A friend recently posted to Facebook a great collection of photos that were gathered immediately after gay marriage was legalized in New York. They were wonderful, heartwarming, and honestly made me cry as I celebrated-by-proxy with these couples as they enjoyed another great step toward equality in America. And yet the first comment my friend earned on this uplifting post was pointlessly negative, criticizing the couples for their attire, stating that the couples weren’t appropriately formal in their choice of dress, and “some of them look like getting married was just something to do while they were out grabbing a quick lunch.” It was an irksome demonstration of classism (not everyone can afford black-tie attire) with possible undertones of homophobia (’cause aren’t those gays supposed to know about fashion?) and sexism (those lesbians just don’t pay proper attention to femininity). I replied calmly but frankly that this was an event about love and justice, not fashion, and was greeted in return with defensiveness and “at least my only…problem with what is going on in these picures is what they are wearing.”
And then it hit me: I was being straightsplained to.
Clearly, I had no right to get my little rainbow undies in a bunch about his objections to an event that had no implications for him as a straight man–I should just be grateful he wasn’t waving a “GOD HATES F*GS” sign. This decision that greatly impacted the members of my social group, my community, totally warranted his unrelated complaints because he, as a straight person, decided it was so. I’d totally forgotten that it’s my responsibility as a queer person celebrating a queer victory to take a step back and kiss the feet of every straight person who doesn’t consciously forbid me and other queer folks from enjoying such brief glimpses of equality.
Oh, hang on a moment–I think my Ally Cookies are ready!
This fallacy is pretty common among those who consider themselves allies to marginalized people in social justice. I’m certainly not immune to it, and sometimes I need to take a step back and check my own privileges in discussions of race relations or transgender issues, for example. But commonality does not make it acceptable. One of the most important things you must keep at the forefront of your mind as an ally is that it is not your place to jump on the ‘Splainin’ Train and straightsplain/mansplain/whitesplain/etc. away a minority’s objections to your words or behavior. If someone objects to something you’ve said or done, take a step back and try to see it from their perspective. Apologize for your insensitive slight, reword your comment (or rework your thinking) and approach the situation with a little humility.
Also, the concept of deserving reward or praise simply for not being an active bigot is ridiculous. Behavior deserves praise if it is beyond what can be normally expected. Do you really want to live in a world where hatred and bigotry are the accepted norms? Because you can’t challenge that ugliness without first deciding that humans should hold themselves to higher standards, such as demonstrating compassion, understanding, and respect. Those are basic tenets of humanity, and we shouldn’t have to fawn over you for possessing them.
Being active in feminist circles, I hear my fair share of mansplaining. They ‘splain to me how rape isn’t that serious of an epidemic, and it is in fact the insidious invasion of false rape reports we should be worried about. They ‘splain how sometimes we ladies deserve physical punishment, and men really can’t be blamed for rising to the occasion. And let’s not forget that they’re really the oppressed ones, anyway, so we just need to aim a fire extinguisher at our bras and calm down already.
Even male allies can fall into these traps, and it leaves a feminist woman walking the delicate line of not alienating someone who could potentially help the cause, and not stroking the ego of someone who still doesn’t get it. An ally who perpetuates harmful stereotypes isn’t helping the overall movement, and it is that ally’s responsibility to react calmly and with self-reflection when called out for a misstep.
As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the most important thing you have to do, as someone not on the receiving end of bigotry, is simply shut the fuck up. Marginalized people are not trying to oppress you by demanding your occasional silence–we’re just asking for a level playing field. In a world that never stops you from having a say, we’re asking that you not drown out our voices. And please, don’t tell us why we don’t understand our own oppression; while you were busy observing our lifestyles, we were busy living our lives, having legitimate applicable experiences that you do not have the right to ‘splain away. So sit down a moment, have a cup of tea, and relax while we take the helm of our own movements.