Man vs. Oppression

Kyle Carpenter’s awareness of his privileges inspire a dual struggle against institutionalized oppression: in the world and within himself.

It’s the classic schoolyard brawl. Picture this … two young boys gleefully engrossed in a game of tag at recess. An argument erupts and they are suddenly entangled on the ground, rolling angrily, blind with childhood rage. Fists swing, cheeks redden, and a small crowd of gawking schoolmates surrounds them chanting the anthem that raises the blood pressure of every teacher and administrator within earshot. “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

This story may sound all too familiar for the boys and men reading along. Likely you’ve either played a lead role in the belligerent bout or watched from the sidelines as the dispute unraveled. Personally, I’ve never been in a serious physical altercation. I’ve never thrown a punch or felt the sting of another person’s fist. I’ve never intentionally drawn blood or physically attacked someone. Hell, I’ve never even had to put up my dukes as an act of self-defense. I guess some men just aren’t born to fight.

At least that’s what I used to think. Now that I have a few more years under my belt, I know better. I know that every man—and woman for that matter—endures a fight at some point in his or her life. It may not involve punches or bruises but I’ve learned that life undoubtedly thrusts everyone into a battle to defeat our perceived forces of evil and defend what we believe to be true. Some fight terrorism. Some fight history. Some fight cancer. Some fight alcohol. Some fight family. And some even fight the concept of fighting itself. No matter who we are or how poorly we hold a fist, I’ve learned that none of us are exempt from fighting.

At first glance, it may be difficult for some to believe that a person like me with so much privilege could possibly have any reason to fight. Let’s pause for a minute to acknowledge all the ways in which the world grants me opportunity and advantage despite having done nothing to earn them. First and most relevant to this forum, I am a man. I needn’t go into detail about glass ceilings, equal pay, or rampant sexual assault to explain that the world is a much easier place for me to exist because of this. Secondly, I am White. Growing up, all my superhero action figures had my same skin tone. I’ve never been followed around a grocery store for looking suspicious or threatening, even when wearing a hoodie. I’ve never had to defend myself from the questions, “what are you?” or “where are you really from?”  It can safely be assumed that my white skin has allowed me to more easily walk through the world. If all of that weren’t enough, I’m heterosexual,middle-class, able-bodied, American born, and highly educated. Indeed, with privileges like these, it’s understandable to think I might not have any reason to fight at all.

I’ve had my ass handed to me several times in the fight to take responsibility for my privilege and to encourage others to do the same. It’s not an easy fight and I don’t expect to win any time soon.

Yet these privileges of mine are the sole cause and motivation for why I fight. They are the reason I get out of bed every morning and they are the demons that keep me up at night. They compel me to teach, to speak, to sing and to write. Because I have privilege, I have purpose.

You see, my battle has been the process to completely understand how my privileged identities affect the world around me. My struggle is to fully grasp the scope of systemic oppression and how I contribute to the well-being of that system every day. My fight is looking in the mirror and coming to terms with the fact that I benefit from a social structure that actively contributes to the pain and suffering of others. I strive to reconcile who I am and how I walk through life with the reality of unearned power and unfair treatment that I receive at the expense of others.

While this may sound a bit like a classic “White Man’s Burden” testimonial, I assure you that my stake in the matter is not motivated by guilt or shame. It’s also not a case of charity or goodwill that inspires me to grapple with my privilege.  If I’m honest, there is a selfish part of me that enjoys receiving praise and approval for being a “good man” and someone who cares about social justice. But even this feeling of self-gratification isn’t enough to sustain a lifetime commitment to tackling the complexities of power and privilege. The real reason I choose this fight is simply because it’s the right thing to do.

This battle I wage every day happens on two fronts, internally and externally. The internal struggle is a duel with myself, attempting to come to terms with and correct the biased perspectives, assumptions, and stereotypes that I’ve been socialized to believe. The external tension is a battle with the ignorance, injustice and inequality that is entrenched in our society. The two conflicts are undeniably interwoven, with outside influences shaping internal beliefs and those inward views contributing to external attitudes and behaviors. In this never-ending cycle, I find myself daunted by the task of eliminating systems of oppression both within myself and out in the world. Ending all social discrimination may seem like the bigger brawl but truthfully, the most relentless and humbling fight consistently happens within myself.

Real fights, the ones worth fighting, aren’t won overnight. They require perseverance, determination, and a willingness to come back the next day after you’ve had your ass handed to you. And don’t be fooled, I’ve had my ass handed to me several times in the fight to take responsibility for my privilege and to encourage others to do the same. It’s not an easy fight and I don’t expect to win any time soon. But it’s a fight that I must continue, not only for the world and myself but also for my family.

As a man on the brink of marriage with fatherhood not far behind, the urgency of this fight has intensified. Soon the image of a schoolyard brawl between hostile young boys won’t be a depiction from the past but instead a present-day scenario involving my kids. My interracial marriage will meet questioning stares and scornful looks from strangers. We’ll have children and they’ll face discrimination and inequality. Then, my internal struggles will not only affect me, but my family. When these challenges come I hope that the battles I fight today, both internally and externally, will have prepared me for the fight: to be a better husband, father, and example for other men.

 

Read more in Cameron Conaway’s series, “What’s Your Fight?” on The Good Life.

