Not Like That

feminist men
Guest post by Alan MacPhee

We’re not all like that.

Jessica Valenti opened her Guardian commentary on Amy Poehler’s book, Yes, Please, with the title The Secret to Success? Bitchiness. Given the gender tang dogging the word bitchiness, it took me several passes through her commentary to rest on the essence: Modesty and niceness are overrated and Now, refusing to put up with jerks and being unapologetically ambitious is not actually “bitchy” or mean – the word has become a kind of shorthand the world uses as a pseudo-slur against women who don’t adhere to the nonsense standard of femininity . . . But by then my genteel imagination had already scripted a drama setting Gaia herself against the pompous jesters of the patriarchy. And I had already made a cameo appearance, stage left, with but one line to deliver to her: “Wait! We’re not all like that.”

U of I Women’s Leadership Conference, 2013. A panel of four men smiles and nods to the filling room, the constituents primarily women. The panelist to my far left recounts stories of men objecting to broad-brush indictments of the patriarchy, men who hold that such a net ensnares those who, like them, do honor women, men who do what they can to share their undeserved birth right. These men would gently urge down the accusing finger of blame, having earned credit for sharing power with their female colleagues, partners, and children. But – what’s this? – the speaker takes a screeching turn around a hairpin corner: “The ultimate expression of privilege is making it all about yourself.”

Wait! I’m not like that, either! Of course I watched Emma Watson’s speech to the UN in which she launched the HeForShe campaign: “Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.” I confess misty-eyed affinity for her urbane call to collaboration. So when I read Mia McKenzie’s Black Girl Dangerous post about Emma’s speech, I was a good bit put out by her taking us all to task for elevating Emma to feminist icon. With inspired timing, my wise wife patiently observed that I had never been in Mia McKenzie’s shoes and could not see the world from her view. Then I was reminded of Mia’s statement that Emma, as person of privilege herself, “needs to step aside.” That’s when I recalled the panelist and his words came back to me.

The ultimate expression of privilege is making it all about yourself.

Ouch! Is it just me (there I go again)? In an installment of his Public Philosopher series on BBC, Michael Sandel interviewed a panel of students from Korea, Japan, and China. Having borne upon their hapless shoulders the legacy of deeds perpetrated during WWII against the Chinese and Koreans, the Japanese students struggled to find a place in which their own senses of self could reconcile with historic national guilt. Some of them rejected culpability and accountability outright. Bit one Japanese student had witnessed racial harassment by her fellow citizens against a Korean couple, and hastened to apologize to the Koreans on behalf of her boorish fellows. “Why?” asked Michael Sandel. Because she wanted the Koreans to know that we’re not all like that. By speaking up, did she seek credit by distancing herself from such racism?

The ultimate expression of privilege is making it all about yourself.

OK, OK!! But my ancestors were in Bohemia when legal slavery ended in the U.S. 152 years ago. How can I be asked to take seriously the concept of reparations? In his essay The Case for Reparations (Atlantic, June 2014), Ta-Nehisi Coates presents the economic negation of black people throughout our national history as a compounding moral debt that continues to escalate today. But I’m not like that. I’ve done well at work and have a nice home because I’ve worked hard. I vote for the right people, support the right causes, write the right letters, believe that the disempowered should be eligible for the same mortgages, the same jobs, the same memberships, as anyone. Messages come to me reinforcing this.

The ultimate expression of privilege is making it all about yourself.

Dammit! So – fine – am I really like that?

I suppose so. All I am has germinated and bloomed in the cloistered garden of White male privilege, something which should be neither wholly celebrated nor repudiated. I aspire to acknowledge it without accruing unhealthy shame or guilt, and without feeling unworthy of feminism. If I need to be reminded of this from time to time, please be patient with me. Because sometimes I don’t know how to get outside of myself enough to not be like that.

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