Allyship Requires a Lot, Humility is Just the Beginning: How I Learned and Why Men Need to Step It Up

I’ve always had a hard time asking for help from others. Part of it is absolutely due to the toxic nature of masculinity when I grew up in the 80s. Men don’t ask for help. Expressing weakness is to be avoided at all costs. It’s my job to help others, but don’t expect others to help you. Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseam. Of course, that’s all bullshit, and that BS has cost me so much as a child, especially as an adolescent, and into adulthood. It has cost me experiences I could have enjoyed more, it’s cost me relationships, it’s cost me untold mental anguish, and I consider myself to be a pretty well-adjusted modern man. Imagine all the men still living in the shadow of that past, untenable idol of manhood. It is literally no wonder why as many men become as violent and homicidal as they do. But asking for help does not come easy, and for many who do ask, the help never comes at all. We’re told to “Man up and deal with it.”

Growing up, I dealt with that violence and emotional abuse in many forms. I’ve dealt with bullying and racism because I was round and brown growing up in rural PA during the 80s. I’ve been in more fights than I can remember, most of which I didn’t start but many I did, and I’ve hurt people taking my pain and anger out on others. As I got older I thought my anger was in response to all the injustices that I faced, but part of what angered me the most was that hardly anybody had stood with me when I faced my oppressors and bullies. The irony was at the time, because of my childish and adolescent way of thinking, I didn’t deserve allies. Hell, I didn’t even know that I should have any. Remember, men don’t ask for help. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stand up for me. I learned from my parents that you always stood up to bullies and helped those who needed it, but I never thought that applied to me. At least, not on the surface, but that bitter seed of resentment was clearly growing in me and it bore poisonous fruit.

As I got older, I believed my oppression and past traumas were my burdens to bear alone. That deadly fruit gave me an understanding that nobody stood with me because I wasn’t deserving of it. I know now that understanding was wrong, but it took a long time, a lot of healing, to come to that realization. Until it did, it colored most of my relationships, the way I saw the world, and did little to help me. Somehow, I managed to fall in love with a woman who saw past that anger. She grew up almost the polar opposite of what I did, at least in terms of oppression. She was white, from a relatively small, close-knit, middle-class family, as opposed to my mixed, poor, very large family who was spread across several countries.

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

The result of all of these differences was many, many conversations about the way we saw and experienced the world. About why I was so paranoid in some situations, about why some of the things she thought and said were wrong and why, and thousands of others about how we view the world and our understanding of it. Those conversations required a great deal of pride swallowing, on both of our parts. For me to be able to work through some of my pain required me to open old wounds and relive some events I didn’t want to dwell on, but because she never had gone through those experiences, she didn’t understand and by sharing those pains, it allowed me to heal while our relationship grew. I learned it was okay to express the need for help. While this growth was happening, I was able to find more people in my adulthood who have also been through what I had experienced, or something similar. Or, people who heard my willingness to have those conversations and wanted to learn. And what’s more, they also wanted to help, a concept I was still struggling to grasp, but I was learning.

Over the years I had a great many conversations about how people could be an ally, and how people could help marginalized communities, but at the same time, I was not being the ally I wished I had growing up. I had learned much about my LGTBQ friends and family, about immigration and immigrants, and especially about the injustices women have faced since the beginning of history. But I had not been able to defend them the way I wished people were there to defend me. I just didn’t know how to put my knowledge into action. Oh sure, I talked a big game, I went to protests and rallies, I wore shirts that supported various rights, and of course, I voted for representatives who were progressive in regards to rights for all. But, basically, that was it. I had taken some of the first steps, listening and learning, but that’s where I stopped, yet I was still angry that many weren’t doing more to help people who clearly needed help, but much of that anger was directed at my own impotence.

Then, a little thing happened, a slight shift in my viewpoint and it cleared my perspective like moving slightly out from behind a tree so I could see the forest. Or, at least more of it. In my case, that little thing was a conversation that occurred several months ago. My family was at a dinner party and as what often happens, many of the men gravitated toward one area, the women to another, and the children do their best to stay out of view so they can wreak havoc in whoever’s home they happened to be in without disruption. I was sitting with several men and a couple of their wives when the subject of Transgender athletes came up. I am one hundred percent in support of Trans athletes and Trans rights in general. I see so many parallels between the Civil Rights struggle of Black men and women and Trans people, I can’t imagine not supporting them. Even many of the arguments about letting Trans athletes compete were echos to letting Black men and women into many sports sixty, seventy years ago.

However, at this dinner I was silent. One of the few moms left in the room said how she felt like Trans athletes should compete, that it would be wrong to prevent them from being able to compete because of who they were, and brought up a few other good points as well. And of course, immediately was talked over by the other dads. I didn’t know these men, they were the fathers of my kids’ new friends and I didn’t want to go off at a nice dinner. But a lot of what they were saying was born out of a lack of knowledge and not hate, and that I could work with. I started by agreeing with what the mom had said, then I added a few other points to consider, mostly moral ones. At the time there, and still today, there isn’t a lot of data to use for a logical argument, but of course, logic rarely wins a debate like this anyway. So I hit them where a lot of men had a hard time making a solid counter-argument with other men, and that was with empathy and emotion. And by the end of the conversation, a few of the men had conceded that maybe there was more to consider when it came to Trans athletes.

