A few weeks ago my husband and I were having a pretty heated discussion about how, when the refrigerator was too full, it was really hard to keep track of what was in there and make sure it all got eaten before it spoiled. “White people problems, am I right?” quipped my astute son from across the table. Pick your favorite online content provider and type in “white people problems” and you will come up with pages of videos and essays and top 10 lists lampooning white privilege. A lot of them have to do with not being able to get soy milk for your Pumpkin spice latte. But the underlying assumption that white people don’t have any real struggles or problems -- as if there are no white people with empty refrigerators right now. It creates a challenging cognitive dissonance- the more we explore and understand the complexities of the asymmetrical systems we live in, the more complex our own identity, our own role in the world becomes.
I grew up listening to feminist voices, and could easily see with my own eyes the disparities between the opportunities for women and the opportunities for men. Feminism seemed to be divided into 2 worldviews. Sure, there were feminists who thought men had made a mess of things and could even be described as “man hating.” But I was taught that the system of rigid gender roles, the patriarchal hierarchical structures, were oppressive not just to women but to men as well. One of the things that first attracted me to my now husband was that he was a feminist. As the great Cultural Critic Bell Hooks wrote: “Patriarchy has no gender.”
“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” [bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody ]So, when I hear about empowered women, I smile. But when I hear jokes about women taking over as the new political power, about women relegating men to powerlessness as women have been relegated, I worry. Because I’m a Universalist, and we don’t believe that the goal of life is for good guys to triumph over bad guys, but we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’m not interested in tipping the asymmetrical system in my direction; I’m interested in creating a system that is liberating for everyone. I don’t believe that my husband and son are the bad guys- they, like me, are just people born into a patriarchal system.
While my mother’s generation won for me the right to wear pants to work, and to work outside the home, men (who identify as men) who wear feminine things to work today are often meet with stigmatization. Men who are stay-at home dads, men who are nurses, struggle against the patriarchy in their own way. I noticed the way my husband always got paid more than me for our almost identical entry level desk jobs, and the way car salesmen and bartenders defer to him. But I also see the tiny box of cultural expression that limits how he can be in the world. That limiting identity has come to be called toxic masculinity. As the Geek Feminist website defines the term: “Toxic masculinity is one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”[i]
The system of tightly constructed binary gender roles oppresses even more forcefully those who don’t naturally fall into one or the other of the 2 possible roles. That gender binary has done no end of violence to intersex and transgender folks. So the goal of overthrowing the patriarchy is not that women would win and men would lose; for there to be real justice and equity in our human systems I dream of a time when not only would cisgender women be liberated from an asymmetrical gender binary, but the that genderqueer folks would be liberated and cisgender men would be liberated too.
That being said, men need to be careful how they enter the feminist dialogue. One of the pathologies of the patriarchy is that it puts the straight white male at the center of everything. Part of the reason I was so moved by the Wonder Woman movie was not because it was the best movie I’d ever seen, but because a female character was finally at the center of a super hero movie. And men deferred to her. There’s this great scene where she crosses an impassible combat zone, revealing the depth of her skills and talent in, and the otherwise formidable men working with her let go of their male centrality and fall in line behind her. I get choked up just thinking about it. Finally, in my 40s, here is a major Hollywood movie, where a woman is not just a “super for a girl” but formidable by all standards.
For too long in our culture we have viewed the white male experience as normative, to the extent that scientists would perform medical research experiments only on white men, because their experience was seen as prototypical.[ii] As a feminist who is also a Universalist, I have great respect for the men I know who are trying to authentically express their own gender, who respect others who are authentically expressing their gender, and who are willing, as the folks who representing a group on the “have” side of the power imbalance, to be allies to women and transgender people who are on the dis-empowered side of the imbalance. Being an ally requires taking yourself out of the center.
What being a male ally means to me is speaking out among other men when you see or hear something that dis-empowers women. Whether that’s saying “I’m not sure everyone heard Melinda’s idea, and I thought it was really right on, can you restate that Melinda?” or whether it’s interrupting “locker room talk” or speaking out publicly when you realize a powerful man in your industry is harassing women. Being an ally also means decentralizing your experience as a white male. It means not mansplaining feminism to women, it means being a good listener. It means letting women be the experts on being women, and intersex people be the experts on being intersex. As it says in the Statement of the 1st European Intersex Community Event: “[allies] must learn about intersex issues from intersex people, without pressuring intersex people to provide input unless they themselves want to.”[iii]
But of course the power dynamics in my life are not marked just by my gender. In addition to being a woman, I’m also white, middle class, college educated, bisexual, clergy, parent etc. While being a woman provides some disadvantages in our culture as we make $.77 on the dollar, as our sexual boundaries are not respected by men in powerful positions. But I’m also white, with all the privileges that entails. Our congregation spent a lot of time talking about that recently- we know that there is plenty of hard data that white people have a different experience of the US justice system than our black neighbors do, that we get offered different loan rates, that education of white students is different, the list goes on. Being a black woman has challenges I don’t face as a white woman. This is called intersectionality. Because we are never just one thing. The idea of intersectionality was developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 when a lawsuit alleging discrimination toward autoworkers failed because you could not legally be discriminated against for being black and a woman at the same time.[iv] Each person lives at an intersection of identity. So a white man who is, for example, a disabled veteran living in poverty, is already pretty decentralized in our culture- in many parts of his life, he will not experience a position of privilege. And yet, when he goes to the doctor, statistically speaking, he is more likely to receive medical care based on research designed for his body than a black veteran, or a female veteran at the same VA clinic. In the real world, a person can be both privileged and disadvantaged at the same moment.
