Schrodinger's Activists: "Allies" Who Aren't

[Housekeeping note: Apologies for disappearing for awhile – I was back in South Dakota doing bridesmaid duty at a friend’s wedding, and needed a short break from writing. I’m starting back at it now!]

[TW: sexist, racist language and insults, rape and death threats]

I love my cat. He’s an adorable little 11 pounds of fur, and when he’s asleep, he’s pretty wonderful. But, like all cats, he can get testy sometimes. I’ve learned never to lay on the couch or bed with my feet exposed, because the cat is convinced my toes are actually his toys. Every so often I’ll forget, and suddenly I’ll get the business end of his claws, and no amount of water sprayed in his face helps.

So I adapted. I keep a blanket at the end of the couch to put my feet under, and I don’t put my feet up on the coffee table. I noticed when I went home this past week that I was doing the same around my mother’s declawed 22-pound lazy-ass cat, even though she had no history of threatening my toes. I had been trained, by experience (however unwise), that I should treat cats with caution.

I think of male feminist allies in this same way.

It goes like this: I meet nice men who want to learn more about feminism, and I like them and they’re good friends, so we start learning from each other and they’re willing to listen and I enjoy my time with them. And then something happens where I point out that what they did was sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic, and suddenly everything falls apart. With my first romantic relationship, for example, the one and only “fight” we had was when he wore an anti-cancer shirt reading “Save Second Base.”* It's a continued pattern - cishet men are often my friend...until I ask them to actually check their privilege.

That’s why when a cishet white man in the feminist movement calls himself an ally, my hackles raise. Because though this particular man may be different from all the rest, I’ve learned that there is always a breaking point, a point beyond which their privilege cannot be checked, where suddenly your experience becomes invalid.

This is closer to the surface than with others, as displayed by the tweets of a certain man in Texas who called himself “the biggest supporter of women’s rights” on Twitter yesterday. While I’m unsure how the original fight got started, wariness was once again proved correct when, upon being challenged by a woman, he threatened to beat her and called her a “brainwashed twat.” When other women called him on it, he told them to go fuck themselves with coathangers. It wasn’t long before he landed at “fat fucking digusting bitches,” “cunts,” and, when a man stepped in, “cocksucker.” His insults ran the gamut of not only misogyny but homophobia and transphobia, as well as a dash of racism.

This “great supporter of women’s rights?” Not so much. You really can’t call yourself a supporter of the feminist movement and women’s rights, and then call women “fat bitches” when they disagree with you.

But this is a bigger issue than this one dudebro with a God complex.

I have anxiety issues that I’ve been working out, but I don’t know what it’ll take to get me to actually attend a feminist rally nowadays. Because of men like this. Because I have no way of knowing which ones are the good ones and which ones are going to call you a “fat bitch” the second you disagree. And neither do you. The feminist community is lucky that this man chose to out himself in such an obvious, recordable, and explosive manner. Not all threats to our safety do. There are the men who hang out at a rally as a way to pick up women, who cloak their words in feminist jargon until you challenge them on something, who uses their position as allies to bolster their own careers, rather than actually caring about the intersectional issues they’re protesting about.

They don’t wear signs. You often can’t tell until it’s too late that they’re not the ally you thought they were. Which is why many feminists are understandably wary of men who claim to be “with us” on the whole feminism thing, as undeserved as that prejudiced may be when it comes to individual men. We’ve been proven right far too many times to let our guards down. 

This is a lesson for all allies of marginalized groups. There's a reason marginalized groups are wary of people with privilege. Our intentions don't matter, as long as our actions make us dangerous.

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*Problematic because it objectifies women and promotes cancer research based on not on saving lives but rather on the sexualization of women insofar as they benefit cishet men. It reduces women to boobs as sexual services for men, in other words.