By: Jaina Kelly
What a time to be alive.
With the rising of both revolutionary and regressive ideas comes inevitable social tension. At the same time that social issues are exploding through record-breaking protests, a man who has admitted to sexually assaulting women and perpetuated Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric is in the Oval Office. Great.
In the midst of this chaos, at least folks are coveting the idea of being woke, aka, being self-aware and critical of social injustice. This term, made popular by singer Erykah Badu, has exploded into the vocabulary of a justice-seeking generation hungry for tangible changes to the system. Our culture’s harmful social structures are being openly targeted in favour of an enlightened future. Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the Women’s March of over a million people worldwide…except, here’s the thing: with every social movement comes a level of resistance. Not everyone is approaching society from an awakening vision of equality; rather, many people enjoy the benefits of our system and see no reason to admit there are serious cracks in its foundation.
Those who refuse to admit the cracks are normally functioning under societal privilege, which allows them the space to live in society without noticeable discrimination. A huge concept when critically analyzing racial hierarchies is white privilege. Those who are white, or even white-passing, generally reap the benefits of a system that has prioritized whiteness as superior, cleaner, better, and smarter. You don’t need a history degree to understand the roots of white privilege…half an hour on the internet and you can see the way that “whiteness” has pervaded all corners of the world, in an attempt to colonize, control, or kill those who differ.
However, because privilege is so unconsciously layered into our lives (and so layered into our history) we aren’t able to notice we have it without further probing. So when confronted with evidence that challenges our comfortable perspectives, a lot of people instead get defensive. Maybe it’s easier to disagree with reality, so that we don’t have to admit the world is imperfect, and we were born in a position of favourability (even though we don’t feel like it).
People who won’t acknowledge the power imbalances in society usually have the same responses to social issues. When the topic of Ferguson brutality comes up, they choose to side with the police, no questions asked. When the topic of racial oppression comes up, they call on Black folk to just “get over” slavery already. When the topic of feminism arises, they squirm delightedly at the chance to play Devil’s Advocate, arguing that men have problems too, and that women have nothing left to fight for in this day and age.
These arguments prevent essential avenues of conversation that seem trivial but ultimately either support or deconstruct oppressive systems. Take also, for example, those who argue against feminism, or who subvert the concerns of women by re-directing them with statements like “Not All Men”.
When responding to women’s valid concerns about misogyny and harassment, saying “Not All Men” diverts the attention from the woman in need of healing, to the man in need of an ego-boost. This happens often, and can also be seen in the normalizing of rape, by stating “Men get assaulted too.” The thing is, nobody is denying that men are affected negatively by the patriarchy! Men do get assaulted, and it is no joke. Except, bringing up trauma for the sake of de-railing someone else’s concerns helps nobody.
These ways of speaking spit out micro-aggressions that invalidate women further by silencing them. One of the easiest ways to get an issue into the forefront of minds is to simply discuss it. So naturally, my favourite thing is to congregate among local friends over coffee and have dialogue about what is going on (after all, community is essential in the fight against a fearful world). Yet a disturbing trend has surfaced when privilege is factored into the conversation. We can talk about anything from pooping to music to the weird old lady around town, but every time the topic shifts to patriarchal or other oppressive systems, people get defensive. By people, yes, I mean…*whispers so no one gets offended*…men.
It seems a little strange that a topic of privilege gets people from 0-100 so quickly, but everyone is invested in protecting their sense of self. Perhaps shielding our eyes from the realities of oppression is a way to preserve the self from feeling responsibility. When women bring up feminism or any similar topics, it’s routine for a tangible level of discomfort to arise. It seems to come from three main roots: firstly, feeling unfairly and personally attacked at the mention of ‘white men’ as a general societal position. This draws out the impulse to wail: “Not all men!” Or, in the case of racism, “Not all white people!”
I don’t think many men would feel genuinely excited about realizing they might be complicit in a system of oppression. It’s undoubtedly difficult to analyze our culture and ourselves when we’ve been hailed by a specific ideology our entire lives. It requires perspective and openness to un-learning harmful responses to the violence women face daily – violence that comes in the form of cat calling, assault, domestic violence, and victim blaming.
The point is we cannot afford to keep shutting down dialogue in the name of self-preservation. Racism and sexism continue to pervade our culture. Without awareness and exchange, we foster the type of environment that will permit a Canadian Trump to take power. Dialogue needs to happen. Refusing to listen to those who experience discrimination may protect our ego, but it does not protect the ones we love from being subjected to these systems.
Hard truths need to be addressed, and not all men, gets us nowhere fast. Acknowledging the experiences women face costs nothing except the price of listening. If we cannot keep our mouths shut and open our ears to the experiences of others, we risk a steep consequence of more violence. Just as not all men abuse and objectify women, not all feminists are on the lookout to tear men down or inflict guilt upon people by discussing privilege. In fact, pretty much none of us are. In order for everyone to benefit from these discussions, we need to step aside from our longstanding reactions of defense, and move toward accountability for our impact on this world.