I mentioned the title of today’s sermon to my husband and he joked “great, white men finally get a chance to be heard.” [sarcasm dripping from his voice] It is absolutely true that white, straight men have dominated our narratives for centuries. But this narrative can be oppressive to a white man too. I can totally understand the white men living in or near poverty who say “is this what privilege looks like?” The toxic masculine tells us that a man, of any race, is only worthy based on his work, and we are living at a time when many of the historically living wage, dependable jobs have disappeared. While there could be a sense of solidarity among white men and men of color who feeling the oppression of economic inequality, we know that historically those in power are more comfortable when oppressed peoples turn their enmity on one another. Frederick Douglass, who wrote, "The slaveholders...by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black man himself." That is to say, if the workers of the world really did unite, the economic order would be disrupted. As Dr. Takiya Nur Amin, the keynote speaker at TPUC, remarked - it is true that low wage workers and folks living in poverty share common struggles and experiences, at the same time at the end of the day, if you are white you will have all those privileges that relate to bias based on skin color- better medical care, better education, better job opportunities, a better experience of the criminal justice system etc, than your black neighbor who works at the same minimum wage job, or was laid off from the same manufacturing plant. The interlocking and overlapping intersections of both privilege and oppression[v] mean there is no single unitive experience of what it means to be a white man in America.
Remember that at the foundation of our work on racism, of our work on gender equality is the belief that individuals should not be judged by based on generalizations about a larger group they were part of. I’m talking about stereotyping first - it’s not any more okay to stereotype a white man than it is to stereotype a black woman. Although when people with power over lives and livelihoods stereotype people with less power, the results are more dangerous. When we stereotype white privilege we have pumpkin late jokes. When we stereotype black men we end up with the criminal justice system we have today.
I’m also talking about how the lived experience of an individual person is always unique within the larger societal forces. Here’s a common theme I hear on TV “how bad could his life be, he’s rich?” or “I can’t have any sympathy for her, she’s famous” but many of the challenges we face as human beings are invisible from the surface. Neither race, nor gender, nor wealth protect us from physical or psychological abuse, nor from physical or mental illness. No privilege protects us from human tragedy. So we have to consider both Individual and systemic oppression. We can experience individual oppression while still living within cultural privilege.
At the fall meeting of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, one of the delegates asked why the UUA is talking about “white supremacy culture” within the UUA and within our congregations. Isn’t a white supremacist someone who belongs to a violent hate group? Our speaker, Dr. Takiya Nur Amin, explained that as an academic she uses words very carefully, so she is not saying that we, in this room are white supremacists, but rather that “A culture of white supremacy exists in UU, a culture that perpetuates whiteness as normative and superior.” This is something that Debbie Irving, author of Waking up White also talked about in her book- it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that we can be good people, who want to help, who would never knowingly hurt someone else, and yet by the fact of our birth we participate in White Supremacy culture.
How can our UU theology help us to hold all these things at once? Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, UU theologian, was once asked what she thought about evil. She suggested that UUs believe evil is trans-personal, that it exists in structures and cultural systems outside ourselves. We believe that all humans have the capacity for a huge range of good and evil. Humans aren’t evil, but they can do Evil and participate in evil. There is no KIND of person who is evil- it’s not true that men are evil and women are good, or white people are evil and people of color are good. But all of us participate, to one extent or another in the systemic oppressions embedded in our culture. Some of us benefit more from those systems than others. And all of us have a responsibility to dismantle asymmetrical systems, and to build more just systems.
White people have an access to power that can be really important in this work for change. Men have a privileged position from which they can work for change -- spheres of influence that people of color and women sometimes can’t access. And any of us, when we are occupying a position of privilege, can step out of the center, out of the spotlight, out of our comfort zone and invite a new voice to be heard. Every one of us has a unique position from which we can work, as our principles suggested, for “justice equity and compassion in human relations” can act for “peace, liberty and justice for all.”
a powerful and personal presentation of the issues https://thenib.com/toxic-masculinity
and a useful article on masculinity https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/creating-a-non-toxic-masculinity-lbkr/
[v] We don’t normally talk about overlapping privileges, more commonly about how oppressions compound when they interlock https://www.colorlines.com/articles/report-women-who-are-color-trans-and-hiv-positive-must-fight-overlapping-oppressionshttps://www.colorlines.com/articles/report-women-who-are-color-trans-and-hiv-positive-must-fight-overlapping-oppressions