Some time ago, I had a friend who liked to be “helpful.” He loved to do nice things for others. He loved talking about all the nice things he did for other people. It got annoying rather quickly.
Mind you, there’s nothing annoying about helping other people. In fact, such expressions of altruism, hospitality, and compassion are something I personally value greatly — and think everyone should value greatly.
There’s also nothing inherently wrong with sharing stories where one helps another. It’s often a good way of raising awareness of the problems and needs of others. If my friend Becky mentions in passing that she gave our mutual friend Ralph some extra grocery money, I might respond by saying that I didn’t realize Ralph was strapped for cash and ask if he’s okay. I might even contact Ralph and ask him if there’s anything else he needs.
No, the problem with my friend’s behavior was that he was bragging. What’s more, it quickly became clear that his intentions were not so much to help others but to draw attention to himself in that “look at what a great guy I am” sort of way. In time, I began wondering if he cared about the people he helped at all beyond a way to show off what a great guy he was.
I thought of this friend as I got involved in a conversation over at Fannie’s Room regarding those people who wish to be seen as, to paraphrase Fannie, heroic allies of women or racial minorities (or QUILTBAG people or any other marginalized group) for the simplest and most basic things while they ignore subtler, more complex, and equally important (not to mention more common) manifestations of marginalization.
While I certainly agreed with the point Fannie was making, I took it one step further:
You know, I never really got this mentality. I have no desire to be a “heroic feminist ally.” Quite frankly, doing so would strike me as making being a feminist ally all about me. (Do I really need to spell out why this is problematic?) Personally, I’d much prefer feminists give me an honest critique of where I do well and where I need to improve.
I want to expand on that point. When a person is acting as an ally to others, it’s not about them, and it’s inappropriate and rude to make it about them. People who wish to be an ally — whether it’s an ally to women, QUILTBAG people, racial minorities, or some other group — need to understand this fact quite clearly. Without doing so, one isn’t much of an ally.
On those occasions that I write about feminist issues as a man — or should I ever right about trans* issues as a cisgender man or racial issues as a white man — I don’t do so in order to gain praise. I do so to help out women (or trans* people or people of other races), and I believe I wholeheartedly have a duty to do my best to help them. Part of helping them means not drawing attention to or accolades for myself in the process.
That’s why of all the blog posts I’ve ever written, the blog posts I write about women are probably the ones I think hardest about and fret the most over. It’s easy for me to write one about gay male sexuality, Pagan spirituality, or my past experiences as a fundamentalist. I’m intimately familiar with those subjects on a personal level. When I write about issues that affect women, I’m writing about someone else’s experiences and struggles as an outsider. That calls for great care and attention, because it’s not about me at all.
And that’s the way it should be.