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Feb 01 2012

“But I’m An Ally! I’m On Your Side!”

Lately I’ve been doing this thing where I make a point of trying to call people out on their cissexism and transphobia. Typically it’s not the big, nasty, evil, “you’re perverted and delusional and ought to be shot on sight” stuff, since it’s unlikely I ever end up interacting with such people anyway. Instead it’s usually the little things, the tiny little micro-aggressions that piece by piece help normalize a culture of intolerance.

One of the most common defenses I’ve been finding myself having to deal with, on a pretty frighteningly consistent basis, is people saying “But I’m an ally! I’m on your side!”. This can end up being expressed even by people trying to defend some horrendously cissexist views. Apparently, for them, all it takes to earn your “ally” card, be “on my side” and therefore magically above criticism is that you not think I’m a horrific sub-human who doesn’t deserve any human rights at all and, as mentioned, ought to be shot on site. That’s all it takes, apparently, to qualify as being “on the side” of trans rights, and immune to having one’s assumptions or preconceptions about gender and transsexuality, however vile, open to being questioned.

One of these interactions, with precisely that excuse, was with the infamous Ryan Long, the guy whose threats against Greta Christina resulted in the big DJ Grothe debacle. Long was commenting upon the “token” issue with the “Atheist Of The Year” award, and Matt Dillahunty’s decision to decline the award, and defended the non-inclusion of “women and transgender” atheists (as separate from the men). I remarked on the cissexism of treating transgender as a category separate to women and men (especially ironic in that I’d been included in Jen McCreight’s list of influential female atheists for 2011 with no one fussing at all), rather than an adjective that may or may not apply to a given woman or man (or someone who is both, or neither, or in-between). Long’s response was to assert that he was ally, he was on my side, that he was trying to ensure that trans people were included in the discussion since nobody seemed to be worrying about us (again, we already were included: I was on Jen’s list), and also asserted that in his opinion we are a separate category, not women or men. He seemed to find this “fact” to be so wholly “self-evident” that it didn’t even require explanation.

At the time I had forgotten who Long was, and forgotten the details of his conflict with Greta, and I’d also forgotten his past efforts to be “inclusive” of gender variance. Such as his threat to give a “mallet to the micro-penis” to any intersex supporters of Greta, along with his threats to “kick [her female supporters] in the cunt” and “kick [her male 'ditto-heads'] in the balls”. Said Long: “I’m all inclusive”.

Yep. Totally on my side. A true ally to the cause of trans and intersex inclusion in the community.

Ouch! I just rolled my eyes so hard one of my retinas detached.

I value allies. Absolutely. But the truth is that all of us carry around nasty little assumptions that we need to remember to keep in check. And ultimately I don’t believe concepts like “ally”, “on your side”, “not a transphobe / racist / sexist / homophobe / whatever” ought to be something someone can simply declare for themselves. It feels very much off to me.

For one thing there’s the way it ends up creating this alternate, separate category of bogeymen: “the racists”, “the transphobes”, “the sexists” and so on onto whom one can shirk their own accountability, rather than recognizing that cissexism, racism, sexism, heteronormativity and all of them are cognitive processes we’re ALL susceptible to. These are emergent systems, cultural problems that we share accountability for on a collective basis. But also it feels to me like the status of “ally” and other similar positions are something that one earns through actions, and very far from being a badge one wears, or something you declare yourself to be. And in actual practice, the “I’m not a sexist” and “but I’m an ally!” statements almost always occur in the context of trying to excuse non-ally-like behaviour rather than simply letting one’s support be known.

Given the experiences in which I’ve come across the statements, it’s becoming hard for me to imagine circumstances where the statement is made in a genuine, non-messed-up way, since most of the time genuine allies prefer to demonstrate that through their actions, through their willingness to listen and learn, through their consideration, through being able to admit mistakes, through concrete gestures of solidarity and so on. It seems to me like most true allies don’t feel any need to announce it, or declare themselves as such. They recognize that their status as “ally” is not engraved in stone but always conditional upon their actions. The status is something conferred upon them by those who are appreciative of the support.

Let’s say, for example, that I, Natalie, were to state “I’m not a racist. I’m an ally to people of colour.” Well, in many ways that’s mostly true. I do do my best to understand the social dynamics of race, to listen to the perspectives of racial minorities, to recognize my own privilege, to not perpetuate or exploit the social inequities from which I benefit, to actively work against my own unconscious biases and assumptions, to try to educate myself about race-related issues, and I fully support proactive efforts to work against racial inequity, like affirmative action and minority scholarships. I work hard to help educate other white people about the merits of and reasons for such programs, and I try to call out racism where I see it. I do my honest best to support the rights of racial minorities and overcome my own limitations.

