It should be so easy, and for a while you think it is. You get that the decks are stacked against women; you’ve absorbed the research that proves Māori are structurally and systematically discriminated against; you’re cognisant that what genitalia someone happens to be born with does not augur an identity or personality. You’re also a dude and you’re well-intentioned and you want to distinguish yourself from the innumerable fuckbois out there, so you give yourself a new moniker: ally.
Except that’s where the tidy trajectory ends. The reality of being an ally is messy business, largely because the term has come to connote disingenuity and self-serving liberalism gone hugely wrong. Mia McKenzie, creator of BlackGirlDangerous, threw down the gauntlet a couple of years ago with her (very polarising) essay titled “No More ‘Allies’”, which bemoaned “the constant cookie-seeking of people who just can’t do the right thing unless they are sure they’re gonna get some kind of credit for it”. I quote her here wholesale:
“It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance.”
Yikes. So we know what being a good ally isn’t: making the whole things about you and how great you are for understanding that something in our society is a little bit amiss. That’s the bare minimum required for a pass: consider that the most tenuous of Cs. The next step in being an ally is to create spaces that are inclusive and welcoming; to take spaces that are unwelcoming and disquieting and make them inclusive, vibrant, welcoming; to seek to eradicate injustice without superseding the voices of people with an experiential framework to base their protest on.
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But how do you do that effectively? These are obviously treacherous waters, cap’n, and often the advice is conflicting based on who dispenses it. So I’m here to guide you through the waters, pitfalls and trapdoors. First of all, and most crucially, it’s imperative that you understand this, because this is the single trick to becoming a good ally and maybe even a halfway-decent human being:
I have no idea. I don’t know.
Because I don’t. I don’t know if I’m a good ally or not. I can’t know because it’s not my call to make. This is because being an ally isn’t even, really, a thing you are or you aren’t. Being an ally is a process.
But I do know this: Rule Numero Uno = STFU + GTFO (of women’s spaces)
Being an ally is fundamentally about listening to the voices—and often the experiences—of the people you’re allying yourself with. Listening to voices does not mean “listen to the voices that say what you want to hear”—that disregards the eclectic range of marginalised voices out there. Listen and absorb. This is deceptively difficult, especially in a university climate where you’re compelled to share/show off what you know constantly, but it’s probably fair to assume that you know less than the people who have experience with discrimination. Also, acknowledge the need for women’s spaces. The world’s not gonna implode because women get their own room where they can feel safe.
The issues are more encompassing than Male vs Female
Or: How I learnt to stop worrying and love Intersectional Feminism. The term was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, and posits that oppressive power structures (i.e. stuff relating to race, gender, ability, sexuality et al.) are interconnected, and urges you to consider every manifestation of privilege and every manifestation of power inequality and the way they—here it comes—intersect. This means being aware that if you’re reading this, life has probably privileged you in some way seeing as how you’re at a university institution and all; this does not elide the suffering you face if you’re a woman reading this, but it does put it in a wider context of stupid injustices. Keep abreast of developments in this field, by the way; two buzzwords—“transraciality” and “monosexual privilege”—have emerged recently, and it’s worth investigating whether they’re horseshit or not.
… But this article is mostly one for the lads
Woah there, transmen! Don’t you try and slink away! This includes you too. If you’re fortunate enough to pass as male, you are beholden to a vast set of privileges in day-to-day life that aren’t afforded to the female gender. This permeates pretty much every aspect of society. Just have a look at the stats. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to gender inequality and power relations, Men are systematically—though not invariably—the Problem. This doesn’t mean there are aren’t wonderful dudes out there, just that as a statistical group they’re prone to more, y’know, violence, rape and discrimination.
Do not let your voice supplant theirs
Save your hot takes (as scorching as they no doubt are) and use the retweet or share button instead. John Cage’s 4’33 should vocalise more than you do.
