Modern Solutions for Modern Problems: Gatekeeping and Social Justice in the New Age  

 My parents are baby boomers.

When my mother was born, Black Americans could explicitly and legally be denied housing, jobs, schooling, restaurant booths, and water based on the color of their skin. She was far too young to understand anything MLK said in his “I Have A Dream” speech, but she could sense that it was important. The decades in which my parents began their work careers was a time when men in sharp suits could tap the fannies of their secretaries and demand worse favors of them, all without threat of reprimand. It was a time when non-Christians were hardly visible in the landscape of America’s God-fearing middle-class families, and few people ever thought of the “Middle East” long enough to demonize it.

It was in those times of oppression and repression that proving oneself to be an ally of a marginalized community was as simple as attending a support rally or sitting at the same table as them. These acts were so physically easy, yet so socially dangerous that the person doing them was almost instantly worthy of trust and respect. The White people who braved the threat of being ostracized by their families for attending a civil rights protest, and the men who risked being passed over for promotions to stand up to their colleagues about misconduct toward non-males in the office were essential to progress and justice for the marginalized groups in those instances.

I am a millennial.

When I was born, there were children from several races and religions featured on Sesame Street. I went to schools featuring similar levels of diversity. I read books about MLK and Rosa Parks, naïvely believing that the battle against racism had been fought and won a long time ago by those heroes from the 60’s. I was taught that my body was mine, and learned how to disclose sexual harassment (a term that I did not initially realize was very new to the American workplace) to my superiors. I came out as queer when I was 14, and despite the discrimination I faced, I had a strong cohort who accepted and loved me just the way I was.

It was in those times of acceptance and recognition that I applied the same logic of my parents’ time to my own lived experiences: if a privileged person is advocating for you, they must be trustworthy because they are risking a lot to be by your side. However, as time has passed, I have been forced to challenge this line of reasoning.

A lot has changed in America’s social climate of the since the 1960’s, the most obvious being the introduction of the Internet. Born in the early 1990’s, I was part of the generation of children who not just grew up with the Internet- we created the Internet as we grew up. Friendster, AOL chat, MySpace, Tumblr, FanFiction.net, YouTube- you name it, I was on it. Starting from the time I was about 11 years old my friends and I created and re-created our ideal selves within a brand-new virtual universe that our parents hardly understood, let alone could control. These ideal, virtual selves were always far more interesting, educated, popular and talented than our physical selves and for people who have since attracted followings on social media platforms, the worst possible outcome is for someone to highlight a major discrepancy between these lives. The backlash from “the Internet” can be intense when word gets out that you aren’t actually a German heiress[1] or that you only got into prominent college because your parents paid millions of dollars to the school[2].

What does this have to do with social justice activism? Well, social media allows people to live multiple lives- ones which may vary greatly from one another. This fact, in combination with with increased mainstream push to participate in things that better the world we live in, like recycling or volunteering, has led to what Maya Binyam has termed the “Woke Olympics[3].” In the Woke Olympics, people compete to be the best at activism and advocacy, not for the sake of the centering those who have been marginalized, but for the nuggets of attention and praise one may get for appearing to attempt to center them. In this way, a White person earns gratitude for posting a pro-BLM article, even though earlier that morning they crossed the street to be at a “safe” distance from the large Black man who was walking toward them on the same sidewalk. A man receives 100 Instagram likes for a photo of them at the Women’s March holding a “respect women” sign, even though he punched out the drywall of his girlfriend’s apartment again just the night before. A straight girl gains the trust of a queer friend by commenting things like “Slaayyy, gurl!! on her friend’s drag show pics, even though she would never attend the shows because she doesn’t want to “risk” getting hit on by a person of the same sex at a gay bar.

Social media allows people to gain the trust of marginalized communities without having to provide any actual proof that they understand or genuinely care about resolving the issues which resign those groups to the margins in the first place.

This is NOT my mother’s social change scene. Rather than putting their lives and livelihoods at stake by supporting oppressed peoples, privileged people potentially stand to benefit even more from advocating for (or at least appearing to advocate for) groups who suffer at the hands of the institutions that have already endowed them with power and privilege.

Still, I believe that it would be counterproductive to exclude privileged people from marginalized circles (e.g. banning non-Black people from Black activist spaces). One facet of social change that remains true is that for any oppressive structure to be completely dismantled, the ones who benefit from the structure will have to be the ones to help tear it down. White people will need to help dismantle White supremacy. Men will have to help dismantle misogyny and patriarchy. Locals will have to help dismantle xenophobia. Hetero- and cis- people will have to help dismantle queer- and transphobia, and so on. If you are marginalized. you need allies who are making the conscious choice to resign some of their privilege to help lift you up. With that in mind, the goal then becomes to design a framework for discerning the real allies from the performative ones. The purpose of this article is to contribute to a foundation for such a framework.

