It is said that fiction imitates reality, and this week I read a book that affirmed that statement. The book in question is called Poles Apart by Terry Fallis. Without going into too much detail, the story follows Everett Kane, a young male, who is a freelance journalist. Everett is passionate about feminism, and starts a blog to share his views with the world. He stays anonymous because – and I quote – “If we’re ever going to achieve real equality, women have to lead the movement, and be seen to lead the movement, as they always have…” As a “relatively privileged youngish white man”, Everett doesn’t want to be seen as a leader in the feminist movement. You’ll have to read the book to see how that works out for him.

I thought Everett’s decision was an interesting one. Fiction imitates reality; in our society, many people believe it is important for members of a marginalized community to be the ones leading the fight for equality. In a 2013 article for Bustle author Madhuri Sathish outlines “how to actually be an ally to [people] of colour”. Among her many excellent points is this one: it is important to “amplify the narratives of people of colour”. White people aren’t the ones being discriminated against, or killed because of their skin colour, so, while they can certainly support movements for racial equality, their voices aren’t the most important ones in that conversation. Amplifying the voices of the marginalized, rather than adding new, perhaps unnecessary, voices to a discussion is one way to ensure the people who need to be heard are in fact heard.

This concept isn’t just important for issues of race: it is important to all issues of inequity. Katie Tait writes on OPIA that “while [allies] are a crucial part of gaining the equality that [members of the LGBT+ community] deserve, a lot of them don’t understand that their activism is actually silencing [members of the community.] They mostly have good intentions but a lot of them tend to make their voices more important and talk over the voices of actual LGBT+ members.”

This is where it becomes important to acknowledge privilege. Madhuri Sathish writes that it is important not only to consider privilege, but what that privilege would look like if it was toned down a bit if equality was achieved. But what is privilege, exactly? To give it a short definition, I would borrow two  phrases from Peggy McIntosh: privilege is an “unfair advantage”, and an “unearned entitlement”. McIntosh wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, which is essentially a list of things that she, as a white person, can do because of her privilege.

“When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. / Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour to not work against the appearance of my financial reliability. / I am never asked to speak for all people of my race. / If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.” (Selected sections from her list)

Though some things on this list may seem small, the list overall is pretty powerful. It is a snapshot of white privilege; the things white people are able to do or be sure of simply because of the colour of their skin and the beliefs associated with it. Similar lists could be made for any kind of privilege that exists. In Poles Apart, Everett Kane has acknowledged his privilege as a white male. While this privilege shouldn’t prevent him from supporting feminism, he feels like it prevents him from adding his voice to the conversation. And perhaps it does. But throughout the novel, he demonstrates a powerful belief in the feminist movement, which could inspire more people – men included – to join the movement. This could be seen as amplifying the existing voices of the feminist movement because he is adding a new, supportive perspective.

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Adding new opinions to a conversation isn’t always a good thing, though. Recently, YouTuber Tyler Oakley posted the above image on Twitter. In the conversation about women’s rights and bodies, men’s voices should be less important because they are not the people directly affected by the decisions made. Unfortunately, we see quite often that some men (certain politicians, not to name any names) shout over women with regards to these issues. I think the age-old adage applies here: if you don’t have anything nice, or supportive, to say, then don’t say it. If you’re not going to be an ally to a movement, don’t discourage progress. And if you are going to be an ally, then do so by using your voice to support and amplify the voices of those impacted by the movement. 

Should allies add their voices to movements they’re not directly involved in? Let me know what you think in the comments!