Guest Post: Who’s the Captain of the Ally-Ship?
by Kate Kelly
I have had several conversations that conform to the following script of late and I wanted to write to male allies regarding this familiar narrative.
Male ally: Says or does something sexist
Feminist: “That was sexist.”
Male ally: “How dare you attack me! I’m not the enemy. Can’t you see?? I’m on your side. Cut me some slack.”
Feminist: Sighs. “Sure, but UGHhhhhhhh, get a grip on reality. That WAS sexist.”
Male Ally: “You are being so rude. You are the reason lots of men eschew this conversation at all. You sure don’t know how to make allies!”
Dear male ally,
In my continuing journey to become an ally to others I have learned a about what helps and hurts in supporting a community you are not a part of. Many of these lessons I have learned from young Mormon feminists. I still have miles and miles and MILES to go in becoming a better ally myself, and you can rest assured that I will take every word I write below to heart in my own work to be an ally to communities of color, my LGTBQIA brothers and sisters, people with varying abilities, those in poverty and all other communities I stand in solidarity with. Some of the lessons I am trying to learn apply to what I’d love to see from male allies.
The word ally itself means someone who has chosen to join in a fight or struggle. On some level they realize that becoming an ally and fighting alongside you is mutually beneficial. This may be that they see that discrimination negatively affects us all. But, also for the simple reason that feminists are on the right side of history, and allies want to get off the wrong side… more quickly than others in society who are dragging their feet.
One thing I’ve learned about allies is that they do not get to pick what makes them a good ally. Often in conversations with men when they say something offensive (mostly on the internet), they counter any ‘pushback’ to their sexist remarks with “I’m not the enemy! Give me a break, because I’m on your side.” As if this claim to allyship is an excuse for bad behavior. Now, I know from my own experience in trying (and often failing) to be an ally that it hurts when someone in the group you think you are allied with calls you out. Sure, you’re not the enemy in the sense that you’re a modern Willburn Boggs trying to exterminate all feminists… but, there is no single person who is the enemy in patriarchy. The enemy is a collection of millions of people supporting an unequal structure by saying or doing small, individual sexist things. So, if you are saying or doing small, individual sexist things, you are indeed part of the problem.
It can feel like feminist rage is misdirected at you. Sometimes it might be. Sometimes women might just erroneously see you personally as one of the enemy. If the enemy were MEN, you would be. But, like I said, in the end the enemy is not MEN. It is an institutionalized system that puts men above women called: patriarchy. Men aren’t patriarchy. Patriarchy is made up of men and women who support an unequal system. But, it can be confusing because while not all men are in power (and oppressing women), most of those in power are men. Thus, this confusing system can definitely contribute to misguided and vicious attacks on men who are potential allies. If you feel unfairly targeted, this may be why.
Again, if you make a mistake (and say something sexist, for example) these public lashings by feminists can hurt. They can be so frustrating that you just want to throw your hands up and shout “well if THIS is how feminists act, I’m outta here.” But, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t get to choose what makes you a good ally. Women are fighting their struggle with or without you. You choosing to be on the right side of history is not a benevolent act, it’s an act of self-preservation. Don’t presume you’ll be rewarded for common decency.
In any type of struggle, there are certain expectations of allies. We have a common adversary (so to speak) and so we fight together. Countries, corporations, communities alike. Sometimes we have unlikely allies and our common cause is the only thing that brings us together. But, if a so-called ally does something that damages us, we drop them-“With friends like this, who needs enemies” -style.
In foreign relations, countries come together and later those alliances may break. You can only trust an ally who supports you unequivocally in battle, so if a country does something against your national interests, that alliance is broken. After traitorous behavior you don’t get to say, “But, don’t you see… I’m not the real enemy??” That does not work. A true ally does not get to choose the standard for acceptable behavior, and declare they get special leniency if they mess up (that would be a bully, not an ally). Of course, there are ways to smooth diplomatic ties after a fiasco, but that typically involves a formal apology and massaging of the relationship on both sides.
And so it is with male allies. As much as it pains me to say, and as much as it is difficult to hear: the struggle against sexism will continue without you. You are not doing us any grand favors by fighting by our side. Again, this is a matter of common decency. You are merely assuring that you are on the right side of history.
Don’t get me wrong. We want you with us. We need allies. You are ahead of the pack! No struggle that involves a vast power imbalance, like the one again patriarchy, can be won without allies. And, I KNOW THIS SOUNDS HARSH but, it is not my job to make sure you feel welcome, secure and valuable. You already have a lifetime of positive reinforcement of your worth from the system we are trying to topple.
Is one person getting after you particularly doggedly or saying really rude things? Keep in mind that one woman yelling at you in ALL CAPS on the internet does not represent all of feminism or even all of Mormon feminism. But, as an ally, try to look for reasons to listen to what she is saying instead of reasons to discount what she is saying.
