Monday, September 28, 2009

White Heterosexual Male Privilege, A True and Not So Simple Story, part 2 of 3

[Here is part one]

[Here is part three]


This is the part of the story where things get, how to say, "interesting".

The three of us are led into a discussion about the need for women to have safe spaces, and that spaces completely free of men are often experienced by some women as profoundly different, profoundly more safe, far less sexist, and much more enjoyable than spaces with men among them. I mention to Donna and Thomas The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival as one small portion of time and space where women strive to get this annually: a man-free zone and a space where one can, if possible, drop one's fear of being stranger raped by a man.

Donna's eyes light up. She works in a place where she is harassed by men daily, sometimes also more overtly threatened at work and afterwards, and if I'm reading her non-verbal cues correctly, I get the sense she'd LOVE to have this experience at least once.

Meanwhile Thomas balks at this, saying "I'm offended by those who would organise a space to be exclusive. All events should welcome everyone."

I say: "You don't respect the fact that women might want a space that is man-free so they can, for a relatively short period of time, feel safer than they do when among men?!" And "How often do women get the chance to live in such a space?!"

Donna adds: "What's your objection to women having a woman-only space for a couple of days?"

He responds "I'm offended by there being spaces I can't go into."

I am fuming inside; the pot is about to boil over. But I steady myself enough to ask, "Are you saying that the offense you'd feel by being excluded is just as important as the right of women to have space that is rape-free?"

He says, "Yes."

I reword my question, feeling horrified, infuriated, and slightly frightened, but I'm not really aware of feeling frightened until later. What I want to say is this:

"Well fuck you and your white heterosexual male privileges! Guess what? You DO get to go just about anywhere you want, and there aren't many spaces you're likely to encounter that will exclude you! Meanwhile, women are harassed and raped all the fucking time! And you think it's REASONABLE to equate one 'offense' with the other????!!!! Thomas, get this: rape is an atrocity, a gendered one men perpetrate against women en masse. You not being let into a women's gathering is, well, an most, an inconvenience. ATROCITY and INCONVENIENCE: NOT THE SAME THING!!!"

What I do say is, "Explain to me how the harm to you of being excluded from a group because you're a man is EQUAL to the harm of a woman getting raped."

He says, "I didn't say that."
I say, "Well that's what I heard you say!" (And proceed to tell him what he said a few moments ago.) "Tell me what you meant to say then?!"

He says, "I just believe we should live in a world where people aren't excluded."
I say, "OK. And meanwhile we're living here, now, in a world where virtually every woman I know has been harassed or raped." (And where there is, as Andrea Dworkin once noted, functionally a police state, in which women are not supposed to be out once the sun goes down, and if they are, well, then they asked for what they get, even rape. Which of course is about a fucked up and male supremacist and rapist as view as it gets.)

Donna says, "I'm harassed every day at work, at least once. And the other night I was followed by a creepy man."

I ask her, "When was that?"
She says, "Two nights ago." (I hadn't talked to her in a few days, and it was deeply upsetting to me that in that short period of time she's already had several more experiences of being verbally or physically threatened by men. I am fully enraged at dickhead, privilege-denying men, and am also very sad she had to experience that.)

He says, "I guess I don't want to accept how the world is."
I say, "Then your values don't have real meaning, because they aren't located in the real world."

He gets silent, and begins a long period of brooding. This pretty much ends our verbal contact for the evening, which is awkward, because we're not in a very large space.

He goes upstairs to a guest bedroom, where he and Donna spent last night. I talk with Donna. She is surprised by what came out of his mouth. I say, "I'm not. It's typical of white men who don't get that they are privileged." (And who assume the world is made for them, and who don't get just how exclused most groups of people are, every damn day, while white men bounce around on jets, fucking children of color. AS IF white men being "excluded from places" is even on "the top 100 list" of things that are wrong with this world!!!! White men NOT being excluded from places is the reason many atrocities continue at such alarming rates. As noted in another post, I believe U.S. white men, by and large, should NOT be allowed to travel to places where they are known to rape and purchase children and women for the purpose of chronically raping them.)

