On Facing Your Bias, Owning Your Prejudice, and Allies – Part 1

by Latoya Peterson

The last few weeks have been stressful for me in another way entirely.

As a person who devotes quite a bit of time to fighting her own prejudices, this month gave me a whole lot to think about.

I think that people tend to overlook how hard it is to change your thinking and how hard it is to let go of ingrained ideas – not just about external forces, but about the self.

We tend to think that we see the world accurately. We tend to think that our views are right, and not question where we got them from. We tend to believe that if someone is attacking us, it’s because they are being a jerk – not because we are wrong. So when we run up against something that pushes back on us, takes us to task for something we have failed to do, part of the reaction is to protect the self.

And even while we are actively fighting bias that we acknowledge, the natural impulse of the self is to point out all the ways in which we are justified for holding that position.

And this is where I found myself as the feminist blogosphere was reeling from a few conflicts, Jezebel was killing me with their content, and some other off-line things had me wanting to barricade myself in a PoC only stronghold. Hatred was welling up in spite of my best attempts to quell those feelings. Quite a few times, I stepped back from the conflicts, only to find out they had gotten worse. I refrained from commenting on the first issue – only to watch a second, third, fourth, and fifth spring up.

I tempered my response to the Jezebel article, knowing that I could not engage the white writer of the piece fairly. So instead, I started discussions with the editor of the blog (who is a WoC) while asking two of the talented Muslimahs I know to see if they wanted to draft a response. And when we posted that response, we got a crock of shit back in return.

In short, I started feeling really fucking justified.

However, for me, that will not be where the matter ends. I’ve already taken the first steps of owning this bias and actively engaging with people instead of dropping trust and ending the conversation. And while it is very tempting to stay away from engaging, we all know that those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

(This is why we see the same patterns of behavior over and over again in the offending parties – they refuse to even acknowledge where they may hold a bias or where they fucked up, so why should they change?)

So what does one do?

While puzzling over these ideas, I decided I wanted to do a post on being an ally. Then, I realized there are lots of posts on being an ally, so I wanted to do a post on how to mitigate damage. However, in the wake of all the controversy in the feminist blogosphere, there have been a lot of posts dedicated to how to apologize. After that, I decided to do a post on becoming informed as many of these issues stem from a lack of knowledge.

I finally realized that all these things are more or less related and they all require similar steps. So, in light of this, I present some things to consider when engaged in a conflict:

1. Take stock of your allies

Often, when we face a situation where we feel outnumbered, it is very easy to want to lock ranks. To say things like “I don’t want to deal with white people/straight people/cis people/secular (or religious) people” – after all, these people are actively offending you and seem intent on continuing to do so. Even after truly discussing why something is wrong, there is still a whole crowd of people disputing the facts and dismissing your concerns. Frustrating, but common.

However, at times like these, it can be quite refreshing to really look to see who is out there.

Over the course of a month, the feminist blogosphere has felt quite hostile. And when Tiffany in Houston commented on Feministe, saying:

You know, I am more of a lurker than commenter on the white feminist blogs I read such as Feministe, Pandagon and on occasion Feministing. I have watched Amanda Marcotte as she flubbed and fucked up her way thru burka-gate, racist book cover-gate and now appropriation-gate. I’m not a blogger so I’m not hating. I’m not trying to get put on for a book deal. But all these charades remind me of something my grandma used to say: Be careful when you are dealing with white folks, because one day they wake up and realize they’re white and you ain’t. Truer words have never been spoken.

This is why this 34 year old black woman doesn’t call herself a feminist.

When it comes down to it, you white chicks, ya’ll really aren’t to be trusted.

Once again, I’ve been proven correct.

I could really, really relate.

But, I would do myself a great disservice if I did not acknowledge the allies who were here and taking heat from the beginning.

Cara from the Curvature blogged about this issue multiple times on her own blog, and jumped into the comments on Feministe a little later. She wrote a post way back when the first issue started on being an ally. And, as more information emerged, she wrote another. Did Cara immediately start apologizing and falling all over the place? No. Did she agree with all the accusations leveled during the conflict? No. What Cara did was to acknowledge the whole conflict and highly question her role as an ally if she remained silent. And she also connected the dots on some important issues. And she spoke out. Early. Before things rose to the heights that they did.

I was also glad to see Andrea Rubenstein (Tekanji) still representing, even though she is currently working hard in video game design school. She dedicated a post to the idea of feminist infighting, specifically noting:

Privilege means not having to look past your own oppression to see the ways that you are oppressing others. It’s easy to see the ways that we’re disadvantaged because it affects us, but it’s much harder to admit that there are ways in which we are part of the problem. Especially if we believe that our oppression is the most important, or at least the most pressing, one out there.

In this case it means that you can use say things like “we are all women first” without realizing how dismissive that is to women who experience more than just gender-based oppression. Gender might be the most pressing oppression to you, but that’s not necessarily the case for other women. It also is a means for avoiding self-critique. By trying to force a certain amount of homogeneity in order to create a sense of harmony (eg. “universal womanhood”), then you never have to look at what you, personally, are doing to alienate women/feminists who aren’t part of the white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied (etc, etc) force that is the dominant voice of mainstream feminism.

She also wrote another post on earning the privilege to be trusted:

Most white feminists, yes even the ones who are protesting the loudest here, understand that men aren’t automatically entitled to the benefit of the doubt. They get that, in order to be an ally, a man has to put his money where his mouth is and actually act like one. He has to deal gracefully with the mistrust of feminists who have been hurt one too many times by men professing to like women and to be an ally. He also has to accept that some feminists will only ever view him as an interloper because of the long, sordid, and often personal history that comes with gender relations. No one is saying that it’s fair, but part of being an ally is understanding that the little unfairness that he suffers not only is rooted in real, valid causes, but also doesn’t outweigh the unfairness that the women treating him unfairly have suffered.

And yet, while white feminists are more than happy to apply those standards to men who are trying to be allies, they are all too often unwilling to apply them to themselves. Their white privilege tells them that the root of all oppression is gender oppression, and that it’s the almighty vagina (ie. the possession of one) that creates a solidarity between women. The myth of “universal womanhood” is a powerful one, to be sure, but it is also a convenient way to shield yourself from having to question your own privilege — whether that be white, hetersexual, able-bodied, cissexual, or whatever combination you fall under.

And that, dear readers, is why I am ridiculously proud to be affiliated with the Iris Network.

Now, Cara and Andrea were not the only white feminists who spoke up. I have seen many on the comment boards and in their own blogs drawing attention to the issue and really trying to walk in solidarity with women of color. It was very good to see that, good to know that some people understood what the issues were, even if they were not in the majority. And so, I am proud to call them my allies.

There are also some people who are conspicuously absent from this list. Some of these people have posted on the topics of late and posted messages about solidarity and moving forward. Many of these people I am personally quite fond of, enjoy reading their work, and I like to support what they do. I understand that friendship and loyalty are difficult, complex things, and I do not envy the people who found themselves torn between helping a friend/trying to heal the feminist blogosphere and actually discussing the issues at hand.

However, I can’t add those people firmly to the ally camp. It’s kind of like being in a fight. You have one friend who watches the fight happen, sits anxiously on the sidelines, and when all the action is over, she hands you some tissue and some ice for your face. You have another friend who watches you take a punch, grabs a chair, and she knocks that fucker off you. The tissue and the ice are appreciated, but I am a lot more thankful for the friend that had my back.

(To be continued in part two.)