Thursday, September 20, 2012
Privileged? Maybe. Relevant? Yes.
Throughout the web I keep seeing use of the word "privilege" within the context of majority populations. I apparently suffer from White Male Privilege, or should I say am blessed with it? It is hard to say. I certainly don't deny that history is in my favour and that areas of society are still unbalanced in favour of one group or another, but I question the value of such titles. The term has been used directly to me to insinuate that I have no role in the debate on sexism and on a very thin level I can see how that interpretation can be made.
If I accept that I have these privileges, I would ask it is also understood that I have never claimed against them or knowingly used them to my advantage. I, like most men of my acquaintance, do not wittingly take advantage of any societal weightings against women. It is hard to say if I have ever been given a job, for example, purely because I am a man, but I do know I have never used that to my advantage in applications (I'm not even sure if I would know how). I have, however, been passed restaurant bills when my girlfriend asked for them, or talked to by mechanics when my girlfriend owns the car, and I know for a fact that on all these occasions (and yes there have been many) I have quite firmly pointed out the error. Both of the above are common effects of sexism; having never owned a car of my own, and always earned less than my partners, I have seen them often.
So should having privileges I do not use bar me from entry into debate over the equal redistribution of these private laws? History shows a steady move towards equality of all types but in every case this has come from a combination of pressure from both sides of the line. The great reformers have generally been those who are privileged in one way or another and we hold these people up as shining examples. The current battle against sexism is slightly different as it is far more nuanced, so obviously any acts of supposed benevolence by the privileged should be treated with derision. But this does not mean that men cannot take a role in the debate, to help understand this from both sides.
In a field where comments are often made about men being a threat, it is strange that we do not allow men who are not a threat, or share similar views as the feminists, to join in the discussion. I am not trying to railroad, or troll, simply to offer a question of perspective. As a man I can see many of the injustices against women and understand how apparently simple comments, when heard from a female perspective, can appear sexist, and in many cases I agree: catcalling, loud comments on physique etc. The place where we run into difficulties is where a man disagrees with a woman about sexism, usually when motive is explained. A good example of this is the word "darling". I keep reading that this is a sexist term, yet when I try to offer my experience that, in Manchester at least, this term is used by both men and women to each other (along with duck, pet, flower and love), I am told that I am not able to see how this affects women. Then I speak to other women and am told that they both use and receive this nickname without thinking about it. So I interpret this as calling somebody darling is only an offence when they have preconceptions about the intent of using these words. In my head this sounds fine, yet whenever I try and touch on this I get told that it is about power. Now as far as I know the lady who serves the best coffee in my university holds no power over me, so what is her reason for using this term? I can only draw the conclusion that it is a affectionate nickname, a bit like 'mate'. So I would make the suggestion that men do not use the word darling because they feel some ownership or domination over women, they just use it because they are being friendly.
A further issue with not allowing men to take part in the discussion is that those who do are then seen as the minority, further increasing the gaps in understanding between sexes. In this framework many men then feel forced to 'fight back' using the tools of the minorities as they now feel they are excluded from a group that has everything to do with them. And make no mistake, it has PLENTY to do with men. The interactions between both sexes can only been changed with buy-in from both sides. Slaves would never have been freed unless the traditional slave owning classes did not work for it, women would never have received the vote without a lot of men working internally to effect that change.
So basically all I ask is that we do not make the mistake of isolating allies through guilt by association. And also perhaps that intent is considered sometimes before we shout sexism. If a bloke grabs your arse on the train, this is assault, if a guy says you look nice, maybe, just maybe he is only trying to be polite.