Acknowledge that identifying as an ally isn’t your call to make
A couple of years ago, in a fit of naïveté, I wrote about identifying as a feminist. These days, I don’t think of feminism as a position I can claim, but as an adjective that women can ascribe to men but that men fundamentally can’t assert ownership of. If other people want to confer the label on me then that’s their call to make, not mine. I think the same thing can be said for ally-dom. Being an ally isn’t something you can claim to be, but something you can aspire toward and hopefully achieve every now and then.
Don’t fetishise otherness
By “fetishise” I mean venerate a specific culture because of how you think it meets your personal ends, or reduce a disadvantaged group to a sexual peccadillo. Do not try and pass yourself as disadvantaged where you are not; this detracts from the real disadvantaged people, and you’ll only be doing it for the sake of your personal advantage. Being an ally is about other people.
Use Correct Pronouns ALWAYS
This one isn’t so much about being a good ally as not being the dregs of humanity. Correct pronouns—and names—are mandatory, non-negotiable, capiche? If I found out you’ve purposefully misgendered someone I will haul you before the Queer tribunal and have you arraigned for your crimes. You will also be beaten.
And use denigrating slurs NEVER
I never thought I’d agree with libertarians on anything, but turns out I too subscribe to the idea that intangible things can be owned. Certain groups “own” certain words because, having had those words used against them to incite harm, hatred and violence for centuries, it’s only fair that they get to reclaim it. They have exclusive rights; if you’re white, impose a moratorium on saying the n-word. Don’t use gendered slurs if you’re a dude (unless it’s in the context of consensual coitus, I guess). Just don’t use the r-word or that f-word. Lots of people I know complain about being “censored”, but think of all the other words you have at disposal that aren’t in the framework that upholds inequality! Besides, no-one’s taking “fuck”, the best swear word by far, away from you.
Call your family and friends out (especially if they share the same identity as you)
This one is crucial because it’s the only way you’re going to make change—by targeting and engaging with others who share your identity. Gently rebuke them when necessary, of course, but more importantly explain why. It’s no good using your knowledge trying to ingratiate yourself into groups that aren’t yours or by smugly correcting people actually experiencing the discrimination.
Don’t get all sanctimonious and humourless on us
In the 1970s, the FBI tried to infiltrate an anarcho-feminist cult. I say “tried” because their agents were spotted for the obtruding moles they were almost immediately. How? Because they were so damn serious and po-faced about their beliefs. It’s okay to make jokes and talk about things other than the everyday struggle the people you align yourself with face. There are other things to talk about! Also, don’t be like the unnamed past VUWSA member whom I overheard say of hip-hop, “it’s so negative towards women, I would NEVER listen to it” in what I can only assume was a pathetic attempt to get laid on Cuba Street once. Ironically, he was wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt at the time. HACK.
Credit people directly involved in the cause / financially remunerate where possible
I’m kind of reiterating the point/bludgeoning it into your skull with the delicacy of an ape lobbing shit at you at the zoo, but: let other people speak. If people express an interest in learning, link them to relevant pieces based on experiential frameworks, not your own rote-learned stuff. MOREOVER, because we’ve yet to put our capitalist overlords against the wall, money is where power and opportunity revolves. Put your money with your mouth is and help address the pay parity directly. Contribute to causes that do great work in redressing the bullshit women have to put up with (Women’s Refuge, WGTN Rape Crisis) and, if you’re able, contribute to trans people’s transition funds. In New Zealand, about two of these operations happen yearly. Consider the rush to increase those numbers if it were any other operation fundamental to a person’s dignity and well-being and you’ll get a glimmer of the systemic oppression and, shit, outright violence trans people face every time they leave the house.
You’re gonna screw up; don’t distance yourself from the problem, acknowledge that you are racist/sexist/transphobic by design
This is crucial. Privilege is an insidious rat-bastard, and as such there’s no way you’ll ever be aware of all of its manifestations and minutiae. So there’s no point in being holier-than-thou, or acting like you’re better than people who aren’t in the know or whatever. There will always be residual sexism, racism, ableism etc. encoded in your mentality. Don’t distance yourself from this—acknowledge it and strive to always, always, do better and be better.
Keep educating yourself
Goes without saying but I said it anyway. You can never know enough. Knowledge, in this case, is the good kind of power.