She and I spend some quiet time together on a couch, during which I place my hand gently and lovingly on her stockinged knee. I am sensing non-verbally that she is ok with that contact at that moment. Even so, I ask her, "Is this ok?" She says "Yes" in a genuine, peaceful tone. We have always been very in tune with one another, often knowing what the other is feeling without either of us saying a word. We also have a history of doing massage and other healing body work, such as Reiki. Both our bodies carry a lot of emotional "stuff" from the past and present, that we have spent years trying to discern and help one another release.) We frequently massage one another's necks and shoulders, for example, to work out whatever stress is being held there. We both have strong fingers and thumbs that seem to have a way of locating knots and tight areas in the muscles. She and I feel very safe with one another physically and respect each other's boundaries. It is a rare and beautiful relationship.

While she reads in a book I had with me, by Pema Chodron, I can tell she is deeply absorbing parts of it, and also finding parts of it humorous. I find that Pema writes that way, utilising humor in a wonderful way to assist the reader in getting through what is generally serious and emotionally painful content. Donna tells me about the parts that she just read were helpful to her, explains a bit more about that, and adds, "I'd really like to read this book." I say, with a bit of humor (given that I've had the book for a few days already), "So would I." I got it from the library, and inform her that "You've read more in it at this point than I have." I then ask her to explain something to me that was eluding me from what little I'd read prior to coming over there to be with them. She explains it and it becomes comprehensible to me. I am now looking forward even more to reading the book.

She then goes to see how Thomas is doing, and then she comes down and quietly tells me they are going to go for a walk, to talk. When he comes downstairs he avoids making eye contact with me and as they are about to leave, she and I hold a loving look between us before they go. She is someone who is like a daughter to me. I love her in abundance. She is certainly my spiritual kin.

While they are gone what keeps going through my head, aside from flashes of anger at what he said, is: "I know I can be intense. He's relatively young. Maybe I came on too strong; my energy can be fierce at times, the fury in it palpable." But I stayed calm with him. I argued, but didn't call him names or tell him he was being absurd. (Though I imagine that's what he felt. And given that so much of what is communicated between people happens non-verbally, I can get why he might feel that way, assuming he even does. As for his age, I've known younger men who get what he doesn't get. I've known teenage boys who get what he doesn't get, so it's not really an age thing. And I wasn't abusive, just confrontational, direct, unwilling to take emotional care of him while making my points. (When we men experience this, particularly from women, we feel greatly mistreated or "abused". We have no fucking idea what it is to be abused by gender oppression. No fucking idea.) Yet I am frustrated that my directness was perhaps overwhelming to him. I get the sense he's not used to being challenged in the manner in which I challenged him. I have a habit of being challenging and confrontational in ways white men are not used to being challenged and confronted and held to account by other men. I do this because since being a boy, I gave up the idea of "being like them" and I identified much more with girls. I do this because I'm a radical profeminist who understands how much and how easily men betray women, by not calling out other men on their bullshit. And I do this because I have no respect or regard whatsoever for The White Brotherhood and it's many codes of racist/misogynistic atrocity-maintaining conduct among white men. When I see these codes, in behavior, playing out, I want to tear them up into shreds. And, I also feel responsible for what happened, mostly due to being the older one who, as Donna notes, has been engaged in this activity, this struggle, for a long time. How clear was I on this stuff when I was his age. Well, a lot more than he was, but I was far more prone to be unintentionally white supremacist (racist) than I am now, far more unchallenged in my position on trans politics than I am now. I wonder if I should attempt to make peace with him, to mend things, to heal whatever has been wounded in him by our exchange. I don't relish him hurting. And also I want him to feel better in large part for Donna's sake. I mean think of what she is now doing--going for a long walk, helping him process his feelings. She's having to do that because of what I did. No, wrong. Because of how he interpreted and experienced what I did. He didn't have the skills (yet?) to know how to stay present, to listen carefully, to not get defensive, to not move into the "I'm so bad" stance.

