First, I have to say that I understand why the #NotAllMen backlash is happening. It’s a frightening thing to feel that you may be unwillingly drafted into a bitter generalization. The immediate response is to say, “not me, right?” But, friends, that doesn’t mean it is the right response. Let me illustrate with a story. The college campus I work at has a majority of Hispanic students, and the Writing Center where I work is often a home-away-from-home for students that are looking for a quieter environment to study. This is a good thing, as we work hard to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere for our students. Sometimes that safe and comfortable atmosphere lends itself to somewhat uncomfortable conversations. For instance, once I was sitting at the front desk when a handful of Latina girls started talking about their frustration with a particular instructor. Soon that conversation ballooned into their frustration with the attitudes they encountered as Latina students in a world that seemed stacked against them, where men and white women seemed to hold all of the power and they were minorities on many levels. It wasn’t long before they were talking about how white women don’t seem to understand how much luckier they are than women of other races and cultures. And I was itching, absolutely itching, to join in the conversation and talk about how many odds I had to face and to more or less ask, “not me, right?”
Thankfully something told me to hold my peace.
The conversation wasn’t about me and shouldn’t have been about me. I learned something. Despite all the hardships I faced, the fact that I’m attractive and white has definitely helped me to edge out other women who are just as deserving as I am, but just happen to have darker skin and rougher features. My whiteness has benefited me, but I’ve been allowed to ignore that fact and focus on the areas that are still a struggle: that I’m a woman, that I’m a returning student, that I’m a mother. Because I do face prejudice I can take it for granted that I also have a great deal of privilege.
Let me repeat that: I have a great deal of privilege. I have the benefit of pale skin and a middle class upbringing that allows me to sidestep institutionalized prejudice.
So, men, I’m going to try to say this all as kindly as I can: You have the privilege, you have the power. Like me, you don’t have to think about your privilege because from your perspective it’s just how life works, and you can drum up a million examples of struggles as evidence that your privilege isn’t complete. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, you have privilege. And the only way you will learn to appreciate that privilege is by listening to the other voices in the room without exerting your ability to co-opt the conversation. I get that you wonder, “are they talking about me?” I get that you see the anger unfolding and you don’t want to be subjected to it. I get that you may even be angry that you feel like you are having to shoulder some of that bitterness unwilling and undeserved. The truth is that you will now know whether or not women are talking about their experiences with men like you until you take the time to actually listen.
Now, my lady friends:
Don’t shut up. Please don’t shut up. The worst part of the institutionalized misogyny of our culture is the way in which it robs us of our voices because we are trained to expect every outcry to be met with criticism and scolding. Even when we’re assaulted, even when we’re raped, even when we have blood and bruises to demonstrate the wrongs against us we still have to prove that we are victims.
We learn, pretty quickly, that things heal better if we nurse them in silence. But, that silence leaves us at risk for greater pain. So do not, ever, shut up.
When I was seventeen I went to college for the first time. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. Stress and poor grades and frustration led me to drop out a semester in. Or, at least, that’s the story I tell. But really, I may have done a lot better if a few weeks into my stay there I hadn’t been assaulted by someone I thought was my friend. Now, I was told that it was my fault for being alone in a room with him. I was told that it was my fault for dressing provocatively. (In jeans and a tank top?) I was told that it was my fault for “leading him on” or not “reading the signals.” And for a long time, I did believe that it was my fault.
It wasn’t until recently that I put any amount of thought into how twisted it was that this guy, who stuck his hands down my pants uninvited, was treated like a victim of MY sexuality and naivete and everyone, even my girlfriends, played along.
Thank God my brothers had taught me how to throw a punch. But, even so, I was lucky.
In the movies, girls sit around sipping cocktails and talking about when they lost their virginity.
In my own experience, we show each other our scars and speak in hushed voices. We each share our stories of assault. Rare, very rare, are the girls that have no such story. We imagine such girls like birds of extravagant plumage, floating down from heaven, like unicorns or mermaids, creatures of fantasy. We imagine unstained girls as such because we do not known these women.
Yes, all women I know have a story of the time that they were handled roughly by men. Maybe a husband, a lover, a father, a brother. Maybe a stranger on a bus. But we all have our scars, and many more of us than are willing to admit have physical scars we invent fictions for, so that when someone says “what’s that mark on your chin?” we can laugh it off and tell the charming story of our own clumsiness.
Because the real story of having our head shoved down against the bedpost is just way too humiliating, right?
Because it’s somehow our fault?
This, right here, is the institutionalized misogyny. We, as women, are taught to bear the burden of our victim-hood as if it is our responsibility that we are victims. And men are trained that it is okay to blame us, because their privilege is more important than our rights. Now, not all men see women as extensions of their will or objects to be used. I understand that. But the patterns of behavior that trap women in perpetual silence are propagated by society and are misogynist. Sometimes, men participate in the cycle completely unaware. Often, women do the same.
And what could change that?
Women, don’t shut up. Men? Listen.