Failing is Not Just for Failures
How We Are Alienating Allies and Harming Real People
Quite often over the past year, I’ve found that the root of a lot of the issues I was personally contemplating were all steeped in the same basic premise: if what we truly want is progress, we cannot simply treat our oppressors and our enemies the same way they’ve treated us and call that fair and equal. In the past few months, it has become glaringly, embarrassingly, infuriatingly clear to me that — by this standard — we are failing.
Allow me, for a moment, to humblebrag about my partner. For context. It’s relevant, I promise. (I love to talk about how great he is, just because, but I keep that mostly to Facebook and Instagram.) He is truly the greatest man I have ever known. He is no savior, and he is not perfect — he will always be the first to tell you that. But there was no one I would rather have had by my side last November when I cried in the days after the election, and there is no one I would rather have to help me feel safe now as I continue to heal from years of neglected PTSD. There is no one I would rather have marched with in New York City on January 21st of this year, and there’s no one I would rather have marched with in San Francisco on Tax Day. He has more protest stories than anyone else I know, and about half of them were led by him.
The week that notoriously violent alt-right group Patriot Prayer was preparing to come to San Francisco, I saw the flames of protest rise in him and I couldn’t stop thinking about Taliesin Namkai-Meche’s last words before his death at the hands of a white supremacist in Portland:
“tell everyone on this train I love them.”
I spent the week worrying that the love of my life would give his life to spare another’s, just weeks after Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville. Are you with me so far? That’s what kind of a man he is, and we are failing him.
While writing this, I have typed out and deleted a paragraph outlining his struggles and successes in life a handful of times now, and I’ll suffice to say that my reasons for deleting it are: 1) his tales of trauma and triumph are not mine to tell, and 2) if we are making an effort to proactively believe women now, you’ll have to believe me when I tell you he has more than earned his place amongst our ranks.
And yet we tell him he’s wrong, that he’s bad, that it’s his fault and his responsibility to fix it, but that he can’t possibly know how to fix it because he’ll never understand. We tell him that we need him to amplify our voices while we silence his. Because he’s a (mostly) white man. Yep, that’s where I’m going. Stay with me, please.
I have spent the better part of a decade believing and openly saying “men are trash” or something of the sort. This is something I’ve talked and written a lot about lately. I’ve spent years rolling my eyes and scoffing at the self-proclaimed #NotAllMen types without ever stopping to consider the interaction from the point of view of some of the men I was undercutting by saying “you know we weren’t talking about you, don’t make it about you.” I’ve spent years railing against the offensive generalizations made about me while I’ve made generalizations against others (mostly white men) and then had the audacity to dismiss or even silence them when they were hurt, too.
This is something that I’m going to regret for a long time, for two important reasons:
1. I was hurting people who were trying to express that they were hurting with me. I was hurting people who were trying to be allies but felt excluded by the generalizations made about/against them. I was hurting other people the same way that I was speaking out against being hurt, because I felt I was entitled to a kind of pain that they weren’t.
2. I was hurting my own cause by pushing away these people rather than loving them, rather than acknowledging the validity of their pain and their efforts, rather than helping them grow and learn while I did.
All over semantics. Over the fact that it was too hard for me to say “some men” or specify the exact type of men that I was talking about. As someone who has dedicated their entire life both to a love of words and a love of people, I’m ashamed that my own pain and anger left me blind to my own hypocrisy (and laziness) for so long. And I’m sorry for that.
Now, am I talking about all the men that hop into my mentions, who frequently derail discussions by completely missing the point and intentionally making it about them? Absolutely the fuck not. There are, of course, a lot of men out there that are trash, and we know who they are, so why don’t we call them out by name?
Here’s the deal: lots and lots of people have been coming forward and confessing to shitty beliefs they’ve held or behaviors they’ve enacted lately. Lots of people have said they’re sorry, that they’re deeply troubled by the state of things, that they’ve seen the error of their ways. Not a lot of people are actually doing anything beyond that, though, it seems.
What I’m proposing is simple: precise language. Let’s say what we mean. Twitter’s going to have 280 characters soon — we’ve got some space for nuance now. When you’re trying to call out or educate someone, get to the heart of who it is that you’re talking to and about. In this world of hyper-polarized extremes, generalizations have become even more dangerous.
When I see a tweet or a thinkpiece that alleges that women are not smart or competent enough to have a career in the tech industry, I feel spurned (and I don’t even work in tech). I find myself — rightfully — outraged at such a gross assumption mixed with a sweeping generalization that aims to put me in a box where I don’t belong.
This is the same thing that happens when you see a tweet or a thinkpiece that alleges that having “passion” for tech is a marker of privilege or an indication that you’re a white man who comes from wealth, when you are — in fact, say — a white man who just happened to grow up poor and homeless, using public library computers to learn how to code because tech was your passion and your ticket out of poverty.
Imagine how small and invalidated you would feel seeing the crux of your identity dismissed by a sweeping generalization, when the person speaking was almost definitely talking about the stereotypical startup bro: the epitome of privilege and the antithesis of allyship. And then to be further silenced or even vilified when you try to defend yourself by saying they are a problem, but we are not all the same. Where is there room for humanity within all that hypocrisy?
If we want men — the good ones — to be allies, then we have to make them feel welcome. That starts with making them feel seen and heard by us in the same way that we want to be seen and heard by them. If you don’t want men to be allies, that’s cool, too — but you gotta stop pretending like it then.
I know that we already do too much, and the thought of having to do more or change the way we do things seems exhausting and almost not worth it, but look around. We’re living in increasingly volatile and truthfully frightening times, and we can’t afford to spend our energy on infighting anymore. At the end of the day, my partner and I want the same thing: we want people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and gender orientations, and sexualities, and religions, and cultural identities to feel seen, safe, and taken care of. We want sexual assault and domestic violence and abuses of power to be stopped, abusers to be punished, and survivors to be helped heal. We want to leave this godforsaken world better than we found it in any and every way that we can.
Who on earth am I to tell him that we’re not on the same side because of how he happened to be born?