Let’s begin with a story. A few weeks ago I had a charming encounter on the street. I saw an old, rather frail-looking lady stop about a block from her church (contextually obvious due to all the seniors gathering for service at the time) to adjust her make-up. I don’t know what it was about that morning, but there’s such an atmosphere of warmth in my neighbourhood that I felt safe saying to this stranger that she looked just lovely as she was–and even though her laughing response was that the lipstick was being used more for moisturizer, it was clear from her big smile that my comment had brightened her day.
So what did I do next? Posted to Facebook about it, of course.
And, oh, sure, I spun it into a proactive update about the power of little kindnesses. And I solicited others’ recent experiences giving and receiving kindness, too.
But I was boasting about having done a tiny good thing. Of course I was. Because true altruism is tough. Doing something 100% just because it’s a kind thing to do, or the right thing to do, doesn’t come easily.
So it’s a skill we could all stand to talk a little more about training ourselves on–especially with so many issues in the world that require our presence, and our allyship, without ever offering the surety that we’ll be thanked for it.
Being a Better Ally
One of the most obvious terrains for this practice is, of course, allyship with people from other demographics who are struggling in our system. If you benefit from being seen as a normative human being in any given community for reasons that have very little to do with personal merit (e.g. ethnicity, gender, orientation, or citizenship status), then as a humanist you have a responsibility to try to contribute to a cultural shift that will lengthen the table for all.
But of course, you don’t really need to be told that, do you? More often than not, we do want to help level the playing field… at least, in ways that don’t involve so much civil disobedience that prison time might be a consequence; or in ways that don’t require us to give up too many personal perks of cultural normativity in the process. Many of us simply enjoy being seen by others as the “sort of person who cares enough to try”–and shouldn’t that be enough?
Well, it is what it is, at least. However, because many of us are helping others, in no small part, for this emotional rush, we have to be extremely careful about where it might lead us. Because what happens when any addictive impulse is denied? Yep, we can react with equally emotional negativity. And in its worst formations, that negative reaction to being denied might even do harm against the very community we were originally trying to help.
Why might that rush be denied us?
Well, for starters,
- Someone in the demographic you’re trying to help might tell you that the way you’re helping isn’t helpful after all. Surprisingly, rather than taking this as a good working note, quite a few allies just pitch a fit! Or,
- Even though you’ve been trying to promote the heck out of [X] demographic, people within that demographic still might not friend you / welcome you into their community / take the time to thank you for your work. And why should they?You don’t get to buy your way into a community, and no one owes you their gratitude–so doing something unasked to help, expecting that this will contractually obligate others to thank and include you, is super manipulative. (We’re smart cookies, we human beings! We tend to pick up on others trying to extort us, no matter what the reasoning involved.) Or,
- After doing a great deal of constructive work for a long time, you’ve said or done something actively destructive. As with #1, instead of being thankful that people from that demographic took the time and mental resources to tell you as much, to “call you in” instead of just cutting you loose, quite a few supposed allies pitch a fit here, too, resting on their laurels as if to suggest that [X] years or [Y] good deeds in the bag gives them a pass on future growth. It doesn’t.
But perhaps worst of all is when an ally reacts unfavourably to how another demographic vents. Because we all do it, don’t we? And yet, we’re not so great at accepting that others do it, too.
Sometimes A Vent Is Just A Vent
And I get it. I get that frustration and knee-jerk #NotAll-ism.
I hate it, for instance, when fellow feminized persons lash out at “men!” in the middle of their venting about [X] event, because to me it reinforces a tedious gender binary. I especially grit my teeth when I hear fellow feminized persons propose exactly the same sorts of things, in the middle of these frustrated speeches, that they hate hearing masculinized persons say about them. All men do this. Men are just like that. Ugh–it makes me cringe just to write it.
And yet… I’ve had a tremendous number of negative and even violent run-ins with masculinized persons. Heck, just this past week, on top of the usual dozen or so overt cat-calls and propositions I get daily, as a younger white “woman” walking around Medellín alone in business attire, a man in a grey pick-up truck trailed me for half a block at 8 a.m., while I was walking through an industrial area between job sites, badgering me to get in. (Spoiler: I did not.)
So there are moments, absolutely, when the weight of these day-to-day frustrations and traumas makes me edgier than I’d prefer around other, new-to-me masculinized persons, in a way that I don’t feel around other, new-to-me feminized persons. I get tired, too, of news reports where yet another gang-rape or violent attack on a pregnant partner has occurred, or when whole groups of masculinized persons take as their unifying issue something that more directly affects feminized bodies, or when such people try to justify complex networks of institutional and systemic sexism without even being asked.
(Most recently, for instance, I went for ice cream with someone and out of the freaking blue he told me, “You do know, don’t you, that the pay gap is a myth, right? That men just work more and harder at their jobs than women?” … even though I had never shared my [more complicated] views on this issue with him, and we weren’t discussing anything close to the theme. It turned out he’d seen a twenty-minute Vox video and was looking for an easy segue, so… lecturing me as an automatic stand-in for All Women’s Views on The Gender Pay Gap apparently won out!)
Suffice it to say, then, I try really hard to recognize my frustrations and traumas for what they are–reactions to others trying to reduce me to [X] identity metric–and to not vent in a way that reinforces that same reductivity I want to see less of in the world. But I also understand, when others do otherwise, that they’re “just venting”. They’re venting, furthermore, because they’re in pain, and sometimes a good howl is, at least, the first useful thing we can do, to prepare ourselves for doing more.
