by Nikkita Oliver
“As a feminist I feel a lot of pressure. We have this tendency to put visible feminists on a pedestal. We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the pedestal we put them on…‘I am a mess.’ Consider me knocked off that pedestal before you try to put me up there.”
Disclaimer: I, too, am a mess with a lot of cleaning up to do.
Many of us in racial equity work have heard or said, “The racist and the bigot are NOT just the ‘white-sheet-wearing-southern KKK member’. In this system, all white people benefit from whiteness and all white people are racist.” For better or worse, many of the “isms” we perpetuate are subconscious, and require us to be vigilantly conscious all day, every day. It is so tiring and absolutely necessary. Yet I have never heard anyone say, “The misogynist, the patriarch, and the sexist are not just men who beat their wives. In this system, all men benefit from maleness and all men are sexists and patriarchical. ”
Last week, I posted a status on Facebook speaking directly to “men in activist and organizing communities.”
The post earned me numerous user blocks, a barrage of inbox rants, and an invitation from the South Seattle Emerald to write this piece. Most importantly, the post made space for conversation with womxn, especially womxn of color and muslim womxn, involved in movement work to share their experiences with me.
As womxn the experience of patriarchy and male privilege affects more than our activism and organizing. It impacts our everyday lives: how we work, where we work, who we work with, how we work with them, our movement in the world, who we date, who we (can) talk to about who we date, who we call in crisis, how those crises are handled, whether we speak up or keep quiet, whether oppression is disrupted by an outsider, whether anyone believes us, etc. We deal with a complicated list of factors that are further exacerbated for womxn with intersectional identities impacted by other forms of oppression and marginalization such as racism, classism, ableism, islamophobia, xenophobia, heteronormativity, etc.
I certainly say to womxn, trans womxn, and gender-fluid peoples, “I feel you. I, too, refuse to accept patriarchy.” Yet, I am also speaking directly to men. Yes, all men–especially those who have the privilege to choose when and where to interrupt, disrupt, affirm, or perpetuate sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal behaviors in themselves and others.
I don’t want to pretend that uprooting male privilege and patriarchy is easy or that it feels good; especially not for men who have intersectional identities and are also impacted daily by other types of oppression and marginalization. However, for example, if I expect white womxn to be accountable for white privilege, I must also expect men of color to be accountable for male privilege. Just like I must be accountable for my class privilege, citizenship privilege, ableism, the implications of being light skin in a society that values light skin over dark skin, etc.
Since my post, many well-intentioned men have asked, “What do you want then?”
Well, thanks for asking. Here is a short, non-comprehensive list:
- The Word Game. I am fairly engaged in activism and organizing, but I still do not know all the “IN” words. Conscious or “woke” people seem to have a secret language that is forever shifting. The jargon can be confusing and often detracts from actually addressing the issue. It is unfair to say, “If you do not say it right, then it must not be happening.” Truth is, I have 30.5 years of queer womxn of color under my belt, and I know when the power dynamics are off. Just because I say, “Ouch! You are acting like a dude. Please stop.” insteading of providing a well-constructed argument with evidence and citations does not mean it is not happening. I should not have to argue my experience in MLA format to get you to hear me.
If you feel like a person needs to legitimate their claim you either a) do not trust them and therein distrust their ability to discern their experience of oppression and/or b) you think they have an inferior ability (and therein you a superior ability) to detect (their) oppression. Either way, there is a problem that requires your attention. There is a reason why you believe those things. It is worth investigating.
- Just Keep It Between Us. Undoing the many privileges and “isms” that pervade our society is rarely “just between us.” We are talking about social diseases that are rooted within individuals and manifest in our social relationships. Rampant individualism has killed every political identity movement in the United States! We can read all the books in the world, but we cannot test, diagnose and heal ourselves alone. The “remedy” for male privilege and patriarchy lives within accountable community relationships which must include womxn, womxn identified peoples, and gender-fluid peoples. If you are a man who is only accountable to men, or only sees male privilege or patriarchy when pointed out to you by another man, you are reinforcing patriarchy.
Furthermore, telling someone to “just keep it between us” is a perfect storm for isolation, manipulation, and abuse–especially in intimate partner relationships. Bottomline: No one is perfect. The myth of the “fully woke organizer/activist” is not only problematic, but also paralyzing. Being accountable in community is scary, vulnerable and messy. Yet, the more we do it the less embarrassing it will become, because we will realize: We are all messing up, and could all use a little help cleaning up the mess.
