Real world Privilege in Action

Usually I stick to online examples of Privilege in Action because I can link and quote and let the people who read it see the full context firsthand. But today I’d like to make a short PiA post that is from my very own life. You see, for the past year I’ve been attending a language school in Japan and working my butt off to learn Japanese (not there yet, but getting better). For a non-safe space I would say that my school is pretty good — the teachers are what I’d consider liberal and, perhaps partly due to the diverse student body, are pretty cool about things.

But over the terms at least once, usually more, I see practice sentences that make me upset. Everything from questions like, “What would you do if you found out your girlfriend was really a man?” to an example conversation where one of the male students in our class was propositioned by a bartender in a gay bar, and, most recently, an example conversation in which a boyfriend commanding his girlfriend to become thinner was supposed to be explained away in a positive way using the grammar we just learned.

I like my teachers, and I have to say that I probably know more than half of them in my program and have been taught by at least one third of them. As with all the others who get highlighted in these posts, I think that they are not trying to be bigoted and, indeed, when these matters are pointed out to them they are overall apologetic. But, even if they apologize for a particular example, it happens again with another non-privileged group of which they typically aren’t a part of. Or another teacher does the same thing and the cycle starts over.

Privilege is not needing to consider how non-privileged groups feel about the way you paint them.

My teachers don’t create these hurtful things because they want to keep non-privileged groups down. They don’t create them with any intent to do harm or to upset the students. They create them because they assume that everyone else is like them and thinks like them and because their group has created the dominant (and therefore default) discourse which says that it’s perfectly okay and normal to say those kinds of things.

Fabricating rationality by making the other side look irrational

In the past week, I have been alerted to two very different posts in two very different spheres of the online world. The similarity? They both deal with a privileged group taking an argument made by a non-privileged group and making it look irrational in order to make their own indefensible argument look rational. While this tactic is by no means limited only to privileged groups, it is one that I do see often employed by privileged groups in order to stop discussion on a bigoted remark that they have made.

Although I prefer to keep these posts short and punchy, this one got a little long, so I’m putting it behind a cut. Below I deconstruct the two examples I spoke of and then explain in my conclusion why I believe that this tactic is, in fact, privilege in action. Continue reading

Who's responsible for facilitating discussion on men's issues?

One of the points that I agree with when it comes to Men’s Rights Activists is that men’s issues need to be addressed, too. I have addressed them on some occasions — especially when they intersect women’s issues — but overall I leave it to the (pro-)feminist men to handle, as they are the ones with the first-hand experiences.

Where I differ with the aforementioned MRA’s is where it comes to recognition of institutionalized power structures. From what I can tell, MRA’s as a group don’t acknowledge that there is a power structure in place that overall privileges some groups. Personally I think it’s rather too bad, as it is part of what prevents them from working (at least with male) feminists, but anyway that’s not really here or there.

People, especially ones who experience privilege, in general don’t acknowledge that there is institutionalized power structures. And that, I think, is what leads to instances such as what happened to Ariel and her fellow performers below.

In The Penis Monologues Ariel talks about something that happened during a production of The Vagina Memoirs, which consisted of women going up there and telling their real stories of everything from sexual assault to discussing their queer identities [emphasis mine]:

We had a dialogue afterward the show, and someone in the audience made a comparison to reverse racism and asked why we weren’t including men’s voices in such performances. […]

The director of the upcoming men’s show was in the audience, and spoke out. But I was surprised no more men spoke up, especially white men (the men’s show director is a person of color) when the man in the audience compared what we were doing to reverse racism. The Memoirs cast had just made ourselves extremely vulnerable… [a]ll things that we shared in hopes that other women wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone, and yet the men in the audience didn’t inspired enough to step out of his box and explain that no, there is no such thing as reverse sexism. …Why didn’t anyone step up and say that?

[From The Penis Monologues by Ariel Wetzel]

There are two examples of privilege in Ariel’s story. The first is that at least one man in the audience felt that it was appropriate to not only bring up the issue of men, but to do it in a way that accused the people putting on the play of not only being bigots, but having the power to back up that bigotry.

Whether or not a similar play addressing men’s issues is a good idea isn’t the point here. The point is that the forum and the style in which this issue was brought up was inappropriate.

Women get so few chances in which to share our stories with each other, to find out that we aren’t alone in our experiences, and to have venues in which to publicly tell our stories. The fact that women are beginning to organize and bring these things to their communities is nothing short of amazing.

If women can do this in the face of all the pressure from institutionalized sexism, then what’s stopping men from doing the same? Why is it women’s responsibility to make sure that men feel included by a presentation that, by its very name, is supposed to be about women reaching out to women?

And that’s the first expression of privilege: Privilege is feeling entitled to always be included, no matter what.

Instead of seeing the production and thinking, “Hmm, that was really inspiring. How great would it be if there was a companion production for men? I should talk to the producer after the show!” the man in the audience unthinkingly shifted the responsibility, and created blame for not having preemptively accommodated him, onto the entire cast of the production, choosing to “shame” them in the most public way — through the Q&A session.

He never questioned the appropriateness of his comment, or in bringing up that kind of argument in a production aimed at creating common bonds between the people of a marginalized group. He never thought that he didn’t need to be included in this kind of production and, in any case, it wasn’t the group’s responsibility to do so.

Privileged groups are so used to seeing ourselves represented, that it’s hard to step back and allow the non-privileged groups to create their own representation that traditional media venues deny them.

