Crowding The Space: What is my role as a self-identified male feminist?

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.

10 responses to “Crowding The Space: What is my role as a self-identified male feminist?

  1. I personally believe that everyone should be able to express their opinion, support or criticism on any issues irrespective of their gender, race or sexuality. We are all, in one way or the other, affected by all these issues. Personally I think it’s rather hypocritical to assume that only women are allowed to talk on feminism, or people of certain race on racism, or homosexual people on sexuality because my understanding is that all of these movements are geared towards establishing EQUALITY irrespective of which group one belongs to. And a huge part of establishing EQUALITY is listening to the stories of everyone involved. Also, all these ‘ism’s take different forms at different places and different time. The form that racism took in 1950s USA might be significantly different from the kind of racism that exist in African countries or Asian countries at present. If only people that are underprivileged as a result of those ‘ism’s are allowed to voice their opinion, it not only hugely reduces the number of allies for the cause but also negatively harms the cause since the aim is to change the status of people in the society of which both the people directly inside and outside the cause are equally a part of. However, I do believe anyone expressing opinions should try to discard any prejudices, stereotypes, generalizations and try to express rational opinions rather than throwing mindless comments whether it’s for or against the given idea.

    • I have to disagree.

      The fact is that a white person does not get to lecture me on racism when I live it everyday. I do not get to lecture women on sexism when they live it everyday. When we start saying that everyone’s opinion is equal, it misses the fact that everyone’s oppression is NOT equal. That is why I deliberately used terms like “self-identified feminist” and “male allied with the feminist movement”; being an ally means recognizing that everyone does not get to live every experience, and that we should take our social justice cues from those people who experience forms of oppression throughout their lives.

      I love movement-building; it is precisely why this blog was started. But allies have to be just that: people who fight for equality alongside, not in the place of, those who are constantly discriminated against.

  2. Regardless of who says the truth, a truth is a truth. If a man understands how women ought to be treated, it doesn’t make it less of a truth than when women understand it. From my personal experience itself, I’ve found a large number of women that do not understand or accept how they are discriminated even having lived a discriminated or oppressed life every day of their life since birth.

    So, you don’t think a black person and a jewish person having gone through two different forms of racism, can communicate at any level and help each other? Also, what about a white person who lives in a place where they are minority and hence perhaps go through some form of racism themselves? In your comment, you probably meant to say “…every group’s oppression is not equal” but you happened to say “…everyone’s oppression is not equal”. However, I do agree with the latter statement even if it was worded differently than you meant to. Everyone’s oppression is different, not two black people go through the same experiences, not two women go through same oppressions. If we are to believe that just because everyone’s oppression is not equal, other people cannot speak on it, then perhaps each individual should be fighting their own individual battle. I do not buy that the specifics of how one person’s oppression differs from the others has to imply that we have to take a back seat when discussing a topic that is important to all.

    As long as one takes the other group’s opinion as a “lecture”, I don’t think we can reach to a solution to any problems in a society. I understand why a white person “lecturing” a black person on racism can be a bad thing, but I was only saying that a white person should be able to COMMUNICATE and EXPRESS (NOT LECTURE) their opinion on racism. Simply because they haven’t lived such life doesn’t mean that they know any less than average black people on racism. Surely, living a certain kind of life and learning through first hand experience is very powerful, but we can’t deny that there are several other modes of learning as well. That along with the fact that certain people learn rather slowly even having gone through the experiences themselves, does imply that truth is truth whether spoken through the mouth of oppressed people or people belonging to other groups.

    I am a South Asian heterosexual woman and I believe that I have a right to talk to a black person about racism, homosexual person about homophobia, and talk to men about gender stereotypes on men along with several other topics that I talk about related to women.

    • You and I approach this from two fundamentally different places. The messenger matters. My ability to speak to those women about ways that they are oppressed is very limited by the fact that I do not face the same amount of oppression. I should not be the one that educates women on gender oppression; you should.

      In addition, the fact that a white person will never experience racism (regardless of where they live) is PRECISELY why they know less about it than the average person of color. Are we really equating lived experiences with reading about it or hearing about it from others? I hope not, because that sounds pretty ridiculous.

      And no one has said that folks cannot talk about oppression that they do not face: the point of my blog post is that we can. But when I discuss oppression with groups that I am allied with, I will always defer to their experiences on the matter. Their opinion about the oppression that they face will always carry more weight than my opinions about their oppression which I do not face, and vice versa.