- The “Tone Police.” I get tired and overwhelmed sometimes. It is in these moments that my ability to “subdue” the frustration, and even anger, I feel about the many “isms” I face on a daily basis is lowest. Often I am “tone policed;” meaning people say, “Maybe I would ‘hear’ you better if you said it a little less angry” or “a little less direct” or “a little less frequently” or “not on Facebook”, etc. But rarely does anyone say, “Wow! You are really angry and hurting. Something painful must be happening and we should do something about it.”
In my experience, people, including other womxn, want womxn to be less or to take up less space. This is a narrative many of us have unconsciously accepted. How do you expect a person to act when they have been repeatedly backed into a corner? Eventually, one either lays down in concession or fights their way out. A good way to eliminate the corner and “tone policing” is to listen to what a person is saying, regardless of how they are saying it.
All that said, if everyone is “heated,” take a step back. Invite in some trusted community mediators. Establish some boundaries. Remember each other’s huemxnity. Do not give up on each other; unless, of course, there is no other way to create safety.
- Balancing the Tables. Most of us, if not all of us, have intersectional identities. Almost no one in the United States is 100% marginalized; especially not when we consider privilege, oppression, and imperialism globally. As a result, we cannot afford to play the “oppression olympics” with each other, nor can we afford to shy away from calling out “power imbalances” when dealing with issues of oppression–especially when the conflict is between differently situated peoples.
It is hard not to point out someone else’s privilege in the midst of conflict. I am 100% guilty of this. However, sometimes there are obvious power imbalances between people in conflict, and such imbalance must be acknowledged to ground the conflict and the resolution in the proper context. This is when we need community most. We cannot hold all of these social concepts and issues by ourselves. They require community intervention and engagement.
Nonetheless, many of us do not belong to activist or organizing communities that a) have a communal process for accountability and/or b) do not trust the process and/or c) do not trust the community. We need to build trust and accountability processes to help us constructively address power, privilege, conflict, and harm; especially those of us who purport to believe in restorative justice.
- Unpack and Account. Many activist and organizing communities are asking “To ‘call out’ or ‘call in’?” Personally, I prefer neither. “Call out” culture is inherently performative; whomever can use the fanciest words and has the most supporters wins. This often locks people into inflexible political identities overlooking our huemxnity. That said, “call in” culture can be incredibly isolating, forcing people to attempt to deal with issues alone that are best addressed in shared supportive community.
I prefer to “unpack and account” with those whom I respect and trust. Yes, I generally (and cathartically) post rants on social media and write articles regarding the oppression I experience personally, but when it comes to personal conflicts I need to invite mentors and comrades to hold space to resolve conflict or unaccountable harm. We do not need to embarrass each other publically, nor do we need to go about this challenging work alone. We are not what we do (not the good or the bad), but how we choose to engage our actions and the actions of others is indicative of our accountability, social maturity, and growing edges. You cannot force someone to sit in a peacemaking, harm reduction, or accountability circle with you, but you can offer it and choose to be accountable for your own actions. The rest is up to them (and the community you share and, hopefully, trust).
All of the above said, we are doing hard-work both within ourselves and in our communities. Many of us do it because we value huemxnity. In order to fully value the huemxnity of others, we must also value and protect our own.
Men in activist and organizing communities: It is time to take patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny as seriously as we ask white people to take racism and economically privileged people to take classism. We will not get it right 100% of the time. For many of us this is a painful realization.
No one is perfect. How willing I am to accept the huemxnity and imperfections in others is the extent to which I am capable of accepting and addressing my own huemxnity and imperfections. This is neither right nor wrong. It is simply reality. It is simply where I am. I hope someday to be someplace where you and I both fully exist. I also hope we see this place in the nearest possible future together.
*For those criticizing this article for a few divergent spellings of “womxn” and “huemxn” with an “x”: I do so to acknowledge that the existence of huemxnity and womxn is not rooted in nor solely dependent upon man or men. Language and the words we use matter. They shape the world around us. So like it or not, consider it a small act of resistance and a relevant difference in thought.
Featured image is a Wikimedia Commons photo