Tactics for Marginalized Peoples

The bottom line of this article is to help oppressed people answer the question: how do we know who really supports us and who is just using our causes to get attention for themselves? My proposed answer will probably ruffle some feathers, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: gatekeeping. Gatekeeping, at its best, is a system in which appointed or assumed leaders (gatekeepers) who know the ins and outs of a group take the lead on figuring out who is worthy and not worthy of becoming a member of a group or being associated with that group. Gatekeeping, at its best, is a system for ensuring the safety and happiness of those within the gates. Gatekeeping, at its worst, is a system of clique-creation in which self-appointed leaders (who may have few or no followers) establish arbitrary and ever-changing boundaries for a group, and use similarly arbitrary judgement to determine who will be included in or ostracized from the group. Gatekeeping, at its worst, is the plot of Mean Girls with no peaceful resolution in sight. Still, despite the potential for disaster, I do believe that gatekeeping can effectively serve marginalized communities and keep out those who only wish to exploit them.

Successful gatekeeping requires the following:

  • A body of trustworthy members from within the group who are active advocates for its de-marginalization
  • Quality vetting for non-group members who wish to become advocates for the group
  • Continued evaluation of verified advocates
  • Protocol for dealing with and/or removing advocates who have become problematic

This may all seem very technical and unrealistic, but I promise it’s not. To provide an example of how this should work, let’s consider the Women’s March (a world-wide effort to advocate for the equality of women/femmes which is often promoted through an annual street march) and how proper gatekeeping could be used to ensure that it actually remains the safe space for all women that it claims to be.

Let’s say that you are a female organizer for the Women’s March in your city. You are responsible for helping to finalize who participates in the annual street march, recruiting safety officers for the event, and hosting community sessions before the March to educate people about women’s issues. Here, the criteria for what it takes to belong to the group “women” is simple. Anyone who identifies as female/woman (cis, trans, nb femme, etc.) is who the cause aims to support[4]. You are a gatekeeping member of the community as you are both a woman and one of the public faces of this movement which aims to better the lives of other women.

Let’s say that a guy named John comes to one of the community meetings you host. He refers to himself as a feminist, and uses language that seems to reflect his consciousness and sensitivity. He attends a second meeting with his girlfriend, who is also a feminist, and they seem to have a happy, healthy relationship. You add him on social media and occasionally see him call out sexist behavior and language (but never pretentiously) and eventually you feel that you trust him enough consider him an ally (John has now been vetted by you).

About a week before the official Women’s March, you are casually talking to a friend, and John comes up. You mention that he’s a cool guy you recently met, and you think he’d be a great safety marshal for the street march. Your friend gives you a weird look and says “John Doe? Yeah, that guy is an asshole. He beat up his girlfriend a few years back and I’ve seen him say some awful things to women who reject him. I definitely would NOT want him to even attend the march, and certainly not participate.” This information blows your mind. You know John- you think. You know his girlfriend- you think. They seem so happy and you couldn’t imagine him being ever being violent. You have 2 options in this situation:

  • Tell your friend that you know that John isn’t like that. Even if he did do those things, he isn’t that way anymore, so you all should move on and be happy that he’s come around for the better
  • Tell your friend that you didn’t know about those things, but you believe her. Make a plan to investigate further and learn a bit more about your new friend (continue evaluation of a supposedly verified advocate)

In case you’re having trouble choosing-2; you should pick option 2. Please rely on the popular memo below for an explanation:

Reminder

You’re a woman, and you have a position which requires that you keep safe spaces for women safe. You have a responsibility to yourself and others to determine whether John is a victim of rumors, a remediated abuser, or an active abuser. Based on what you find out, you need to address him or the broader female community about it. How do you do this? Employ a combination of the following tactics:

  • Dig deeper into his social media. Are there any older posts/pics/comments that support your friend’s claims about John?
  • Reach out to specific people who you know allegedly had negative experiences with John. Tell them who you are and why you’re asking about it. If they are willing to talk to you, listen.
  • Ask John about the things you’ve seen and heard. What is his response/reaction? Does he deny them? Does he gaslight about the people making the claims? Does it admit them and provide explanations? What are those explanations?