But doesn’t it still come across as a bit arrogant, a bit self-excusing and sort of generally missing the point to declare myself an ally and not-a-racist?

The truth is that despite all that, there are still little bits of racism floating around in my head. And I am still prone to prejudicial attitudes towards people based on their race. I am still prone to unconscious biases, assumptions and fears. I still sometimes regard people as Other, or regard my own culture as superior or default, and often don’t even notice when I’m benefiting from privilege, acting on a prejudicial attitude or overlooking racial inequality.

All that is still there and I have to work hard against it. The moment that I start patting myself on the back and telling myself I’m not a racist, I’m an ally, I’m such an amazingly good great wonderful oh so progressive non-bigoted liberal wonder woman, then it becomes a thousand times easier for those unconscious bits of racism to start going unchallenged. It becomes easier for me to start falling into those traps, taking the path of least cognitive resistance, and ignoring my shortcomings, excusing my mistakes, stop listening, etc.

So all things considered, I think one of the absolute most important things I can do as an ally is to remain open to the possibility that I’m fucking up at being an ally, and allow myself to recognize my own racism when it shows up. I can’t fight something I don’t allow myself to see.

And I extend that towards others who would prefer to regard themselves as allies or on my side. When you grant yourself that title, and especially when you use it as an excuse to avoid accepting criticism, questions or lessons, you have tossed aside lesson one about being a good ally: the ability to listen, to acknowledge mistakes, and be open to improvement. The ability to recognize that you might be fucking up.

I don’t have a completely solid position on this… but it is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. But I’m very much still in the process of thinking it through, and I’m not sure I want to 100% stand by my definition or opinion just yet, since there may be a lot of dimensions or issues I haven’t yet considered. And I might be unduly influenced by my recent negative experiences of people saying “you can’t criticize me! I’m an ally! I’m on your side!”.

But I’m definitely going to allow myself to notice warning signs when they appear.

72 comments

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  1. 1
    Megan

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been seeing people slinging around their self-appointed “ally” status as if it were a get-out-of-criticism-free card so often lately, it makes me wonder if the word has any meaning at all anymore. With “allies” like that, who needs enemies?

  2. 2
    Anders

    I linked to a site with tests for racism and sexism in some other thread. One important result they’ve published is that the member of minority groups are not immune to prejudice against their own group. So a black person shelters a certain amount of anti-black sentiments, and if we did a test I’m fairly certain that even Natalie would harbor anti-TG prejudices (just making a point here; it’s not like you said anything else).

    With that in mind I think the term ally should be scrapped. Because if we keep it, we can go two with ways with this term. One is subjective definitions, like we have today. Anyone who says they’re an ally is. Well, that’s not working.

    Or we can go with the objective definition, which has problems of its own. How should such a status be defined? Operationalized? Who decides if a person fulfills the criteria? I just don’t think the term is worth the hassle.

    Maybe this is a false dichotomy, but that’s the options as I see them. So, what do we use instead?

    Many things. I like the term ‘friend’, and it comes with important restrictions. First of all, ‘friendship’ exists between individuals, not between an individual and a community. I’m a friend of several transwomen over at Gitp (there are no out transmen there, oddly enough), but I’m not a friend of the community.

    There is a need for other terms also, for instance for cispeople who fight the fight, sign the petitions, walk in the marches and sit in the sit-ins. I don’t currently have a name for us but there are intelligent people here, I’m sure they can come up with something.

    1. 2.1
      awkwardturtles

      um, i think the main issue with coming up with a new term is that there’s nothing to prevent it too from being appropriated as a get-out-of-criticism-free card. but i think the term is helpful- the discussion of what it really means to be an ally and how we can be better allies is an important one, and a difficult one to have if we don’t have a term.

  3. 3
    thaismcrc

    Jay Smooth has a great video about that: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxHampshireCollege-Jay-Smooth

  4. 4
    Chris Hallquist

    Link to wherever this happened?

    1. 4.1
      Natalie Reed

      It was on Matt Dillahunty’s Facebook, the comment thread responding to his decision to decline the atheist-of-the-year award in reaction to the cray-cray “token” rant of its creator.