When they return she and I have a few moments together. She says "He feels very badly about himself." I ask her, "Is there anything you think I should say to him that would be helpful?" She doesn't have an answer for that. In a way, I am glad. I am very torn inside about whether I want to say anything to him, which I appreciate. It's not for her to figure out how to get the boys back on good terms. The only reason I would, tonight, is so things would be lighter on her shoulders. I do care that he's hurting in this way. I don't like to see him looking miserable, again, in part because that means Donna has a miserable husband, who she will, inevitably, take emotional care of. She will attend to him, help him open up and express whatever pain he is in. Without her he'd just close off and pout. (And, I'll say, albeit parenthetically, that he's very emotionally supportive of her, helps her process feelings she's not in touch with, and is generally a very supportive person in her life, and profoundly loving to her in many ways.)

I am pissed that we men act like children when we're treated like adults by another adult. Men stigmatise women as being children all the goddamned time. Most white heterosexual men I know refer to adult women as "girls". Men condescend to and patronise women right and left. I'm also extremely pissed that when while men are reminded that we are, guess what?, white men, that we resist, insisting on being "an individual".

At one point he is sitting on a couch alone. I sit down next to him, gently, and softly ask, "How are you doing?" (I think I even place my hand warmly on his shoulder when I ask this, to non-verbally emphasise the fact that while we may have periods of discord and disagreement, "that doesn't mean I don't love you and it doesn't mean I think you are a terrible person.")

He says, in answer to my question about how he's doing, while looking away from me, "All right." Short and curt and without any warmth, without being welcoming of further contact. The stance of the hurt child. Been there. Done that. I get up and leave him to be in his misery. I partly despise myself for even taking that much emotional care of him. And, again, I have to remind myself: it's going to be you or it's going to be Donna who takes care of him emotionally. He's sure not going to get through this alone, learning what he could learn about himself as a white heterosexual man, and he's not likely to reach out to anyone else for support. He's not the type of hetero guy who has misogynistic male friends, who would commiserate with him by calling women the b word and c word. Thank goodness. If he were, I wouldn't choose to have him in my life, nor, more importantly, would Donna.

They get ready to go. He makes sure not to interact with me, although I am available to give him a good-bye hug. (We all typically hug hello and goodbye. To not do so is "a sign something's up".) Donna notes his evasion to me as we make eye contact before they leave.

She approaches me briefly after he's left the house saying, "He feels he was being spoken to like he's a demographic, not a friend."

I respond, "I know. I've heard it all a thousand times before."

She says, "And he is an individual person."

I say, "Yes, and privilege manifests in many similar ways among those of us who are oppressors."

She agrees knowingly, we hug, and she leaves.

The other people there track these dynamics a little bit or not at all. The only other woman in the group is the only one I can tell has registered that "something's up". Without much surprise, the other men are either oblivious, or don't especially care, or figure "They'll work it out eventually." Which is true; we will work it out on our own. But I suspect Donna will speak with the other woman there, if she gets the chance. So his behavior has impacted at least two people in a negative, oppressive way. Donna was alarmed at his insensitivity and almost callous "values", and I realised later that he was talking to a sexual assault survivor (me), who, as a gay man, is among the population of humans who, outside of government prisons, is stranger raped, date raped, and "mate" raped by men.

White women are "a demographic" in the real world where men target women for harassment and rape. The are "the demographic" that endures the brunt of men's sexism and misogyny. Gay men, white and of color, are a demographic who are targeted for homophobic insults and assaults by hetero men. And people of color--women, trans, intersex, and men--are frequently and systematically hurt by things white folks do that we deny could have been as harmful as what happened to us once.

When will we white men collectively "get it", and begin to act responsibly toward women of all colors by challenging the systematic harm that we white men--heterosexual, trans, and gay--have a hand in maintaining?

[end of part two of three]

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