How come you still need this stuff explained to you?
What does the term “privilege” actually mean?
What kinds of daily experiences, besides sexual harassment, really grind women’s spirits down?
Why can’t we all just be individuals and not identify so much with demographic groups?
Why isn’t it a personal attack or reverse racism/misogyny if someone references men or white men in particular?
Seriously, progressive white dude, why don’t you already know the answers to these questions? And why do you think it’s OK to lose your shit when other people, particularly progressive white women try to talk to you about them?
This piece isn’t meant as an attack, although I’m sure it will be received that way by some. I’m really just trying to understand what’s going on here because it kind of blows my mind. I actually started this story several months ago when the George Floyd protests were first taking place but I sat on it for a long time. However, I think it’s important that we don’t sweep this sort of thing under the rug. It needs to be talked about even though it’s uncomfortable.
A lot of men do understand this stuff already and are actively participating in co-creating a less stratified and authoritarian society, but I’ve been shocked to discover over the past several months how many white men I know who consider themselves to be open-minded, caring, and friendly to women and minorities who don’t understand some of the most basic fundamentals of inequality in this nation. It’s been incredibly eye-opening and not in a good way. I’ve had several female friends chime in saying that they are experiencing the exact same kinds of things and that they too are disappointed and dismayed.
The last several months have seen the Confederate flag removed from NASCAR, a bi-partisan spending bill that calls for the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals, and the Washington Redskins changing their team’s name, after decades of refusing to do so. Police departments everywhere are instituting new rules and banning the use of certain practices. The societal dominance hierarchy is getting upended in the most dramatic way since perhaps the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 but what it’s revealing is just how deeply entrenched that pyramid of power still is, despite some progress.
Our founding fathers were all landed, rich, white men. When they said, “All men are created equal” they essentially meant people who looked like them — not women, not blacks or Indians, and not the poor, not really. The Electoral College was designed to make sure that the rabble would never be able to elect through popular vote someone who didn’t have the interests of the elite in mind. In the original 13 colonies, you had to own land to be able to vote and many states kept this provision in the early days of the Republic.
In other words, our social system was a patriarchal dominance hierarchy right from the beginning. It was established from the get-go who the elites were and who was lower down the pecking order. In a dominance hierarchy, the structure is authoritarian and this takes place in both the family and society. The goal of nearly everyone is to maintain their ranking or to achieve a higher one by forcing someone else into a position lower than you are. This is typically done by creating fear, or threatening violence. Everyone from mean girls to workplace sexual harassers is trying to establish their dominance by making you aware of your inferiority. That’s what patriarchy as a social system truly is; not just the historic power imbalance between men and women.
The patriarchal dominance hierarchy is the pyramid-shaped social structure that has been a given in this country until very recently — one where rich white Christian men hold the top positions of power and authority, and all others fall below them to varying degrees. It hearkens back to the pre-Civil Rights era, and the pre-women’s lib era when people “knew their place.” The problem is that for the past 60 years, those static places on the pyramid have been eroding, and people who used to mostly quietly keep to the shadows are now asking for a seat at the table. Some of them are even getting it, despite a lot of artificial barriers that still exist.
Many of the laws of the United States, up until the 1970s were designed to make clear what certain groups of people could and couldn’t do. Until that time there were literally hundreds of laws that were different for women than for men. It was only a short time before that laws that were directed at blacks making it clear what they could and could not do were abolished. There are still laws that deny gay and trans people full equal rights. Asking why people can’t just give up their demographic alignment in favor of embracing individuality purposely turns a blind eye to the impact that hundreds of years of such laws have had on our culture. The laws may be gone, but their legacy is not.
So when less advantaged, non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual citizens begin to ask for and get some measure of power and equality, this is highly disruptive to the status quo. Leveling out the pyramid feels like a loss of rights and a betrayal of the social Darwinism we have been fed as the proper way to determine who is fit for power. When Tennessee councilman Warren Hurst went on a public rant a while back decrying the fact that a “queer” was running for president, he and those who cheered for him were feeling this dynamic. “I’m not prejudiced, but by golly,” continued Hurst, waving his finger in the air, “a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took (sic) more every day.”
