On a weekend trip to Boston, several years ago, I met a cute guy at a club. We danced and made out, and at the end of the night we made plans to meet up at his place for a pancake breakfast the next morning. After a horrible trudge through the snow in sneakers, and some uninspired shake-n-pour pancakes, we got back to making out. Mid-make-out, this guy reached behind me to unfasten my bra. I said, “no thank you!” and moved his hand away from my bra, and we kept making out. No problem.
After our makeouts had come to a conclusion and we were chatting, he referenced that moment. “It’s a good thing I’m a part of consent culture, eh?” he asked, grinning at me. I nodded and smiled weakly, and then left to catch the bus back to Philadelphia.
The whole ride home, I kept playing that moment over and over in my head. What a weird thing to say, right? Why would he say that? And then, halfway home, it hit me.
He was looking for praise or validation for not violating my consent. He wanted recognition for *not* harming me.
There are a number of things that we are obligated to do as human beings in order to be decent to other people. Not violating people’s consent, respecting other people’s identities, not being racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ transphobic/ ableist or otherwise bigoted, not being violent to people around you, etc. These are things that make you a decent human being. They’re not going above and beyond, they’re not extra huge actions you can take to improve the world, they’re the bare minimum. And you don’t get rewarded for the bare minimum.
Something that I often see during Pride month is performative allyship and then a demand for recognition. “I used the right pronouns for the trans person in my office!” a cisgender person might say. “Aren’t I great?” Well, no, that’s not “great” – that’s the bare minimum. Being a decent person is mandatory, and doesn’t merit a reward.
To go back to my anecdote above, the guy that I made out with wanted a reward for *not* violating my consent. That’s not something that deserves a reward, that’s the bare minimum. That’s mandatory.
As a few articles have put it: you don’t get a cookie for being a feminist.
This is tough for a lot of people to swallow. They were brought up in a household or society that taught them ways of existing that are actively harmful to other people, and now that they’ve learned that their old behaviors were harmful, they want recognition for their progress. It feels good to be recognized, so it seems right to want praise for doing something that felt hard or new. “I learned about microaggressions, so I’m NOT going to ask you what country you’re from/ what your genitals look like/ where you learned to speak English so well!” They want to hear a “hey, that’s so great of you!” but the reality is, they aren’t owed that.
That makes some people bitter. “I tried being a good person, and it was hard and no one recognized my efforts! This is dumb, I’m not going to try anymore.” Well, that makes you not a good person anymore. And that’s a choice you get to make, but it does mean that you know better, and you’re actively choosing to make the world a worse place.
If you were taught your whole life ways of existing which are harmful to other human beings, it’s difficult to unlearn or actively work against those parts of yourself. If all of the men in your life were aggressive towards women, it takes work to learn how to interact with women in unaggressive ways. If your family or school were racist towards people of color, it’s tough to learn what that racism looks like, and how to change your language and behaviors. If you’ve only recently learned about transgender people, it can be strange and uncomfortable to learn how to respect people’s pronouns and identities, when you’re not used to having to ask about gender.
We are allowed to be proud of ourselves for growth.
What we can’t do is expect the people that we’ve not-harmed to praise us for it.
If you want validation for your hard work, I suggest talking to other people in your demographic about the work that you’re doing. If you’re a white person working to unlearn your white supremacy, don’t brag about it to people of color, talk to other white people. If you’re a cis person and you’ve finally gotten the hang of asking for other people’s pronouns, allow yourself that glow of satisfaction while talking with other cis people. If that guy I made out with was genuinely proud of himself for having learned that “no” means “no,” and not “convince me,” he should have talked with another man. But I would still keep in your mind that your goal in these conversations isn’t praise, it’s understanding and solidarity.
What kind of work *does* deserve praise?
Weeeeeeeell, why are you asking that question? Are you just in it for the praise? If so, I might advise you to sit down and ask yourself why you want to do good things. If it’s just for the recognition and praise, are you really a good person? If you stop getting recognition and praise, do you stop doing good things? If so, I’d say that you aren’t being a good person.
Are you asking so you know whom to praise? Well, that’s your own decision.
I am personally mostly likely to praise excellent work. Genuine advocacy that goes above and beyond what is expected. I am impressed when I see people not only changing their own behavior to better the world, but also instructing people similar to them in how to be better people. When I see people facing off against violence – state-sanctioned, or otherwise – to protect marginalized people.
I am proud of my friends when they come to me and tell me about the personal work that they are doing to be better people. I’m genuinely excited for them, and pleased, and I tell them so. But if someone comes to me and tells me how they worked to not harm me – as a woman, as a queer person, as a Jewish person, or as any of my other identities – then I have to wonder if they’re just asking as a part of performative allyship – to tell me what a good person they are.
If you want people to know that you’re a good person, try stepping above the bare minimum. And as my 10th grade English teacher taught me: show, don’t tell.