If y’all have not heard, Beyoncé came out with a new song called Bow Down/I Been On (if you want to listen to it, Google it). The chorus of the song consists of her constantly repeating the line, “bow down (derogatory term for a woman that will not be used here)”. Well, as you can imagine, this has raised quite a stir. Some people are surprised by the tone of the song. Others actually liked and enjoyed the song. But then there are others (like me) who believe that the song flies in the face of her past statements on female empowerment and being a feminist.
But then I started thinking: what is my role in questioning Beyoncé’s feminism? Is that even something I can do? As a man who self-identifies as an ally of feminism, what is my space to comment on matters regarding a movement that I can only be attached to from the outside?
Growing up in Virginia, I was surrounded by strong women. Yet, I never really understood the underlying concepts of feminism until I took my first Women’s Studies class, which was an Intro class, at Century College in Minnesota. That was a transformative class for me within a transformative semester, where I shook off the last of my conservative social ideology and embraced an attitude of acceptance towards all. Researching my final paper (which was on the fallacious thought patterns underlying Freud’s theory about the supremacy of the vaginal orgasm) introduced me to authors and ideologies that I had never been exposed to before, and I declared myself to be a feminist from then on.
My second Women’s Studies class, titled “The Politics of Reproduction and Fertility Control”, came in my last semester at the University of Missouri. It was one of those mixed graduate/undergraduate classes, so the level of life experiences can vary across the board. It would be this class where I would have to consider how my male privilege would fit into the classroom, and discussions about feminism, for the first time. I am a talker and, although I try not to, I can dominate a classroom. But now I was, like I was in my first Women’s Studies class, the only man who was enrolled in the class. I decided that I would take a back seat and listen to what my classmates had to say about how public policy affected them and their physiological empowerment. Sometimes that was really hard (like when one of the students suggested that amniocenteses were developed to give women more incentive to abort their children), but I remained committed to not dominating the space. Few things have taught me more about listening to and acknowledging the lived experiences of other oppressed people than that class.
But it is an ongoing struggle to know when to listen and when to speak out. A few months ago, there was an ongoing debate about celebrities who were coming out and disavowing feminism. I posted this article on my Facebook page, but it was not an instantaneous thing; I wrote and rewrote the accompanying message plenty of times before I posted it. My frustrations were clear: from a community organizing standpoint, who cares whether Katy Perry or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy identifies as a feminist or not? I highly doubt that the legislators that are passing odious regulations on a woman’s reproductive agency or significantly delaying the passage of laws proscribing violence against women are jamming out to “Firework” in their spare time. But even as I was posting it, I felt uneasy. Is this territory that I can tread on? How would I like it if a white person lectured me about my anger at Bill Cosby for coming to the civil rights/Black empowerment party about forty years too late? How will I know when I have crossed the line? These are things that I struggle with while considering how to use my voice to support feminist causes.
Does that mean that I never feel empowered to comment on certain things regarding communities that I am allied with? Not hardly. When national GLBTQ+ organizations decided that stop-and-frisk was racist and oppressive only after the NAACP came out in support for marriage equality, I made my opposition known on Facebook. When it seemed that white feminists had all of these reasons why folks should not be that mad at The Onion for their Quvenzhané Wallis tweet, or that folks were getting mad at the wrong things, there was no way that I was going to listen to that without saying something on Twitter. But few people would begrudge me the right to comment on those things; they are dealing with racism and social exclusion, which is right in my wheelhouse (both phenotypically and academically). When the oppression is one that is not your own, however, I have learned that the best thing I can do is listen to and affirm the experiences of the oppressed.
I will not be a perfect ally, because I am not a perfect person. But thinking about the ways in which I can support feminism while checking my privilege at the door does not require perfection; it requires a conscience.