So you’re on Facebook, let’s say, and you see a conversation happening about something you’re quite sure you have a lot of knowledge about, and you’re ready to jump in with guns a’blazing.
And so you do! Generously spreading your knowledge all around. Jumping in to active threads to post about your lived experience, thoughtfully challenging others’, just all around engaging in some really pointed, high-level, political debate.
Weirdly, however, it’s not being received as the act of generosity it was. In fact, they’re being pretty rude about it. And entirely missing the point. And getting pretty emotional. And, fuck, if they keep talking like this they’re just going to drive away all of the people who would be inclined to help them, right?
And, weirdest part of all, this isn’t the first time a bunch of people have been overly sensitive and completely missed how generous your contributions are. Has the whole world gone mad??
If you’re nodding along to this at all, I want to suggest an alternative explanation than that the whole world has gone mad. But I have to warn you, you’re probably not going to like it. But I think it’s important that you read it and allow for just the tiniest sliver of possibility that one or more of these things are happening right now and/or recurrently in your life.
1. This Conversation is Not for You
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are a man scrolling through Facebook. As you scroll through it, you see a bunch of women talking about being on the receiving end of manspreading. Now, you’ve heard the term before, and you’ve even seen one or two guys sitting with their legs really wide on the subway, but haven’t these women ever noticed women putting their purses on the seat beside them?? It’s probably something you should inform them of, since they’re not mentioning it.
Weirdly, though, when you do, they get really annoyed and accuse you of something called “derailing.” Which is, of course, absurd, because you’re both talking about how annoying it is when people take up too much space on the train!
Except…that’s not what was happening. See, the conversation these women were having, was about what it’s like to be a woman in a culture where women are taught to be small and quiet and passive, while men are allowed to be large and loud and expansive. (And if you’re bristling at this idea and want, desperately, to correct me, just hang on for a few more headings, k?)
And since this conversation was a bunch of women talking about what it’s like to be a woman, it’s not actually a conversation that is meant for you to be a part of. In fact, I’d argue, getting to read it at all is a privilege–you’re getting unfettered access to knowledge of how women experience the world. And, shocker, it’s pretty different from how you do.
2. You’re Not Actually Welcome
Okay, so, even though you don’t agree with it, you can maybe see how that conversation wasn’t meant for you, right? But Facebook is semi-public and you are allowed to respond to anything you want to, right? Like, if they didn’t want you to they would have hidden the post from you. So, really, they should be expecting you to jump in at any moment.
But…just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Rather than thinking of Facebook as the Wild West of interaction, try thinking of each post as a conversation happening in someone’s living room. As a white person, if my friend was having an evening for people of colour to talk about what it’s like to deal with racism, I would know that discussion wasn’t meant for me. I wouldn’t show up on her porch and demand to be let in, helpfully informing them that I’VE never witnessed what they’re talking about and implying they’re being too sensitive. If that friend was also my roommate and was hosting the evening in our shared living room and invited me to listen in I would recognize that this was a place for me to listen, not speak, and that it was an immense gift and generous free education I was receiving.
This is a little weird, but go with me here. Imagine that you’re a vampire. Now, you can go anywhere other vampires go with no problem, right? You can pop in to Vlad’s house any time. You can hang with creepy Vampire Tom Cruise any time. But let’s say you want to go into a non-vampire’s house. You can’t. Unless you’re invited. But me? I can go in because I’m not a vampire.
In the case of conversations about marginalization, oppression, and shared lived experiences, people with privilege along those axes (for example, men when women are talking, white people when people of colour are talking, straight people when LGBTQ2S+ people are talking) are like vampires–they need to be invited in, whereas people who have a shared lived experience (that of not being a vampire) do not face a forcefield when entering the conversation (or home). Metaphor adequately stretched.
3. It’s Not About You
Okay. So let’s say, hypothetically, you’re scrolling through Facebook and you come across a post detailing how hard it is, for women, to witness the ways that men deny, diminish, downplay, and disregard rape allegations. Well, that’s totally fucked up, you think. You would never do that! You believe survivors. You’re one of the good ones.
So why…why does their post not qualify that statement with “some” men? OBVIOUSLY not all men deny, diminish, downplay, and disregard rape allegations. You know this because you would never do that. So why are they lumping you in with all these assholes?
Maybe you’d better suggest a minor edit. Just for clarity’s sake. And to avoid alienating all the other good guys you know who would never do that and shouldn’t be tarred with such a broad brush (metaphors: mixed!).
Let me stop you for a second, friend. Here’s the thing: You’ve just identified that this statement doesn’t capture your experience or your behaviour. That’s great! Seriously. We need more men like you. So, since this statement has literally nothing to do with you, why are you, nonetheless, compelled to speak up and tell them how this has nothing to do with you, thus, in fact, making it all about you?
What you are asking is for women who are talking about how hard it is to be betrayed in ways large and small by men who care about them to stop that conversation in order to soothe your bad feelings about how something that isn’t about you is, in fact, not about you.
You’re asking them to stop having an important and emotional conversation to confirm something that you already know: That this status isn’t about you. And yet, ironically, in doing this, you make it all about you.
I am going to introduce you to a great little tool. This is a mantra I use when I feel myself wanting to, say, tell people of colour venting about dealing with white people that I’m not like one of those white people:
If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you. If it is about you, do better.
Just to make sure you really take a second to read this carefully and think about it:
IF IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. IF IT IS ABOUT YOU, DO BETTER.
When you feel yourself compelled to tell someone that they should really add a “some” to that statement or a “not all” to that other one, repeat these two sentences to yourself over and over and over until the urge passes.