  3. I guess we have to agree to disagree on this matter then. Also, I do not agree with your narrow statement, “…white person will never experience racism (regardless of where they live)…”. I think what you are referring as racism is in fact racism exclusively against black people. Prejudices and stereotypes are a major part of racism, and it can happen to anyone belonging to any group. In fact, in saying that white people never experience racism, you just participated in perpetuating such prejudice. Antisemitism is a racism, and a lot of jewish people are whites. If racism, is only something that is lethal or damaging to someone’s life, then perhaps white people don’t experience it so often. Frankly speaking, very few people of color experience this form of racism at present time. But if you agree that racism can be something that can affect someone’s quality of life, but not necessarily lethal to them, then anyone can be a victim of racism. Sure, some races experience it more often than others depending who the minority group is at that location. If/when some white people are killed or attacked by anti-American groups irrespective of their personal/individual opinion simply based on their skin color, do you view it as racism?

    Yes, I am equating lived experiences with experiences through other methods, and as I’ve stated above in my other comments not everyone who has lived an oppressed life is really aware of the discriminations themselves, whereas sometimes people from outside CAN also have enough insight of the subject. No two experiences are equal and can be equal, but it doesn’t mean that one’s understanding is lesser than the other person’s understanding. The only way we can check whose understanding is right is by checking the logic behind the arguments made.

    Sometimes when I get offended by sexist jokes some of my friends make, I get told that other women enjoyed that joke; hence, it wasn’t sexist or anything to be offended by. If by virtue of being a woman, every woman’s voice is more powerful than a man’s voice when it comes to sexism, then we’d be in trouble because perhaps not every woman agrees with what ought to be either. It’s one thing to listen to the experiences of the oppressed (that one needs to to have a clear insight of the matter), but it’s another thing to say that every experiences lived is more powerful than any opinion irrespective of how powerful they may be.

  4. I proposed agreeing to disagree because I saw that you weren’t answering the questions in my comments, and also made comments like “white person will never experience racism (regardless of where they live)” without providing any evidence to back up your statements. I do enjoy discussions when they are supplied with analogies and evidences, but I’m not interested in having an online argument over nothing. There are always going to be people in the World, whose opinion you won’t be able to change irrespective of how good logic you present. That’s why agreeing to disagree. Anyway, I thank you for being an “ally” for the cause of feminism.
    It would be nice if you could “educate” people (men and women alike) when needed, but since you consider yourself just an “ally” perhaps I cannot expect you to educate those women, who are so much drowned in oppression that they may not be able to see the World outside of them clearly.

  5. I inadvertently deleted my comment so here I go again. Thank you so much for sharing this Douglas. You so beautifully express the dynamics of oppression. Many well meaning people do not understand this distinction and end up offending and ever further oppressing people they think they are helping. When talking on topics of oppression, the voice of the marginalized group must always be the experience that is deferred to and the oppressor should always be in a position of learning. If you want to learn about classism, you don’t consult Donald Trump who is so far removed from the experiences of a poor person, you ask actual poor people who are actually impacted by it. If you want to learn about sexism, you ask women who experience it everyday, not men who often inadvertently practice it and are blinded to by nature. If you really want to learn and understand racism, you learn about it from people of color, not from white people, who by nature are blinded to the most insidious and subtle forms of institutional racism. If one understands the dynamics of oppression, then they know this. Men cannot “educate” women about sexism, they can discuss it of course and share opinions about it. We all have so much to offer each other, we just need to listen to each other instead with the position that they know more about their experience than we do.

    • One of my friends has a Twitter bio that includes the statement, “I trust disenfranchised peoples.” That, and your comment, pretty much sums up how I feel on the matter. We should always trust that people who live through forms of oppression are able to articulate their experiences without needing an explainer from someone that lives outside of that experience. My wife had a professor explain to her once that, “Sometimes, you aren’t invited to the dinner table. It isn’t your meal to share.” To me, that is the key to being a good ally; recognizing when the table isn’t set for you.

  6. I like what Douglas has said here. I believe that his is a good model to follow. In situations where I do comment on something that a member of an oppressed group (not my own) has said, I try to make it clear that I recognize my potential ignorance & privilege. I preface my remark by stating that I am not a (woman, etc.), can’t possibly know the world as a (woman) does, and may be totally off-base. Then I try to phrase my remark as a question…….but it’s often good practice to just shut up and listen.

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