Where are all of the straight, white, cis-gendered men who should be standing up for social change?
This piece was co-authored by Raoul Wieland and his colleagues:
Peter Wanyenya works as International Student Advisor, Special Populations & Programs at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
Andrew Pauls is completing a degree in Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and has an associate degree in child and youth counseling from Douglas College, Vancouver
“A very stimulating, thought provoking conference; but where are all the men?“ The question was unsettling, the room heavy and blanketed with silence as each appeared to deliberate the significance of what had been asked. It wasn’t the novelty of the question or that it had been phrased in uncertain terms; it wasn’t that organizers hadn’t seen this all before, in other conferences, classrooms, workshops or rallies. The disquieting absence of men was not new, and yet here we all sat, entombed with silence: Awareness of men’s absence, particularly cis-gender/heterosexual men, is particularly acute when discussing how to confront, dismantle and shed light upon ongoing societal violence and injustice; discussing systems of heteropatriarchy and exploring systems of oppression (i.e. sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, racism).
What’s all the fuss about anyways?
It appeared evident that the elephant was and had always been in the room; we were left fumbling in the dark trying to understand the construction of male apathy and indifference. Were men absent from these forums, caring for what they deemed more pressingly important or productive uses of their time? Perhaps we simply don’t care or fail to connect these issues to our own? Could it be that men are conditioned not to develop or act upon empathy?
This essay attempts to probe and question the origins that lead to an absence of men’s participation in discussions of systemic societal violence and injustice. In doing so we assume that systems of oppression exist and have detrimental and pervasive consequences. As authors of this essay and as cis-gender/heterosexual men leading privileged lives, we intend to contribute to ongoing discussions about why social justice initiatives – particularly in response to sexism and heteropatriarchy – are rendered women’s work or the work of marginalized groups, simply by the failure of men to show up.
Leadership – Men embody leadership across the social spectrum. From security to sports, religion to politics, from business to economics, ethics and science, ecology and environmentalism men are seen assuming substantive and consequential leadership roles; this list is by no means exhaustive. Why then, with few notable exceptions, are men largely absent from substantive positions of leadership within social justice and advocacy work? Leadership here refers to a conscious effort by men to show up, be engaged, listen, learn, self-reflect, ally, support and – yes – step back and willfully allow others to lead; participation in substantive, consequential social justice advocacy also demands that men talk to other men about their role of sustaining existing systems of oppression or, more importantly, their potential role in deconstructing them. Once aware of these structures and our role in maintaining them, we propose that gender-privileged men have the social duty and personal responsibility to question and address existing systems of oppression within their own social circles; these are privileged spaces readily accessible only to them. Why is there an absence of men, in substantive advocacy roles, actively and passionately fighting for social justice?
The Absence of Men
Concealed privilege – Why do men fail to see and recognize how many unearned privileges we have that we consequently take for granted? Are we the metaphorical fish that reply, “what water”? Why do we remain oblivious to how our in/actions maintain and feed systems of oppression? Why do we fail to see how these in/actions connect and influence our own lives?
In our experience, men don’t purposefully subvert change through our own in/actions; we don’t consciously deny others their measure of dignity or social justice, at least not in most cases. We propose that our absence from actively participating and working for social reform is a measure of our ignorance of existing power structures – how power is organized and operates within our society. We suggest that men’s unawareness of these structures is proportional to our ignorance of the struggles against subjugation, marginalization and violence that many groups must face on a daily basis.
How are power structures that render unearned male privilege invisible, maintained? How does this status quo and the ignorance that lays beneath, supersede meaningful change? We propose that part of an explanation for this rests in how unearned privilege is made invisible to those that have it and that historical hierarchies are hidden but remain active, also rendered invisible. Present day illusions held by some that we live in a society where racism is dead and feminism is no longer needed, as well as the appearance of consequential reverse-ism (think reverse sexism), exemplifies our ignorance towards undercurrents that obfuscate real comparison between those that are denied access, voice, privilege and justice in the dominant culture and privileged men that maintain these structures (un)knowingly. Not surprisingly, those who are systemically marginalized and denied access, voice and opportunity, know only too well how power operates and what is required for meaningful change.
The importance of discerning how ignorance of power structures is and has been maintained and why this ignorance has a habit of sticking around is clear. It equates to first steps of men acknowledging systems of oppression and the detrimental and pervasive consequences for others; men assuming responsibility for their role in maintaining this system; men willingly and purposefully ‘showing up’ and; actively and passionately participating in dismantling this system. Alternatively, privileged men, absent a conscious understanding of our many unearned privileges and the power structures that maintain or conceal them, fail to make personal connections to our role in present injustices and hence fail to show up.
Interwoven in this society of ours are practices, teachings and values that continue to shackle gender roles to narrow interpretations of what it means to be a man, a women, a boy or a girl. Sexuality is similarly forced into a binary of gay vs. straight, delegitimizing the array of orientations along what in reality is a spectrum of variation. Societal expectations about gender and sexuality normalize the heterosexual relationship. Stereotypes of man and women-hood subsequently become entrenched.
Welcome to Guyland, writes sociologist Michael Kimmel, where only a few select identities and relationship types are socially accepted as ‘normal’. Where boys, navigating the passage from adolescence to adulthood, struggle to constantly ‘prove their masculinity’ in front of the critical gaze of their peers. A recent study determines that boys demonstrate manliness in ways that lead to “everyday low-level violence” while the pressure to constantly manage one’s everyday life in line with gender norms produces significant anxiety, insecurity, stress and low self-esteem. Importantly, Kimmel and others have pointed out that men ‘proving their masculinity’ are “socialized to feel entitled to women bodies; women’s accomplishments, women’s space” and so on. Kimmel uses the slogan ‘Bros Before Hos’ to exemplify how men constantly ‘proving their masculinity’ translates to objectification and denigration of girls whose identity and agency is constrained by the terms and conditions set in Guyland.
