Some believe allies are necessary in any marginalized group. The virtue of marginalization is that those with privilege must speak up in order for their cause to be more widely heard. But what about when allies not only speak over their marginalized counterparts, but push them aside entirely?
The fact is, while it has become fashionable, if not necessary, to be publicly supportive of equality for women, many male allies are privately unable to scrutinize their behavior. The end result is a perpetuation of the very antagonism they pretend to oppose.
Yesterday, Black Girl Dangerous published an essay, “I Was Sexually Assaulted By Someone I Thought Was A Feminist And An Ally*.” At the title suggest, the anonymous essay detailed being sexually and emotionally abused in private by a man who was publicly celebrated as a feminist, anti-racist leader and ally. Although so much of this powerful piece resonated with me, one quote in particular stuck out:
“I realize that our early conversations [with my abuser] were exclusively concerned with systemic forms of patriarchy. He was never interested in how his personal actions were misogynistic. Although we were both acutely aware of victim-blaming and slut shaming, invading my body was about establishing control—something he desperately needed to feel—feminist politics be damned.”
While the author was speaking specifically about her rapist, a parade of dudes flashed through my head. There is an endless cache of men who publicly benefit from the image of feminism while being privately abusive towards individual women. Perhaps most surprisingly, the majority of these men I met in Chicago slam poetry.
The trend of abuse from male allies is nothing new, nor is it exclusive to a niche artistic community. Charles Clymer founded the facebook group “Equality For Women” while continuously mocking and excluding any woman who disagreed with him, particularly women of color*. Hugo Schwyzer was literally a professional feminist while raping and attempting to murder women*.
The ability to identify and speak out against systematic forms of oppression has done nothing to keep these men from harming women, in both subdued and hypocritically problematic ways. Since abuse, racism, and sexual violence are some of the main tenants used to oppress women, these so-called male allies profit off of feminism while their private actions constantly oppose it.
To add insult to injury, neither Clymer nor Schwyzer are adding anything to the conversation. In articles for clickbait websites like xoJane and Buzzfeed, they’ve recycled things women have already been saying for decades, while making money off of their regurgitations.
This struggle isn’t exclusive to the Blogosphere. In my first Chicago Literati piece, I stated, “The reality is that women, people of color, and other minorities have to accomplish two, three, four times as much as their white male counterparts to get on a ‘Best Slam Poet’ list in local publications*.”
Later that day, I received an email from a white man. Evidentially he took this as a personal jab—he himself made a controversial “Best Slam Poets” list earlier this year. Never mind that, between New City and Reader archives for best poets in the past 10 years, I* could* only* find* two* women* slam* poets* who received recognition (one of whom—Jamila Woods—was also the only person of color I could find). (Note: this count only includes slam poets, not poets or writers more generally—although there is still much disparity, particularly racially, in these lists.)
The email itself was a sprawling, self-congratulating biography of literally everything its author had ever done in Chicago which ended with “If you are going to target me, please say my name outright, or don’t mention me at all.” Ironically, this sentence appeared alongside the statement, “I believe I have been a good person.”
In the grand scheme of things, this email, however fucked up, has not caused me any significant harm. It hasn’t made me lose sleep at night. It hasn’t damaged my ability to make money, my reputation, or violated my bodily autonomy. But it is telling that my effort to celebrate the less visible artists of our shared community is perceived as a targeted attack on an individual. This is one of the reasons why we, as a community, have been slow to progress in all matters of integration.
Women are being damaged by male conduct, particularly males who believe they are good people. The labor of women is being exploited thanklessly and without compensation by arts organizations. Women are being called bitchy and unprofessional for voicing their needs. Women are ostracized from spaces they helped build, spaces which they usually intended to benefit women, while men position themselves as leaders and feminist allies.
Women are being objectified by men. Their appearances are being criticized, compared, controlled and influenced by the male gaze. Comments on their appearance come often and without invitation. They are sexually harassed by employers and colleagues. They are physically and emotionally abused by men they trusted.
Women are being raped by men in our community in prolific numbers. Regardless of whether or not we need male allies, we know 99% percent of rapists are men (60% of those men are white)*. When men aren’t raping women, their behavior is being rationalized. Continuously, the word of alleged rapists holds more value than that of their survivors. Sometimes, even the word of multiple survivors of the same assailant does not receive the same comparative value. The protection of one man comes at the expense of the safety and presence of dozens of women.
But although the experience of female oppression is rarely unique, violence against women remains an all-too-often shared experience in all communities. As Anonymous writes, “[W]hen I began telling some of my closest friends my story, I was shocked when they responded by sharing similar experiences. Many of us had survived emotional and physical attacks by men who were teachers, pillars of their communities, whose revolutionary ideals were publicly celebrated. These public displays of activism and solidarity allowed them to take advantage of us in private.”
Unfortunately, many male allies make the ideology that is meant to empower us an actual weapon to enforce our silence. They may pretend to do so unwittingly, but often they are called out. They are often challenged to critique their behavior. They are presented with paths for change. When they aren’t combative in response, the challenge is accepted as an intellectual one rather than a plea for behavioral revision.
The point is not that all men are bad. On the contrary, we must be fully aware that most men have their own experiences of oppression which call for allyism and solidarity. But empathy is key. There can be no dismantling of any oppression if the master’s tools are still in hand.
Allyism should be the sacrificing of space and stature to benefit marginalized people. Allyism should be at the expense of the privileged’s comfort, rather than enhance it. Allyism should make the marginalized party more visible, rather than propelling the privileged into the spotlight. Allyism cannot be the method of dismantling, but rather, as the term suggests, a method of assisting.
Men need to self-educate. The intellectual conundrums raised for well-meaning men by this article can be resolved without asking women for assistance. They have been volunteering the needed information in writing for hundreds of years.
Men will never have solidarity with women until they can sacrifice male privilege in order to elevate the status of women in their communities. We cannot move forward if male allies are only listening to women when they have nothing to lose. For too long, men in poetry slam have borrowed women’s stories, vocabulary, and ideology for the benefit of their poems and their public image. Much of this could be resolved if women who are speaking out on their own experiences are allowed to exist in the same space as men.
But until men are able to identify and modify their behaviors with the aim to help women—without dismissing a request to do so as a personal attack—women can and will continue to fraction away from their communities, as will all marginalized individuals.
I am not writing this to target any individual, although I know it can and will be perceived that way. I cannot emphasize enough how this experience has been reinforced by dozens of men (and women, at that). Ironically, I know this writing will be dismissed based on convenient assassinations of my character while women all over the country have had identical experiences. This is a manifestation of systematic oppression in and of itself.
But I do write this in hopes that people will be listening. I write this because I hope that those who identify as feminists do truly value the presence of strong women in their community. I write because I do believe that it is possible for people to translate their supportive viewpoints into impact through action.
Above all, I hope that men are willing to let women be leaders of their own causes. We cannot, and we should no longer, wait for those with systematic power over us, especially if they will choose to wield that power over us within our own movements.
I haven’t made any names public within this article (although I was explicitly asked to by the white man who sent me that email). That’s because this isn’t a personal attack. It is a call to action. Be with us, rather than against. But don’t expect us to wait. Don’t expect us to pander or serve you in our quest for equality.
The line should now be firmly drawn.
STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here.
* = Denotes a clickable link. I have chosen to use special notation so that sources are obvious.