My white male privilege and the need to seek out discomfort

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

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The term white male privilege isn’t an insult. You’d never know that though if you were just to read comments on any post that uses the term to talk about street harassment, rape culture, the status of women or just the way the world operates in general. There’s an assumption made by quite a few that when women share their stories of harassment or sexual assault or difficulties finding equality in the workplace they’re doing so with a specific target on the young white man. But nobody is saying we’re terrible people. Nobody is telling us to give up our jobs and our homes. White male privilege simply means we’re given advantages that people who aren’t white males don’t have in the same quantity.

What is insulting is that while most of us live oblivious to the opportunities available to us that aren’t as available to other groups, there are many more who reap the benefits of white male privilege who would rather try and convince those around them that it doesn’t exist than use the privilege to make things better for those around them.

You see these people aggressively shrugging off responsibility every time “feminists try to take away the rights of men.” Look through the comments on the NYC street harassment video or on catcaller videos from earlier this year—women who call out inexcusable behaviour are yelled at for doing so. I’ve seen them come in droves myself after writing about sexism in sport and about women pilots. I’ve been yelled at on my site, on my Facebook pages and on Twitter. I’ve accepted it all because it’s their right to criticize. Rights are something we white males have in droves. They will tell you that they’re a white male who was fired because their employer needed more women in the workplace. They’ll tell you they were shamed by women on the street simply for having tried to pay them a compliment.

There are also the people like me who will admit its existence but are intimidated, anxious and overwhelmed by threat of confrontation. I’m a 35-year-old cisgendered, white man married to a beautiful woman with two young girls. I have a good job, I have a house. I am able bodied. I’ve been trying to read more about intersectionality lately and have discovered that outside of mental health issues, I face very little opression. Very few of the challenges I face every day are of the preconceived version.

Having a voice that rightly or wrongly gets listened to with less skepticism means there’s responsibility to use that voice. And the only way to do that is to keep talking until our voices don’t stand out any more than anyone else’s.

The easy route—the one I’ve been taking for all those years, is to stay the course, or to at best write some stories and put them on my site for people to read. Doing so means I don’t have to push my own comfort level too far. I can say I’ve tried to make a difference with my words having shared stories about the empowerment of women and about how sexist some men have been to my daughters already. I can publish the comments that come my way and successfully push them to the back of my mind by promptly forgetting about them. If I keep taking the easy route, I can internalize the moments when a friend talks about how great the ass is on our server and explain it away as them “not knowing better” when they use phrases like “that’s so gay,” or “that’s the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

My daughters, themselves still very privileged, don’t need me to be that way. They need to see my partner and I setting an example for them that we need to use our privilege to make the voices of those without it heard. I need to put myself in uncomfortable positions and be aware of the privilege I have. I need to:

  • engage in uncomfortable discussions with people I’ve never met and with ones I’m closest to when misogyny is behind their casual commentary.
  • become an active bystander. If people are being harassed or signaling discomfort in a situation, intervene.
  • leave the interpretation of personal feelings to the person experiencing them.
  • not by default side with someone who looks like me but side with someone who has expressed hurt.
  • stop whatever words were going to come out of my mouth after “but she was doing…”
  • accept being bullied by groups who promote oppression. Because being bullied for standing up for what is fair is nothing compared to being bullied simply for living.
  • understand that I’m going to make mistakes in the language I use and the actions I take. And to learn from them, not to take offense to them.
  • not stop talking about problems because it seems as though they’ll never change.
  • make a big deal out of things like sexist language in sports even when I’m told it’s really not that big of a deal.
  • further educate myself on what privilege is.
  • encourage my girls our nephews to be anything they want to be—and continue to correct others when they say otherwise.
  • be a vocal ally for the LGBTTQ community. If even one person feels more comfortable being themselves because they know people out there support them, it’s worth it.
  • know that being a dad (not being a dad to girls or being a dad to boys) means making sure my kids know they have responsibilities too.

8 responses to “My white male privilege and the need to seek out discomfort”

  1. TMI Beard says:

    Way to go Mike! It helps to know there are other men out there who, like me, sometimes struggle with what it means to have all the privileges of being a white cis male and still find ways to fight for fair and equal treatment of all peoples. Great piece!

  2. Chris says:

    great piece Mike!

  3. Jack says:

    I am one of those men who calls bullshit on white male privilege because I find it simplistic, unrealistic and something that many people use to make themselves feel good about injustices they see elsewhere.

    I am not saying this is you Mike, just saying I know guys who talk about it because it makes them feel like they are helping others by acknowledging that some might have more challenges than they do.

    If you were talk about class based upon income I’d be more likely to agree with you. Wealth/affluence affords opportunities others don’t have. When you can afford to live in the ‘better’ neighborhoods and to send your kids to better schools it makes a difference.

    When you barely earn enough to pay your bills or have to make hard choices like giving up your health insurance so your kids have food on the table it impacts your perspective.

    I am not saying that there aren’t people who have harder lives based upon race or gender but white male privilege shouldn’t be used so broadly because that misses so much.

    Ask my older relatives about how white male privilege affected their lives and they’ll tell you about quotas on the number of Jews admitted to certain universities or clubs that didn’t accept us.

    White male privilege didn’t do much then.

    Money is a much better indicator/predictor of these things.

    • TMI Beard says:

      Jack,
      All things are relative and if you look into Intersectionalism, as Mike has been, you will see that most people who discuss White Male Privilege, also acknowledge that there are lots of factors that weigh into your overall levels of privilege – wealth being among the most important. However, all other things being equal, white male is still the most privileged place to start.

    • Mike says:

      I don’t actually think we’re that far off Jack. My rudimentary explanation of intersectionality is exactly where wealth comes in. Personally I have a good job and our family is comfortable middle-class. A white male without employment would certainly be less privileged. I certainly understand what you’re saying and I think like John has also said, wealth is one of those factors that comes into play. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. Underdaddy says:

    In the realm of America or Europe I am with you. In say Nigeria, you probably wouldn’t fare as well but not many do in that corner of the world. Iran or Saudi Arabia? I haven’t done the homework but I see where Jack ties it more heavily to affluence. I agree with the approach of using whatever advantage you gain to help even the field for others. Good article for a mental exercise, it does seem hard to move the bar back towards the middle without pushing a few people back the other way.

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