      I can try to dig it up later today, but it would be tricky.

      There’s probably some screen caps of the “mallet to the micropenis” remark floating around here on FTB, in the posts concerning the DJ Grothe controversy.

      Edit: Ahhh, here:

      http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-national/the-2011-hitchie-award-winner-is

      Scroll down to the Facebook comments, and look at the responses to Matt’s statement that he’s declining.

      1. Ophelia Benson

        Ewwww. I’m reading some comments I missed at the time. Arghl.

      2. Ace of Sevens

        He seems to be deliberately obtuse. I’m sure this is all the feminists’ fault somehow.

      3. Natalie Reed

        I just noticed Ryan’s comments seem to be missing from the thread now! Is anyone else seeing that?

        1. Ace of Sevens

          Yeah. I had to rely on other people’s responses to him to get the gist of what he said.

        2. Xanthë, Amy of my threads

          It’s not just you, his comments have been purged from that thread. No great loss, and I’m sure I’ve seen a screen cap of the ‘mallet to the micropenis’ comment elsewhere, so it’s not as if he can pretend the remarks have successfully been flushed down the memory hole.

      4. Erin W

        Oh, dear. I know the creator personally, and I totally missed this when it happened. I’ve not seen him in a while but now I’m curious to bring it up with him.

  5. 5
    Sivi

    Heh. This came up in a thread on Greta Christina’s FB, where a dude kept telling a women that her calling out his sexism was “shooting a comrade in the back”, and kept missing her telling him that she didn’t consider him a “comrade” or “ally” in the least.

    It’s also sort-of one of the reasons I’m not comfortable with the “More than Men” project (another one being that it’s privileged people lecturing on their privilege, rather than, say, linking to posts by non-privileged people on those topics).

  6. 6
    miller

    On occasion, I’ve seen people flip around from “But I’m an ally!” to “Well, I could have been your ally, except you keep criticizing me and pushing me away!” Well, after that obvious concern trolling, how am I suppose to respond with anything but criticism?

    1. 6.1
      HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

      Hah, quite. What the fuck do I want with “allies” that need constant coddling and headpats that they’re soooooooo goooooood, and never being criticized for fucking up when they do so?

      1. Jadehawk

        this seems to be an accurate depiction of such an “ally”

        1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

          There was a small sonic boom as my hand flew to the mouse to right-click save that. It’s hilarious, and depressingly true.

    2. 6.2
      Xanthë, Amy of my threads

      Yes, miller, that’s the unmistakable whine of the concern troll, “I coodabeen your ally, but you won’t give me any cookies for showing I really care!”

  7. 7
    Ace of Sevens

    I can see some places where this might be valid. See Maryam Namazie accusing the ACLU and Ed Brayton of stabbing feminists in the back by opposing Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment banning Sharia. Also, I’ve been blocked by I Bet the Turkey Can Get More Fans Than NOM on Facebook for arguing that free speech does include the right to say homophobic things (in response to a question they posted about whether freedom of means you have a right to say homophobic things). However, there’s a difference between telling someone that you’re an ally, and therefore immune to criticism and arguing that your position supports their goals or that their immediate goals don’t serve their big goals.

  8. 8
    julian

    I often wonder what standard these ‘I’m your ally!’ people are using. Do they feel I should declare Newt Gingrich my ally simply because we both share similar ill defined ultimate goals?

  9. 9
    Praedico

    I prefer the term ‘supporter’. It gets the point across without implying some form of approval from the group/movement/person you support.

  10. 10
    ZenPoseur

    Holy crap, yes. I am so sick and tired of twits pulling out the ally card so they can speak “uncomfortable truths” (and other euphemisms for thinly veiled prejudice.)

    I think it’s pretty simple: An ally is someone who goes to war for you.

    If you can’t manage that, you’re not an ally. You’re not an ally when you refrain from kicking us when we’re down. You’re not an ally when you aren’t skeeved out by us. You’re not an ally when you unilaterally declare yourself so. And you’re sure as hell not an ally when you think you know what’s best for us better than we do.

    1. 10.1
      Anders

      You would be adverse to the suggestion that sometimes an ally might be right? That a cooler, more detached perspective can be an advantage?

      Or is it just that such situations are too rare to be worth the hassle?

      1. Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

        “A cooler, more detached perspective?”