This may seem like snooping or drudging up the past for no good reason. It is not. Knowing who someone was prior to their attempts to join a safe space is a crucial step to ensuring the safety of others within the space. Additionally, so is understanding what someone currently does or says when they are not actively among people from the marginalized groups they supposed to advocate for.

So, you look into John’s social media. You find a few unsavory comments from a few years ago- specifically ones that slur women who disagree with him, and ones that slur trans women. There are not many comments like this, but it’s enough to verify that he’s at least not always been the feminist he claims to be today. You realize that you vaguely know his ex who he allegedly assaulted, and reach out to her to inquire about what happened. You explain that you’re asking because you’d like to determine whether to invite him into a safe space for women. She verifies your friends claims that he did assault her while they were dating, tells you a few things about his character and patterns of behavior, and asks you not to contact her again or tell John that you have interacted with her.

At this point, you have enough information to definitively prove that John has actively oppressed women in his past, and that at least one woman is still negatively impacted by his past actions. As an organizer for an event with the purpose of promoting feminist values and ending the oppression of women/femmes, you are a gatekeeper who is morally obligated to deny John formal access to the safe space that is Women’s March unless you can find real evidence that he has truly changed. Just because John is nice to you does not mean he is not a potential threat. Even if John is truly trying to be a better person, he may need some more time and education before he is ready to be formally affiliated with an activist movement. In this situation, since the march is only a week away and you barely know John, you have lots of evidence that he has harmed women, and hardly any evidence to definitively say that he will not do so again, the best course of action is to not invite John to participate in the march or have him in any role where he publicly represents Women’s March. If you are personally still interested in learning more about John and helping him become a better ally, that work should be done separately, without forcing other women to interact with him. No other woman is obligated to try to rehabilitate him because:

Marginalized people are not obligated to risk their safety and collective progress by allowing any and every alleged “ally” into their organized efforts and safe spaces

If John has really changed and has learned to value women, he will understand why some may be wary of him of uncomfortable around him given his past actions. He will continue to work to gain trust by simply being a good ally, not demanding that he immediately be recognized as one.

Although technically possible, this scenario is simplified in many ways. There are many factors that go into trusting people from any social scene or activist movement. One question that may get raised here is “how do you know for sure that the people who made allegations against John were telling the truth?” “How do we know that there isn’t more to the story that may reveal that John wasn’t actually as horrible as his ex claims he was?” These are valid questions, and even as we insist that we “believe victims,” we should also work to ensure that those who have claims made against them aren’t themselves the victims. The issue of not always knowing who is truly the oppressor/oppressed in a situation is what makes gatekeeping so difficult and gives it the potential to dissolve into the Mean Girls plot as I mentioned earlier. Here are a few tactics you can use to try to get to the bottom of a situation if you are ever trying to gatekeep a space or movement for the safety of those within it:

  • Gather hard evidence relevant to the situation, especially in the form of screenshots or documents (like court records).

In the John scenario, his ex’s claims of abuse were supported by the fact that our Women’s March organizer found proof that he had made derogatory comments to and about women in the past. If you come across problematic things that “allies” have said or continue to say, screenshot them. If someone tells you that a person you believe to be an ally has assaulted someone, look for court or prison records. Again, the purpose is never to gossip or blackmail. You have a right to know who someone has been outside of your personal interactions with them. These worrisome things should be presented back to the offender for discussion, and to others within the group who may come into contact with them for safety.

  • Learn more about the person making the claims about an alleged oppressor/abuser. Are they a person who frequently gossips or spreads unverified rumors? Are they even a member or verified ally of the allegedly affected community? How often do they make claims of being oppressed/abused, and through which forums?

As much as oppressors use the term “witch hunt” to try to dismiss legitimate pursuits of terrible people who have gotten away with terribleness for way too long, it does occasionally happen that marginalized people lie about being harmed. We also have a responsibility to determine the extent to which a person making an accusation is a reliable source of information. In the John scenario, the March organizer’s friend/fellow activist first informed them of his past actions, and we have already established that his alleged victim was most likely telling the truth. If you encounter a situation where you reason to think someone might be lying about being oppressed/abused, follow the same steps as you would for the accused.

Tactics for Privileged Peoples

If you are in a position of privilege and are trying to join a movement to advocate for marginalized groups, here are a few things you can do to secure and maintain trust:

  • Listen far more than you talk- always.

Your job as an ally/advocate is to be a support, not a star. If you’re talking, you’re not listening. If you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning how to become the best supporter of the group that you can be.

