“But that raises another thorny question: Given all the excellent books by women and people of color, why am I writing at all? Why am I not simply recommending other people’s work to men and white people?”
lthough the rather inelegant term “allyship” had not yet become part of the social-justice lexicon, I first bumped into the complexity of being an ally in 1988 when I belatedly started to take feminism seriously.
I was following a feminist anti-pornography group that challenged men’s use and abuse of women in the sexual-exploitation industries. That is the term I use for pornography, prostitution, massage parlors, escort services—all the ways that men routinely buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure.
The organization was founded and led by women but had one key male volunteer who helped to run the office. After I had hung around long enough to demonstrate that I was serious about being part of the effort, Jim Koplin took me aside for a talk about the role of men. “If you want to be part of this because you want to save women, we don’t want you,” he said.
I was confused. Wasn’t the point of critiquing men’s sexual exploitation of women to help women? Yes, Jim said, but too many men who get involved in such work see themselves as the proverbial knight in shining armor, charging in to save women. They usually turn out not to be trustworthy because they are in it for their egos—not to challenge patriarchal masculinity but to play the hero. “You have to be in it for yourself,” he said, “but not to prove how special you are.”
“You have to be here to save your own life,” Jim told me.
We are allies to women in this project, he said, but we have to see how important challenging patriarchy is for ourselves. That is not because men face the same threats as women, of course, but because challenging patriarchy gives us a shot at being fully human. Instead of striving to “be a man,” we can struggle to be human.
That is central to my white male perspective on being an ally to women and people of color. Part of my motivation is self-interest, my desire to improve my own life. Why is this crucial in the struggle to create a decent society?
Justice and Self-interest
There are compelling moral reasons we all should contribute to movements fighting sexism and racism. Call that the argument from justice, rooted in our moral principles. We all have core principles we endorse, at least in theory, and a lot of us would include on that list (1) the inherent dignity of all people, (2) the importance of solidarity for healthy community life, and (3) the need for a level of equality that makes dignity and solidarity possible. If we take our own principles seriously—not values imposed on us, but values that we claim to embrace—then we should support movements for racial and sex/gender justice because it is the right thing to do, no matter what our identity or status in existing systems.
But moral principles alone are not always sufficient motivation. Sometimes people believe it is in their self-interest to maintain unjust systems that give them unearned power and privilege, for at least two reasons: a desire for status and the quest for wealth. The threat of being cast out of the dominant social group can get in the way of doing the right thing. The threat of losing material comforts can get in the way, too. Those are not the only goals that drive us—human nature is notoriously complex and malleable—but most people want to be accepted and want to be comfortable.
Because none of us is an angel or a saint, we have to not only make an argument from justice but an argument from self-interest that can overcome those impediments. Resisting white supremacy and patriarchy is in the self-interest of white people and men, if we can see beyond status and wealth. Yes, if the racial and sex/gender systems dissolved, those who look like me would lose the unearned advantages we have in a racist and sexist society. But it is worth giving up those short-term benefits to gain that shot at being more fully human.
By that I do not mean that people like me are subhuman, of course. I am not arguing that all white people and men are active agents of evil who have abandoned their humanity. But the irrational claims of white supremacy and patriarchy—the idea that those who look like me deserve to be on top—keep us from living as fully and deeply as possible. Those irrational claims corrupt relationships with people who could add fullness and depth to our lives.
I realize this is more a statement of faith than a factual claim, more a testimony than a presentation of data. But that is my experience and one shared by many others: We cannot be committed to irrational ideas—to illusions about who we are—and expect to live truly satisfying emotional and spiritual lives.
It can be difficult to persuade affluent white men of this. It can be even more difficult to persuade poor or working-class white men, those who struggle to get by day-to-day and often find this kind of argument condescending or irrelevant. That is why the case also has to be made for solidarity across racial and sex/gender lines in challenging the unjust distribution of wealth in a capitalist economy. We have to overcome the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been so successful at keeping so many people—white and non-white, men and women—poor or on the edge of poverty.
Put bluntly: White men, at all levels of “success,” should stop looking for scapegoats, for easy targets to avoid accountability. We should realize we need to save our own lives.
Let me repeat: I am not suggesting a false equivalency, that white supremacy and patriarchy in a capitalist society are equally damaging to everyone. That would be absurd. Women and people of color face constant hassles and targeted harassment that can be life-threatening. They live with the constant threat of violence and discrimination, subtle and overt. They never know when a routine interaction might morph into a threat because of sexism or racism. It would be grotesque to say that life is just as tough for white people and men as for people of color and women. I am not saying that.
But being on top—and believing that is the way the world should be arranged—diverts us from the knowledge we need to understand society, damages our capacity for connections with other people, and distracts us from understanding the sources of our own pain. To put it bluntly: Being on top—and believing that is the way the world should be arranged—deforms us.
If that is too abstract, I will speak personally. I will use “I” statements, to borrow a guideline from therapy talk.