        Oh, joy, the old “I’m more objective than you because I’m more detached” argument. A favorite one in particular of men who think, for example, that they ought to get to make all the laws about abortion because women are “too close to the subject” to be “trusted” with it.

        No, actually, someone’s lived experience is a more reliable guide to what’s oppressive and what isn’t than your “detached” pronouncements on the subject.

      2. Megan

        I would think that if someone wants an outside opinion, they’d ask for it. Giving an unasked-for outside opinion on what you think is best for someone is just rude, plain and simple.

        1. josh

          Really? On a freethinker/atheist web-site you just said this?

          1. Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

            On the topic of oppression and privilege? Damn right, because all the “logic” and “reason” in the world aren’t going to put you in the shoes of someone who carries a heavier burden than you do in society.

          2. hyperdeath

            Try reading for comprehension in future. Yes, people have the right to offer patronising, unsolicited advice, but that doesn’t mean it’s not obnoxious.

          3. josh

            Ms. Daisy Cutter-
            Sorry, no. All the thinking in the world won’t put anyone in another person’s shoes exactly, but there’s this thing called communication where different people can actually convey their impressions and try to empathize with one another. We all make our own judgements about how to prioritize different people’s concerns and the validity of their sentiments and ideas. If there is anything like a right answer to those kind of questions then we need to apply critical thought, and a bedrock principle of critical thought is to hear out and consider criticism of one’s own position from outside perspectives.
            Obviously, or course, that applies in a major way to listening to oppressed or disadvantaged people when you don’t suffer from that particular disadvantage. But it can’t be a one way street: it’s possible to be a victim in one way or another and still be in the wrong, and it’s possible to be a raging, tone-deaf asshole about a topic and still be right on a particular issue. I’m not saying you have to courteously engage every Nazi that wanders by, but this attitude that ‘you’ the (presumed) outsider can’t voice an opinion unless ‘we’ the self-appointed advocates of an aggrieved group say so is pernicious.

      3. Jadehawk

        you’re making assumptions, notably that an “ally” would be the one with the cooler, more detached perspective (which is generally not the case, since pointing out sexist/racist/-phobic behaviors is a direct attack on one’s privilege)

        sometimes an “ally” can be the one who’s right, sure (see Namazie and the anti-shariah-law BS), but it is a rare exception, and cannot be simply asserted by accusing the other person of being emotional. and even in instances where the “ally” turns out to be right, it just means they’re right in that one specific situation; it does not invalidate the larger framework of what a person was talking about.

        1. Anders

          Ok.

      4. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

        I think if your opinion on a given situation as an outside observer who is necessarily missing something is wanted, you’ll be asked for it.

        1. yiab

          I’d just like to say that this attitude of waiting to be asked would immediately exclude atheists from almost all interfaith discussions. Sometimes it is the best decision to state your opinion even if it is clearly not wanted, the caveat being that you should always be willing to hear responses to your opinion, and to change your mind if it’s demonstrated that you’re wrong.

          1. Jadehawk

            power-gradients, you have them backwards. in your example, it would be the religious allies butting in with unwanted commentary on atheist struggles.

          2. yiab

            They certainly do, but as two wrongs don’t make a right, their butting into our conversation doesn’t excuse our butting into theirs. Those with more power certainly need to consider the effects of their actions and take steps not to abuse that power, but that does not mean that they can’t voice legitimate ideas in an intellectually honest manner without being specifically asked for their input. I’m not saying that’s what Natalie’s talking about in this article, or that this happens with the excuse “but I’m an ally”, I’m just saying that “do not speak unless spoken to” is not an attitude I can justify asking others to follow.

          3. Jadehawk

            I’m just saying that “do not speak unless spoken to” is not an attitude I can justify asking others to follow.

            *shrug*
            “shut up and listen” is absolutely a message that needs to travel up the power-gradient. OTOH, “speak up and refuse to be silenced” is a message that needs to travel down the power gradient.

            meaning, give people in different places in the kyriarchy the same advice and the same kind of messages in the name of “fairness” or “colorblindness” or whateverthefuck erases the existence of the kyriarchy. it’s worthless.

          4. Jadehawk

            They certainly do, but as two wrongs don’t make a right, their butting into our conversation doesn’t excuse our butting into theirs.

            you’re very confused, since this has nothing to do with what I said. it in fact seems to address the exact opposite of what I said.

          5. Ace of Sevens

            “shut up and listen” is absolutely a message that needs to travel up the power-gradient. OTOH, “speak up and refuse to be silenced” is a message that needs to travel down the power gradient.

            Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t very good at telling where they are in the power gradient. To use an earlier example, when Christians say they are being oppressed by the secular elites, a lot of them really believe it.

          6. yiab

            I think I may have spoken poorly. “Shut up and listen for a while” is perfectly fine. “Shut up and listen until I tell you otherwise” isn’t. The former is part of keeping a conversation going when one or more participants insist on doing all the talking. The latter is a means of excluding someone’s speech from the conversation entirely.

      5. ZenPoseur

        Not at all.

        I evaluate outside advice just like every other rational human: Reflexive denial, followed by quiet inspection. Then, if it’s good advice, I pretend it was my idea to begin with.

        However, all the good advice in the world doesn’t make someone an ally.

      6. Natalie Reed

        I don’t think we should be too harsh on Anders here. He’s generally been a very open-minded reader here and seems genuinely interested in growing as an ally and learning.

        That said, one of the issues in this specific instance is that for a very, very long time the discourse surrounding transgenderism and transsexuality has been controlled by various “detached” cisgender “experts” and their theories, with our capacity to speak for ourselves and articulate our own experiences and perspectives being rather forcibly pushed out and suppressed. So in that regard… no, I think that the detached perspectives are very rarely helpful, and more often that hypothetical benefit of an outside position is simply used as an excuse/justification for silencing the voices of the group in question and dismissing the legitimacy of their views.

        Cis “experts” on transgenderism speaking in place of us, male “experts” on women’s sexuality speaking in place us, white “experts” on race speaking in place of people of colour, etc.

        I don’t mean to jump down your throat, as you just meant this as a sincere question. Just saying there are definitely lots of problems beneath the surface on the idea that the “outside perspective” is superior to a minority’s own voice.

        1. Anders

          Thank you, Natalie. But I worded that clumsily and a misunderstanding was inevitable.

          I am here to learn, partly because I’m curious by nature, partly because what happens to transpeople is unjust and I have a strong sense of justice. But to help I must know what to do, and I have very little faith in knowledge a priori.

          The question was more a hypothetical than an actual one, and it has been answered well. But I wanted to clarify why I asked, and will try to be clearer in the future.

  11. 11
    yiab

    There is a category of words, usually called “labels”, whose different uses are often conflated:

    Descriptor: this is when a label has a definition already and is determined to apply or not (often in a value-neutral sense) to a particular person based on how well they match that definition.

    Affiliation: this is when a label is used to indicate membership in a particular group, and that membership then, circularly, comes to define that label.

    Identity: this is when a label is viewed as a fundamental part of the self.

    Often labels are used with more than one of these in mind at the same time and there does not seem to be an elegant way to distinguish their use without disrupting the dialogue being undertaken, but conflating these uses also results in a variety of difficulties and misunderstandings.

    For example: in this post you are describing someone who calls themself an ally to transgendered people (using “ally” as an identity) and you are pointing out that “ally” does not apply to them as a descriptor.

    Another example: I recall a woman calling in to Savage Love (I don’t remember which episode) asking if her attraction to a man should “disqualify” her from being a lesbian (as some of her friends were saying). If we use the strictest definition of the word then it no longer applies to her a descriptor, but it seems to me that what she was worried about was losing the affiliation and challenging the identity.

    A third example: Canadian Blood Services does not ask questions about “homosexual” or “bisexual” men in their pre-donation questionnaire, instead using the phrase “men who have sex with men” (MSM). The reason for this is that there is a significant population of men who enjoy having sex with other men, but who identify as exclusively heterosexual. It seems to me that these men are conflating the descriptor usage with the identity usage of “homosexual”, “bisexual” and “heterosexual”, whereas “MSM” appears only to be a descriptor.

    A fourth example: many of us in the atheism/skepticism movement are familiar with people who, when pressed, will agree that the term “atheist” applies to them as a descriptor, but who still vehemently refuse to use the label to describe themselves, even if they are already affiliated with the movement (as a freethinker/agnostic/bright/whatever). It seems to me that these people are conflating the descriptor and identity uses of “atheist”.

    (Note that I state these examples nonjudgementally.)

    It seems to me that all four of these examples stem from the same problem, and it is one which I simply do not understand: What is “identity” in this context and why do people care so much about it?