 Image credit: jaqian/Flickr

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About Kyle Ashlee

Kyle Ashlee is a writer, educator, and consultant living in Saint Paul, MN. He works toward social justice by focusing on issues related to class, race, and gender. For more information visit Ashlee Consulting and follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleLeeCarp.

Comments

  1. Beautiful writing and encouragement to keep up the fight!

  2. John Schtoll says:

    “First and most relevant to this forum, I am a man. I needn’t go into detail about glass ceilings, equal pay, or rampant sexual assault to explain that the world is a much easier place for me to exist because of this.”

    Equal Pay: Just how many times does this have to be debunked before people like the OP get it. MEN don’t get paid more for the same work than women do.

    h ttp://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/04/16/its-time-that-we-end-the-equal-pay-myth/

    Glass ceilings:

    http://www.the-spearhead.com/2009/10/05/the-myth-of-the-glass-ceiling/

    Rampant sexual assault, yes, very nice cherry picking there. Now look up NON Sexual assault, murder , suicide etc. You have it great as a man.

  3. John Schtoll says:

    “I’m heterosexual,middle-class, able-bodied, American born, and highly educated. Indeed, with privileges like these, it’s understandable to think I might not have any reason to fight at all”

    Two of those so called privileges were actually earned, Middle Class, either YOU or your parents earned that status thru work and earnings. Highly educated, again, this is earned thru hard work.

    I hate it when people are made to feel guilty for something they have earned thru hard work of either THEM or their parents. When you become a father you will do everything you can to ensure your children have every oppurtunity that is possible, including but not limited to being middle class (or above) as well as being highly educated.

  4. When I see the phrase ‘male privilege’ my brain shut down, just like if I see the word ‘nazi’ or ‘communist’ in political writing.
    I understand there IS sexism, rascism, homophoboia, classism, etc. I’m not blind, and I have actively worked on justice issues. Pro-choice clinic defender, Americorp volunteer working on hunger and literacy issues. I could list more, but does anyone really care?
    Nevertheless, when I see the phrase ‘male privilege,’ I read it this way:
    “All the problems of the world are due to men…only they have it good. They have no feelings, never suffer, and have never experienced any pain..only they have it good. Anything trauma men go through is irrelevent, only they have it good. Any thoughts they they may have on gender and justice are irrelevant, only they have it good.”
    2 semesters of feminist studies classes in college and hours of conversations taught me this.
    When I see feminists post or make statement like the following, “Men can’t be feminists, only allies.”, my reaction is fine, I’ll take my marbles and and play elsewhere. I guess feminists can’t be sexist.
    There is plenty of suffering to go around, and the world needs folks who care about healing, fairness, healing, and reconciliation. Truly, I’m more than happy to work with both women AND men on sexist issues, as long as (an egalitarian) we are working on those issues for both genders.

    • Falling off soapbox…
      Corrected sentence: “There is plenty of suffering to go around, and the world needs folks who care about healing, fairness, and reconciliation.”

  5. Hank Vandeburgh says:

    Hi Kyle, Let me start with one of your quotes. “My fight is looking in the mirror and coming to terms with the fact that I benefit from a social structure that actively contributes to the pain and suffering of others. I strive to reconcile who I am and how I walk through life with the reality of unearned power and unfair treatment that I receive at the expense of others.”

    I realize that what you describe might be descriptively true. But it’s a bad way for white males to conceive of themselves for a couple of reasons. First, the concept of “privilege” is an analytical non-starter. My reason for saying this is that there is actually an infinite number of possible privilege positions in the world (about 7 Billion factorial, if you want to be accurate.) Yes, I realize that they cluster around genders, races, nations, and so on depending on differing concrete circumstances. I won’t go into it much, but as a person who grew up in a working class melieu, and didn’t really become middle class until I was about 37, I realize that I had it worse than some, and better than others. I do think that race in the US can be a huge differential, much more than gender, where the tendency still is for middle and upper class women and men to be symbiotes to a great extent.

    People like me generally had to do military service, went to non-elite colleges and so on. It took me ten years post military to get even a BA degree. But I did have it better than many.

    This brings me to my second point (the main one.) I think the privilege discourse is fairly politically dysfunctional. The reason is that it’s a spitter by its nature. And, almost diabolically (as conservatives might wish it) it serves well, if generally embraced, to split men (who also are generally disenfranchized aside from a few elite men) off from anyone else who is likely to want social change.

    What I think should happen is that people should try to form a national farmer labor party. The democrats basically walked away from most Americans in the 1970s. The Dems are a party of intellectual elites, who’d prefer not to mix it up with average people, unless they happen to be lecturing them on racism or sexism. (Note the lack of social class here.) Many of us will vote Dem, but we don’t do it with any great enthusiasm– Clinton for example continued to support globalization which sold the average American down the river. This is why the tea party exists– people don’t like the condescension, and figure Dems aren’t going to do much for them.

    So, I think the culturalist approaches of the current left (race and gender only) are wrong. We need to start with something that starts to reinvigorate America in an economic sense. Raising tariffs might help there, and help us reinternalize our own working class again.

    I see the cultural parts of this movement as needing to go through something like a telophase. In other words, the racism and sexism we don’t want would start to be corrected with help when we start to remove the material bases for economic competition between the races and sexes

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