I have found that my life improved once I began to learn about the history and contemporary practice of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. That knowledge led me to yearn for something more than being a white guy. I saw the negative effects of those systems not just on women and people of color but on me. The argument from justice that I already understood, but rarely acted from, was bolstered by a new argument from self-interest, the pursuit of a more fully human self.
This long introduction explains how I view the term “ally,” a word I have never used to describe myself. A white man could try to be helpful to women and people of color without seeing his own stake in the issues. But in my experience, the “I’m here to help” approach leads people like me to keep our distance emotionally, to be supportive without being engaged. As my friend Jim suggested, it is difficult to trust white men who are hedging their bets. It is better, I think, to understand movements for sex/gender and racial justice as essential to our own flourishing. White guys do not have the same stake in those movements as women and people of color, but we have a stake that matters. Although it may seem hyperbolic, Jim was right: I am in this to save my own life.
Strategy Is Not Simple
What does this mean in practice? This approach does not magically make it easy for a white guy to know what to do in specific situations. It is almost never easy. Here are some ways we struggle to “get it right.”
It is now a cliché that people like me should accept the leadership of women and people of color. That is fine, but not all women agree about how best to challenge patriarchy. In fact, some conservative women do not want to challenge institutionalized male dominance but, instead, strive to carve out a protected space within patriarchy. Some feminist women want to improve the status of women without addressing other systems of power. Not all feminist women who have a more consistently radical agenda share the same analysis, which can lead to polar opposite conclusions. The intra-feminist debate about the ideology of the transgender movement is a good example; there is not even a consensus on the boundaries of the category “woman.”
Similarly, people of color obviously are not a monolithic group. People from different non-white racial/ethnic groups can have conflicting agendas that sometimes produce tension. People within the same groups do not always agree on strategy. Ibram X. Kendi (a radical black African-American Studies professor), Adolph Reed (a black political scientist who has critiqued identity politics from the left), and Thomas Sowell (a conservative black economist) have quite different proposals for combatting white supremacy. In local organizing groups aimed at racial justice, I have seen significant disagreements between like-minded activists.
So, whose leadership am I to follow? This is not an evasion of responsibility or accountability but, rather, a recognition that we have to make choices that cannot be resolved with a slogan.
I ran into this early in my political life in that group that offered a feminist critique of pornography. There were feminists on the other side of the issue and hence no single feminist viewpoint that I could embrace. I had to decide which analysis was most compelling and follow the leadership of those feminist women, which meant I would be in conflict with other feminists. Since the late 1980s when I became active, the feminist anti-pornography position has lost ground and been marginalized in many feminist groups and women’s studies programs, which means I am often criticized by pro-pornography feminist women. But to renounce that anti-pornography critique would be to abandon the feminist women who have worked so hard for so long to challenge men’s exploitation of women. Since the evidence to support the anti-pornography position is more compelling than ever, I continue to support that political project. I am rejecting the leadership of some women in favor of the leadership of others. There is no way to avoid such choices.
Simple Rules for Strategizing
It is complicated, but this much is obvious: My job is not to tell women or people of color what they should think, what they should want, or how they should go about trying to get it. There are women and people of color who believe things I do not believe, articulate goals I do not share, and propose strategies I think will fail. That is hardly surprising. Given the individual variation in the human species, it would be remarkable if that were not the case.
So, I focus on talking to men and white people. When I am speaking to a group about feminism, I am there primarily to challenge men. My book The End of Patriarchy is subtitled Radical Feminism for Men. When I am speaking about racial justice, my target audience is white. My book on the subject, The Heart of Whiteness, argues that white people— especially white liberals who think they have transcended white supremacy—should be Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege.
But that raises another thorny question: Given all the excellent books by women and people of color, why am I writing at all? Why am I not simply recommending other people’s work to men and white people?
There are two answers to this question. One is that women and people of color I have worked with have encouraged me to speak and write because men and white people sometimes are more willing to listen to someone who looks like me. We all recognize the irony: I am trading on the presumed authority that white supremacy and patriarchy give me, in order to argue for the end of white supremacy and patriarchy.
Second, I try to make it clear that when I write about these subjects I am building on the work of many other writers and activists. Before doing talks on these subjects, I explain that there are no original ideas in my writing, that all I am doing is offering the insights of women and people of color, reflected through my own experience.
Those are honest answers, but that is an incomplete story. I also write because I think I am good at it, and because I like it. I know I am building on the work of others, but I think my books offer insights that, if not wholly original to me, are of value. I think my ability to write in plain language, without academic jargon or overheated political rhetoric, makes my work effective. The same goes for my public speaking. There are valid strategic reasons for having someone who looks like me—an older white guy with short hair—speak on these subjects, but the truth is I like doing it. This work makes me feel good.
So, I readily confess that in speaking and writing, I have mixed motives. That is not really much of a confession, since it is so obviously true of everyone. One of my favorite aphorisms is “I’ve never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” (I first heard that from a friend who said he got it from an Episcopal priest, and then I later saw it attributed to an unnamed Jesuit scholar. My guess is there is some version of that insight in every tradition.) In all my years of political organizing and intellectual life, I have yet to meet an angel or a saint. We do things for complex reasons involving our sense of justice and our own desires, which we are not always consciously aware of.
