Monday, September 8, 2008

Allies, Privileges and Pats On The Back

As a womanist/feminist I often advocate from an ally position on what I deem bodies that matter.  I do this because ultimately I believe in justice and equality.  It sickens me daily to see the way the cult of I (read: capitalism), patriarchy, racism, homophobia, ageism and abelism combine to construct people as less than in this world.  These social constructions have real effects that often result in violence, and death for those bodies that are targeted.   It is my hope that by daily writing about the "isms" and how they interact, that awareness can be raised.

Doing the work that I do is part of what I deem my human responsibility.  If the woman across town from me does not have enough food to eat, it is my business. If an infant girl is being circumcised in Egypt, that is my business.  If a child in France is banned from wearing a Burka to school, that is my business. Each one of these incidents though happening to an individual is a direct result of the ways in which we have chosen to privilege certain bodies and certain behaviours.   These occurrences reflect the degree to which "isms" are a systemic cancer to humanity.

I am not alone in working towards ending the power that  "isms" have to effect the lives others.  Daily millions of people across the globe work to create change.  We do this because we feel equally convicted in the belief that the cause of justice is not only worth while, but necessary to creating a better world.  As allies we seek to form alliances for the greater good and unpack our own unearned privileges.

Ally work is often difficult work because it forces us to be cognizant of the way in which we benefit from the very same "isms" that we are fighting to destroy. It also makes us second hand victims of those that seek to maintain the current power structure.  This can lead some to feel that have earned the right to a pat on the back simply because they have become personally aware of the potential power that they have the ability to wield in certain circumstances.

There is the tendency on the part of some to say, look how good I am. I can acknowledge that I have a class privilege, or a race privilege while the rest of the world remains wrapped in a myopic ignorance of what constitutes real value.  Yes it is good that as an ally that you have begun to unpack some of your unearned privileges and work for justice but this does not entitle you to a pat on the back.

Not exploiting or oppressing is what each person should actively be engaged in, and to think that abstaining from using your available power for personal gain is worthy of special recognition is once again an exercise of privilege.  A man that does the dishes does not deserve praise because he is a man doing the dishes. A person that eliminates racial slurs from their daily vocabulary does not deserve praise for recognizing that this language is hurtful. 

Honouring each person despite the "isms" attached to their body is part of human responsibility, and part of owning personal privilege.  To say that I deserve a reward or recognition is akin to belittling the people on whose behalf you labour. It keeps hierarchy in the relationship in that you are positioning yourself as good because you have lowered yourself to help and this undoes any progress that your personal labours have made.

To my fellow allies I say, continue to do the work that you do because it is important and necessary.  Take time in your labour to always own your privileges and realize that it is the work that is important and not you.



Quixotess said...

Amen. I always tell people that they are not going to get any cookies from doing what they ought to do, or not doing what they ought not to do. "I contribute to household chores" doesn't get you a cookie because it should be a given, and the fact that some people think it isn't a given for men just goes to show that they still don't get it. "I don't commit sexual assault" doesn't get you any cookies because FUCKING DUH.

Seriously, the next man to tell me they never sexually harass or assault women will be on the receiving end of some very loud yelling.

No cookies.

Donna said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and how so many allies seem to lose interest when they find that they aren't getting enough gratitude and accolades. It's about being a decent human being, not getting special recognition for not being an ass!

Sandalstraps said...


Excellent post, and I'm sorry that for personal reasons - coupled with the first two comments here - I am unable to respond to the first half of it. That is because I suspect - and this comment is based on that suspicion - that the second half of this post is at least in part a response to a comment I left previously. Whether that is or is not the case, I at least participate enough in the called-out category here that this response should be on topic.

Simply put, to use the wonderfully concise phrase by Quixotess, I am not asking for a cookie.

I am not asking for recognition from you or anyone else, of any kind.

I am not asking for a pat on the back.

I am not asking for approval.

I am simply asking that you do your best to resist the temptation to take pot-shots at stay-at-home dads. Because, frankly, everyone takes pot-shots at us. At least in my social context it is becoming a great sport.

We are treated by men and women alike as defective, failing in some significant way to be proper men. I employed comment-moderation in my blog in part because I was sick of deleting the various predictable "why don't you just go out and get a job" bullshit.

I'm not asking for any special favors. I'm certainly not asking not to be called out when I participate in privilege or oppression, even and especially when I am unaware of doing so.

But I am asking you to recognize that men who choose to be primary caregivers of children (and yes, such a choice is a mark of privilege on several levels) make that choice

a.) in opposition to cultural conditioning, and
b.) are often excluded in many important ways from the community of men.

This doesn't qualify us for anything; no trophies, no crowns, no cookies, no pats on the back. But it does mean that a great many men and women, when they learn of this choice, place targets on us, marking us for subtle as not-so-subtle verbal rebuke.

So, I'm not asking for "special recognition for not being an ass" (good line, Donna); I'm asking to no longer be target practice. I don't want anyone here or anywhere else to say anything nice about me or any other stay-at-home Dad for being a stay-at-home Dad. But I am asking you to resist the temptation to attack stay-at-home Dads for their participation in that category.

xzchief said...

People are generally social creatures. There aren't many hermits who disdain others. Even the shyest people would usually prefer not to be shy.

People want cookies! Call it respect, dignity or appreciation if you want. Think of it as knowing others care that you're alive and would miss you if you were dead.

Being a decent human being is an internal barometer. Think about it. The Cult of I has lots of cookies to offer. Money, status, adoration, houses, trips and beautiful people are among the tools at disposal.

On the other hand, allies are demanding selflessness along the lines of Mother Teresa. Ask for nothing, expect nothing and maybe someone will give a damn about you at some point.

Don't be surprised many people say to themselves, "I can be a decent human being without fitting that definition."

