based in repeated affirmation of the reason for its reality.
Then the blog Straight White Man popped up on my radar. I clicked through expecting to X out the window immediately. It was the title that pulled me in. I was sure it was just another white man reveling in his privilege. A ghastly, self-aggrandizing fool making WordPress his pulpit from which he would keep the Other down.
Imagine my surprise when I read the writer’s mission was “sharing thoughts and listening to different voices to learn more about the world and himself,” and when I dipped into his collection of posts to discover he is an ally.
I began connecting with Drew Sheldon through #LinkYourLife on Facebook and Twitter every Friday. Then via direct message and email. Then in person. He attended one of my writing retreats where the atmosphere is by necessity very vulnerable. Where I open my heart in order to help attendees put theirs on the page. I was vulnerable. And I wasn’t afraid.
I am not afraid of Drew because he is honest and humble. When he makes a mistake he apologizes and works to learn how not to make it again. I have rarely seen this before. I am still confused by it. But I know he’s for real. I hope more men choose to seek change for the world starting with themselves. It would be so easy for Drew to fall back on his privilege instead of trying, but he tries every day, and he is remarkable.
If you want to be a safe white man, take note:
Apologize when you’re wrong.
Ask how to make it right.
Put the answer into practice.
And read more of Drew [swmseeks.wordpress.com]. He’s not perfect, and he knows it. That’s the whole point. He may have been born with the ultimate privilege of being straight, white and male, but he recognizes it and refuses to allow his privilege hold another person down.
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a writing coach and essayist who writes on issues of race, place and survivorship at The Honeyed Quill [honeyquill.com]. Her work has recently appeared in The Huffington Post, The Manifest-Station, Medium, Art Saves Lives International and Role Reboot. She is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Open Thought Vortex, an online magazine for everyone, and is currently fundraising for her son’s psychiatric service dog [gofundme.com/ainslieservicedog].