  • Recognize that you will always be in a position of learning

Always. Even ten years after you join the group, you will encounter new perspectives and insights. You are not a member of the group, so you will never fully know what it is like to experience the oppression they face. Don’t be the person on social media lecturing a member of that group on how you know what’s best for them because you know a small fraction of people who are also members of that group.

  • Remember that you are not the person the movement is intended to benefit

This is crucial. Since activist movements usually seek to dismantle oppressive establishments, know that there will be talk about things that will be a detriment to privileged groups. For instance, a White ally in a BLM meeting will probably have to hear people talk about boycotting certain White businesses. No one cares that the business is run by your cousin Jimmy, and absolutely no one wants to hear that Jimmy is “actually a great guy” who doesn’t usually say the “N” word, but just got stressed out one day.

  • Be wary of spaces/movements that feature more privileged advocates than members of the marginalized group itself

Speaking of the BLM meeting, if you’re a White ally at the BLM meeting, and so is just about everyone else- you’re not at an advocacy meeting. You’re in a very dangerous type of echo chamber, and you should probably just leave.

If you are a privileged advocate that ends up being accused of oppressive or abusive behavior toward a person/people belonging to a marginalized group, here are a few things you can do regain trust:

  • If you did actually engage in the alleged behavior, recognize that the trust will, in fact, have to be REGAINED, and that people have a right to now be wary of you (because of point 3 in the last section)
  • Apologize…sincerely

You will need to explicitly acknowledge what you did, verbally apologize, then apologize with changed behavior. If you keep “accidentally” using racial slurs, slut-shaming, talking over marginalized people, making bigoted jokes, etc. you were never truly sorry, nor are you someone who should be affiliated with an advocacy movement.

Apology

  • Step back for a while

Even if you are truly sorry and you are working on yourself, know that it’s probably best if you worked on yourself in a space where you aren’t a representative of a specific advocacy movement or in a safe space. As in the example above, even if John really was working on being a better advocate for women, he should not be given authority in a space where women have explicitly expressed distrust or fear toward him. Marginalized people always come first in advocacy spaces. Even if you are never welcomed back into such spaces, you can work to be an ally in your everyday life and you will still be doing your part to change things. If you are adamant about retaining visibility as a known ally, you are centering yourself instead of the people you advocate for and thus proving that you aren’t an ally at all.

Lastly, if you are falsely accused of problematic behavior, enact step 3 in the same way. While you didn’t actually break trust, and don’t ever need to apologize for something you didn’t do, you should recognize that the gatekeepers will time to attempt to enact the steps mentioned earlier. In the meantime, people will be wary of you. Again, remember that their safety and progress are at stake; they have a right to be skeptical. By choosing to step back you are showing that you respect their community. By continuing to be an ally in everyday activities, you are showing integrity in your commitment to the cause.

A Closing Note

I am writing this essay as a person who holds a number of identities- many marginalized, some privileged. I am also writing this essay as a burgeoning cultural anthropologist. I wrote this as a way to address what I see is a need to develop real, systematic, and effective ways of enacting social change in favor of oppressed peoples. Gatekeeping is a phenomenon that anthropologists spend a lot of time addressing because it is usually only through gaining the trust of gatekeepers that we can eventually gain the trust of the communities among which we conduct research. Cultural anthropologists with establish careers have spent years learning the histories and current states of groups, what they value and what they want for their collective future- all in order to design projects which will hopefully result in a fuller understanding of the group. I offer the points in this essay as an attempt to apply this knowledge to everyday efforts to protect and gain equality for marginalized groups. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a good start.

P.S.

No good researcher can pretend that they are the first or only person discussing a subject. Here are some links to a few other articles (of varying nature) that I enjoyed reading which relate to the issues discussed in this essay.

https://medium.com/@realtalkwocandallies/holy-shit-being-an-ally-isnt-about-me-ae2de5c47514

https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/30-ways-to-be-a-better-ally-hesaid/

https://medium.com/@realtalkwocandallies/which-fake-ally-are-you-d9be7cd1bb5c

https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/opinion/call-out-social-justice.html

https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/05/allies-say-this-instead-defensive/

https://medium.com/@LeslieMac/when-allies-fuck-up-its-time-to-dobetter-75ac071800a0

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/nyregion/anna-delvey-sorokin-sentenced.html

[2] https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/a26833318/olivia-jade-instagram-comments/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/magazine/earning-the-woke-badge.html

[4] Some Women’s Marches have tried to exclude women who are anything other than cis, but those groups are trash, and you shouldn’t be trying to join them anyways.

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