My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Learning to look past my privilege and listen

I keep meaning to write a more general post about my experience in professional year, but other things always seem to be happening. Such a post will happen eventually. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll look back at this blog three years from now and wonder what I thought about learning how to teach—except that, hopefully, the threads of what my nascent personal philosophy of pedagogy will be visible in some of these posts. Now that I am fast approaching that moment when I can call myself “teacher”, I am always thinking about how I am going to teach. And everything I read or watch or see relates to that, in some way.

Take Slutwalk, for instance. We talked about this in my Media, Education, and Gender class last week. We discussed it in relation to violence against women and how to prevent sexual assault, as well as the implications of “reclaiming” a word like slut. Indeed, we asked some very interesting questions: who can reclaim the word, and why would that group want to do so? The N-word was brought up as a comparison. So imagine my surprise when, this weekend, Slutwalk and the N-word intersected again in an extremely dramatic way, as one woman at the New York Slutwalk held a sign proclaiming “Woman is the N-Word of the world” (the sign itself is uncensored).

This prompted a flurry of conversation on Slutwalk NYC’s Facebook page. The conversation has been preserved for comment by Latoya Peterson on Racialicious and has sparked some great discussion about feminism and intersectionality. The Facebook conversation is rather long, but it’s quite interesting, and it’s ultimately some of the comments contained therein that motivated me to write this post.

For the past few years I have more tenuously been exploring a public identity that includes the label “feminist”. I would like to claim that, thanks to some good parenting, access to great books, and a cadre of highly intelligent female friends, I have always had an open mind when it comes to issues of gender and gender relations. However, until recently I haven’t really had the language to discuss those ideas in any way that I would choose to share with the wider world. I took some courses, like Philosophy and Gender, that had feminist themes. I even brought feminism into my Aboriginal Education course by reviewing Feminism FOR REAL as my final project; the book is a collection of insightful essays, including one by Peterson and several that address feminism from the perspective of indigenous peoples. I have read a few other feminist books since then (perhaps most notably The Beauty Myth), but I keep coming back to Feminism FOR REAL because of that focus on intersectionality. It doesn’t hesitate to point out that feminism as a movement or an academic discipline is just as vulnerable to the influences of colonialism, racism, classism, etc., that pervade our social institutions. And that really got me thinking about my position in these institutions, in society, and my personal position in relation to feminism as a movement rather than a very abstract and vaguely-defined term ascribed to an ideology.

Part of the theses of Feminism FOR REAL and the above Racialicious blog post is that there is an unfortunate trend in certain circles of feminist discourse where white feminists appropriate those points of view “for the cause”. In the Facebook thread, Nicole Kubon expresses it eloquently like so:

The fact is that often times white privilege is invisible to those who are white and it is not a one-time self-investigation where you read Peggy McIntosh and then abandon all of your unearned privilege. It is an ongoing process and it is important that we as activists be able to accept responsibility when we realize in retrospect that our lens is limited. We need to teach one another and be willing to learn from one another.

A large part of my journey, if you will, has been to understand what kinds of biases and privileges I bring to the discussion as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual male who identifies as a man. As I have learned in my autodidactic endeavour, this means I have lots of privilege—that is to say, these attributes of mine result in advantages in society that people who differ from me in those areas might not have. I find myself coming back again and again to this concept of privilege; every time I think I’m actually looking at another issue related to feminism, suddenly it becomes about privilege again. It’s a tricky thing, especially because feminism is a movement that is fundamentally about equality. And so the common resistance that people put up to notions of privilege is that, if feminism is about equality, then everyone should have equal abilities to contribute and express their point of view. You might not be surprised to learn that this argument is often advanced by straight white men, usually after they have been accused, directly or indirectly, of having white privilege and not understanding what that means when they open their mouths to speak.

As Kubon says above, there is no quick and easy way to divest oneself of all privilege—and it’s easy to forget this. I’m not going to pretend I have “solved” my privilege or somehow managed to cast aside, but I would like to think that I have reached the point in my personal growth where I understand the role my privilege plays in mediating my relationship with the feminist movement: I can still be a man and be a feminist, but because I am a man, my role in feminist movements is one of an ally. That owes to the simple fact that, for all the reasons I mentioned above, I do not know what it means to be systematically oppressed and marginalized.

I don’t. I happen to belong to a group that has been institutionally favoured by the system. I am privileged. And I think that realization, and acting in accordance with that realization, is key. I can talk about a lot of things related to gender and feminism, but I have to be careful lest I begin over-generalizing or, worse, putting words in the mouths of those who are oppressed and marginalized:

What kills me is that white folks still have NOT moved one inch past telling women of color how to feel or think about anything and everything. Even worse, we are still explaining that we are both BLACK and WOMEN, all day, everyday….There is something just plain sad about feminism and feminist movements that can’t get this basic concept. Regardless of the “intent” or what white folks “think” the sign was supposed to mean, black women in significant numbers are offended, deeply. To make light of those feelings, to keep trying to avoid responsibility for the screw-up, makes the ability to have any kind of positive dialogue about what went wrong impossible.

That’s from Tracey Salisbury in the comment thread quoted by Racialicious. She has really cut straight to the heart of the issue raised by Slutwalk NYC and the N-word sign: a white woman holds the sign, and there is a furor around it. And the people who come to her defence say, “You don’t understand the intent behind the sign!” As if good intentions preclude any possibility that someone might take offence. As if intent obviates the need to apologize. Equality means we don’t get to tell anyone else how to think or whether they should find something offensive. There will be differences of opinion, and sometimes you will have to step up, admit you made a mistake, and learn from the mistake.

This all relates back to what Kubon says above about the need to be willing to listen, to teach one another, to learn from each other. I think that’s good advice in general, but it’s really important I heed it both as a teacher and as a feminist who is a man. In both cases, I am a person in a position of power/privilege/authority of some kind. And so my role in Kubon’s exhortation to teach and to learn is essentially captured by another recovering white male, John Scalzi: “shut up and listen”.

It is difficult to listen to someone when you are talking over them.

That is one reason I have been reluctant to write often or speak too loudly about my evolving views on feminism. They matter to me, and I’m sure others find them interesting, but I also know that the Web and blogging in general is still a very male-dominated space, so I’m not really helping in that respect. My Media, Education, and Gender professor made a similar request at the beginning of our course—specifically, that the people who tend to speak up in discussion consciously try to avoid dominating the conversation and allow other, less outspoken people the chance to contribute. It’s all about attempting to create an environment that is safe, open, and welcoming, an attitude I see as very important in schools and online. I can’t be a good teacher if I spend all my time talking to (or at) my students and never listen to them.

“Shut up and listen” doesn’t mean “don’t talk”, of course. If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this! But it means that when I do talk, it should be because I have something meaningful to say, and not because I merely want to show off how clever I am. I have a little more leeway in this respect, in the sense that this blog is somewhat off the beaten path, and I often do post something only because I want to register my opinion for my future self to recall when he reads these posts years from now. Not posting here is probably not going to influence more women to blog! Nevertheless, when I do post here, I hope the content I post contributes to the overall discussions in a way that is positive … and if it does not, that some kind reader will stop and take the time to point that out. I do have good intentions; however, as the NYC Slutwalk shows us, intent is necessary but not sufficient.