The second expression of privilege falls on the rest of the men in the audience, excluding the one who spoke up. Where were the other men to express disapproval over the first man’s inappropriate framing of the issue? Where was all that homosociality that is so easy to use when reinforcing the status quo? Out of all the men in the audience, only one man spoke up. One.

Privilege is seeing something wrong happening, but not having to do anything because it doesn’t directly affect you.

Here’s the thing, men who are and/or want to be (pro-)feminist. Men like the one above? Aren’t going to listen to women. If they can sit through a play about women’s experiences, marketed towards a women audience, and then come up with a “reverse sexism” charge… no matter what we say, no matter how we say it, they ain’t listening.

That’s where you come in. Call them on their crap. You see a man harassing a woman? If you can, try to stop it. Your friend is being ignored or condescended by a friend/acquaintance/whatever? Tell them to knock it off because it’s sexist/racist/etc. If men stand by and do nothing while other men continue to perpetuate oppression, then it just sends the message that these things are okay. And if you don’t think they are, then you need to speak up and say so. And, by the way, if you’re a woman who is any combination of straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class or above… you need to speak up, too.

The Penis Monologues

I’m in favor of men speaking out about how patriarchy hurts them; how they’re expected to act as men, how they’re denied validity in their emotions beyond anger—and denied their full humanity as oppressors.

But it isn’t the job of women to facilitate that discussion.

Last night was the opening night of The Vagina Memoirs, an annual performance at my university as a part of the V-Week Campaign. We share our own stories. I like to think of it as social justice through performance. I’d never verbally shared my own writing before. It was awesome. Perhaps I’ll reflect more on the process after our last performance on Saturday.

We had a dialogue afterward the show, and someone in the audience made a comparison to reverse racism and asked why we weren’t including men’s voices in such performances.

My director responded rather tactfully and we plugged an upcoming show at our school called Undressing the Other: Discovering the Naked Truth About Stereotypes that traditionally is starring women of color and their allies, but for the first time this year there is a separate men’s cast. I didn’t say all I wanted to say last night because I wanted to promote Undressing the Other, so I’ll share my thoughts here.

The director of the upcoming men’s show was in the audience, and spoke out. But I was surprised no more men spoke up, especially white men (the men’s show director is a person of color) when the man in the audience compared what we were doing to reverse racism. The Memoirs cast had just made ourselves extremely vulnerable, sharing stories about our body image and femme queer identity and watching porn and losing our virginity and being raped and molested. All things that we shared in hopes that other women wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone, and yet the men in the audience wasn’t inspired enough to step out of his box and explain that no, there is no such thing as reverse sexism. Women can reinforce the status quo, the patriarchy. Women can be prejudiced towards men. But women do not have the physical or institutional power to backup that prejudice. Why didn’t anyone step up and say that?

My fellow castmembers defended their pieces by qualifying, “We don’t hate men!” I certainly don’t! Some of my best friends are men. Seriously. But I also wanted to speak up and say that I disagree: all men benefit from sexism, so yes, all men are part of the problem and are morally obligated to combat sexism, everyday. Yeah, much like I benefit from racism because I’m white and live in a white supremacist culture. I have to combat racism. It’s the right thing to do. Those aren’t two mutually exclusive struggles.

And it’s not our job as women to coordinate a show for men talking about masculinity. I think it’s great a small handful of men at my school want to be allies to women and speak out about how white supremacist patriarchal culture hurts all of us. I wish more men would instead of criticizing women like it’s our job as the minority to make sure the majority’s voices are included.

Who gets to decide when women are oppressed?

This is the first post in the newly created category, Privilege in Action. Posts in this category will be devoted to highlighting and analyzing small bits of privilege that crop up in everyday life. This category is part catharsis and part evidence gathering for the people who say that they can’t see how their group is privileged.

Background: Two women-only mailing lists for wiki editors were advertised on the foundation-l mailing list. As is typical for discussions of gender inequality, the thread exploded.

Today’s Privilege in Action example [emphasis mine]:

Since women have the ability to contribute here the same as men, I really don’t see why this is needed. Surely the scepticism being shown to this idea from many men is proof positive of the fact that no-one is being opressed. How ironic to have women in this day and age proposing their own seperate mailing list from men, since so many feminists fought so hard for gender equality. This looks to me like a step backward.

[From [Foundation-l] Introducing a new mailing list by Corum O’ Fallamhain, message from Tue Dec 5 00:29:23 UTC 2006]

On the surface, what Corum is saying seems supportive of women. He takes for granted that women “have the same ability as men” and because of this he sees a women-only mailing list as working against gender equality.

Now take another look at the bolded part. What’s being assumed there? That men, not women are the appropriate sounding rods for whether or not women experience oppression. According to his argument, men’s opinion of women as having the “same ability as men” is more important than women’s perceived experience in deciding whether or not a mailing list for women to feel safe giving their opinions is needed or not.

Given that he was assuming women to be equal to men, I don’t think anyone would call Corum an anti-feminist or otherwise think that he was actively working against women. But that’s exactly the point.

Privilege isn’t about hating non-privileged groups.

Privilege isn’t about thinking that those non-privileged people are less than you.

Privilege is about not thinking about how your actions and opinions don’t give non-privileged people equal weight to those of privileged groups. Even in cases, like this one, where the issue is one that primarily affects the non-privileged group.