Earlier this spring I was chatting with my sons about the classes I was taking that semester. “What’s ‘Women in Film’?” one asked. I explained that examining the way women were shown in movies could tell us some things about how society thinks about women.
“But it isn’t fair to have a class about women in film and not one about men in film,” my son protested.
I took a breath while I thought about how to reply, but just then another of my sons said, “They don’t need a class about men in film, because in movies men are almost always the heroes.”
These are the moments when I feel like I’m getting somewhere as a feminist mom of boys – these moments when they show that they are beginning to internalize these proto-feminisms.
At our house, 101-level concepts have been translated into elementary school language: Consent means that you get a person’s permission before you start a wrestling match or pillow fight with them. Gender norms are when people say that boys aren’t allowed to wear nail polish, but we know that if someone likes wearing nail polish they can wear it if they want to and let’s practice some things you can say if people make fun of you. Racial, gender, and body diversity and different kinds of families are found in the library books we check out and the photos my friends post on Facebook and the people we go to church with.
But as my sons grow older, I desire for them to move beyond these basic proto-feminisms. I want them to identify structural inequalities and injustices, and be motivated to work towards making a more just world. I want them to understand privilege and recognize their own.
They are white, middle-class males*. The deck is stacked in their favor. They will be playing the game on the lowest difficulty setting there is.
I want my sons to be informed by feminism and intersectionality…but I do not want my sons to grow up to be “allies.”
I’ve met too many “allies.”
As an essay on the Indigenous Action Media website put it, “Ally has also become an identity, disembodied from any real mutual understanding of support.” Allies often see themselves as saviors and oppressed people as “victims and tokens instead of people.”
All too often folks show up with an, “I am here to support you!” attitude that they wear like a badge. Ultimately making struggles out to feel like an extracurricular activity that they are getting “ally points” for. Self-asserted allies may even have anti-oppression principles and values as window dressing. . . . They are keen to posture, but their actions are inconsistent with their assertions. Meaningful alliances aren’t imposed, they are consented upon. The self-proclaimed allies have no intention to abolish the entitlement that compelled them to impose their relationship upon those they claim to ally with.
As a person who is privileged in many ways, I have wrestled with the desire to identify myself as an ally, to carry a placard proclaiming my solidarity to oppressed people. This desire never comes from a place of humble focus on the oppressed person and their needs and wants, but from my own arrogance: “You can totally trust me!” say my motives. “Not all [white/straight/cis/etc. people] are like that! I’m one of the good ones!” Labeling myself an ally serves only to recenter my own identity, experiences, and feelings in a movement that is not and should not be about me.
Instead of claiming a label, I want my sons to learn some behaviors that demonstrate genuine solidarity:
1. Listen to and learn from women and marginalized people – on their terms.
One of my biggest reasons for leaving the church that we attended for many years and began attending an Episcopal church with my sons was because our old church doesn’t believe in allowing women to take pastoral or leadership roles. I want my children to get used to hearing from women in (and out of) the pulpit, and respecting women’s voices as authoritative.
But I also want them to recognize that listening to and learning from women doesn’t mean that they are entitled to that woman’s attention. Allies often act as though because they are allies, they have earned the right to ask marginalized people their questions and get immediate, thorough answers. Asking questions from a position of humility is good, but expecting women to drop what they are doing to teach you shows a posture of entitlement – especially in a world where Google exists. In other words: I want my sons to be the kind of men who wouldn’t dream of jumping up to interrupt our priest in the middle of her sermon to explain theologies of atonement, but who would schedule an appointment during her office hours to ask her their questions, and maybe skim some library books beforehand.
2. Seek out diversity – but not tokenism.
One of the biggest things that drew me to our new church is its diversity. Mother Debra is a Black woman, and our congregation is made up of people of different races, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and abilities. I love that we are learning from and alongside them, and sharing in the Eucharist with them each week as a body of believers.
Coming to the table together is my weekly reminder that the people around me are family – connected to each other and the worldwide Body of Christ past and present through the bread and wine we share. If I treat them like squares on my Diversity Bingo card, it defiles the table and my own humanity. I am there to be in relationship with other people, not to collect them like Pokémon cards (“This is Richard, he’s a level 2 gay person with a fire spin attack that does 100 base damage!”).
3. Use your power for good.
Sometimes the best way a privileged person can act in solidarity with oppressed people is to have the hard conversations with fellow privileged people so that the oppressed people don’t always have to do it. Dealing with patriarchy on a daily basis is already emotionally draining; I don’t want to be the person who has to explain rape culture to my male classmates, or point out why the joke someone made was offensive and misogynistic, or defend myself for being angry about microaggressions. This is a place where men who want to be “allies” can step up and educate their peers, call out misogyny, and (as Bethany Suckrow put it) “directly address the bullshit happening in their own spheres of influence.”
And share the mic. Let marginalized people speak for themselves if they wish, and amplify their voices, rather than adding your own privileged one to drown them out. For example: recently, in the midst of a difficult online conversation about the sexual abuse of young women in the church, a male blogger with a large platform hosted a guest post by a woman who had been sexually abused, rather than adding his own voice to the conversation. Sometimes decentering yourself from the conversation means being silent so that marginalized people can speak from their own experiences.
5. Defer to those you want to “help.”
My oldest son struggles with this. He’s five years older than my youngest, and he already knows how to read chapter books and tie shoes and make complicated paper airplanes. If his little brother asks him if he’s seen the Lego instruction sheet for his helicopter, his impulse is to jump in and make the helicopter for him, and then wonder why his little brother is angry and upset.
Slow down, I have to remind him. Listen. What is he actually asking for from you? We practice saying, “How would you like me to help?” and “May I tell you what I think?” instead of barging in.
Moses, God’s “ally”, went to tread on God’s space, who then said to him “take off your damn shoes!” When entering space as an ally, do that.
6. Accept criticism.
Sometimes we mess up. Acting in solidarity doesn’t mean that we must always be perfect; it means that when we aren’t, we must learn and do better.
7. Make sacrifices.
True solidarity may cost you. A man who refuses to participate in his friends’ misogynist jokes may become their next target. A white person who declines to speak at a seminar where people of color are underrepresented may lose networking opportunities. A pastor who tells his conservative church that he affirms same-sex relationships may lose his job.
But for oppressed people, loss is not a choice, but a given. Women are far more likely to be subject to unequal pay and poor healthcare and violence and injustice – much more so if she is nonwhite or LGBTQ or fat or disabled or poor.
8. Don’t ask for cookies.
Expecting praise or thanks or recognition for your work is just another way of making your allyship about you, not the oppressed people.
I pray that my sons will be fighters against the oppressive systems of our world, toppling the tables of the powers that be and ushering in radical justice. And I pray that they might do it with this kind of heart, described in Philippians 2:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Do not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
What else would you add to this list? If you’re a person of privilege, what are some of the complexities of working for justice that you struggle with? If you’re a parent, how do you talk to your children about feminist concepts?
*I write this with the recognition that as they grow up, my children may realize that they are transgender or otherwise do not identify as male; and I also do not assume that my children will be straight. Naturally if they are not cisgender, heterosexual men, this will affect the degree of privilege that they carry; I only hope that I can have conversations about privilege and intersectionality with them as children that will be meaningful to their lives as adults regardless of their genders and sexualities.
Abi Bechtel is a grad student, wife, and mom of three living in Akron, Ohio. She blogs sporadically at http://adiposerex.wordpress.com and tweets about feminism, church, fat activism, and her cats as @abianne. She has a tattoo of Ursula the Sea Witch and the fashion taste of Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.