Men’s Intersectional Relationship to Male Privilege

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I recently had a conversation with some of my students about issues of misogyny, male privilege, and the #MeToo movement. We spoke about the male gaze (i.e., the action of visually objectifying women both in person and vicariously), and how there is an erroneous belief that men are somehow slave to their libidos. Moreover, we discussed the real dangers of objectification, and how men need to take responsibility for their behaviors.

As the conversation ended, I was left to think about my identity and how it related to the interactions that I have had with others. I thought about how privileged it is to be a man and to be able to speak about misogyny without fear of being ignored or punished, and how different it feels to talk about white supremacy. Privilege can be defined as the entitlement and authority (unearned) of individuals to perpetuate attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that support oppressive power structures (Liu, 2017). As a Black person, regardless of how it might seem, I always feel a sense of jeopardy when speaking about the power and privilege that white people hold.

This comparison is key to one of the central concepts of intersectionality. Our various identities interact, yet they may remain separate and discrete. As my most salient identities (i.e., being Black and being a man), being a Black man defines many of my interactions. And while there is a deep level of oppression that I experience as a Black person, at the same time there is a high level of privilege that I receive from being a man.

As a Black person, moving through the world without the benefit of Cullinan’s (1999) three privileged assumptions (i.e., competence, worthiness, & innocence), I walk at night worrying about being accosted by law enforcement for the crime of living within a Black body in public (i.e., no assumption of innocence). Out in the world, it is a common experience for me to be ignored by salespeople or be presented with a confused “can I help you” when navigating higher-end retail spaces (i.e., no assumption of worthiness). In professional spaces, I find myself having to prove things that white counterparts are allowed to assert based on professional judgment (i.e., no assumption of competence).   

Yet as a cis-gender heterosexual (some of my other salient and privileged identities) man, I walk at night (or during the day) without much worry of being sexually assaulted. Though I might be objectified as I move through the world, I can shrug off the effects, as it has no power to affect the reality of my maleness or impact my safety. From never having to wait in line for a restroom, to being able to “mature like a fine wine,” the world has been built to cater to my needs.

More dependent on the context, if I am navigating communities of color, as a man I am assumed to be competent enough to be listened to and taken seriously. My association with masculinity can actually be tracked as a measure of my ability to take on positions of leadership.  I am also assumed to have a right to whatever I can get my hands on. If I negotiate aggressively, then I’m being savvy. If I do not take “no” for an answer, then I am just being persistent. And along those lines, when my maleness intersects with women, I am assumed to be innocent, regardless of the boundaries that I might violate, though it is important to note that this would not hold when interacting in white contexts (e.g., historically perceived indiscretion of Black men towards white women have been met with lethal repercussions).

Taken together, one might wonder how the experience of oppression that characterizes Blackness and the experience of privilege that characterizes maleness can be held in the same body. The reality is that they do not. In fact, as I have tried to explain, these two identities hold different saliency in different contexts. And more pointedly, one does not have freedom in when systems and communities indicate that salience (i.e., I cannot choose to be seen as a man when in a board meeting, or choose to not be Black when approached by the police). This understanding forces a conscious and unconscious attention to intersections of identity, which can moderate both my relationship to power that I might wield and the oppression that I might experience.  

As a Black man, I must not only think about myself in terms the racial oppression that I experience, but I must also own my relationship to misogyny and the privilege that it provides. Similarly, all men must build awareness of the intersections of their identities and understand that though they might come from a background of poverty or non-favored immigrant status; are dealing with a disability; or experiencing heterosexist oppression; or if they just identify as a guy who has been hurt by women; that their male privilege is still present. And if we are to aspire to be allies to the women in our lives, we must work in order to subvert that privilege and attenuate the toxicity of our interactions.

Here are some thoughts on how Cis-MEN can be better aware as potential allies. (THIS IS NOT A COMPREHENSIVE LIST):

  • Be Aware:
    • Be aware of how much space you take up, both physically and socially. Do you take up two seats on the subway, when you only need one? Do you speak over your female colleagues or only accept ideas that come from a male voice?
    • Be aware of your gaze. Do you feel entitled to look at women who walk by? When you look at women, where do you look, do you linger (i.e. stare)? What would it be like to assume that you are making women uncomfortable when you look at them?
    • Be aware of the danger you present. Do you assume that women should know that you are a nice/safe guy? What would it be like to remember that most survivors of sexual assault knew their attacker?  What would it be like for you to actively work towards never placing a woman in a position where she might feel pressured, coerced, or unsafe?
    • Be aware that the women around you are likely not getting paid as much as you. Have you thought about how you benefit from this inequality? Do you actively push for equity in pay? What would it be like to push for transparency in pay scales?

Take a moment and think about areas in your life where you could be more aware of your privilege. Think about how you could build awareness and how that might be supportive of people with less privilege. Think about how it might feel to build this awareness; how uncomfortable it would be at first, and how freeing it might become as you grow. Be who you ought to be.

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