Who considers himself a feminist ally, has two thumbs, and occasionally screws up royally? This guy. I’ve said the wrong things, taken the wrong actions, and hurt people I care about. Sometimes, I’ve had people correct me on the spot. On other occasions, I’ve understood the implications and extent of my error in a world-crashing moment a few days later.
The most uncomfortable part of being a white heterosexual male ally is recognizing the inevitability of making mistakes. Lots of them. These mistakes stem from not realizing the gravity of my actions. I am a product of society, supported and guided by the very norms that breed bias and inequality. Old habits die hard. So, even with the best intentions, I am always coming up against a steep learning curve. It is an uphill battle, and not in a ‘the valiant hero fights the enemy hoards to save the kingdom’ kind of way (PS: women don’t need men to save them anyway). It is more akin to a ‘mercenary sits on a hill, meditates and undergoes deep personal introspection’ kind of process.
Now, let me use concrete examples and avoid the nebulous platitudes that fail to hit home.
A few years back a friend, let’s call her Rosalind, told me how mad she was at having to correct someone else, let’s call him James, for referring to a group of women as ‘females.’ Pausing to think it over, I started to defend James, pointing out that indeed ‘females’ was technically correct. Rosalind patted my back and calmly pointed out that the phrasing is demeaning. Recognizing I was missing something, I let the topic slide to give myself a chance to think it over. Several days later, I realized I had never heard of a single man or group of men referred to as males. Reduction to sex alone is a not-so-subtle way to indicate their character and personality are negligible when considering their social value. It took an awkward conversation and someone speaking up to correct me — the way she’d time and again corrected others — to realize this.
Our mistakes can be as much about inaction as action. One of my weakest points in being an ally is failing to speak up when a colleague or friend makes a sexist comment. Discomforted by the notion of confrontation, I stay quiet while others throw gendered insults such as ‘don’t be such a girl,’ or ‘grow a pair’ (the relative sensitivity of our suspended gonads makes for some significant irony). One approach I’ve been working on is to state an opposing perspective (‘girls are actually really tough’) or frame my response in the form of a question (‘why should that matter?’). Again, a work in progress, but one in which I understand my silence is part of the problem.
These mistakes and failures of character don’t stop me from trying to be an ally. Making mistakes is inevitable, and being an ally means practicing something our society doesn’t really encourage: acknowledging and apologizing for one’s error, and trying to work on it. Men are taught to take action, never look back, and never be wrong. Admitting to a misstep is tantamount to weakness. I stand up, dust myself off and continue learning.
There is no card, trophy, or parade for being a feminist ally. Nor should there be. There are so many ways to trip and fall, that it seems overwhelming. But this discomfort is incomparable to the relative impact of our actions (or inactions) on women — and minorities. Learning to listen, engage, speak up, and admit error in tough conversations is essential. Suppressing the gut response of becoming defensive helps a lot.
So, my advice to aspiring allies? Embrace when you are wrong. I guarantee you will learn something from it.