Decolonizing Male Allyship

I’m slowly starting to realize the damage that non-intersectional feminism has done to my thinking and my intimate relationships with Black women. So often we talk about the role that men need to take in checking our privilege as if Black men and white men should address patriarchy in the same way. How often do we falsely assume that white male supremacy and machismo are basically the same thing? How often do we assume that patriarchy in gay male spaces operates on the same internal logic as patriarchy in hetero-male spaces just because some of the symptoms are similar? How often do we not even talk about masculinity in Asian communities despite the umbrella term Asian encompassing the majority of humanity? How can we understand male privilege in non-binary, raced and classed terms?

Recently, I was having a conversation with a group of liberated cis-Black women on dating. I was arguing, foolishly in hindsight, that I should not be expected to pay for dinner just because I suggested the date. All of these women, most of whom are far more active self-advocates, liberated and professionally successful than myself were united on the fact that if you ask someone out on a date, you pay. I was advocating, again foolishly, for the expectation to be that you split the meal. My friend Erika leveled with me and said, “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just the way it is. Quoting her sister Shayna she added “do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?” I realize now, that what she was trying to tell me was that this is how Black women think about it, if you want to date Black women then you need to treat them in the way that they ask to be treated.

I realized later, after a lot of self-reflection, that I have dating with a feminist analysis predicated on addressing the needs of white women.

Specifically, the fact that the kind of patriarchy that white women face is one of forced domestication in which men paying for meals assumes that men provide for women materially and women support the man’s career. This model, one that I have been a staunch defender of for years, makes almost no sense in the context of Black women. Black women have historically been unable to be seen as domestic, Black women’s oppression has always been one of forced labor. Black women are expected to provide economic, spiritual and emotional support to the entire community.

So, whereas paying for a middle class, hetero-sexual white women’s meal might often be rightly interpreted as saying “I’m operating under a patriarchal assumption that you cannot take care of yourself;” paying for a professional Black woman’s meal in a hetero context is more like saying “I know you can take care of yourself but for once, I’d like to take care of you.” As my friend Erika put it, “think of it as reparations for all those niggas that came before you.”

If I’m honest, that angered me. I’ve gone far enough along in my journey to recognize if a woman holds me accountable and my first inclination is anger, then I’m probably doing something pretty patriarchal. So I sat in it. I reflected on what I had said and why I was angry. I thought about how much of my identity is still tied to being a “good guy” like all those well-meaning white people who fall out at the mere suggestion that they did something unintentionally racist.

I had a revelation later that night that I am ashamed to admit but was also the catalyst for this post. Addressing the way that the past wrongs of other men has benefited you is in many ways the central tenet of male ally ship. Patriarchy is a system that benefits us, so even if we didn’t create it, we still have to address the ill-gotten gains that it has given us. More importantly, we can’t pretend that patriarchy is not the context in which we are operating even if by some stroke of luck of social location means that we are not contributing to the specific aspects of it in question.

This is something that I readily accept when white women challenge me on issues of gender writ large. It is something that I readily accept when Black women challenge me on issues of gender writ large. However, it is not something I can easily accept when put in terms of things Black men do. I hate it. I hate being pathologized as just another nigger. So the comment was triggering to me because Black men are often held accountable for other Black men’s actions in  way that other groups of men are not.

Now, some of this anger was completely understandable, as collective punishment is an aspect of white supremacy, even though Erika’s comment was about understanding context not collective punishment. I believe that it is important that we be real and honest about how and why we react to statements. Because emotions are complicated and even the most problematic reactions hold a kernel of truth in them; its important to learn to separate the problematic from the truth. So given that, what does it mean for me to readily accept, without question, the faults and trespasses of white men as my own yet bristle when it comes to the actions of fellow Black men. As my friend Omo might say, “that’s fuuucked up.” Or, as Erika did say in this conversation “you sound like a twitter nigga!”

It is one thing for Black women to pathologize Black men. This is a thing that happens. Unfortunately it is something I have seen the women in my family do. It is generally a result of trauma and how internalized anti-Black shows up in hetero-sexual Black relationships. It is crucial to point out that the trauma that those women are reacting from was caused by the systemic activities of individual Black men. However, what my group of liberated Black women were doing was not pathology but accountability and loving agitation [that in all fairness I explicitly asked for]. It is only recently, and only through the grace and wisdom of many of these same liberated Black women, that I was able to realize the difference.

I now realize that we need a new model of allyship for Black men who love Black women. Though, the word allyship seems out of place here. I am not an ally to Black women. We are not, in most respects, separate communities standing together. So, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that Black men interested in dating liberated Black women need to rethink our solidarity with Black women. Still, this language seems off as it assumes both that all we need to do is sit in quiet reflection or that women like bell hooks, Audre Lorde or Angela Davis have not already done that work for us. Perhaps, as Zoe Samudzi might say, we need to decolonize our understanding of Black solidarity.

For, as much as it might pain me to admit this, my understanding of solidarity with Black women is colonial. Over the past few years I have really started to realize how much emotional energy I spend tending to the emotional needs of white people, especially white women, in my professional and organizing life. It was only until the past couple of months that I have realized that it makes it difficult for me to give emotional support to the Black women in my life [not mentioned too drained to really come to terms with why there are so few Black men in my life.] More to the point, my colonial understanding of feminism in romantic relationships has really put me at loss for how to deal with liberated Black women.

It is easy to for men like me to take a step back in romantic situations. For Black men who grew up in neo-colonial contexts, we are conditioned to step back in most non-male social situations. When we don’t we are often ostracized, feared and shut out from vital economic activity. For professional Black men like myself, strategically stepping back and only asserting ourselves once we are in a stable positon is a tried and true survival mechanism.

It is an odd thing, being raised a Black man in world that teaches men to be hyper masculine in order to survive but also teaches Black men that our hyper masculinity makes us a target. We have to learn to code switch. Yet forced code switching, especially in such emotional vulnerable ways, is not without its consequences. Sometimes this means men taking out the frustration of deferring to white employers out on their Black families. Sometimes this means men like me retreating from male spaces. Sometimes it means male solidarity in homosocial spaces that is based, in part, in misogynoir. Either way, it complicates our relationships with Black women who know what they want and are used to having to get it on their own.

This hit home when my friend Erika posited that, “maybe you’re just not ready to date Black women.” While this might have been true for my past self, I refuse to receive that and let it be true for my current self. But this means that I have to change. I have process what the messages that stepping back to suit the emotional needs of white people forced me to internalize. I have to process what growing up fighting and competing with other men has forced me to internalize. I have to process this hesitancy that an honestly over intellectualized political understanding, itself a product of my clinging on to the lie of control and fear of failure, has bread into me. In short, I need to decolonize my own Black identity and how I relate to liberated Black women romantically.

But, like everything else. It’s a journey. In talking with these same Black liberated Black women, I realize that I’m not the only conscious Black man in a similar position. My hope for this piece is the same as everything I write, that it sparks a mind that sparks a mind, and we create a new model for interacting with each other. Hopefully one that’s a lot less abstract and intellectual and centers a complex understanding of consent and intersectionality. I imagine, somewhere out there, off the internet, where real people live, someone has already figured this out. Yet I think it’s important that we be real about the fact that being “woke” is a continuous journey and growth only happens with agitation and loving accountability.  It is conversations like this one that really make me believe that accountability is a gift.

As James Baldwin said, and my sister Erika constantly reminds me, “if I love you then I have to make your conscious of the things you don’t see.”

One thought on “Decolonizing Male Allyship

  1. Pingback: A Brief Defense of Identity Politics and Intersectionality | The Well Examined Life

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