Women, especially Mormon women, have done a lot of really tough emotional work to loosen the shackles of patriarchy on our psyches. This typically takes many years and many, many tears to get through. Women have no obligation to do that emotional labor for you. You have to do it for yourself.
- Talk to your male friends and those you interact with who are not on-board with equality already.
- Approach conversations with women with an open mind, ready to be wrong if you turn out to be.
- Keep in mind that THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. It never will be. Ask yourself: who is at the center stage? Who came up with this idea I have/ am so vigorously advocating (a man?)? Why am I trying to insert my idea/opinion/pain/relevancy into this space?
- Vigorously engage women as your peers, but defer to them as the experts of their own experience.
Don’t retreat and throw your hands up when a feminists lashes out at you. That is a manifestation of male privilege.
After I was excommunicated an exceptionally well-connected Mormon man reached out to me and expressed his condolences for the violent way I had been treated, even though, he said he was, “agnostic about female ordination.” I replied:
Thanks for your kind words and continued support. It really does mean a lot. But, with all due respect, I think you should keep in mind that as a man you have the luxury of being “agnostic about female ordination.” Your male privilege affords you an arm’s length position it does not afford us.
If you think to yourself after a particularly tough conflict, “Well, fine. I don’t need this crazy b*tch as much as she needs me (*throw hands up in air with exasperation*). I give up.” THAT is privilege. RIGHT THERE! You can choose to walk away from sexism. It does not negatively affect your life, your health, your emotional well-being, your standing in the community, your financial status, and your relationship with your children the way it does for me. YOU CAN WALK AWAY THIS CONVERSATION. I cannot. I hope that you can see why that is so infuriating.
Maybe it’s true that we feminists just don’t know how to make allies. Maybe I’m just like a stray dog who doesn’t know which humans to trust so it snarls its teeth at everyone. (So, I guess technically I am calling myself a b*tch.) It is definitely true… SO true that we feminists need added amounts of patience, long-suffering, and compassion. There is more room for tolerance and forgiveness. Definitely. But, we are angry. And we have EVERY RIGHT to be angry. In fact, there is something really, really disturbing about NOT being angry when you realize the huge brunt of the systematic discrimination you have faced your entire life because you are a girl. Seriously though, how can anyone NOT be incensed about that?
Maybe the only mistake you made is making a suggestion about how you see things could be “more productive,” “better executed,” or “more efficient.” You may think “SHEESH, I was just trying to help.” While you may be well-meaning, you need to reexamine the way in which your “suggestions” or ideas are presented. It is very, very easy for a man to dip into the “mansplaining” territory when talking to women, even if it is unintentional. Are any of these phrases involved in your communication: ‘you should’? ‘it would be better if’? ‘you gals need to _____’? ‘you need more of x….y….z’? ‘I have x…y…z solution to your problem’? If so, re-think your approach. Instead of coming up with your own brilliant plan for ending sexism (and pushing it on women), why not just ask how you can be helpful and how the women you interact with want to be supported?
In my struggle to openly embrace male allies, it’s hard to know what is an honest mistake and what is just plain lethargy and unwillingness do work necessary to learn about sexism. It’s probably almost always a combination of the two. We could look the other way and excuse your sexist comment or action and preemptively forgive you because you ‘mean well’ saying, “bless his heart, he grew up in patriarchy too.”
But, do you want that?
Everyone wants the benefit of the doubt. But, do you want peers and colleagues in the struggle to have to say how dreadful you are, but cover it over with your supposed good intentions? I never want anyone to have to say that about me. Please recall that, yes, we have a common cause, but it is essential that you do the work to overcome privilege rather than insisting that I overlook your privilege.
So, who gets to captain the ally-ship? We do. If we say what you’re doing is bad, or wrong, or offensive, take us seriously. Consider women the experts in this field. Accept the fact that you will never, ever be an expert on the female experience. Never. No matter how many supportive comments or ‘likes’ you make on feminist blogs. No matter how many times you say to other men, “Hey, dude that’s sexist… knock it off.” No matter how much you self-correct your language and pronouns. You still have more to learn. You are an ally. This ship is not yours to navigate.
We are genuinely happy to have you along for the journey. Our intention is absolutely NOT to have you beat yourself up over mistakes. EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES. Just be open, teachable and strive for an extra does of humility. Know that this ship set sail with or without you, but we want you to be onboard. Embrace the journey, and take a breather if there are bumps on the way. This work is difficult, but you can rest assured that in the end you will find yourself on the right side of history.
Kate Kelly is an advocate and activist. She has a JD from American University Washington College of Law, the only law school in the world founded by, and for, women. In 2013 she founded a group called Ordain Women to advocate for gender equality in the Church. She was excommunicated in June 2014 for speaking out against the fundamental exclusion of women, but she continues her passionate advocacy for gender justice.