One of my earliest memories as a young boy was my mother covered in bruises. My father’s rage was so hot I could practically feel it through the walls of our home. While I was too young to advocate for my mother then, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about other peoples’ lived experiences and strive to be an ally.
Over the years, I observed that men can have a difficult time being allies. Gender norms we have been taught may lead us to inaction, selfishness or a need for control. A propensity toward aggression can diminish our empathy, and building walls around our hearts and minds can prevent us from seeing and supporting others.
Now is an important time to address these obstacles. As men, it is on all of us to fight anti-Black racism.
As allies, we can make an ongoing commitment to help end the oppression of people who lack access to the power and status that we have. Deciding we want to be an ally means striving to be an ally. “Ally” is an action, a verb, a label that the people you seek to support will call you because of the way you take action.
Consider this a warm invitation into self-exploration, unlearning and becoming a stronger ally.
Strive toward action
I follow a simple saying: I see you, I feel you, I got you.
“I see you” is compassion: I have been made aware and see what you are struggling with. I understand racism is real and happening.
“I feel you” is empathy: I realize how this impedes your ability to contribute, to achieve, have access, to grow and develop, to feel safe.
“I got you” is the action I can take, the actions we all must take.
“Sometimes stepping up means stepping aside, or stepping out of the way.”
But allyship is not simply posting a black square on your social media, or a button on your chest — it takes intent, or as my friend Carlos Andrés Gómez puts it, “living in the humility, and messiness, and accountability of all this work.” Compassion without action is just observation. We must take the time to consider how racism impacts one’s ability to survive, cope and live with dignity, and then do something about it.
See past your own experience
As men, we are conditioned to see the world through our eyes first and foremost, which can make it harder to empathize with others’ experiences of injustice if we haven’t personally experienced the same.
In my life, this is how that looks:
As someone of Sinhalese descent (a people from the island of Sri Lanka), I was born of an ethnic group that has a history of violent devastation towards the Tamil population. Having been born and raised in Canada, the war and its horrors were not my experience, but I have apprehension of the shame that comes with being part of a group that has caused oppression.
I am also someone who is dark-skinned and consistently read as Black by people of all races, including Black folks. I have been called the “N-word” numerous times throughout my adult life, and experienced a searing taste of anti-Black racism. It doesn’t mean I understand the entirety of oppression facing Black people, but I have a small amount of insight into it.
Looking through that window can be a first step toward allyship as men.
Stop being the ‘fixer’
As men we are conditioned to believe that our value is in being the solution. In this critical moment in our history we must set aside our need to be the fixer and centre others who need our support. Sometimes stepping up means stepping aside or stepping out of the way.
If you experience privilege in your life, you may worry that this is about giving up power, “shrinking” yourself, so that others may have more. Women and people of other genders being empowered doesn’t come at the expense of men, just like Black men being empowered doesn’t come at the expense of white or non-Black men of colour.
The measure of a man is not demonstrating the power we hold, what we own and what we can produce, but rather how we serve, give and live. Our privilege may be unearned, or has come at the expense of others, but rather than be defensive we can use our position towards change.
Connect with your emotions
At a certain point, boys and young men are taught to build walls between ourselves and our feelings. But if we fail to recognize and value these feelings in ourselves, we won’t value them in others, robbing them of humanity.
My friend Ten, who talks a lot about feelings, advises: “Find some support and figure out how to heal whatever closed you off from the world, and then open yourself back up.”
“Let’s use our actions to empower those who truly work to be in service of others.”
Feelings like fear and anger can be channelled in healthier ways to help build movements and bridges between us, instead of walls.
Kindness and compassion are strength
To be better allies, we must do better in following and supporting the much-needed leadership of women and people of other genders — consider the Black women who, for decades, have been working toward change, and the matriarchs of Wet’suwet’en First Nation. We can start by challenging the view that “masculine” traits (brute force, aggression and no compromise) are strong, and “feminine” traits (kindness, discourse and emotion) are weak.
For example, U.S. President Donald Trump urges the use of conflict to handle conflict and projects a false idea of “strength.” When we see this brute force in action, does it feel like it’s accomplishing anything, or moving us towards peace? No. The only “order” these actions serve to maintain is an order based on race, gender and social class.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s proactive handling of the pandemic in New Zealand, on the other hand, is one example of a generative, rich and holistic solution to crisis informed primarily by compassion and kindness. New Zealand declared its country “free” of the novel coronavirus last week.
Let’s use our actions to empower those who truly work to be in service of others, instead of those seeking power and control.
Striving to be an ally means owning the impact we leave on others, but as men we are both benefactors and perpetrators of a system that helps us to avoid accountability for our actions. We must make it a healthy habit to consider the consequences of each decision we make, and own them.
As a teenager reading the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I came to understand that the true story of the Good Samaritan was more a decisive moment where a man had to weigh the question of “What will happen to me if I do something to help this person?” and “What will happen if I don’t do something?”
It’s not just about what we’ve done (or not done), but how we move forward. So, take the time to:
- Remember that advocating for change includes everyone, that means the lives of women, the lives of trans women.
- Examine your beliefs, attitudes and relationship to power in society.
- Read, listen to or watch anti-racist resources.
- Share lessons you’ve learned with others like you.
- Invest in having productive but hard conversations that invite people into accountability.
- Use your position or platform to advocate for others or raise awareness in the social spaces where it is needed.
- Email, phone or write letters to your local politicians.
Now’s the time to do something.
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