But We Atheists Already Know That, Don’t We?
We do this all the time when it comes to religious persons, too. Oh, don’t try to deny it, either! We’re all here on Patheos in part to play that game, aren’t we?
And yes, I do it, too–more often than I’m proud of, and even though I strongly believe that the most important issue of our age is not religion vs. atheism, but humanism vs. nihilism. To me, what matters most is that we who believe in a duty of care to improve others’ individual agency, irrespective of our religious/nonreligious beliefs, gather against those who wield the law (secular or religious) to try to maintain their own advantage in difficult societies.
And so just naming oneself a humanist isn’t sufficient. Instead, I routinely have to catch myself (for instance) about to rail against whole swaths of religious people whose communities are currently advocating for Very Bad Public Policy.
And I don’t always catch myself, either. Sometimes I just need a good vent against [X] religious group for having the bloody audacity to think that their reading of scripture is the “right” reading, and that the only reason [Y] is being so awful in the public sphere is because they have the “wrong” reading of the same, immensely contradictory text.
But then I have to ask myself, okay, M L, you’ve vented your frustration. What comes next? Is railing against these folks going to bring about your desired outcome? Are you going to be able to fight the Very Bad Public Policy while pouring all your energy into this side issue instead?
Which is, admittedly, a far more useful strategy when you have personal agency over such behaviour! Or can speak to others in your shared demographic about what they might do now, and going forward, to be the change they want to see.
…But what happens when you have no agency over a subset of venting in your world?
How then can you move on?
When The Venting Targets Me, the “Good” Ally
Because venting is equally important when the people doing the venting are from demographics I don’t belong to. When the subject of venting, furthermore, is me or someone who looks/acts like me.
When someone in a Western-black community, for instance, rails against “white people”, I always see a tremendous number of supposed allies leaping up right away to be counted as among the “good” whites. Not even responding to the subject of the black person’s frustration! Just clamouring for the venting person to reassure them that they’re not included in this sweeping generalization, or to apologize for not having placed a caveat on their frustration in the first place. Eesh.
Whenever such a vent happens, too, I also see a tremendous number of people suggest that, since [X] black person has said something racialized about white people, they’re “just as racist” as the systems they’re struggling within. “Reverse racism!”, these people then cry, as if it should shock anyone that someone raised in an oppressive system is going to use the same shitty rhetoric sometimes. As if discrimination and prejudice also aren’t perfectly fine words to cover the outsider’s complaint.
(For instance, sometimes I am prejudiced against masculinized persons, and accordingly am more discriminatingly cautious around them, but in the majority of spaces I occupy [NB: I did not say all–I think masculinized persons are profoundly vulnerable in a few], I am not even close to a threat to them and their livelihood, because I don’t have the systemic back-up.)
Meanwhile, I also see a tremendous number of exhausted black persons, sick of having to deal with further backlash for their all-too-human venting–after reading about yet another police shooting of an unarmed person, or yet another acquittal of said police officer for that shooting, or yet another reminder that if their names are “too black” their resumes won’t get read, or yet another study showing how liberal urban populations tacitly support, say, ongoing de facto segregation in the school system while superficially signal-boosting #blacklivesmatter.
Reaching for Empathy
Oh, and do I ever recognize that fatiguing onslaught. It’s similar to the waves of sexism and classism and, yes, to some extent even anti-atheism that I see every day in the news. It’s an undercurrent of often-violent prejudice in the backdrop of our culture, relentlessly dragging us further and further from the shores of our shared humanity.
But if I get tired of that struggle sometimes, if I have breaking points when it comes to issues that affect me directly, how the hell am I getting any closer to solid ground if I deny that others get tired too?
We are not perfect beings, and it weighs on us, the immensity of injustice in the world.
Even then, though, that weight is unequally distributed. And, sure, maybe those of us with lighter loads in certain domains do try to do better… but even then, not always for the best reasons. Sometimes, just to be seen as “good”. Sometimes, just to fit in. Sometimes, just to get a satisfying rush of positive emotional response.
And this, too, is a reason that any given group in need of support is going to be weary and wary of our allyship. Because it knows that even though it absolutely needs outsiders to help improve its social stability and security… whatever allies it receives are often inconsistent, fairweather, and/or fleeting. Even someone who has done such great work for many years can still, at any time, easily fall back on their normative status. Sometimes just by uttering a single, destructive word.
That’s in the background for marginalized communities, always. The uncertainty not only about whether you’re eventually going to turn on them due to your own wounded feelings… but when, and how. During something important? Something vitally critical to their cause?
So what can we do? Well, we can start with ourselves, and our own demographics. If you or someone from your own demographics vents in a reductive way, recognize it for what it is: your humanity showing. Their humanity showing. Then keep that accommodation in mind for the next time you see someone outside your demographics venting, too.
Because if you’re feeling wounded by another demographic’s sweeping declarations of frustration, when you’ve, personally, tried to be ever so much better than the crowd–sure, feel wounded. No pathologizing of feeling here!
But then honour that emotional response for what it is: a sign, too, that there’s a contingency to your allyship.
A dangerous contingency, furthermore–a contingency that suggests the humanizing of other people in your communities is a cause you’re only going to commit to if there’s something in it for you, too.
Then do your best to see that contingency as something for you to work on, as a humanist, away from others’ wounds.
(P.S. Happy Moon-Landing Day, lovelies. We do some pretty extraordinary things sometimes, don’t we, as a species? Let’s see if we can’t still achieve a few unifying more.)