There are a lot of men out there grappling with this dynamic and asking for something better — something less based in the violent domination of those who don’t seem to “know their place.” Some of them are literally out in the streets demanding it. I wasn’t surprised at all to see Trump and his followers pushing back against this bid for the flattening of the hierarchy. After all, he is the poster child for the maintenance of this type of “social order” but I was very surprised to see how many progressive white men are clearly rattled as well, and lashing out against some of the fundamental changes that are in the air.
Cognitive science tells us that only about 2% of thought is conscious. The rest is made up of cultural narratives, stereotypes, what we are taught as children, what we see in the media, etc. It is not only possible but likely that most of us hold conscious beliefs about equality that are not entirely in-line with all the things in our subconscious. That’s why it’s so important to keep calling attention to all the places that implicit bias is still making a real negative impact on our society.
White men have been subtly taught since they were children that the world is their oyster. Just work hard, and be tough and independent and you’ll do fine because you are the core of this nation. Even guys who grew up poor or disadvantaged in other ways, still reap the benefits of living in a society that is largely structured around and for the benefit of white men. They have been at the top of the pyramid-shaped dominance-hierarchy since the founding of this country, whether they want to be, or whether they consciously experience that sense of privilege or not.
A lot of white men bristle at the term privilege because they assume it means that they have had everything handed to them, and never had to struggle or suffer. It’s the latest thing now, it seems, to label anyone who speaks about the privilege of being both white and male in this country as someone who is perpetrating their own kind of discrimination. It’s a defense mechanism of the highest order.
Although there are lots of different ways to have privilege that don’t have to do with race or gender, including religion, education level, and body type, none-the-less, as recently as 60 years ago, the advantages of being white and male were enshrined into both law and established custom. It was the purpose (both overtly and subtly) of everyone else to serve the interests of a highly stratified society led by white, Christian, heterosexual men of means.
Half a decade of struggle has gotten those laws abolished, but that doesn’t mean that the beliefs and customs that went with them are now all gone as well. The 2016 election showed us just how deeply uncomfortable many people still are at the thought of the traditional societal pyramid being upended. In response, they elected a vain, bombastic con man who had never held political office, and who stood for absolutely nothing except a return to the world where everyone “knew their place” and largely stayed in it. It nearly happened again in 2020.
This resonates for so many people not necessarily because they are bigoted and hateful, but because buried deep in their unconscious mind is an awful lot that tells them, “This is the way it’s supposed to be.” Women should be supportive and take care of men and their children, and blacks and other brown people do the dirty jobs that no-one else wants to do. Both should keep their mouths shut and be grateful for what they have. Things are a lot worse for their kind in some other countries. The normative and actual citizen is a white man in this scenario and the media still reinforces these beliefs by overwhelmingly giving voice to the thoughts and interests of white men.
A primary way in which media distort reality is in underrepresenting women. Whether it is prime-time television, in which there are three times as many white men as women (Basow, 1992 p. 159), or children’s programming, in which males outnumber females by two to one, or newscasts, in which women make up 16% of newscasters and in which stories about men are included 10 times more often than ones about women (“Study Reports Sex Bias,” 1989), media misrepresent actual proportions of men and women in the population. This constant distortion tempts us to believe that there really are more men than women and, further, that men are the cultural standard.
It’s not easy to resist this kind of indoctrination even when we really want to. It seeps into our subconscious and unless it’s being continually challenged and dismantled, will tend to find expression in our words or behaviors. White women hold many of the same types of implicit bias about the proper structure of our society too, and they are more likely than other women to vote for and support the interests of the men in their lives, particularly if they are married, rather than supporting their own more direct interests. But that’s another kettle of fish.
In January of 2020 the Commonwealth of Virginia did ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) but since the deadline for ratification had long passed, it was largely ceremonial. The 10th Circuit Court did rule last year that women could be topless any place that it was appropriate for a man to be without a shirt — striking down one of the last remnants of laws that are different for men and women. However, the state of Oklahoma did not concur, even though they are within the 10th Circuit. State Representative, Jim Olsen, R-Roland had this to say:
“If the need should ever arise, I will do all I possibly can to keep this reprehensible conduct illegal!”