Our society signals that cis-gender/heterosexual men and the particular life choices society attaches to these labels are the norm or the ‘normal’. The dominant image of masculinity may thus be described as: “a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports”. If anything but these characteristics is considered unworthy, incomplete or inferior, then we fail to recognize how ‘normal’ marginalizes the many other expressions of what it means to be a man or a women. We propose that failing to identify how this mechanism – this myth, this socially constructed notion of masculinity, so strongly influenced by hetero-normativity – obscures unearned male privilege, maintains men’s ignorance.
Logically, from this perspective, is it any surprise that men are confused or perhaps even turned off by the voices telling us that what we believe we are entitled to ‘just ain’t so’? If our identity – hard fought for while navigating Guyland – our status there, our entitlements, so much a part of what we determine as essential proof of our masculinity, is questioned and put under scrutiny, is it not logical that as privileged men, we will feel threatened? Do we not then react by ignoring, undermining or attempting to prevent or stop such discussions from penetrating below our thin layer of skepticism, self moderated cynicism or notions of entitlement?
If we grow up in a climate where low level violence is a continuous ritual considered part of our capacity and strength as men ‘proving their masculinity’, then is it any wonder that men appear desensitized to other’s feelings? More specifically, for example, from this perspective, is it any wonder that men fail to see how continuously ‘proving their masculinity’ including reinforcing socialized feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies, is connected to their ignorance or insensitivity towards women? Subsequently, from this perspective, it is not at all surprising that most men react with skepticism -or worse– to voices telling us that our actions and the way we approach relationships can in fact be hurtful and harmful. Does this skepticism, self moderated cynicism or notion of entitlement in fact act as a defensive measure that leads men to bow out and abstain from attending?
We propose that men fail to see how their socialized feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies impact their own behavior and the behaviors of all those around them; they fail to see the full effect of their behavior on women, themselves and how actions of constantly ‘proving their masculinity’ correlate with their own unawareness of unearned male privilege, the role they play in maintaining it and the failure of many men from assuming responsibility to address it.
Many boys have been taught ‘what it means to be a man’ from a young age and since then internalized the belief that part of ‘being a man’ is to cope with difficult emotions by ignoring them, keeping them contained or feigning indifference. We all know the phrase ‘man up!‘; men struggling with emotions are expected to, as did the fictional Baron Münchhausen, pull themselves out of the suffocating emotional swamp by their own bootstraps. Self-reliance in all things! Sink or swim! Prove your manhood! Are you tougher, faster, stronger, richer? Do you get more sex than the guy next to you? Will you back down from a confrontation? Countless stories reveal emotional stagnation and the socially instilled drive to compete and how ‘proving your masculinity’ can lead to toxic relationships that men have both with themselves and with others. Unable to swim through the emotional currents, countless numbers of men sink, pulling others down with them. Consequently, it is a tragedy with many wide-ranging consequences that men choosing to be disloyal to ideals of heteropatriarchy and manhood find little if any support.
We propose that the key to participating in difficult conversations is showing up, engaging with an open mind and coping with one’s emotions. Emotions that are bound to be rattled as we are all challenged to go beyond our biases, the status quo and simple one size fits all explanations for the world we inhabit. In a social justice and advocacy realm we are forced to look at ourselves as responsible, directly or indirectly for much injustice. We are challenged to change thought patterns, imagine a different reality and act upon that which we have learned. In these spaces where the political is the personal and the personal the political, this can be extremely challenging. Perhaps an estrangement from feelings leads to an inability to connect with others and assume responsibility for causing pain? Privileged men, absent a conscious understanding of our many unearned privileges and the power structures that maintain or conceal them, fail to make personal connections to our role in present injustices, and act as such. Many cis-gender/heterosexual men navigate such spaces by carrying a briefcase of invisible privilege, a social identity that is normalized and stands unchallenged alongside the inability to creatively deal with difficult emotions. Is it any wonder that such emotional encounters often lead to defensiveness, anger, or frustration? Some men are silenced, others shut down, and only a few stick with discomfort to ally and become allies. Absent any guidance and support from others, particularly other men, is it any wonder why we fail to show up in large numbers, or even for that matter as courageous disparate individuals?
A call to action
Current discussions about a crisis of manhood, whether you believe manhood is in crisis or not, offer great opportunities to think about what it means to be a man in the 21st century, what the future of manhood will look like, who is to be included or excluded from such definitions, and what roles men can take on to create a more just and equitable society. We recognize that it is too much to ask that all men will re-shape their lives to actively dismantle outdated notions or myths of masculinity’; not all men will actively help to deconstruct the notion of male supremacy or become a politically active allies. Showing up once in a while to an event, listening with an open mind and clearing spaces within to self-reflect on one’s roles and responsibilities, might however, seem more attainable for most
If this essay were in fact a call to action, then it would probably close with a challenge to men. Men, in particular those of us that do show up and engage, perhaps it is time to step up our leadership roles and carry forward what can be characterized as courageous conversations into spaces of privilege; become the mentor that young men desperately need, and have the courage to speak up once in a while. Barring fundamental change or a revolution of how (cis-gender/heterosexual) men are educated, socialized and behave in relation to our privilege, we will continue to remain blind to others; we will continue to view social justice and advocacy initiatives and events, and the concerns or issues they raise, with apathy and indifference. It’s never too late to participate, as real change requires a concerted effort from us all.