Can I be a feminist, too?

August 24, 2018

I was recently on a panel in Washington DC, assembled by a congressman, charged with addressing how we should respond to the neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America. For my initial statement, I was only given 6 minutes so I was decided to make one point as strongly as I could. Fortunately, it was carried live on C-SPAN, so I think a large audience got to hear it.

Screen+Shot+2018-08-12+at+8.25.30+AM

My one point was that people, especially white people, need to stop saying they’re not racist. We all internalize white supremacy from an early age. It seeps in from our parents and our TVs. It’s impossible to not be racist in this racist culture. Implicit bias tests prove it. And that goes for people of color who get the same “white is right” messages and devalue those with darker skin tones. Just look at the complexions in any black or Latina beauty magazine. Own it and work on it. We can’t deal with alt-right racists until we deal with our own racism.

What I told the crowd there (and a few members of Congress) was that an alcoholic can go for thirty years without a drink but they will never say they are an alcoholic, they’ll say they’re on the road to recovery, one day at a time. Racism is the same way. I never say I’m not a racist. I am a racist, but I’m on the road to recovery, one day at a time. The same is true with sexism, ableism, homophobia, and all the other bigotries. I have to unlearn messages that are still washing over me even though I know in my heart they are wrong.

So can I truly call myself a feminist? I’m a sexist, but I’m on the road to recovery, one day at a time. Some days I fall backwards more than a few steps. The misogynistic programming is more complete than the racist programming. I want to be a feminist but the sexism runs so deep, that after decades now of working the program, sometimes I feel like I’m barely out of the gate. Just today I referred to grown women in jazz history as “girls.”

Unknown

My path to and as a feminist has been littered with horribly un-feminist behavior. Some issues could be argued from a feminist perspective. For example, accusations that I have entered relationships where there was a “power imbalance,” force me to ask the necessary question – In a patriarchal society, in what male-female relationship is there not a power imbalance? If I dated a former student or a university administrator, there was a power imbalance. (I’ve dated both.) The issue arrises when that imbalance is exploited. That’s a lot different than it just existing. And often there are competing power balances at work. See? It’s not so simple in the real world.

Others have just been me stupidly not addressing my male privilege. Here’s a good example (changing the names). I had entered a relationship with a woman named Veronica, but I still cared what Betty, from an older relationship, thought of me. She was not convinced that Veronica was a good match. So I tried to sell Betty on how strong Veronica was, as a person. I told Betty a little about Veronica’s history of sexual abuse and that she was a true survivor with a depth not evident when you just glance at her. Now, I see it was a horrible betrayal of Veronica’s trust and was only shared with Betty for selfish reasons. Pretty freaking un-feminist.

BellHooks-e1456442876126

So do I have a right to call myself a feminist?  Feminist icon bell hooks defines feminism as the “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Then I’m on board as a feminist! But what if someone says, But you participate in sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression! You can’t be a feminist. And then I say you don’t? Can you guarantee the clothes you wear or the food you eat are not the product of sexist exploitation? And it goes around and around. As a man, I have to keep my “male fragility” in check and accept what the feminist consensus is. But is there a consensus?

The latest message is that men can’t be feminists because, no matter how down for the program we are, we still have a vested interest in patriarchy and the disempowerment of women. But we can be “pro-feminist.” That’s similar to me urging white people to stop saying they’re not racist, but take an anti-racist position in their lives. This is reflected in the great quote from Angela Davis, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”  So maybe stating that I’m a pro-feminist male carries more weight than just saying I’m a feminist.

I mention this because a pro-feminist male colleague of mine is currently under the glare of the spotlight after some anonymous accusations emerged of inappropriate behavior on his part. How could this feminist role model not be be perfect in his gendered behavior? On one hand, it is important to believe women after generations of female complaints being dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, due process matters and in this day of rumor-mongering campaigns, people still have the presumption of innocence. From what I can tell, the alleged offense seems minor but I am far from knowing all the facts of the case (as, I’m guessing, most of the people who have commented on it are). But it seems like once there is blood in the water, those that think it’s impossible for a man to claim feminism are racing in for a chomp. His guilt or innocence won’t matter once he’s been devoured.

There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. I could be called a hypocrite once a day and I’m guessing the same could be true for most of my feminist sisters. Can you be a feminist and like Madonna? There is a feminist debate about that. Lots of feminists miss out on the importance of intersectionality. Can transwomen be a part of your sisterhood? There’s another debate. Those jeans you’re wearing were made by young girls in sweatshops in Bangladesh. A debate that should be happening about that. Us men have all those debates and the brainwashing that has told us from birth to dominate and conquer and never ever shut up and listen. So yeah, I’m a feminist who acts in un-feminist ways pretty frequently. But I’m working on it.

One day at a time.

cover-spring06

Note: I’m a subscriber to Voice Male Magazine. It’s a great place for men to find their place in the feminist effort liberate both women and men from patriarchal oppression. Check it out!

Advertisements

We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

hqdefault-1

Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

pancakes

Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

See No Evil

There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

91CT6dRVFoL._SL1500_

In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

SaveSave

“Speaking for all feminists…”

July 28, 2017

I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!

22e450699610f6dfcd16b9c570d4e2ae1ff3ce49

When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.

Feminisms

The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.

Ain't_I_a_Woman

There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).

So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.

wonderwomanreview

What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.

5bb8b3b32a3e46241560a6bc6c6cd9b3--feminist-men-feminist-apparel

There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.

There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to.  It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”

Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want what they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.

19642350_10156300620289307_1521911312314035147_n

There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.

SaveSave