3. You’re Incapable of Seeing and Incapable of Believing
One of the most insidious ways that privilege works is by being invisible. I can’t see what I can’t see, so how can I know it’s there?
Despite there being substantial evidence (and here) that systemic oppressions exist, those who are not marginalized refuse to believe it. Partially this is because of the way that power works–by making your experience the “default” experience of humanity, anything that challenges it seems both outlandish and deserved. I’VE never been followed around a store because of the colour of my skin so clearly if you have it’s because of something you’ve done. YOU don’t have to make constant calculations about your physical safety when around men both known and unknown to you, so the fact that I do is clearly an indication of me being overly sensitive (and, let’s be honest, maybe a bit hysterical)–and partially it’s because so much of how marginalization works is unseen. Whether that’s through microaggressions (e.g. mansplaining, asking where a person of colour is REALLY from) or through hidden back channels like how big data can be racist, it is often not visible to those who do not experience it directly.
So you can’t see it, which makes it really hard to believe it, right? It’s asking you to go against what you’ve seen and read your whole life to take something on faith. That’s hard to do. But even worse, and what you’re probably not aware of, is how you’ve been taught (cn: rape) to not believe people who are different from you.
So here’s the deal. You’re going to have to go against a lifetime of training that tells you that your experience is the “norm” and that you have an “objective” view of things, and you’re going to have to trust that the people who say they experience x know when they’re experiencing x. As a man, you will never experience misogyny. As a white person, I will never experience racism. As a cisgender woman I will never experience transphobia/transantoganism. As a non-disabled person (at least for now) I won’t experience ableism. So I have to trust people of colour and trans people and people with disabilities even when my experience directly counters theirs. Because I am simply incapable of experiencing these things, and so my instinct will likely be to dismiss, deny, or downplay their experience, thinking that I have an “objective” view of the situation because I’m not impacted by it. But, of course, I am impacted by it, by being a beneficiary of privilege, it’s just that the impact is made invisible by that very privilege.
4. Being Challenged Does Not Equal Being Attacked
Okay, so let’s say you’ve disregard the above and jumped in anyway. Yes, yes, it was with generosity and good intention even if, you’re starting to see now, you may have gone about it the wrong way. But, regardless of your methods, you don’t deserve to be attacked for them!
Here is a simplified version of this that happened recently:
OP: It’s really disheartening to see how men are reacting to the Nate Parker rape revelations.
NAM: Well, you should really qualify that with “some.” I would never do that.
Me: It’s really inappropriate to insert that not all men do this, that is neither the point nor the assertion of the original post.
NAM: STOP ATTACKING ME.
It probably seems like I’m punching things up for laughs or effect, but that’s about how it went down. And then down and down and down for about 70 more responses because it’s really hard to let it go when your privilege has been revealed. See, privilege works not just by making itself invisible, but making it really painful when that privilege is revealed and challenged. Like, physically painful. Mortifying. Humiliating. If you’re unused to it, it can feel like you’re in literal danger.
You’re not. I promise. But you do need to build up some distress tolerance skills, and you need to force yourself to remain engaged without getting defensive.
Here’s one way to start to differentiate between an attack and a challenge:
- an attack means to do you harm
- an attack is about your worth as a human, not your behaviour
- a challenge is about your behaviour and how it impacts others
- a challenge is a generous act of education based on the presumption that you’re capable of doing better
I have been both attacked and challenged on the internet. When I have been attacked it has not been with the purpose of educating me or expanding a dialogue. Just the opposite, in fact. It has been about shutting me down–harming me to the point that it is not worth the pain to engage. And, honestly, it’s always been in response to me challenging them.
I’ve also been challenged on the internet, when I have said something shitty or harmful, and it’s humbling, and can be quite uncomfortable. But it is always about my behaviour and comes from a place of belief that I can do better.
When I feel my face getting red and my heart beating faster I try to remember that being challenged is an immense act of generosity, and that I better rise to the occasion so I deserve that generosity. And when I can’t do that? I close my laptop and walk away.
5. Fairweather Allies Are Not Allies At All
Okay, so maybe you’re starting to see that there are certain conversations that are not meant for you. And maybe you’re starting to see that there are somethings you’re simply going to have to take on faith–much like I can’t actually see radio waves travelling but I believe the scientists who tell me that’s how it happens, rather than asserting that since I’ve never seen a radio wave it must be magic. And maybe you’re even working on building your capacity to be challenged. But, man, don’t these people get that you’re trying to help them? And that someone less enlightened than you would have walked away already? And that they’re really just hurting the cause by being so strident/loud/mean?
This isn’t about you, of course, because you’re committed to the cause…but, it’s true, sometimes you think it’s just not worth the hassle. And definitely there are people who would be totally feminist or pro Black Lives Matter or whatever else, if only people weren’t so quick to jump on them when they assert that, in fact, all lives matter. You know, if they could be nicer about it, gentler, really praise the person for even thinking that all lives matter.Right? If they could praise your friend for not being violent toward women, maybe he’d start listening to why he maybe shouldn’t be making rape jokes. But if they’re going to yell at him, why should he even bother?
But here’s the thing. Someone who is actually committed to justice. Not just to improving their own lot in life, not just to avoid being called out, not just because the trend seems to be to care about these things, but because they are really and truly committed to justice and liberation for all. That person is going to be committed to justice regardless of how nice those impacted are. Regardless of how much praise they get for reading the article or showing up at the march or cutting out gendered insults from their vocabulary. Regardless of if they have to contend with the frustration and sorrow and rage of marginalized people. Regardless of if they have to commit themselves to doing a whole bunch of unlearning before they can start learning. That person is going to stay committed simply because it is the right thing to do.
Because fairweather allies are not allies at all.