First things first, I can’t call myself an ally. An alliance is a partnership between two agreeing parties. I have spent my entire life as an activist to end sexism and xenophobia, but it wasn’t until I met feedback, criticism, and careful vetting by feminists and social equality veterans that I entered into true alliance.
That’s the thing I want to drive home here. You can’t be an outside force and an ally to the equality movement. You have to be in it, with it, beside it… not leading it, not above it, not commenting on it.
In Some Men, Michael Messner argues that there is a place for men to be involved in the feminist movements for equality and partnership; but it’s important for men to do their specific work. He tells an allegorical story around a village by a river. Everyday girls and women can be seen flailing and trying to survive the current as it sweeps them by the banks of the village. Women in the village begin rescuing the survivors. Soon, men start to recognize this is an ongoing issue, and so they start to line up to help; but by the time they get involved, the women have already established a system for saving and healing these survivors. They tell the well-meaning men to go upstream and fix whatever is pushing so many girls and women into the dangerous water.
So here are the three steps in becoming a male ally:
Step one is to recognize and affirm that there is a systemic problem.
Step two is to volunteer to help (not to take over - this reaffirms the superiority/inferiority class system that created the problem).
Step three is to go where you can affect the most change. Go upstream.
For men, that means we go to deconstruct and reconstruct our entrenched male culture to weed out the underlying issues of xenophobia that manifest in sexual violence, racial discrimination, isolation/suicide and bullying.
This means we have the responsibility, and the privilege of imagining something better for manhood. To me, that’s exciting. We get to make something new and improved. We can decide to keep or reinvigorate aspects of the old system that work for everyone, like traditional rites of passage, mentorship, and fraternal gathering. We also get to add new pieces like increased emphasis on present parenting, the liberation of our identity from our workplace roles, and the value of work/life balance over isolated martyrdom.
I started out as a secondary survivor - a person who intimately knows a survivor of sexual violence (or any trauma). In that role, I learned how to help a friend heal. I saw first-hand the devastation of toxic masculinity, and I affirmed that something is wrong with a world that allows men to believe they are entitled to harm or own girls and women as inferior objects. I went to domestic violence shelters and got educated on the issue, even fielding calls for a survivor hotline (after visiting the 911 operators in my small town) and organizing a batterer’s counseling group (for men who had largely been victims of cycles of abuse or violence as children themselves).
Soon, I was told by women who I respected as courageous, powerful, leaders that the best thing I could do was start to talk to other men about what we could do to prevent sexual assault. I was told to go upstream.
During that period of my life - at 19 years old - I began hosting weekly sessions with my peers to talk about healthy masculinity and the effects we could have on ending a culture of sexual violence as the next generation of men. I did this through my fraternity - yes, we proved a true brotherhood could actually be beneficial to men, to women, and to our culture in general.
Now, as an adult, I do consulting at billion-dollar multinational corporations around how to engage men in ending sexism in the workplace.
During the past 15 years, I’ve spoken at major conferences, on national television, and inside top corporations. I’ve faced criticism (mostly from macho men who feel I’m letting the side down by challenging the goodness in men to speak up), I’ve fielded feedback from feminist leaders, and I’ve earned a place in the conversation about a future of feminism that includes men as allies.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Feminism is really about equality of value. It is a vision of society that values women as equal, not inferior to men. This is pretty easy to get behind if you agree in principle that we were all born equal, or at least without a choice in the matter.
Feminism frames the conversation about gender and privilege - which allows us as men to have frank conversation about how our gender affects us both positively and negatively. This is pretty easy to get behind if you agree that deeper understanding of any one issue can only make things better for that issue.
Diversity is good because it helps society see new people and different perspectives at the table. Inclusion is even better because it helps society hear new perspectives and different people at the table. Hopefully we can all get behind inclusion, because we’ve all been the victims of exclusion at some point in our lives (and we all know that it doesn’t feel good). This is the basic golden rule extrapolated to adulthood in a global society. Considering every major philosophy and theology boils down to the basic equivalence between one’s self and any other, and how therefore we should treat the other as we would want to be treated… I believe this is the easiest strategy to get behind.
There are some people who believe, fundamentally, that there are some groups of people who aren’t as valuable as other groups of people. These people are xenophobic on a tribal level, and are ruled by their amygdala. They are ruled by fear. I can’t change them with anger, frustration, war, or violence. Those responses only trigger them. I can only change their perspectives by showing them we have common ground, respect, and values. And even then, I’m not likely to do this on a large scale. The best I can hope to do is influence the culture around them to refute their xenophobia from within. The best methods we have for this effect come from the lineage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent social movements. Therefore we need to practice NonViolent Communication and social change theory.