We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
13 December 2017 13:11 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Take the Unearned Male Privilege Quiz

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

Were you whistled at today? Made to feel self-conscious? Did you doubt your career decisions or feel tempted to wear a wedding ring even if you weren’t married? Anyone talk down to you? If you answered ‘no’, chances are you’re privileged, possibly because of your gender. Congratulations. Read on.

“I can be pretty sure that when I walk down the street, nobody will yell at me about my body or tell me what they want to do to me sexually.”

“I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.”

“If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.’”

If you are nodding your head in agreement, you are probably a man and you have just admitted to having unearned male privilege. I’ve just joined an organisation where admitting to privilege isn’t going to get you fired.

Two months ago I finally re-entered the working world after a year-long break. I am working on a part-time basis so that I can focus on that elusive work-life balance thing, but it feels good to be connected to a community of colleagues.

I am learning that there are some perks involved when one works for an organisation whose explicit mandate is to challenge sexism by working with men and boys in support of women’s rights. One of them is hearing one man challenge another for sexist behavior in the boardroom.

In a recent discussion one male colleague said to another, “I don’t think you are embodying the values we are here to promote; I felt deeply uncomfortable with how you treated her.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. And while the check-ins that kick off team meetings are a powerful way to destabilise the norm that men don’t talk about their feelings, I have to work hard to keep my eyebrow from arching as my male colleagues talk about their headaches, express concerns about their sick children and talk about their fears about crime.

I knew when I took this role that working with “good men” comes with its complications. The most interesting of these is the extent to which even “good” men - perhaps especially “good” men - do not always see the ways in which their gender identity privileges them on a daily basis.

They see themselves as different from men who abuse women and therefore, in some ways, not as beneficiaries of that kind of power.  This, of course, is not true. All men benefit from male privilege, just as all white people benefit from white privilege, whether they like it or not.

In a context in which black men have been the subjects of racist denigration, it can be especially difficult to get them to identify with the concept of male privilege. As Jewel Woods, an African-American author, notes, “For many black men, the phrase ‘black male privilege’ seems like an oxymoron - three words that simply do not go together.”

There is no question that the layering of race and gender make conversations about male privilege much more complicated. But as Jewel points out, knowing that “racist sexism that targets black men is alive and kicking,” does not preclude the possibility of recognising the ways in which black men benefit from male privilege just as white men benefit from it.

While white men are undoubtedly at the top of the privilege heap, both black men and white men’s privilege comes at the expense of women. In other words, because men of all races benefit directly from sexism, it is crucial to talk about all male privilege - not only the privilege of white men and not only the privilege of black men. All too often in South Africa, our media is obsessed with the transgressions of black men, without paying sufficient attention to white men’s explicit displays of sexism.

Given the fraught context in which we live, I have been impressed at the extent to which the men I work with are prepared to be honest about their past participation in violent behaviours, and to examine how decisions are made internally and by whom. But like all of our well-meaning brothers and husbands of all races, a number still find it hard to talk about the ways in which they benefit from male supremacy. The white men, of course, find it hard to talk about both their race and gender privilege.

What has been remarkable for me thus far has been that all of them across race - my younger colleagues, the older ones, the ones who work in prisons with male victims of sexual violence, the ones who work in churches with women who have been attacked by their partners - all of these men, regardless of the difficulties they face in opening their mouths to speak, in making mistakes, in admitting personal wrong-doing, all of them are prepared to admit that they have privilege, even if they don’t always see it (such is the luxury of privilege) at first.

This is important and rare and requires deep and honest reflection. It is not always an easy space to navigate, but it is an exciting one to occupy.  This will change of course as more and more women join the organisation - already women are close to 40% of the senior management team.  What I hope can remain intact is its commitment to honest confronting conversations amongst men and women working together to advance women’s rights to respect and dignity. DM

Here are a few more of those handy questions for the reader who wants to test their privileges:

  1. I can be pretty sure that when I walk down the street, nobody will yell at me about my body or tell me what they want to do to me sexually.
  2. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
  3. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labelled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing” or “slut-shaming”.
  4. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  5. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
  6. I can be reasonably assured that in my intimate relationships and everyday life I am unlikely to be a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.
  7. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile”.
  8. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.
  9. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organisation the person is, the surer I can be.
  10. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by me.
  11. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

* In compiling this list, I have combined the work of three authors and bloggers – one by Shira Tarrant, the author of Men and Feminism, another by Barry Deutsch, and a third by Jewel Woods.  All three lists are based on Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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