Monday, July 4, 2016

Identifying Male Privilege

Male Privilege: What is it, how to recognize it at work in our daily lives, and understanding why it matters are difficult tasks at best, and, as undertakings by people who are trying to juggle grocery lists, soccer schedules and career demands, can seem out of place as well as overwhelming. As a culture and as individuals, we often want the end result but are uncertain of how to go about the process of it all, and, even when we are willing to do so, carving time into our schedules to focus on what often seems to be esoteric pursuits is difficult at best, and can be deemed selfish at worst.
When discussing the essay in Voice Male that pointed out that only 28 percent of speaking roles in the top-grossing hundred G-rated films of all time were female, my partner asked me, “Yeah, but has that actually gotten me anything?” I confess that I was a little gobstruck, both by the question and the intellectual framework it revealed.
Several weeks ago, as our family sat playing cards and eating lunch after a morning at the gym, I heard a disturbance outside that sounded distinctly like aggressive, belligerent name calling. I am a firm believer that name-calling matters a great deal, and that it is a village issue, not a matter between two arguing parties. When I stepped outside, the language became clear: “Wetback! Job thief! You don’t belong here!” A man was standing in front of his truck, yelling horrible things at my Hispanic neighbors, two doors down. I couldn’t help myself; I had to intervene -- there are children in almost all the houses on this street, and besides: it’s the right thing to do. But I had the better sense to call to my partner before skittering down the front steps to the sidewalk. Once there, I called to the man, and told him that he needed to leave, that he couldn’t say things like that here. He postured, told me he had a right to say whatever he wanted. I nodded and repeated my demand that he leave. I had, for the moment, forgotten that I have no power over him in his mind, that, in fact, he believes he has power to act with impunity not only towards immigrants, but towards women as well. He stepped towards me just as my partner came down the steps and stood, silent but firm, behind me. And then, something magical happened: The whole conversation changed. The aggressor modulated his tone to be softer, stepped back a bit toward his truck, wound down his tirade, left altogether.
Has the privilege of patriarchy gotten tall white men anything? Of course it has: just by showing up, they set the reality and the tone; they are the standard to which we must all conform, and it is without a doubt that they have unearned income and status simply by accident of birth.

Until I had my partner at my back, I was only effective in adding to the victim count of this racist rant, and was putting myself directly in the cross-hairs of active violence. I forget that I am not the same as everyone else, that I do not stand on equal footing, that by virtue of being present I am not safe in broad daylight, that I am not afforded the latitude to demand that people leave if they can’t behave well. It’s a lesson I hope I never learn, and one I want to actively keep from my daughter. White men need to understand more than ever that those of us not in the privilege zone actively require their support and their protection as well as their acceptance. We all need to understand that privilege is a tool kit that only some of us have access to but that all of us deserve, and we need to share the tools more evenly until everyone has a kit of her own. Tall white men need to show up, stand behind the movement, give weight to the voices as well as participate in conversations of their own. There is a social implication and mandate that goes along with the age old sense of nobility, and we have lost sight of the responsibility of privilege in our efforts to dismantle the patriarchy thus far.