    It is fairly easy for people to separate descriptors from affiliations, at least in context and with discussion, but both of these uses are often conflated with use of a label as an identity and that is when many people exhibit strong and often irrational emotional reactions. This emotional attachment has been put to great political use, particularly in the area of LGBTQ rights, by encouraging people to “come out” (begin using what was previously a descriptor as an identity and tell that to others), then constructing an affiliation from those who identify as LGBTQ.

    Perhaps I’m just displaying my naïvete (or my cognitive impairments), but I don’t understand what people actually mean when they use a label as an identity, and it seems to me that the emotion accompanying it causes a lot of problems in its conflation with a descriptor or an affiliation, though I do appreciate that this emotional attachment can be put very powerful in furthering worthwhile efforts (as in the preceding example).

    1. 11.1
      yiab

      It seems that in copy-pasting this from my text editor, it failed to paste the initial line:

      I apologize in advance if this seems off-topic, but it’s something which I’ve been wondering about for some time now and it seems to me to be relevant.

  12. 12
    Almulhida

    I always thought declaring oneself to be an ally is like bragging one is humble.

    1. 12.1
      HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

      I wrote a long-ass while ago elsewhere that calling oneself an ally is like saying you’re a good person, a good dancer, or good in bed. As in, a descriptor that really only have any real weight when it’s given by the people who get to experience your performance of such.

  13. 13
    Jadehawk

    thank you for this post, natalie, it describes the problem with the “but I’m an ally!” whine excellently.

    I’d add demands to be given the benefit of the doubt to the list of stupid shit that needs to die: if something you said looks fucked up, you don’t get to whine about how long you’ve known me or how much of an ally you’ve been. You get to explain yourself, and you get to apologize if it turns out that what you said was not a “misunderstanding” but indeed as fucked up as it looked; regardless of how awesome you’ve been otherwise, or for how long I’ve known you.

  14. 14
    The Lorax

    My last girlfriend got very upset with me on multiple occasions because I never said “I’m sorry”. Instead, I analyzed my behavior, determined what I did wrong, noted it (sometimes specifically noting it to her, and asking if I’m correct), and took steps to alter it. I figured that doing so would indicate that I am not pleased with my behavior. Ergo, that I’m sorry.

    I wonder if the “I’m an ally” argument invalidates saying “I’m sorry”? I dunno, but I still prefer substance over words.

    1. 14.1
      Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

      A personal relationship isn’t a political relationship. You’re not trying to advocate for the rights of a certain group of people. You’re trying to get along with one particular person, who will have quirks.

      In this case, though, I don’t think her demands were “quirky.” It’s good that you changed your behavior, but I don’t get why apologizing was such a big deal for you. It’s stating you did something wrong and you acknowledge it, meaning that you validate your girlfriend’s anger or hurt. If I were with someone who never apologized, even if they did things that were quite wrong and even if they corrected their behavior, I’d be bewildered, myself.

      1. Almulhida

        I don’t want to speak for Lorax but I used to do the same because for the longest time I felt that apologizing was something people did to weasel out of someone’s anger without addressing the cause of that anger, so if I did something wrong I wouldn’t add insult to injury by insulting their intelligence with an apology.

  15. 15
    Jeff Engel

    I don’t know what bigoted bits I have floating around. I don’t know where my own blind spots are. I know enough to know there’s a lot I do not know. That’s one of the reasons I’m a white cismale following blogs like yours, Greta’s, Stephanie Zvan’s, and Black Skeptics.

    If I weren’t open to learning about where I’m a part of the problem, I’m not an ally committed to being part of the solution.

  16. 16
    VeritasKnight

    I try to be an ally. But I’ll let the people in question decide whether or not I am. And if I fuck up, I hope those people do me the greatest service of all – point it out so I can fix it. And yes, I’ll apologize. But I’ll also try to make it better.

    So I don’t really like the idea of calling myself an ally. I don’t like the idea of saying “I’m not racist because”…or what-have-you. I just do what I think is right and hopefully I can make a difference. Your article just reinforces that.

  17. 17
    Alyson Miers

    This is one of those situations that reminds me of a line from Moll Flanders: “A gentlewoman is one who pays her rent on time.” Subtext being: the landlady is not going to take Moll’s word for it that she’s trustworthy just because she calls herself a gentlewoman.

    For this topic, that would be roughly paraphrased as: “An ally is one who listens and learns, admits mistakes, makes concrete gestures of solidarity, and generally behaves like they’re on our side.”

    1. 17.1
      Natalie Reed

      An ally is as an ally does!

