Check­ing my male priv­i­lege

We must cen­tre the speaker, not the lis­tener; cen­tre the per­son who lacks the priv­i­lege and not the one who pos­sesses it


With the re­cent rash of high-pro­file ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault — from Har­vey We­in­stein to Ge­orge HW Bush to Mark Halperin — I found my­self feel­ing shocked at the per­va­sive­ness of this sort of be­hav­iour, and em­bar­rassed that I was shocked. Af­ter all, I know all the data.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Re­source Cen­ter: One in five women will be raped at some point in their lives; one in five women are sex­u­ally as­saulted while in col­lege; 91 per cent of the vic­tims of rape and sex­ual as­sault in the US are fe­male; 8 per cent of rapes oc­cur while the vic­tim is at work; rape is the most un­der-re­ported crime; 63 per cent of sex­ual as­saults are not re­ported to the po­lice; more than 90 per cent of sex­ual as­sault vic­tims on col­lege cam­puses do not re­port the as­sault; the preva­lence of false re­port­ing is be­tween 2 and 10 per cent.

Fur­ther­more, a 2015 Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine sur­vey of more than 2,234 fe­male em­ploy­ees be­tween 18 and 34 found that roughly one in three said they had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed at work. The sur­vey also found that 71 per cent never re­ported the ha­rass­ment, and of the 29 per cent who did re­port it, only 15 per cent felt the re­port was han­dled fairly.

Still shock­ing

I have also raised a daugh­ter and helped her deal with her own episodes of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, in­clud­ing re­port­ing it. I have reg­u­larly con­demned sex­ism, misog­yny, pa­tri­archy and toxic mas­culin­ity. And yet, I am still shocked when I hear of another case that has real names and faces of peo­ple I know. Shocked every time!

This is not be­cause I don’t lis­ten to women or be­lieve them, but rather, I think, be­cause a per­son­ally lived ex­pe­ri­ence is a far cry from a pas­sively learned ex­pe­ri­ence.

I am a man. Six-foot-two, 200 lbs. Able-bod­ied, and phys­i­cally fit. I move through the world with the priv­i­lege of never even con­sid­er­ing the idea of be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted or ha­rassed. (Men are also sex­u­ally as­saulted and raped, but the scale of those oc­cur­rences is dwarfed by scale of those prob­lems for women.) This is one of my male priv­i­leges, and I have to check it. It’s been a del­uge of com­plaints

More im­por­tant, I must fol­low the ad­vice on sex­ism that I prof­fer on racism: If you are not ac­tively work­ing to dis­man­tle it, you are sup­port­ing it. It is not suf­fi­cient to sim­ply not be a sex­ist your­self if you are a man. You must also recog­nise that you ben­e­fit from the sys­tem of sex­ism in ways to which you may not even be aware. Every man must be­come a fem­i­nist. Every man must work as hard as every woman to el­e­vate gen­der equal­ity and to elim­i­nate gen­dered vi­o­lence.

And yes, I un­der­stand how hard this can be. Con­stant out­rage is ex­haust­ing, even about your own op­pres­sion. I am a black man in Amer­ica. I’m worn thread­bare deal­ing with the op­pres­sions that men who look like me en­dure, from racially skewed mass in­car­cer­a­tion to be­ing the tar­gets of po­lice vi­o­lence.

I un­der­stand that all op­pres­sions are, in some way, in­ter-sec­tional and con­nected to all other vi­o­lence, that the em­pathic con­nec­tions of ally-ship are multi-di­rec­tional and re­cip­ro­cal.

The re­al­ity

And yet, it re­mains a stub­born fact that it is hard to stay fully im­mersed in another per­son’s pain. No mat­ter how many times you hear them talk about their strug­gle, and even when you feel deeply moved by their ex­pres­sion of it, un­less you have ex­pe­ri­enced that same pain your­self, a gap re­mains. This is a very hu­man lim­i­ta­tion, even for the egal­i­tar­ian and well in­ten­tioned. Keep­ing some­one else’s strug­gle and strife top of mind is hard to do.

But ac­knowl­edg­ing this de­fi­ciency is a healthy and help­ful first step. It is hard work. We have to stop, lis­ten and re­ceive other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences, val­i­date those ex­pe­ri­ences and hon­our the feel­ing with which they are ex­pressed. And we have to cen­tre the speaker and not the lis­tener, cen­tre the per­son who lacks the priv­i­lege and not the one who pos­sesses it.

I can’t know what women ex­pe­ri­ence — not on a gut level or an ex­pe­ri­en­tial level — but I can learn the facts of those ex­pe­ri­ences. I can be ea­ger to lis­ten. I can ad­vo­cate for cul­tural and pol­icy changes that would make women’s lives bet­ter. And, I can for­give my­self for be­ing shocked and sad­dened when some­thing that I deeply un­der­stand in­tel­lec­tu­ally is il­lus­trated in ways that make me deeply un­der­stand it emo­tion­ally.

When I was in col­lege, there was a pop­u­lar T-shirt that read, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t un­der­stand.”

I never bought one be­cause I dis­agreed. Oth­ers may not be able to fully know your plight, but they can ab­so­lutely be made to un­der­stand, par­tic­u­larly if they have an earnest de­sire to do so. That’s how al­lies are formed. That seems to also ap­ply to all other op­pres­sions, in­clud­ing sex­ism.

Fast and fu­ri­ous MIHAI

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