Monday, September 28, 2009

On Compassion and Confrontation: Part 3 of White Heterosexual Male Privilege: a True and Not So Simple Story

[photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was found here]

[Here is part one]

[Here is part two]


What I learned tonight is that white heterosexual men like to believe they are "just individuals" even while they compartmentalise women (and queer people, and people of color) into all sorts of categories and genres for consumption and exploitation. Even while men disdainfully exclaim, "Women!", and stare at women's breasts or buttocks or other body parts day after day, they insist to the rest of us: "Please don't forget, every white heterosexual man is only an individual, each one unique in every way, unlike any other." (This shows a glaring level of willful ignorance about the existence of the Whiteboy Brotherhood.)

The triple combo of privileges and entitlements due to whiteness, manhood, and heterosexuality makes this demographic particularly resistant to many things; gross stigmatisation is one; oppression by sexuality, gender, and race is another. Knowledge of what most of the world's human beings experience as universal human experience, that W.H.M. rarely experience at all, is another.

Men being lumped into one gendered group in any way that isn't worshipful or deferential, that doesn't stroke the ego or the cock, is cause for any man to sound the alarm of being "stereotyped", mistreated, and not seen as a human being. Dudes, the problem isn't that WE aren't seen as human beings. The problem is that we don't see WOMEN as human beings, each one individual, each one unique in some ways while sharing at least one condition of oppression, most women sharing at least two conditions of oppression: by race as well as sex.

We men get pissed and we sulk. We punch and we pout. Either way, it is usually women who have to attend to the man who is so insulted by a woman having done to him what he habitually and oppressively does every single day to every other group on Earth: turning them into "a demographic", a set of stereotypes, making them two dimensional, each one the same as the other. And I can hear Thoman chiming in "I'm NOT one of THEM." And perhaps he isn't. But my reply to this, in my own imagination, as well as posted to this blog is, "Yeah. Ok. Fine. You're not. And now tell me how, exactly, you challenge the men who ARE like that, to make the world safer and less oppressive for women?"

A socially dangerous idea that goes unchallenged among men, generally and usually, is men believing "women want to be raped". The idea that "women hate men", as noted in other posts on this blog, is not one that is socially dangerous. The first produces conditions that make all women feel or be unsafe, that targets women to be potentially and actually physically and psychically assaulted, one woman every three minutes in the U.S. The second is a bit of foolish hyperbole passed around as if it had weight in the world. Whether or not any women hate any men, or whether some women hate all men, there is no man who can tell me that, as a consequence of "this feeling of man-hating that some women have", women act on it by systematically shoving something violently into men's body cavities in order to reach orgasm with the knowledge they are humiliating the man, seen as existing for such abuse.

I cannot begin to tell you how many white men, myself included, have felt "the greatest insult and hurt ever" when we are treated as "a demographic" by those we oppress, which is to say, when we are called out for behaving in ways that are, in fact, very typical of our population.

When Donna told me that Thomas is hurt at not being seen as a friend, and instead as a demographic, I wanted to go to him and say, "Thomas. I'm a demographic and I'm your friend. We all are all, every one of us, both part of some demographic and individuals too. You don't get some special anti-demographic status just because you're not used to thinking of your race, your gender, and your sexuality as carrying great privilege and power. And, I love you. Sleep well tonight, ok?"

He was way too sulky and withdrawn, and I was too angry and perplexed about what the most woman-supporting thing to do would be, to put in the effort to "reach him" and confirm my love for him, and hear out his hurt and pain, and validate it, and probably not get around to telling him how what he did was really grossly insensitive to do in front of a woman who has been sexually harassed by men all week, and in front of a gay man who has a history of being sexually assaulted.

I know Thomas well enough to tell you this: he is not a survivor of sexual assault. So there's an experience that many of us have, a disproportionately female population, who know rape not as an idea, but as a traumatic act of invasion and violation, as a spiritual betrayal and irreparable breach of trust. If you only know of rape as an idea, it can be on par with every other idea you have. This partially explains why Thomas could actually think his perception of "the two offenses" were not morally or politically different. However, it mbust be stated unequivocally, that "being prevented, as an oppressor, from entering the space of the group your people oppress" is NOT THE SAME and is NOT MORE IMPORTANT than "being raped". And the language of men's entitlements and privilege--"I should get to go anywhere I want! I should never be prevented from entering a space!" is overtly rapist speech.

Double standards abound. White men want to be taken care of emotionally by women whenever we are hurt, in any way. Whenever we feel wronged, whenever we feel mistreated, whenever we feel victimised.

It is the case that some of us bind our identities to the ways in which we've been harmed, forgetting about the privileges we still carry. There are are several groups of people who are renowned, in my own experience, for doing this: white gay men, heterosexual men of color, and white women--both heterosexual and lesbian. It is dangerous to those we structurally oppress to forget we are positioned to be oppressors every moment of lives. And, it is utterly infuriating to be repeatedly told, by those who structurally oppresses you, that you are overreacting to what happened to you.

To all W.H.M.: If you aren't oppressed by gender, by race, or by sexuality, how can you possibly know what constitutes "an overreaction" to misogyny, racism, and heterosexism? If you are not oppressed in each of those ways, or in any of those ways, who the hell are you to tell someone who IS oppressed what "the appropriate response to my oppressive behavior" should be?! Or to be so arrogant as to name your own behavior "not harmful"?

It is extremely likely that when anyone who is oppressed is observed expressing the ways they've been harmed as victimisation, they will be immediately reprimanded by the insensitive or arrogant others--those who need every wound attended to with care and respect--to "stop playing the victim". Rarely, very rarely, will anyone in the same class as the oppressor of someone so hurt and victimised say "I'm sorry you are harmed traumatically and systematically. I'm deeply saddened that the pain of that trauma follows you and is intensified each new day by callousness and cruelty. I cannot know your pain, but I can see you are in pain and I offer you my personal apology for doing so little to prevent it from happening to you and to others."

After Andrea Dworkin spoke to a group of 500 anti-sexist men at a Men's Conference, several of them returned home to start activist groups putting out the word that men can and must stop rape.

If you are a white man, I invite you to be similarly inspired by reading that speech found here.

From one white man to another,


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]