      1. Pteryxx

        *APPLAUSE*

  18. 18
    k.t.

    yes, this. It bothers me so much when people react super defensively when their own cissexism, racism, sexism, etc. is pointed out. When I say or do something fucked up and someone calls me on it, I’m embarrassed, but I’m glad they pointed out why what I just said/did was busted, and from there I can process and learn from it.

  19. 19
    frankb

    Excellent post Natalie. Your example of race is a good one. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood with black classmates of friends. I gave what support I could to the civil rights movement. But I am not black and I can’t speak for them. They are just as diverse a group as any and generalizations can’t be made. Claiming to be an ally indicates that you are not humble or openminded. It is said out of fear of being criticized.

  20. 20
    Starbuck

    Hi, Natalie. This is first (of many, I’m sure) blog post of yours that I’ve read, and as I read, a question came up I’d like your thoughts on. Preamble: I’m a cisfemale who’s only recently added trans social inequalities to my list of social inequalities to read and think about, so forgive me, please, if I am about to be obtuse.

    In something I’ve read in the last month or so on transgender social inequality (again, forgive, I do not have the URL to hand), the writer proposed that it was unfair to try lumping transgendered persons into either a traditional “female” or “male” category, as the very existence of trans people indicates more than two possible genders. This quote from your article,

    “I remarked on the cissexism of treating transgender as a category separate to women and men … rather than an adjective that may or may not apply to a given woman or man (or someone who is both, or neither, or in-between).”

    reminded me of that other writer’s sentiment in that it sounded, to me, like its opposite. I suppose I’d just like to know what you have to say on this subject (and, as I wrap this up, I begin to wonder if I’m confusing gender and sex, and if I am, how I should better think of “transgender” vs “transsexual”–ack!).

    Help?

    1. 20.1
      Natalie Reed

      Well… if the writer was indeed saying what you’re saying they were saying, I disagree with them.

      Transgender and transsexual are, to me, adjectives… descriptors of a particular experience/history of gender and/or sex. A trans person can be a man, a woman, both, neither, in-between, or something else. It’s not a category in the same sense that “men” and “women” are, and I dislike and disagree with statements that position it as such, in that they invalidate our ability to legitimately position ourselves within either (or both) of those categories.

      I feel that “trans is an adjective, not a category” is an extremely important concept to understanding transgenderism, and I would indeed strongly disagree with anyone who argued otherwise. But perhaps the writer was actually simply suggesting we need addition categories, beyond just men and women, in order to accommodate the diversity of trans (and intersex) identities; that would be a position I agree with.

      The “adjective not category” thing is the reason that many of us dislike the use of “transgender” as a noun (like “some of my best friends are transgenders!”) and why we prefer the formulation “trans woman” or “trans man” to “transwoman” or “trans-men” (imagine talking about “blackmen”, “black-women”, “gaymen” or “gay-men”, or the real life derogatory slur “chinaman”, and it might help illustrate the importance of this)

      The distinction between transgender and transsexual is indeed related to the distinction between gender (psychological, social, cultural, etc) and sex (physiological). Transgender is an umbrella term for anyone whose gender identity or gender expression varies from the norm. Transsexual refers specifically to someone who transitions, in a permanent way, and typically changes their sex to be more in congruence with their gender.

      I hope this helps!

      1. yiab

        I’m curious what the distinction is between category and adjective which seems so central in your explanation. Perhaps I am looking at things from too mathematical a perspective, but it seems to me that the category of all things to which an adjective applies is not so different from the adjective itself, and “belonging to a particular category” is not so different from the category it references.

        1. Natalie Reed

          Well… look at this way:

          In so far as we may treat transgender as a category, like… the category to which the adjective applies.. the OTHER category that this one would contrast with is “cisgender”, not men/women.

          As in…

          Set of categories A (experience of gender normativity): transgender, cisgender
          Set of categories B (gender identities): male, female, androgyne, genderqueer, bi-gendered, two spirit, third sex, neuter, etc.

          Someone can belong to either of the categories in A while also belonging to one of the categories in B. The categories pertain to wholly separate traits. But to take “transgender” and put it in set B is to render it a category that is exclusive from the others, which is false (and harmfully so).

          1. yiab

            Okay, I originally thought that’s what your objection was to the presented man/woman/transgender false trichotomy, I was just confused by the adjective/category thing. Thank you for clarifying.

