I was recently at a women’s networking event in Beijing which included a talk followed by a dinner. The first event I’d attend by a network I’ve admired and respected for some time, I was keen to see what a roomful of empowered and inspiring women (many of whom I would get a chance to connect with that evening) would have to share and to discuss.
Enter a young man who pushes past me and a friend as we made our way to our seats. “Gotta make sure I get myself a seat ahead of you all!” he joked. Except he wasn’t, and proceeded to settle himself in a seat right in front of the speaker.
Over the course of the evening, the young man would go on to respond to many of the questions asked with questions, comments, jokes and the occasional wisecrack. It eventually came to a stage where the speaker would look to him for an opinion first— understandably, since he was increasingly vocal and not many of the rest of us were.
But, the resentment of male presence in a community event meant for women is surely contradictory to my strong beliefs of equality. In issues surrounding gender discrimination, men are our biggest allies and potentially powerful spokespeople, in the same way white people’s voices are needed in the quest for racial equality and straight voices are loud in standing up for the LGBT community.
This in turn led me to think about why exactly this young man got under my skin so quickly. Surely I should have been pleased at his enthusiasm and questions, supporting his participation in a women’s community?
And I would have been, except for one underlying fact: Way too often when men (or just the one man) are talking the loudest, women clam up. We’re so used to being talked over, or unheard, or underheard, that many of us slip into “perhaps this isn’t my time to talk” mode. As someone who’s quite capable of talking a lot, I know I do this too, and at an event meant to connect women, it made me even angrier than it usually does. This was supposed to be our space.
Now, this leads me to more discussions that have come up recently. An article I recently read in the New Yorker discusses the exclusivity of activism, among many other things. You wouldn’t understand because you’re not an East Asian immigrant. Unless you’re a woman of colour, this isn’t your battle to fight. Try being a gay black male and then we’ll talk. The list goes on; we’re protective of everything that we are, including how we are discriminated against.
A recent conversation I had on Facebook saw me (an ethnic minority) arguing against the idea that other ethnic minorities had no place in movements like #BlackLivesMatter, only to be put down by other ethnic minorities for suggesting that my voice was valid. I always begin any suggestion of solidarity with the assurance that I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man who has been pulled over for no reason too many times (which is once and above), but I sure do know what it’s like to be treated with scorn, disgust, or hate because of my ethnicity. Surely in this shared discrimination — with the vast difference of their scale in mind, always — we can find solace in each other as fellow recipients and opponents of injustice.
je suis charlie in China
I recently shared these thoughts with a gay friend, and we agreed that allies are essential, as is knowing that the experiences you bring are not comparable to those you stand in support of. I’m not about to say I know what it’s like to be with a gay partner in a place that’s hostile to your love, or to worry about where I can marry, but my own experiences with discrimination of race and gender, if nothing else, allow me a (shadow of an) understanding of those with a struggle far greater than I could ever face.
my multiracial love is a walk in the park
At the women’s talk, there was another man. He sat further to the back, and he participated by listening; he was present, but he never took the spotlight. At LGBT rallies and events, I wear my rainbows with pride and I march along as an LGBT ally. But when there’s a time to talk, I spend most of it listening. And sure, I can tweet the hell out of #BlackLivesMatter and have a better understanding of the issue as a brown woman and co-recipient of racial discrimination. But you won’t find me at the front of the line because I don’t believe this is my podium to stand on. You will find me behind you, as an ally — and as an activist.
Before we jump on the latest activism bandwagon — or before we push anyone off it — let’s stop to think about the role we, as individuals, have to play in any cause, in any protest, or in any fight and decide if our place is as a leader, a supporter, or an ally.
Might we then march together, stronger, with the understanding that perhaps not every battle is ours to fight, but every battle is better fought with one more voice behind it?