Not All Men? Sure. But Still Way Too Many Men

Being an ally is about making change, not being comfortable.

By Quentin Thomas, Promundo Writing Fellow: a public policy student and peer educator exploring the intersection between writing and social justice.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

I remember during my sophomore year of high school when the protests in Ferguson were happening in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of police. This was a formative moment for me as a young Black man coming into his own and developing his racial and political consciousness. I was definitely holding a lot of complicated feelings at the time, and so when I heard one of my peers say something along the lines of, “It’s important that we remember these are isolated incidents.” I was taken aback. While I trust that the intent of this statement was to comfort, it actually felt more like being gaslit and that my intense emotions at the time were invalid. This moment has stuck with me six years later, and I don’t even think it was meant to be harmful.

While such a response may seem relatively inconsequential, it’s more emblematic of larger issues and can get in the way of rectifying them. I’ve taken this experience into my consciousness around gender, and I’ve noticed that it is far too often the case that when people — particularly female-identified folks — express their frustrations with patriarchy and how it manifests in our society, they are met with responses like “not all men.” I can only imagine how much personal damage “not all men” can cause when used in response to people sharing the harmful experiences they’ve had with men in their lives: articulating frustrations and experiences that span lifetimes. Clinging to the idea of “not all men” is not only unavailing, but also serves to minimize the very real harm that men have caused and continue to cause every day.

To be clear, “not all men” is, technically, factually true. For example, “not all men” perpetuate violence. That being said, however, the proportion of men who are complicit in causing harm is still alarmingly high; and when it comes to lived experience, a woman might not know any other fellow woman who has not been sexually assaulted, raped, or harassed by a man.¹ One Promundo report found that, “Though the majority of men do not harass, bully, or approve of violence, many — 20 percent to 33 percent — do.”² Calling attention to the “good guys” does nothing to get those 20 to 33 percent of men who harass, bully, and/or approve of violence to change their behavior to the benefit of themselves and those around them.

“Not all men” is very similar to #AllLivesMatter, acting as a sort of corrective response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement for those who hold power. #AllLivesMatter only serves to decenter the harm and oppression experienced by Black folks at the hands of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. In the cases of both “not all men” and #AllLivesMatter, instead of addressing the issues that are so deeply embedded within our societies, we are left to minimize and ignore the experiences of those who suffer at the hands of these systems of oppression. Refusing to acknowledge and take responsibility for our own roles in these systems is often an attempt at preserving our personal self-identifications as “good” people. But to truly live into this “good” person ideal is to acknowledge the harm we have caused, both actively and implicitly.

Instead of relying on knee-jerk reactions like “not all men,” men should redirect their frustration and channel their energy toward making “not all men” a reality. It’s exhausting for people to have to recall and retell past experiences that may have been harmful and/or traumatic every time they express frustration with the status quo. Time and energy that would otherwise go towards defending men could instead go towards working on being a better ally and a better person; there needs to be space to critique patriarchy and sexism and advocate for our collective humanity. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help in this process. One such resource is Promundo’s Road Map for Male Allyship.³ I want to highlight a few things from the road map that we, as men, can do as they relate to the discussion at hand and beyond.

First, we men can listen better and seek opportunities to hear women’s stories, acknowledge their experiences, and inform other men. This could look like opting to tweet “I hear you, and I’m sorry to hear that someone has done this to you” instead of “not all men” when someone laments the behavior of men. Working on becoming a better, more thoughtful listener is also important when you consider that 89 percent of men say they’d be a good listener if a woman told them about an experience of harassment, while only 58 percent of women agreed men they work with would be a good listener in this case.

Second, we can reflect on our own power and privilege as men. This might mean taking some time to think about the experiences we’ve had and haven’t had and how that might map onto our identity as men. For example, I’ve had professionals direct their attention towards me and not my female counterparts at career fairs, and I haven’t felt compelled — as my female friends have — to carry pepper spray with me should I need it to get away from an attacker. Of course, identities aren’t one-dimensional, and our experiences are shaped by the ways in which our identities intersect with one another. The point is this: by recognizing that identities inform our experiences, we can begin to take thoughtful action and use our power and privilege to create space for others and begin dismantling the power structures we’re a part of.

Finally, we need to learn to live with discomfort. Being an ally is about making change, not being comfortable. If and when we encounter someone sharing their experiences of harm at the hands of men, it makes sense to have an emotional response, and the impulse to respond with “not all men” may very well come up. Instead, we can afford to sit with those complicated feelings that come up in that moment and unpack the discomfort to understand where it stems from.

As men, we have to remember that not everything is about us. Our feelings of discomfort are not greater than experiences of harassment or discrimination. Being an ally requires us to not take it personally when we hear the behaviors of other men being criticized, while simultaneously not letting ourselves off the hook. Doing this successfully may seem like a difficult task, and that’s a good thing. The work of allyship is never easy, and those sometimes awkward and confusing moments are a part of this work.

[1] @xxoorita “it’s the way women be like “i hate men bc i don’t know any girl who hasn’t been sexually assaulted, raped or harassed by a man” and then men just be like “yeah i hate women bc I got cheated on in 6th grade”.” Twitter, 5 Aug, 2020, 11:33 p.m., twitter.com/xxoorita/status/1291215906044104709.

[2] Promundo-US. (2018). What We Know: An Evidence Review of What We Know About Sexual Harassment and Dating Violence. Washington: DC: Promundo-US.

[3] Promundo-US (2019). So, You Want to be a Male Ally for Gender Equality? (And You Should): Results from a National Survey, and a Few Things You Should Know. Washington, DC: Promundo.

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/masc is a space for conversation and creative exploration of modern masculinity. Posts are authored by Promundo Writing Fellows, a cohort of individuals with forward-thinking perspectives on masculinity and a passion for achieving gender equality.

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Promundo works to advance gender equality by engaging men and boys in partnership with women, girls, and individuals of all gender identities.

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