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.