I’m squeezed into a huge but windowless room in a warehouse in Shoreditch, London, along with about 200 other people at an enthrallingly jam-packed talk about feminism. A small panel is taking questions from the audience on what feminism is and what feminists should do.
A white cis-man raises his hand and asks, ‘as a feminist ally, what are the most important things I can do right now?’ One of the panel members responds resolutely: ‘as a man interested in feminism you should shut up and listen. Let the women speak. Do anything you can to support what they say.’
On the way home my friends and I (all females) feel a little awkward.
Some months later I'm attending a book launch about Jeremy Corbyn and leftist politics in Britain. The panel this time consists of two men—the author of the book and a journalist. The author presents a brilliant and insightful analysis, but when the journalist asks him a difficult question about whether urban graduate leftist activists can know what the working class of Britain wants or thinks, he does something that really makes me cringe: he pulls class on the journalist.
Instead of acknowledging the difficulty of the question he replies something to the effect of ‘oh yeah, but I'm from a really working class background so who are you, as a toff who went to private school, to question me about the working class?’
Being on a panel is stressful, and sometimes people blurt out things they wouldn't have said if they weren't under pressure. But this kind of reaction has become a pattern: being a member of an oppressed group has become a guarantor of correctness in many spaces of the radical left.
While shutting up and listening is 100 per cent a part of the process of learning about oppression and privilege, there’s also something to be said for grabbing hold of wisdom whichever mouth or pen it comes out of. As a working class genderqueer female (see—I just pulled rank myself), I’ve learned a lot about patriarchy and class from talking to some of my highly self-critical, highly compassionate cis-men middle-class friends.
Some of them have read a lot more Karl Marx, Judith Butler and Franz Fanon than me. They agonise over questions that don't even occur to me, and that helps me to understand a lot more about power. Of course they also say things that are unreflective (as do I), but it would be inaccurate to label me as inherently more correct on gender and class than them just because I’ve experienced oppression in ways they have not.
There are two problems with the notion that allies who belong to a privileged group should simply ‘shut up and listen.’ The first is that it is often incredibly difficult to determine who or what you're supposed to shut up and listen to. The second is that allies often have lots of important knowledge that movements need in order to overthrow oppression.
Antiracists, feminists and other anti-oppressive agitators are not one person speaking with one voice, but a diverse, contradictory and critical cacophony of different voices, each of which must be interpreted and made sense of. Some feminist women are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) while others are genderqueers; some antiracists of colour are socialists and others are liberals.
Some feminist women believe that the best approach to sex work is the Swedish model (involving criminalising the purchase of sex), while others are convinced that decriminalisation is the only option that doesn’t harm women. Historically, some antiracist and decolonial agitators have had reactionary attitudes to gender roles and homosexuality. And some anarchist and communist movements have believed in murder as a legitimate political strategy.
As an ally it would be a waste of time and talent not to be able to critique or reject some elements of feminism or antiracism in situations like these. More to the point it would be impossible. To shut up and listen is only one part of learning about, and gaining a deep understanding of, anti-oppressive perspectives: debate and critique are also essential. This doesn’t give cis-men and white people a license to ‘mansplain’ or ‘whitesplain’—patronising women, queers and people of colour with their supposedly superior knowledge of racism and sexism—but whether it is comfortable or not, listening is an active engagement.
Secondly, allies often have insightful things to say about oppression—things that are both analytically and strategically useful. Lefty feminists and antiracists often assume that structures of power and oppression are best understood by those who experience the arse-end of them, especially since their voices are so often silenced or co-opted. Often this is true. Women, for example, are generally better at noticing when men gang up on them in the office or when the boss makes a sexist remark, because people tend to notice things that affect themselves more than those that affect others.
What’s also true, however, is that men have insights that women may not into the masculine group dynamics, discourses and norms that cause these sexist behaviours to occur. For example Michael Kimmel's excellent article ‘Masculinity as Homophobia’ describes how the fear of being perceived as a ‘sissy’ drives men to emphasise their masculinity, sometimes at the expense of being pleasant to others. So grabbing a woman’s ass may be more significant as a display of masculinity and heterosexuality in front of manly peers than as an enjoyable sexual act in itself.
As another example, the stories told by men in Raewyn Connell's book "Masculinities" show how a position of privilege, such being a heterosexual cis-man, may not feel privileged to the holders of that position at all. Masculinity is something that men have to live up to each day, and a failure to perform it correctly can lead to social sanctions or even self-hatred as appears to be the case in the Orlando nightclub shootings in June 2016. These are important insights for feminists that should inform our political organising.
To argue that shutting up and listening is problematic isn’t just an academic issue for me. I’m writing this article because I’ve witnessed several situations recently where allies have been told to do just this, and where potentially useful conversations have been shut down as a consequence.
In a recent Facebook discussion group, for example, a couple of people told someone else not to critique the Black Lives Matter movement because he was white. A few weeks ago a friend of a friend (a trans guy) was met with disrespect from members of a feminist group because he was not a woman. Many political meetings I've been to recently have started with each member listing the physical or social traits that place them in oppressed categories before speaking—as if they needed to pull rank in order to justify taking up space. White men have accordingly apologised for their presence, or declined to speak.
Much, if not most, of this scepticism against allies may be warranted. In mainstream debates, white people, cis-men and bourgeois toffs are given far too much space to explain away their guilt or dismiss oppressed people as unreasonable or hysterical. Experiencing a lifetime of oppression brings a kind of insight into the workings of social structures that cannot be learned by reading books alone, but reading—especially work that’s based on research or critically reflective experience—can teach you something equally important and insightful. By the same token, living a lifetime as a man or a white person gives you a different kind of insight into power, and one that can be useful in subverting and transforming it.
We must work together as women, men, queers and others to overthrow patriarchy. We must work together as people of all colours to overthrow racism. This doesn’t mean that allies should not shut up and listen. It means they should shut up and listen, and then interpret and critique, and then organise together with women and folks of colour—sharing their inside knowledge of oppressive structures to identify their most vulnerable points.
So long as there is oppression, people of colour, women, queers, disabled folk, working class people and those on precarious incomes will need separate spaces in which to feel safe and heal. But the outward-facing organising of these groups cannot be immune to critique, even if it comes from an ally.
Sofa Gradin teaches Politics at Kings College London and is an organiser with IOPS London (the International Organisation for a Participatory Society), which works for prefigurative politics against racism, capitalism and patriarchy. Follow them on twitter @sofagradin.