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Monday, March 01, 2010

Being the Good Guy

I have an awesome friend and mentor who works with me in my men’s group, and he’s the kind of person who knows everyone in Boston, and a few weeks ago I was running a new outreach idea by him, based on the essay “What It Feels Like When It Finally Comes: Surviving Incest in Real Life” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in Yes Means Yes.  I wanted to put together some form of website of radical healing options for rape survivors in the Boston area because her essay was about the power of non-traditional modes of healing, and I thought it would benefit more survivors if there was a place to go at any hour to find an aggregation of healing resources that were underground and hard to find normally.  Not all survivors can access things like BARCC’s hotline and the more opportunities survivors had to find healing communities and tools that work for their needs, the better, right?

It’s a good thing that I had the chance to speak with him before I got too gung-ho about this idea, because he helped tamp down my latent “good guyism,” something I imagine a lot of men struggle with while working in gender justice or anti-oppression work.  He gave me a very gentle good guy warning and that’s helping me think about my role moving forward.

When I first started doing anti-oppression volunteering, I really wanted to be considered “the good guy:” the one non-racist white guy in the room, the one non-sexist guy in the room, the one non-homophobic straight guy in the room, the guy who “got it.” I also wanted to be known as that guy.  I wanted other people to talk about how I was the one guy who got it.  I wanted the status.  The problem is, this desire made it really, really hard for me to be a good ally or to do powerful, meaningful work in this world. 

Being an ally is important, especially in the world of rape and sexual assault prevention - we simply can’t change all of society, social messaging, gender relations, and violence without a good chunk of male-identified people on board.  But being an ally also means being accountable.  When I screw up and say or do something sexist, or when I act in a way that is traditionally dominant in a space where that is not welcome, I need to be able to apologize, to step back, and to make amends for that behavior.  When I was going through my intense “good guy” period, doing this was hard: how could I get called out for misogyny?  I’m the good guy!  I’ve read Femininity and Against Our Wills!  I read feminist blogs!  I’m totally right there with you, women of the world, in your fight against gender injustice…except when I’m not, because my privilege let me say or do something stupid.

I need to recognize, as I continue to do this work, that I am reaching over a vast gulf of privilege, and that this gulf has real and powerful affects on the way people think about their place in the gender-justice movement (or any progressive social movement, really).  I can read as many blogs as I want, take part in as many marches as I want, and go to as many trainings as I want, and still not understand the true affects of gender injustice and sexism because most of it isn’t targeted at me.  Society doesn’t tell me that I’m vulnerable to rape; society doesn’t tell me I have to shave and wax and pluck myself into madness to find a sexual partner; society doesn’t condescend to me when I work.

The real danger with the good guy mindset is that it gets real easy to make my feminism cosmetic only; to make it a button I wear at NOW meetings or an interesting piece of conversational material I can pull out at a party when I want an otherwise uninterested woman to think I’m cool, different, and “not like those other guys.”  Seriously, though, “I’m a feminist!” isn’t a pick-up line.

If I want to be a real ally, and do real work to change society, I need to bring the ideas of gender justice home with me, actively try to live them, and even then I still need to recognize that I’m not going to understand the lived realities of a lot of the people fighting for the same justice that I am.  Not every progressive community is my community just because I’m a “good guy.” My volunteering for BARCC does not give me an all-access pass to every gender-justice group in Boston, or even in my neighborhood, and thinking it does is another form a privilege.

My men’s group friend had a ton of good ideas for me on my project, but the most important one was that my vision may not be the best mechanism for accomplishing what I wanted to do.  An online tool to share healing resources amongst survivors would be accessible to anyone.  It might draw abusers or rapists.  It might draw legal attention to communities that work with undocumented workers.  It would make me feel good that I had done something, that I could point to an artifact that I had created that had CAUSED JUSTICE TO BE DONE, except that it wouldn’t necessarily help survivors.  What would I really have accomplished in this scenario, aside from having something to attribute to myself?

My friend has an awesome new slogan: “We want progress, not change.” I really like it, and I think it’s going to become a motto of mine also.  If I actually want to change the world and make it more equitable for more people, instead of wanting a pat on the back and a nice sticker on my wall, then I need to work for progress instead of just change.


Posted by Dave on 03/01 at 11:33 AM


It seems like the issue of men--especially straight white men--in feminism has come up a lot, especially back in school. I know more than my fair share of women who are skeptical of the ability of men--again, especially straight white men--to truly feel any investment in feminism, and who would subsequently declare that it is impossible for a man to be a feminist, only a feminist supporter (and even that was a stretch). While I can see the point, I still feel that refusing anyone "entry to the club," as it were, simply based on their gender is, well, not particularly feminist (and from there, what about trans people? etc etc).

It IS good to step back and wonder how much privilege comes into everyday activism, and I think that applies to women in the movement, too. It's easy for us to ride our righteousness, but as a mostly straight white woman (educated and from the middle class, no less), I'm still comparatively privileged. It's easy for ANYONE to fall into the accidentally patronizing "Oh, I am helping the less fortunate!" trap. It just so happens that for those at the pinnacle of privilege (straight, white, male, etc) it's about as easy as breathing--but that doesn't make awareness of it impossible.

The danger of being "the good guy" is that, yeah, it can start to sound really patronizing and even potentially attention-seeking. No, feminism is NOT a pick-up line (or at least it shouldn't be; smug undergrads the world over beg to differ) but when it becomes a hunt for affirmation/approval, the motives behind it start to become blurry. The issue is that I think it's hard for "outsiders," if you will, to engage in the dialog without at first seeming like they're just looking for a pat on the back and the reassurance that they're not one of the "bad" ones.

I agree with you that feminism needs male participation--it enriches the movement, opens avenues that women might not otherwise have access to on their own, brings in alternate viewpoints, etc--but often times, it's an unsung heroism (not to say that us lady feminists are getting regularly lauded for our efforts either; feminism isn't exactly popular). The issue is just deciding what's more important--the pursuit of justice, or the pursuit of the CV of justness.

We all benefit from nomming the occasional slice of humble pie. ;)
Posted by Vivienne  on  03/01  at  01:40 PM
I think the phrase "CV of Justness" is one of my new favorite phrases, and pretty much captures my thoughts completely. It's really, really hard to avoid chasing that, instead of true, honest justice.
Posted by Dave  on  03/01  at  02:57 PM
"Change is not progress" is attributed to Henry Ford, though it's philosophy a much older than him. I feel your need to make a greater contribution in an effort to be "the good guy". I as well often try to climb the extra mountain, with a boulder on my shoulders, to assuage my personal demons. I know for me it's also a way to attempt to remediate both my personal past transgressions and on behalf of patriarchy in general. In the final analysis I've found that the best, most positive change happens one person at time. You work on your stuff, you help another person work on theirs, and slowly we see progress. I'm not trying to denigrate your blog entry ~ it's spot on and must of been a bit of an "ouch" to write ~ I'm just saying for me it's much easier to know I'm doing "right" when I can experience the reactions to my efforts first hand.
Posted by Ric  on  03/02  at  11:02 AM
Thanks for this thoughtful, well written blog entry. Feels like we are fellow-travelers. Here's to the journey.
Posted by Ellen Brodsky  on  03/03  at  10:54 AM

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