Renee said...


You are right this post is in part a response to your previous commentary. I am not taking a pot shot at SAHD...My point is that I refuse to elevate the position above that of a SAHM. THe same labour equals the same respect in my mind.

Sandalstraps said...


If that is your point, then I totally agree with you.

I do think that the conditions for stay-at-home Dads are slightly different than those for stay-at-home Moms, in that they are responding to different cultural messages about their participation in gender-roles. That difference, however, does not mean that one has a more difficult task than the other, or that one should be celebrated more than the other.

I suppose I'm responding from a different social context. Here (Kentucky) no one is arguing that stay-at-home dads should be elevated above their female counterparts. Rather, here they are arguing that stay-at-home Dads are at best defective, and at worst a waste of oxygen. It is simply assumed that mothers do all of the parenting, and that fathers are (appropriately) only peripherally involved. Any media representation of a "parent" (the language is often gender-neutral) is of a woman, etc.

This imaging harms both men and women, though I would argue that it harms women even more, be imposing on them an even narrower task. However, as a man who counters this imaging, it harms me personally a great deal, by denying the value of my role in my child's life, and by over-valuing the work that I don't do (that is, earning a paycheck for my labor).

As I noted before, I did not wade through all of the comments of the post that started this (...What About the Men?) because after the first few comments it was clear that the last thing that post needed was yet another comment by a man. Because I didn't read all of those comments, I don't know if your statement on stay-at-home Dads was responding to some concrete call for the labor of stay-at-home Dads to be held in greater esteem than that of their female counterparts.

I personally (though my experience is by no means exhaustive) have never heard anyone advocate for that, nor have I ever advocated for that. Rather, here (both in the blogosphere and in my "real" home) I'm simply asking that the role of stay-at-home Dads be respected at all, held in anywhere near the esteem of our female counterparts.

And I'd love for people to stop assuming, when they see me in public with my child, that my caring for him is an exception rather than the rule. The next time someone says, "Wow, looks like you've got your hands full!" I think I'll just scream.

That's the last I'll say on that, as I'm sure this topic has taken up more space than it warrants.

frau sally benz said...

I think this is one of your best posts ever. Seriously. It takes into account some of the different nuances of the issue, and calls on people to re-examine their own position as an advocate for their own cause and an ally for other causes.

AR said...

On the other hand, allies are demanding selflessness along the lines of Mother Teresa. Ask for nothing, expect nothing and maybe someone will give a damn about you at some point.

Remember, though, that Renee is a Marxist, and so actually does believe that humans are to be expected to act with the collectivism of worker ants. Under her ideal, expecting anything beyond sustenance for any reason is "Cult of I" mentality.

Renee said...

@AR don't ever presume to think that you have the right to speak for me. Feel free to express your opinion but I am more than capable of speaking for myself.

AR said...

I wasn't trying to speak for you; I was attacking your position by describing it the way I see it. It's a fairly common rhetorical device used even on this blog.

To clarify my point, I'm agreeing with xzchief in saying that people respond to "cookies," especially social ones. If an occasional and minor pat on the back actually does motivate people to become less bigoted, then so be it. You of all people can clearly appreciate the power of media and pre-conceived ideas in people's behavior and expectations, and I think that overcoming those influences does constitute something of a personal accomplishment worthy of one "good job" if nothing else, regardless of whether it consists of accepting one's body in the face of modern beauty standards or accepting one's privilege in the face of modern prejudices.

Ideally, I suppose, it would be nice if everyone experienced enough internal satisfaction at every virtuous or intelligent thing they do that no external influence is necessary, but as far as I can tell that isn't the case. If people were so indomitable, then advertising, among other things, would be powerless.

AR said...

On a more personal note, I haven't been commenting here lately due to having to unexpectedly relocate across the country. I'm still working on my response to your question of what I propose as a solution to economic inequality in the world, but don't worry about the time being spent on it being a sign of how long it will be! I'll try to be brief.

In the meantime, though, I've recently finished a book I thought I'd recommend to you, since you seem (understatement) to be into this sort of thing: "The Mismeasure of Man," by Stephen J. Gould. It's a history and refutation of the idea of testable, unilinear, innate intelligence, and the applications there of to racism, sexism, and classism. Very interesting.

Renee said...

@AR This occasional pat on the back as you see it is nothing but reproducing hierarchy. Why should Ias a WOC have to thank and reward a white person for acknowledging their privileges? Put into that position it makes me less than the person who is supposedly my ally. People need to learn to act in the cause of justice because it is the right thing to do and not because they are entitled to a reward.

AR said...

You don't have to, and nobody is entitled to said pat on the back, but insofar as people are more likely to do something if they receive recognition for it, however minor, one might well want to insofar as it promotes your own cause.

So if someone, say, declines an invitation into a sexist business group on principle despite it almost certainly meaning a tremendous blow to their career, and then runs around making a huge deal about it, expecting praise, then sure, there's no reason to tolerate that sort of thing. But if they don't, then you are presumably on good terms with them to have even found out about it, and I'd say some encouragement is in order. A small assurance from a friend that you've done the right thing can be extremely powerful for someone who has just made a strong move against their own immediate interests.

uppitybrownwoman said...

So very true.

Danny said...

So if someone, say, declines an invitation into a sexist business group on principle despite it almost certainly meaning a tremendous blow to their career, and then runs around making a huge deal about it, expecting praise, then sure, there's no reason to tolerate that sort of thing. But if they don't, then you are presumably on good terms with them to have even found out about it, and I'd say some encouragement is in order. A small assurance from a friend that you've done the right thing can be extremely powerful for someone who has just made a strong move against their own immediate interests.
Hell I'll take indiffence over having, "Yeah but you're still privileged!!" type responses thrown at me.

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