The #MeToo movement did open up a flood gate of stories that demonstrated to us all, even to many women, just how pervasive an issue sexual harassment and abuse really are. Although there was some pushback from all kinds of men, there was also a lot of support. But even so, there is still a lot of disconnect around just how different a daily experience that women in this country have than men do.
There’s still a certain amount of feeling that women are over-reacting, making stuff up, being too sensitive, trying to be hateful to men, or what have you. Never having experienced that kind of oppression, and perhaps rarely having witnessed it personally, many men find it hard to believe that such a thing actually takes place even though it’s in the news on a fairly continual basis and every woman they know has stories of her own.
Mostly, we’re not seeing live-action versions of women’s pervasive experiences played out on police body-cameras and cell phone footage taken by witnesses on the scene. But when we all watched a police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck while he called out for help, we got (yet another) wake up call to what it really means to be black in this country. Although these outrageous needless deaths of unarmed black men (and sometimes women) have been in the news for years, for some reason, this one was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Some things actually started to change. Not enough, to be sure, but at least it was a step in the right direction, and much like the way that #MeToo opened up a floodgate of stories, the death of George Floyd kicked off a deeper collective inability to just turn a blind eye anymore. Protests against police brutality erupted world-wide and companies started to put real economic pressure on the organizations they are affiliated with to do better around the ways these organizations have also supported the status quo.
Reactions to these seismic shifts were predictable in some quarters, but surprising in others. Several guy friends started grumbling about being tired of talking about racism. When it was pointed out that this was privilege in a nutshell, to have the ability to not have to think about something that so many others simply can’t escape, they erupted in defensiveness and dissembling.
“I’m sick of people being so group identified,” said one man. “Why can’t people just be individuals?”
I’m sure that everyone would love to be treated as an individual but when the demographic you are in is the subject of harmful stereotypes that hinder equal access to jobs, housing, healthcare, safety, etc., you don’t have that luxury. I don’t understand why this isn’t patently obvious. But refusing to acknowledge that this man had also experienced hardship and pain was not well received. Too much attention was being paid to the wrong people.
As irritating as this all was, it’s a symptom of the dominance hierarchy itself and the traditional place of white men at or near the top of it. I once had a relationship with a guy who hated being called on his shit.
“Stop scolding me,” he would say when I was calmly pointing out where he was behaving poorly and letting him know that I didn’t like it.
“Don’t act like an asshole, and I won’t have to,” was always my reply. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t go too far. Rather than taking straightforward and concrete feedback about how his behavior was hurting me, this man decided to make it my fault. Apparently it was my job as a woman to make him feel good all the time, no matter how he made me feel.
This same dynamic is what is going on in a larger context right now. The thought seems to be, “Hey, I’m a good guy. I care about other people and the state of the world although it’s from a place of noblesse oblige (the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth). In my unconscious mind, I still believe that you people (those who are not white men) exist for my benefit, and you sure don’t get to tell me that I’m not a good guy if I grumble a bit on having to hear about other people’s oppression or hardship.”
One man went so far as to tell me that I would never criticize a black man — a notion that I quickly disabused him of because it was absurd. This resentment at being called out for insensitive or clueless utterances, and worse yet, an apparent resentment of people whose cries are starting to be heard — was truly eye-opening to me.
Being either white or male does not make you a bad person, but it does make you a member of our society that still has the most institutional power, whether you asked for it or not. And seeing that get challenged seems to bring out the worst in some people who are white men, even if they are ostensibly truly in favor of equality. Whatever struggles and hardships they have experienced are valid and should not be discounted, but they also don’t include on top of that many things that marginalized people deal with on a daily basis.
As the meme says, “If you’ve never had the Supreme Court decide whether or not you have the same rights as others, you have privilege.” If hearing that makes you defensive, then it just goes to show how much further we still need to move towards a world that even approaches equality.