  21. 21
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    What it comes down to, for me, is just… hey, your life, your body, it’s not my place to tell you what to do with it. Following that, the only position I can take is to support your right to be who you are, and do what you want with your body, whether I agree with (or understand) it or not.

    I draw the line ONLY when “being yourself” involves abusing others.

  22. 22
    RowanVT

    This sort of stuff boggles my brain and sometimes makes me wonder about my brain chemistry.

    I discovered that transgendered individuals exist thanks to a friend at my catholic highschool who was planning on going through female-to-male surgery when he reached adulthood. My reaction to discovering that he felt like a he, despite the female body was “oh, hunh. It must be a little sucky to feel born in the wrong body. Tell me more about it so I can understand.” I’m also still friends with a woman who did male-to-female and is becoming quite the successful voice actress. We’re comfortable enough friends that I was able to tease her about how unfair it was that she was born with more feminine hips than I have, and that ‘simple’ hormone therapy had given her better breasts too.

    It seems that, for the most part, my general reaction to learning something “shocking” about someone else is “So? You’re still you, aren’t you?”, and same with the idea of racism. I’m pretty pale, but I know people paler than I am and, of course, people darker than I am. So? They’re people, aren’t they? Isn’t that what matters most?

  23. 23
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    On allies who do a bad job of being an ally: for those of you who enjoy bingo cards, this is a particularly good one by the Scarlet Sorceress.

  24. 24
    James K

    In an excellent article, this is particular stood out for me:

    The truth is that despite all that, there are still little bits of racism floating around in my head. And I am still prone to prejudicial attitudes towards people based on their race. I am still prone to unconscious biases, assumptions and fears. I still sometimes regard people as Other, or regard my own culture as superior or default, and often don’t even notice when I’m benefiting from privilege, acting on a prejudicial attitude or overlooking racial inequality.

    Because it encapsulates why scepticism and opposition to bigotry go hand in hand. While overt assholishness is certainly a big part of many forms of prejudice, those most insidious forms are the product of unconsciousness. Unconscious biases can lead just as easily to racism / cissexim / whatever as they can lead to homeopathy or conspiracy theories.

    Scepticism is about making the human brain work better, and eliminating bigotry and prejudice is very much a part of that.

  25. 25
    Ana

    I’ve always considered myself an LGBT ally, yet I’ve walked around with all these tiny cis-priviledges I had no idea of until I started reading you. And suddenly it’s oops, I do think that, and damn, I do make those awful jokes, and gosh, I THINK no trans person is around to hear…but how do I know? And sometimes it’s unconfortable, but I’m glad to be called out on those things, BECAUSE I’m an ally and therefore I want to not hurt anyone, and I know I’m not perfect and need to learn more. So please, do continue, you’re totally changing my life, in a very good way.

  26. 26
    Ryan Grant Long

    Oh I’m “infamous” now?

    Awesome.

    -R

    1. 26.1
      Xanthë, Amy of my threads

      Well, it could be worse.

      You could be “Elevator Guy”, which would surely merit a harsher adjective, such as “notorious” or “contemptible”.

      Regards! X

      1. yiab

        I may have missed something key here as I stayed at somewhat arms length from the whole saga, but just based on the initial video I don’t understand how “elevator guy” could be called anything worse than “inconsiderate, ignorant and privileged” (yes, I know there’s some redundancy in there). How does “contemptible” fit?

        1. Natalie Reed

          Yeah, I agree. Elevator Guy was just rather clueless and naive and privilege-blinded. He wasn’t contemptible. That term applies to the Horde Of Rampant Misogynists who arose to defend him.

        2. Xanthë, Amy of my threads

          Later comments that indicate EG was not naïve and not clueless, although presumably privilege-blinded. Contemptible is the right word.

  1. 27
    Hipster Misogyny | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    [...] In this collage of de-toothed cultural critique, self-congratulatory poses of social awareness, “ironic” whatever, “reclamation”, faux-solidarity, appropriation, “not giving a fuck what other people think” and mock-up “marginalization”, something truly terrifying is born. A human being who has given hirself permission to do, say or think whatever they want, on any basis, regardless of thought, consequences or external perceptions, and have an excuse or rationalization (or two or three) for every possible criticism. A situation where critical inquiry into one’s views or actions is rendered unimportant and unnecessary, and able to be completely turned off at a whim. No thought needed, because the conclusion has already been reached: “I’m an ally!” [...]

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