Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Talking While Privileged - A continuing series

I write a lot about privilege and I have a lot of privilege. I've long argued that it's important to be very thoughtful when writing about academic labor while tenured, gender while male, race while white, disability while able-bodied, and so forth.

When writing about a given power dynamic, I often have the power by virtue of my race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. And yet, I really do want to engage on these important issues. What to do?

My response was to come up with some guidelines, writing first about gender (my rules for male feminist discourse) then academic privilege. In the wake of #UCSB, I've been watching men talk, even men who take the label of feminist, perhaps especially men who call themselves feminists, who could really use these rules.

For example, here are two posts on Charles Clymer, who has said some amazingly offensive things in pursuit of his perfect male feminism. Some of the issues here aren't new, but they have re-emerged in recent days. Here's one particularly telling quote:
"Stephanie, I'm going to let you in on a little secret that, apparently, no one has had the guts to tell you up to this point in your life: having a vagina does not grant you magical powers of perception and nuance anymore than my penis magically blinds me from the horrors of the world.
This may, I guess, have some truth in it. Our genitalia does not necessarily determine our degree of knowledge. And yet, our gender identity does position us on various power spectra that come into play here.

So for Mr. Clymer and anyone else who need it, it feels like it might be a good time to revisit my rules, with a few revisions.
  1. Don't talk at all. Listen for awhile. 
  2. It's not about you (it's about the people with less privilege)
  3. It's sometimes about you (i.e. it's very important that men talk to men about rape)
  4. It's always about them, so amplify their voices.
  5. When you speak, don't expect gratitude and take criticism graciously.
Make sure, throughout the process, that the people with less privilege, with less power, have their voices at the center of the discussion. For example, I never publish about feminism or gender, or really just about anything, without linking to articles written by women, usually women of color, and preferably naming them and their expertise in public. 

I do this for two reasons: One, rule #4. 

Two, these people are brilliant. And while folks such as Amanda Marcotte, Brittany Cooper, Jessica Valenti, Soraya Chemaly, Melissa McEwan, Tressie McMillan Cottom, just to name a few who I read and from whom I learn, don't especially need me to amplify their voices, they lead me to lesser known feminist writers who do.
Men have a crucial place in this conversation. But instead of asserting it, I try to ask those who are disadvantaged by the power dynamics what would they like from me? Sometimes, I get told to listen. Sometimes, I get told to call out sexism when I see it. Sometimes, I get told there is in fact no place for me in this conversation. I think that's wrong, but by understanding the privilege at play, thinking about my rules, I let such things go.

My advice for Mr. Clymer, which is clearly too late, is this - When you have privilege, sometimes people will get angry at you, be rude to you. It will feel unfair. It may be unfair. Be gracious. If you are a male feminist, there will be women who are deeply angry at men, who just want men to shut up, or more reasonably want men to allow women to have their own conversation without you. And you will REALLY REALLY want to insert yourself into the conversation, to show that you are a great ally, that you really get it, that not all men are bad, and that maybe you even understand feminism better than lots of other women!

Instead, please revisit rule #1.