When you start talking about the bad stuff men do, the man present always wants to be acknowledged as an exception. One of the good guys. I guess that's fair and I usually don't mind doing it, but sometimes I wish they didn't need to stop the conversation so often to be reassured.
Pearl Cleage, I Wish I Had A Red Dress
When I first read those words in 2003, there was no #NotAllMen hashtag. Hell, there was no such thing as a hashtag, because this was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-social media, pre- the common understanding of terms such as "mansplaining," pretty much pre-online feminism. But I knew it was something I had already experienced and that it was something that resonated with me. I was in my first year of university, already fiercely feminist, but without a world of memes and blogs and Feminism 101s to back me up, just a load of dusty tomes in the library that few people outside of the Sociology department had bothered to look at in years, probably decades.
But I knew that whenever I mentioned feminist issues such as rape or domestic violence, men (or boys, as they still seemed - we were all only 19 after all) immediately jumped in to say "But I don't do that" or "Good men don't do that" and seemed to want a pat on the head for it.
I knew that it irritated me for reasons I couldn't quite articulate when men said "We all just should be equal, so you don't need to be a feminist - just be an equalist or a humanist," - and say this to me they certainly did.
I knew that feminism was seen as unreasonable, argumentative and unnecessarily divisive, and was far more likely to be the butt of a joke or an excuse for the guys around me to deliberately try to wind me up (read more about this in my post on my experiences at uni) than for any kind of real discussion about sexism or violence against women.
And nearly fourteen years later, I'm still seeing all this stuff happen. Which perhaps shouldn't be surprising, but I can't help think that in 2017, there are a lot fewer excuses for people in the most privileged groups in society to not have even the most basic literacy about that privilege. The internet's reach has absolutely mushroomed since I first sat in my halls of residence with my 1998-model PC that took 10 minutes to boot up and had a fan that made sounds like a refuse lorry. Hell, we didn't even have Wikipedia to babysit us every time we wanted to look something up! (I know, the deprivation). There were no Tumblr accounts, no helpful online guides to feminism, no stats at our fingertips, no click-of-a-button definitions of what privilege, mansplaining, whitesplaining, derailing etc were and why perhaps it was a good idea to desist from them. If we wanted an adequate explanation of why racism against whites or sexism against men was not technically possible, we probably had to trudge onto campus in the British rain and find that explanation in a book, something today's students would probably consider a human rights violation, rather than being able to access a concise answer with a swipe on our smartphones (our phones were considerably dumber, if less destructable - I think I had a Nokia 3310 for most of uni).
So, you might say today's men (and some women) have no excuse.
And yet they persist.
Only last week I witnessed a man (rightly) crash and burn in a Facebook thread after he felt the need to clarify a woman's assertion that women get more messages on dating sites because men bombard any female they see in the hope it might get them some action, with "Some men."
Ooof. I could see the shitstorm coming, but when alerted to why disrupting a discussion about women's experiences with #NotAllMen is unhelpful and unnecessary, matey boy did not acknowledge or apologise. Instead, he asserted "But I'm an ally!"
Double oof. The quickest of online searches would have told him that allying is not something you are, it's something you do (oh, and btw, interrupting women online? IS NOT HOW YOU DO IT), and also you don't get to give yourself that title. The oppressed group you claim to be allied to gets to make that decision, and right now, as an ally to women? YOU HAVE FAILED, SON.
But no, our man just blithely dug himself in deeper by refusing to take on board any of the criticisms coming from various female commenters, and instead depicted himself as a victim, set upon by all these evil angry wimmin.
How could he have saved himself so much time and aggro? Well, a little reading clearly would have helped. A major attitude change would have helped, but seeing how invested this chap was in his picture of himself as A Good Guy, Really, To Whom These Evil Bitches Just Won't Give Any Credit, we probably don't have time to wait for that. But one simple action would have helped.
He could have shut the fuck up and listened.
Because that is how you truly show you support for "equality."
First, you recognise that equality is a far off dream for the majority of people on this planet.
Then, you look at why.
Gender, race, class, economic background, sexual orientation, gender orientation, religion might be just a few of the factors you come up with.
