Laverne Cox is awesome and inspiring, and radical feminist critics who attack her for posing nude are participating in an ugly history of racism and transphobia, and they should cut it out. When I wrote this last week on Playboy.com, I was really only repeating what many black and trans women, and others, had already been saying on social media.
It’s clear enough why black and trans women would care about this issue and want to defend themselves. But, as some readers of the piece have pointed out, I’m a cis, heterosexual, white guy. I don’t personally face transphobia or racism. What’s my stake in this issue anyway?
There’s a standard answer to that question on the left. People who try to write, or work, in support of marginalized people or groups are often identified as “allies.” They don’t face oppression themselves, but they have allied themselves with those who do.
So, I could call myself an ally to trans and black women. Which would be nice; "ally” has a ring of virtue to it. It suggests noble saviors battling on behalf of the disempowered and disenfranchised. It has a martial air.
I could put it on my shirt, wear my underwear outside my pants and be a hero. Zack Snyder could direct.
Which is to say: “ally” is kind of condescending and presumptuous and gross. As Mia McKenzie, editor of Black Girl Dangerous writes, being an ally is “not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.” Being an ally, if it means anything, shouldn’t be referred to as “being an ally.” It’s not a good phrase.
McKenzie suggests instead that folks like me could use the term “currently operating in solidarity with.” So, I’m not an ally to black and trans women. I’m just currently operating in solidarity with them. That works much better — not least because, as McKenzie says, the “currently” makes what I’m doing contingent and temporary, rather than an aspect of my identity.
I still worry, though, that claiming solidarity might be too presumptuous. I’d be hesitant to tell McKenzie, or anyone, that I’m working in solidarity with them. Surely that’s their call to make, not mine.
For me, I’d prefer to think about writing that article not in terms of being an ally, or declaring solidarity. Rather, I’d say that I wrote the article because I want to be, or am trying to be, accountable to a community.
I’m not fighting the good fight on that community’s behalf. Rather, I’m hoping that those communities will hold me accountable for what I say. And “by hold me accountable” I don’t mean “rubber stamp my writing.” I mean, tell me where I’ve gone right but also tell me where I’ve gone wrong. If I want to be held accountable, I’m hoping not just for community ratification but for community criticism.
“Community,” can be a dirty word in the U.S. — especially when you’re talking about community criticism. We, as a nation, collectively, tend to trumpet individualism, which is why our movie screens are filled with saviors swooping hither and yon, and our social justice paradigm so often defaults to heroic allies freeing slaves in the name of the goodness of white people.
We often see goodness in terms of individuals freeing themselves from oppressive community criticism. We’re all supposed to be true to the inner cowboy within, despite the blandishments of all those determined to make you use the right salad fork.
The truth is, though, that we’re social critters. The most distinctive thing about us as a species is language; talking to people is the thing that makes us people. And so community is what makes us human. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas often argues, we get our ethical standards, and even our selves, from the communities we participate in. There is no “I” without “we.”
Hauerwas is talking specifically about the Christian church — but I don’t think the church is the only source of ethical standards or meaning. And in fact, you can’t write, or work, outside of a community; you’re always thinking about a readership and always living with the opinions and standards of others in mind. The only question is, which readership or whose standards? Which community defines you?
That’s not entirely a choice; you’re born into certain communities, and you can’t get out of them. I can talk about social justice until I’m blue in the face, but I’m still going to be white. You do have some leeway, though, to choose whom you’re accountable to and whose judgment will define your work.
I certainly hope that my work is accountable to black and trans women. But in a lot of ways the community I was trying to be accountable to in writing about Laverne Cox was a community that I barely mention in the piece. That community being sex workers.
I’ve been writing about sex work issues for some time now, and know many people in that community through social media. It’s writers like N'jalia Rhee who taught me about the way stigmas against sex workers, and against black women, and against trans women, blend into each other, and are used against all of those groups, individually and collectively.
So, writing about Laverne Cox isn’t about me defending Laverne Cox. Rather, I hope, it’s about me being accountable to a community that has developed the resources to defend her, and to be inspired by her. Playboy doesn’t speak for sex workers in any way — but still, the symbolism of Playboy telling exclusionary radical feminists why they’re betraying their sisters is not accidental.
The term “ally” suggests that you’re an ally; that you’re helping others who need your help. Community is more complicated. In the first place, being accountable to a community means you’re accountable even when you’re not writing about that community’s issues. And it also means that, in most cases, who’s helping who is an open question.
In community, you get as much as you give. To have people who are willing to hold you to their standards and who think enough of you to treat you as a peer, and for that matter, as a human being — that’s a gift. I wrote about Laverne Cox because I wanted to be judged by communities I admire, and have learned from and care about. That’s why I wrote this piece as well.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.