Being an ally is a verb, not a noun
In the last few weeks, a lot of men have again espoused their commitment to the womxn in their lives. Prompted by a pounding drumbeat about sexual harassment, assault, and the prevalence of both, so many have posted, reached out personally, apologized, and vowed to do better.
They’ll listen. They’ll be supportive. They’ll assess their own actions and reactions.
It’s easy to look at the far-aware bogeymen, barely just the shape of a man—the Harvey Weinsteins, the Woody Allens, the Donald Trumps—and decry his actions, feel disgust at those who covered for him, who stood by and did nothing, who actively helped him perpetuate these crimes. It’s much harder, it seems, to evaluate the ones who are a bit closer to you. Who you’ve met. Who you like.
This is not theoretical. This isn’t an allegory.
I’m writing this as the direct result of conversations I have had regarding the race for Seattle’s 8th City Council seat.
This is how we talk about people right here in our own city. This is the response I, personally, have received when sharing my own stories and the product of my own investigations and reporting.
But it’s not really about this race, exactly—it’s just about the fact that literally any of these comments could be about any number of men in power. Though it’s a city council race that’s brought it up, it’s not the first and won’t be the last time that we’ll go through this.
It won’t be the last time that men who have called themselves feminists will say that they believe women, only to not believe women at all.
In just the last week, I’ve been told that my lived experience doesn’t sound that bad, or that serious. Or that accurate. Or that true.
I’ve been told that there isn’t enough proof of sexism.
I’ve been told that other people like him, haven’t had a problem with him, so it can’t be that bad.
I’ve been told that sharing stories of sexism and misogyny is “mudslinging,” and “low-hanging fruit.”
I’ve been told that multiple allegations of sexism, racism, tokenism, and aggressive behavior aren’t as bad as [insert some other perceived sin here, including but not limited to centrism, establishment ties, not being able to be at every single protest because of a full-time job.
Many of those same men who swore up and down that they’d be there for womxn have shown again and again that while it’s easy to say you’re an ally, it’s a lot harder to actually be one, and nearly impossible to admit that your intent and impact do not align.
It seems that there’s a breakdown with what we mean when we talk about believing womxn—specifically, it seems that there’s a perception of a different set of rules that are applied to men who are near and men who are far. So, to be perfectly clear, these truths are inalienable, whether the man in question is a famous Hollywood producer or a local guy whose political views you like:
● An abuser is never abusive to every single person in his life; the presence of good reports does not negate the presence of negative reports.
● Sexism is not adjacent to a person’s ability to do their job; they directly impact it. If a man makes womxn feel uncomfortable, talked down to, or minimized in work, they are not fully performing their job. Sexism is not separate from everything else; it is a thread, sewn through every single thing they do. Sexism makes a person bad at their job.
● Using allegations of sexism or racism or harassment or abuse is a terrible method for bringing down a powerful man because we have seen time and again that they are not viewed as the worst thing that can happen. We know this. Whispers about Weinstein persisted for decades. Bill Cosby assaulted women for half a century. And it took five separate accusers before many members of Seattle’s elite to take seriously the allegations against Mayor Ed Murray. If we, the witches of the city, wanted to start a hunt based on no evidence, we’d do it with something that people are passionate about, like zoning laws.
● You don’t need to believe every person who tells you about their lived experience of sexism or sexual harassment; however, if you are selective in whose experiences you believe, you are not believing womxn. You cannot have it both ways.
It seems, too, that it’s easy to draw mental barriers between what “counts” and what doesn’t. Did we all just need to share even more #MeToo stories? Or should we have shared the less graphic ones, the ones that were less overt? Did the men of Seattle need to see every single microaggression to understand what we mean?
If so, allow me to clarify: Sexual harassment doesn’t always mean a hand down the shirt (though it can). Sexist behavior doesn’t always mean calling someone a name or promoting a man over the top of them (though it can).
Sometimes it looks like taking credit for work that women did. Sometimes it looks like downplaying your own privilege. Sometimes it looks like talking down to someone, or coasting in the workplace because there are women around who will get it done either way. Sometimes it means failing to acknowledge the ways that your own presence in the world can frightening, minimizing, or intimidating.
Sometimes it looks like getting defensive—offended, even—when your “ally” cred is questioned by all the ways you’ve inadvertently (but transparently) demonstrated your own innate belief in rape culture.
Because again, it’s a thread that’s sewn through. Just because you can’t see it, we can. We’ve seen it for years and have gotten pretty good at picking it out. But if someone points it out, I’d urge you to look closer, rather than pushing the person away.
It’s hard to admit that a guy you like could possibly have hurt someone, especially if you like his work, like his policies, or like other things he’s said. It’s hard to confront the fact that something you believe—that men should be good, that womxn should not have to live with harassment, discrimination, abuse—doesn’t match with something else you believe, like that you could spot sexism when you saw it.
It’s hard to admit that someone you like is “like that.” It’s hard to admit that someone you like is part of the problem. It’s hard to admit that you are part of the problem.
But you are. Just as all white people must confront our role in and complicity with white supremacy, and must often uncomfortably unpack the ways we’ve benefitted, so too must men confront the fact that they have been immersed in sexism.
It takes a bit of unlearning—and I can’t help but notice this week that many, many men that I’ve encountered are unwilling or unable to do the work.
This isn’t about which guy that you support—there are so many examples, both near and far—or the specifics of the incidents that have transpired, but about the fact that you will, in your life, find yourself supporting or liking or benefitting from problematic behavior past and present and it is your job to determine how to keep moving.
So my question is this: Will you believe women, even when it’s hard? Even when you haven’t experienced something first hand? Even when it shakes you to your core?
It’s ok to say no. It’s ok to say yes and be unsure. But it’s not ok to say yes—to say you already do, already have—and then expect us not to notice when you don’t.