Then you look at all the ways in which YOU do not suffer as a result of those things. If you are a straight white cis man with the internet access and literacy to read these words, I'm guessing you suffer either very little or NOT AT ALL.
Then you look at those who DO suffer as a result of those things and who are airing their grievances.
And you BITE YOUR FUCKING TONGUE.
You do not say "Not all men/white people/white women/rich people/straight people/cis people...."
You do NOT say "But I'm an equalist!" Far off dream, remember? You think everyone else in the world doesn't already dream of equality too? But they don't have the PRIVILEGE to mush everyone else's complaints into one beige ball and make out that it's as simple as "Can't we all just get along?" There are specific oppressions to deal with first. Oppressions based on all those factors I mentioned above. And those suffering from those specific oppressions have a right to get angry and to be activists based on those specific oppressions. Because that is the only chance they stand of levelling the playing field.
Or, let me put it another way. If you, as a straight cis rich white man have three apples, and a white woman has two, and a black man has one, and a black woman has zero, and a black trans woman has minus-one and so on, how does giving everyone one apple help the situation? That's the equality you're asking for. You're asking us to be blind to existing inequalities. That doesn't help. We can talk about being equalists when we're in a world much closer to the even distribution of apples. But we are about a zillion miles from there right now. And every time you try to erase existing inequalities by making out that feminism, or Black Lives Matter, or gay or trans rights or Muslim rights activism are somehow unreasonable and irrelevant, you are keeping us there.
So instead, recognise your privilege. That doesn't mean anyone is saying nothing bad ever happened to you. What it does mean is looking at your general position in society and recognising all the safety and benefits it buys you (one of those being that strangers don't pop up on the internet to 'debate' your right to be treated as a full human being, so maybe pack that shit in for a start). It means looking at all the safety and benefits denied to others who don't walk down the street looking like you do. And START LISTENING.
Because that's what I do when I see talk of white privilege, white feminism, straight privilege, cis privilege, class privilege - because I know I benefit from all those things. I'm white, middle class, cis and straight presenting, femme, of an average BMI, educated, English speaking. I know those things all buy me certain rights and benefits. So when anyone who doesn't share those privileges talks, I listen. Even if they are slagging off white women or cis people in pejorative terms. I DON'T interrupt with #NotAllWhites or ask for credit for the ways in which I have not oppressed a particular group (cos you don't deserve a medal for just doing the basics of being a decent human being, I'm afraid). I listen to the anger and I ask myself where it comes from. I ask if it's legitimate. I conclude it most definitely is. I ask myself if I'm doing everything I can to ally, and conclude I could always do more. I stay quiet. I keep listening, and - here's the most important point - I DON'T jump in to make the conversation about me and my hurt feelings. Cos my feelings aren't hurt, actually, because I recognise that what's being talked about is so much bigger than me. It's about systems, structures, traditions, presumptions - not me as an individual person. As an individual I still need to take responsibility, but I am not going to achieve that by wading into a discussion with an oppressed group and acting like they've insulted my mother and owe me an apology, just because they've dared to let off steam about how a group I happen to be part of (whites, cis, straights, Westerners, whatever) lives free of oppression in a way that other groups (people of color, gay, trans, Muslim, immigrants, and so on) definitely do not.
TL;dr - Shut up and listen. Nope, don't say that. Or that. Keep shutting up. Yes, still. And now. Yep, still now. Bite that lip. Nope, don't say it. Don't. DON'T. Still listening? Good. Keep going. For how long? For as long as it takes until you no longer feel the need to interrupt because you realise your voice is NOT THE IMPORTANT ONE HERE.
To end on a positive note, change is clearly possible. A close male relative of mine told me he had to go to a conference for work and was explaining why he doesn't enjoy these events. He's someone who in the past has seemed exasperated by feminism, especially my allegiance to it, and has said he doesn't understand "why everything has to be a big debate." Yet, with no prompting from me, he said the conferences sucked because "it's all just white middle-aged men." I was so impressed and proud of him for noticing and for realising that a world of people who look just like you and have had the same experiences of you isn't a good thing, that I could quite easily have given him a cookie or a pat on the head.
But I didn't. Because he didn't deserve it for doing exactly what he's supposed to do.
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