So, back to the real-world questions that we white guy allies have to face: When should we speak up, and when should we be quiet and listen? It is hard to learn while you are talking, but we also have an obligation to speak out against injustice. When should we take the lead and when should we step back? Again, there are no one-size-fits-all rules to guide us. We have to deal with context, complexity, and uncertainty.
Consider two different strategies when white people and men want to help achieve a policy change that can advance racial or sex/gender justice in an organization. One strategy would be for the women or people of color to present a proposal, with folks like me waiting to see what kind of support they need as the discussion goes forward. If other white guys resist, there might be a moment in which I speak forcefully to counter that resistant. I might hold my presumed authority in reserve, to be used only if needed.
A different strategy would be for me to speak first, perhaps offering the most radical proposal possible, knowing the organization will not accept it, but this can create space for the women or people of color to follow with a more moderate proposal that can succeed. I have called this the tactic of being “the craziest person in the room” to push the limits of what is possible.
Which is the best approach? That will depend on the situation, and it is not always easy to know. The only clear rule is that I should not decide which strategy to pursue independently. The folks trying to make change should get together ahead of time to determine the most effective path. In those discussions, I might feel strongly about the best course of action, but the final decision has to come from the group. It is not my call.
Facing White Guy Fears
That suggests my final observation about being an ally: We have to be willing to give up control, and that can be hard for anyone, especially white guys. Again, let me use “I” statements: I find it hard to give up control. I am not talking about the common desire most of us have to feel in control of our own destiny but rather control of things around us. Here I want to continue in a more personal vein, to try to get beyond slogans and deal with the messiness of our lives.
I grew up in a family defined by trauma. As a child, I had no control over the abuse I endured. As I got older, I did what lots of traumatized kids do: I unconsciously tried to limit my vulnerability to others by striving to always be in control. I could not make that work, as evidenced by a succession of failed relationships, but my go-to strategy was to stay in control, tightly. As I got older and engaged these critical movements, especially feminism, I started to step back from that obsession for control. That has not been easy, but it has been rewarding.
People in control typically do not like to relinquish control. And since white guys are disproportionately in positions that give us control, we often resist letting go of that control and have to struggle to open up possibilities for new kinds of interactions and connections. Think of the white people and the men you know—or if you are white or male, think about your own experience. Do they fit this pattern? Do I fit this pattern? Do we try to control political situations around race and sex, even when we say we are trying to be allies?
I know other white guys who have childhood experiences like mine. In a culture rooted in racial and sexual hierarchies—in a world in which so many relationships are defined by a domination/subordination dynamic—the widespread neglect and abuse of children is hardly surprising. Rather than stepping back from that desire to control self and others, some of those white guys will try to tighten their grip. In my experience, they tend not to be happy people or reliable allies.
It is easy to critique and even condemn such white guys. Critique is always warranted. Sometimes condemnation might be appropriate. I am not making excuses for us white guys when we mess up. But I am suggesting we try to understand why it happens so often. I identified a desire for status and material comfort as two reasons we might hold on tightly to unearned power and privilege. Here is another reason: fear.
It may seem ludicrous to suggest that white men are afraid, but is it so hard to imagine? I am not suggesting every white man shares my experience of childhood trauma or adopts my coping mechanisms growing up. I am speaking only for myself: The deeper motivation for my desire to stay in control has been a fear that runs deeply in me, that goes back to my earliest days. That is not an excuse for times I behaved badly. It is part of my struggle to understand why I have behaved badly, to maximize the potential for change.
What is true about me is not true about every white man. But it does suggest that we white men should ask each other: What are you most afraid of? Are you afraid you are not man enough? Tough enough? Successful enough? Are you afraid you cannot live up to the deformed image of white men that we were raised with?
My final words on overcoming this fear come from the two writers who were most central in my education, Andrea Dworkin and James Baldwin. Starting in essays in the early 1970s, Dworkin wrote not only for women but offered men help in understanding ourselves. Starting in essays in the early 1960s, Baldwin wrote not only for black people but offered white people help in understanding ourselves.
First, Dworkin’s loving challenge to men:
“[Women] do not want to do the work of helping you to believe in your humanity. We cannot do it anymore. We have always tried. We have been repaid with systematic exploitation and systematic abuse. You are going to have to do this yourselves from now on and you know it.”
Second, Baldwin’s insight into fear:
“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
I am grateful to writers like Dworkin and Baldwin for what they taught me. But I do not expect women or people of color to help men or white people deal with this. I expect us to deal with it ourselves. Because it is the right thing to do. Because it is in our own self-interest.
Back to speaking personally, only for myself: Because it is the right thing for me to do. Because it is in my self-interest. Because I want to love and be loved. Because I want to touch and be touched. Because I want to be changed and change others. Because I want to be alive.
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
A version of this essay was presented to an online Diversity & Inclusion gathering on August 12, 2021.