Me, in my classroom.

What really got to me about the exchange wasn’t the fact of their innocence, or ignorance if you prefer, or that these mostly liberal men still had very outdated views about Trans rights. No, what bothered me is the continual writing off of other people’s viewpoints by men until one of their own says it. And it’s not just White men or straight men, it’s men. Sadly, we men have a very strong tendency to listen to other men, especially men of our own groups, before we’ll listen to others, especially if that other voice is female. I was guilty of it, and it’s an impulse I still have to struggle with, but many men don’t even try. And in full disclosure, this is a fact I exploit often, especially as a teacher. If you think my voice, as a male, doesn’t carry more authority with my male students, you’re a fool. There are a few reasons why in my classes I have fewer referrals than other teachers in this female-dominated profession, but one of them is the simple fact that I’m a man. My male students will pay me more heed because I have a deeper voice and more testosterone in my system. Is it right? No. Does it happen anyway? Absolutely. Does it happen in boardrooms and in our Government? Every. Single. Day.

This truth, this stupid holdover of our evolution and biology, this Freudian nightmare scenario of acceptance is exactly why men need to step up and vocally support other groups who need more representation. This is why it’s so important for men to speak on behalf of women. Why White men need to overtly support POC. Why cis-straight men need to defend the LGBTQ+ communities. Because if we want other men to feel comfortable doing so, we need to see men doing it. Because instinctually, we men will listen to other men before anyone else. Right now, a straight, White man’s voice carries more weight at “the table” than anyone else’s. They hold more government positions and positions of power in the business world than anyone else, and if we want everyone’s voice to be heard the same, if we want everyone’s voices to have the same power and authority, men have to support others in making that happen by supporting those who need it the most, and be seen doing it. Not only that, but we must not belittle or even joke around with those men when they do so. The more men who speak out in support of others, the more men who will feel safe in doing so, and then there will be more of us who can feel safe in asking for it.

But there is one other thing men must do, it’s a thing that also historically we are bad at. We also must find the humility to listen to those we should help. I’ve been a “token” minority in many workplaces and social settings. I have represented everyone from Hispanics to Black people to all males and even been the token White person because I’m light-skinned and “talk proper.” I cannot tell you how often people have asked me what “we” need so they can help or what the group I was representing in their eyes wanted. It can be upsetting because it’s not like that information has been kept secret, and some of those same people who seek to help would get upset because those groups they were trying to help weren’t more grateful for the assistance they provided. This response, this anger at the ungrateful masses, shows that the person trying to help never actually listened in the first place. What’s upsetting to me is that when we, that is we minorities, get upset we’re often cast in the role of the “Angry/Emotional/Dramatic Black/Hispanic/Gay Man/Woman/Trans person.” We are then either dismissed or marked as dangerous. We are given the “Just another one of those” labels. We must listen to others, but we have to put the work in too. We cannot just expect the information to be laid out at our feet by those we seek to help, nor should we ask for it, because it has already been provided. For decades. Hell, for centuries in some cases. And for centuries, many people ignored what was asked and some performative action was taken and called it a job well done. Mostly by men. But change happened anyway, slowly, and mostly for the better. We can do better than performative action, but so often we seek more immediate change but don’t do the work to make it happen and the slow march of change plods on.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

In order to get to the society we want to live in, we must deal with the reality we are currently existing in, and recognize the mistakes of the world we left behind. We tend to glorify the past and want to forget the ugly truths, it’s one of the reasons why we see so many posts and videos about the fate of the mythical “real men” and why we see so many people make fun of the men of today for their emotion, their empathy, and in general for not being “tough” enough. We overlook what men in the past wouldn’t or couldn’t do. Many men didn’t even know how to talk to their own children or partners or express love openly. Many men couldn’t even stand the sight of someone from another religion, ethnicity, or race, let alone live next to them or work with them. Or allow love between them. But today’s men are better partners, better parents, better, more creative thinkers, and surviving in a world that requires more emotional knowledge, compassion and creative solutions. In modern society, we lived in a world where you had to learn how to fight, how to harden yourself just to get by. It was survival, not living, for most of us. Shouldn’t we want to live in a world where we can live how we want and not just survive in it? Is that not the goal? To have a life where we don’t have to fight every day just to get by and we don’t have to be hardened if we don’t want to be. Then why do so many belittle those who choose not to be “tough?”

We have a long road ahead, and as humans, we adapt slowly, but the pace of change is quickening. And as always, it seems that men are the gatekeepers to change. It will require men to be stronger than we ever have been, but not in the way we were. We were weak, even if we were physically strong. Strength of body means nothing without a strong mind and heart behind it. Now we must be strong in all ways, because in order for our world to flourish, men must share everything so we all can live well and not just fight to survive. But in order for that to happen, we have to make it okay for us to do so. So be compassionate, be caring, be loving and when you see another man do so, support him, show him some love for it, however you know how. It might be a nod, a hug, a fist bump, or punching him in the shoulder, but let him know that you see him. It’s a small thing, really, but if everyone does them it can change the world.

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