Teach Me How To Ally: Lessons on Listening

This post contains mentions of sexual harassment.

A while back, almost two years ago, I wrote about a situation that involved sexual harassment. At that time, the end was uncertainty. Not knowing how to move forward and be helpful. I’ve learned since then and I want to pass that knowledge to you.

What I learned was this: we need to care more about the people we want to protect than the act(s) of protecting them.

Reread that. Especially if you are male-identified. Especially if you have hands ready to throw on behalf of others. Read it again. Let it sink in and absorb these stories.

Respecting Wishes

Once, I was riding in a car with my then-girlfriend. She was upset about an upcoming interaction with her family and shared that with me. In return, I made the comment that I’d have some words in that moment as the interaction described was a negative one.

“Ask before you act.”

“If they disrespect you like that in front of me, I’d feel like I have to say something.”

“I would rather you didn’t.”

“But they are being disrespectful and hurting you.”

“I know and if that happens while you are present, I don’t want you to say anything.”

Tense silence followed, but she felt my disagreement and continued her thought.

“The thing is, when you say what you need to say, you get to walk away from that. I don’t. It costs me more than it will cost you. If you care about me, don’t do it.”

We drove in silence for another 5 minutes and slowly resumed conversation. I didn’t know how this conversation would serve me years later.

* * *

Once, while sitting in a brewery, a co-worker came by to have a chat with me. It started easily enough.

“Hey, how’s it goin?”

“I’m okay. Just thinking about this beer. It’s pretty good. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to talk to you, ya know…”

This had a particular vibe. I felt the disturbance immediately.

“What’s goin on? Is everything okay?”

“Mostly. You wanna take a quick look to the side, tho?”

I kept cool and adjusted my view, spotting a co-worker a few yards away chatting up other co-workers, and turned back to her.

“Yeah.. I’m just… uncomfortable with that.”

“I see. Well, we can chat things up until you’re ready to go.”

We just kept things up and talked until she was ready to go home. Other coworkers joined up. When that particular coworker came over to say hello, I casually dropped that we were having a quiet convo and they wandered elsewhere.

I followed up by asking her to take a walk with me a couple of days later. When she agreed, we walked to a coffee shop and I asked her what was happening. She related an encounter and how it crossed several boundaries into near sexual assault. It was predatory as hell. I was furious, but kept my composure.

She related her efforts to bring the issue to the surface and how they were responded to. One of which included arranging her seating area so she was closer to the person who did all of this.

“I don’t know what it is worth, but I am willing to take the influence I have and burn this whole thing to the ground around that man if you want that.”

She shook her head, “Some others know and I’ve decided to just move on to another company. But that day I came to talk to you, I thought you’d be safe and I was right. Thank you.”

We walked back and I thought about what to do. Surely doing something was important here. I asked if she was sure there was nothing I could do to help.

“I appreciate your care, but if you do say something, it will take no time to find out who this is connected to and it will find its way back to me. Probably with people thinking I’m just making things up. I’ll just handle what I need to handle and get myself out of here…”

I was back in that car with my then-girlfriend and listening to her statement from that time – I would get to be that knight in shining armor riding into battle with my +15 sword of righteous fury, sure, but was it worth putting people at risk when I would have to see none of that fallout?

No. No it wasn’t.

I listened to her.

She left a month later. When she did, there was a sticky note that said, “Thanks for everything <3”

I kept it. I still have it. We still talk. She’s doing well.

The guy left some weeks after that. I don’t know why.

The Care is in the Questioning

After so many times with moments like this you learn that – especially as a male-identifying person – it is easy to center yourself and your thoughts on what is right, good, or necessary to do. To be outspoken and bring justice and fury.

Being outspoken? Good.

Being so outspoken that the people you are protecting and their needs aren’t heard? Bad.

It’s the basis of everything where the harm outweighs the help being given. It’s how you start with good intentions and end up doing performative things. The people who are going through these things are clearly speaking out about what they need and we’re not listening.

Hear me: not every person you’re defending needs that defending and your need to do what you feel is right is removing their agency and placing them in harm’s way.

Ask before you act.

When the responses are given, listen to them.

In the last week, I’ve asked two people what they’ve needed with situations like these. One person said, “Please speak out” and in that moment, I became the sound and the fury. The other said, “Please stay silent” and I was just open and receptive. Both are valid responses and we need to have a reckoning with that. Sometimes folks just want to be heard, other times they want people to come out swinging, and both can change.

That choice is never mine to make. If we are going to be about listening to victims, we need to actually be about listening and de-centering ourselves and do the work being asked of us and not just what we think is a good idea. Check your privilege.

Check it again.

Let this take root. Make it a part of your praxis. Watch how the people you are riding for move before you start acting and watch the response as well.