Read an online article that addresses male privilege, white privilege, or anything of the sort and you will likely find a comment board littered with defensive comments from the group identified as having privilege. As the targeted parties often have less experience engaging the subject matter than the writers, it’s not uncommon to see people reflexively cry that a writer’s arguments are more offensive than the system that the writer is attempting to identify. Many of these reactions amount to little more than “Your claims hurt my feelings so I’m not going to entertain them” and generally have the effect of squashing productive conversation.
As a Black man who frequently discusses race, I understand this in a way that is more personal than reading articles. Some of my closest White friends are those that have been open to entertaining my claims that they might be ignorant to privileges afforded to them. Those that survive especially emotional rants are even closer friends (God bless them) and those that could not get beyond immediate defensive postures are probably no longer my friends at all.
So, it is with some shame that I admit that there may be some claims about sexism that I have trouble entertaining in a non-defensive manner as I was reminded by Twitter. I recently followed some conversations on Twitter wherein women were discussing sexual harassment. While I could surely understand their disdain for more overt examples of harassment cited, some of the more benign examples had me itching to defend men and label these women as over-sensitive misanthropes. Some of these women stated how they adjusted their line of site so that men passing by would not say “hello” to them, how they altered their routes so that men would not open doors for them, and so forth. These rejections of human interaction struck me as highly anti-social as I personally expect others to hold a door for me if I am immediately behind them and I see nothing wrong with a simple “good morning” if strangers make eye contact. Thus, I was in danger of becoming “that guy” to tell these women that their victim-centered perspectives were the real problem.
Some distance from these conversations helped me to realize how misguided I would have been to fire back at these women. Their stated reason for avoiding the aforementioned interactions with men was primarily that they believed these types of encounters often lead to non-mutual expectations of additional interaction. And many of these women had been called all manner of names after spurning attention that they never requested. I cannot relate to this as I do not recall experiencing anything more than mild annoyance on account of the unwanted advances of another. I have certainly never walked away from a stranger’s advances feeling fearful or belittled. Even if I did, it would not have the same contextual gravity as a man demanding that a woman speak to him. All of this puts me in poor position to judge a group of women having a conversation about sexual harassment. It’s also rather hypocritical to criticize these women if I’m not generating similar contempt for the entitled actions of men that initiate the whole cycle of distrust to which these women spoke.
Learning through intersectional perspectives is tricky business. My experiences as an African-American afford me some perspective into the experiences of other marginalized groups but it becomes a liability if I start believing that I’m immune from being the guy on the comment boards grinding productivity to a halt. I observed some women expressing their feelings in a public forum and used it as an opportunity to judge rather than to learn. To these women, I apologize. I get it now… I mean I don’t get it, but I’m trying.
Gordon Braxton blogs about manhood and gendered violence on his blog, alliedthought.com. He can be followed on Twitter via @GordonBraxton.