A Tip For Allies

When I entered the change room at my pool the other day AquaFit had already started, so it was deserted.  Before i even got my jacket off, a woman entered. As I turned to say good morning she abruptly  froze in her tracks, the complete double-take, her whole face scrunched up in horror and fear. I was about to speak, when a woman who I do know to see, and who knows me, came round the corner and threw me a friendly good morning as she went to her locker. I watched the furrowed lines of the other woman smooth before my very eyes.  The  horror faded and she even smiled, was shy but friendly, though it was clear she didn’t know the other woman, and she and I didn’t speak the same language, but she KNEW the second woman belonged and so her acceptance meant every thing.

So my point is, when you are somewhere gender specific, washrooms, change rooms etc. and someone enters who you think might be challenged, or you feel the vibe of extreme discomfort that often precedes anybody saying anything, the  most minimal of good day would likely be enough to head off any challenges or freaking out.

If it’s already too late for that, speaking up would always be a good thing… anything affirming this woman’s right to be there and your belief she IS a woman. Very rarely do strangers say anything. I’m always left wondering if they, too, think I’m a man, or do they not want to ally themselves with the freak in the piece…or are they just so shocked by the whole confrontation that they don’t know how to deal. Except my friends, the only “interveners”  I’ve ever known have been in support of my “accuser,” and usually with more nastiness…perhaps their own “gender shock ” in play.


6 thoughts on “A Tip For Allies

  1. Pingback: Home Free | Stories from life

  2. Catherine Charan (Smith)

    I have a few things I’d like to say/share after reading this and the comments to follow! First, those were good suggestions barb and knowing first hand how important being an ally and having an ally can be in the outcome of a situation, those are great tips on how to do so safely. Second, swimming pools and the hardships that come with change rooms. Although I haven’t been mistaken for a man being a large woman has certainly given me many problems, especially in pool room situations.. The look of disgust, the sly chatting in other languages or the same language hushed , the pointing, laughing etcetera .. Never easy to take. Often I just smile at these people, nod my head in greeting or say hello, not because I want to interact with someone so obviously ignorant about people’s differences (or just down right rude people lol) but as a way to diffuse the situation, or make myself out to be a human with feelings and not an anonymous individual that can be taken in with ones gaze and scrutinized at their leisure. Most times that’s all it takes… Sometimes not. Some days it’s easier to deal with than others. I’m grateful on those times when I’ve had someone with me to give a stern look at the people who are making me uncomfortable, but full out scenes being made.. Can sometimes make the situation worse, although I appreciate that someone else cares enough to not stand for it. I agree whole heartedly that the smallest gesture of a hello or reaching out even in a minimal way to someone in a situation like you described up there Sheila, can make all the difference.

    1. barbarafindlay

      Hey Catherine I’m with you on the fat oppression! While every oppression has an element of it’s- their-own-fault, that is especially and perniciously true about being fat. People who otherwise would never say anything politically incorrect feel free to be openly scornful of us fat people.

  3. barbara findlay

    There are lots of things that get in the way of us allies: a fear of making a scene. A sense that we don’t know what to do. A fear of embarrassing the person (Sheila) if we wade in. Our mother’s injunction that if we don’t have anything good to say, not to say anything at all. A fear of conflict. A sense that the situation is “none of our business”.
    A sense that we don’t want to get into something messy with unforeseeable results. Agreement with the person who is behaving in a manner that is scared or angry towards Sheila. Feeling like we are ourselves targeted, because we are women/ people of colour/ lesbians/ persons with disabilities/ you name it, and we are afraid we might be next as the target of a redneck person. Feeling like we are not quick enough to come up with the perfect thing to say.
    Any of the above, or a combination, are enough to keep us walking through the change room looking neither to the left nor to the right, leaving the interaction Sheila describes to play out as it will.
    There is another part to Sheila’s story. At the community center we go to, and where Sheila has been swimming 6 days out of 7 for 12 years, most of the women are Asian, and a very large proportion of them have little or no English. But Sheila has established warm and welcoming connections with the regulars, and there are many sign language exchanges of information among them. Many or even most of the other white people in the change room behave as if the Asian women are not there. They ignore them. Not necessarily in a snooty rude way, just in the way of ‘this is not my business’.
    Here’s the thing: if, in general, we make an effort to connect with strangers – a smile, a greeting, a word about the weather – we offer to them a share in our own inclusion. Each of us has some feature or characteristic that could make us a target of exclusion/ mistreatment/ etc; we are old, or fat, or of colour, or queer, or have a disability, or can’t read the signs, or can’t speak the language… or, or, or. But each of us also has features or characteristics that make us part of the dominant group: we are adults, we are able-bodied, we are not fat, we have no disability, we can read the signs, we do speak the language…and and and…
    So acting as an ally means assessing the safety of the situation for ourselves. If it is safe, it then involves extending our own safety/inclusion, in whatever way, to whomever is around us.
    It means talking to the people who are ‘not like us’, whatever the ‘us’ is.
    And it means making a note of the things that people targeted for mistreatment – in Sheila’s case, because she is mistaken for a man – say will be helpful, and then practising doing that. Of course it is clunky the first time or two – what isn’t? We aren’t taught these skills in this culture. But after a time or two, it gets easier.
    Note that what Sheila is not asking for is someone to ‘make a federal case’ about it. And there’s a good reason for that: if we scorn, belittle, shame someone who targets another person, all that does is make them feel angry and ashamed and the predictable result is that they will lash out at someone else , but next time will make sure there are no witnesses.

  4. Evelyn Battell

    Hi Sheila – A couple of times I’ve met you in public situations and made a point of saying your name. I realize from the “flu story” that it will take more than that to get a second take into people’s heads. Perceptions are hard to budge! Anyhow – this posting has me thinking harder about how I might be useful in these situations.Thanks


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