‘I’m one of the good guys!’
When it comes to institutional sexism and male privilege, impact–not intent–is the point
by M. Garlinda Burton
I was at a recent workshop on gender justice in the church, where I met a nice guy. I know he was a nice guy because he kept me in stitches with witty side comments. Those comments, I knew from experience, were a side-effect of the self-consciousness he admitted feeling in a room where most of the presenters and attenders were women.
Between jokes, my new pal told me repeatedly how nice he was and how he wasn’t sexist like other men he knew. He explained that he had been reared the only son in a houseful of sisters, he had strong and loving parents who modeled partnership in their marriage. He respected women, and his lifelong experience as a man of faith reinforced that sense of respect.
Although he seemed to protest a little too much, I found him indeed to be a good man. (In fact, if he calls, I’d love to go out with him!)
Unfortunately, his view of sexism and its impact was skewed. As with most of us who sit in a position of privilege—whether because of race, class, income, education, language, or gender—he is focused too much on his reactive “goodness,” while ignoring the privileges and rights he enjoys (even unwittingly and unconsciously) just because he’s a guy.
More than 30 years ago, activist and educator Peggy McIntosh wrote an unprecedented article on the intersection between White racism and White privilege. In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh explained that she has been taught to view racism as “something which puts others at a disadvantage,” but that she had also “been carefully taught” to ignore not the advantages she enjoys as a White woman.
She describes White privilege as “an invisible knapsack of unearned assets…special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
She further lists some examples of “White privilege,” using “I” statements and drawing on her experiences as a White, formally educated, middle-class, U.S. woman. Two favorites from McIntosh.
• “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my race.” (Amen, Peggy! I can’t tell you how many times people ask me how “Blacks feel” about a particular topic; I usually reply, “I don’t know, since the Black People of America” meetings are no longer held at my house.”)
• “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.”
Racism, McIntosh asserts, is a systemic construct so insidious that it negatively impacts persons of color and privileges Whites, even without their active participation or awareness. Part of the insidiousness is that people of color are conditioned to see themselves as “other” and White people are conditioned to ignore the privileges that come with even unintentional racism.
In a similar vein, institutional sexism is not as simple as something that “bad” guys “do to” women. Instead, it often manifests itself as a massive, comprehensive invisible box of privileges and free passes afforded to men because of their maleness.
So, I’m issuing an invitation to my new friend, the “good guy”: if you’re really serious about joining me in battling sexism, you need to be aware of some of the ways in which male privilege manifests itself, particularly in the church.
Here are 15 descriptions from other “good guy” pals of mine, with their examples of the male privilege they enjoy:
1. When I get married, no one automatically assumes that I have to—or should—change my last name and take my wife’s surname.
2. I can run for political office and speak passionately on issues without fear of being pegged as “overly emotional.”
3. When people enter my place of business and see me with a woman colleague they assume that I’m the pastor, the doctor, the dentist, the supervisor or the boss (even if she’s wearing a suit and I’m in jeans).
4. I can sit at a bar or in a park alone and be pretty sure that I will not attract unwanted advances or comments from a person of the opposite sex.
5. Work colleagues never attempt to hug me or touch me or call me “honey” when I’m trying to discuss an area of conflict with them.
6. I’m allowed to lose my temper or reactive negatively at work or church without being dismissed as “being on the rag” or having someone assume it is my “time of the month.”
7. As a candidate for ordination as a pastor or for promotion on my job, no one asks me how I’ll juggle my work and my family, or suggests that I am abandoning my children as I am advancing my career.
8. My physical appearance (including my weight, hairstyle, general attractiveness and style of dress) is a non-issue most of the time, particularly when colleagues are evaluating my public/professional persona.
9. I am not considered an “old maid” or an object of pity because I’m over 35 and unmarried.
10. When my spouse and I walk into an auto showroom to buy a car, I can be pretty sure the salesperson will approach and “pitch to” me first.
11. Strangers don’t ask to rub my belly because I’m expecting a new baby.
12. Police officers and lawyers handling my legal complaint about an assault don’t ask me “what was I wearing?” that may have provoked my attacker.
13. I’m sure I am created in the image of God, because all the hymns and references refer to God as male.
14. My teachers and coaches encourage me that playing, running or jumping “like a boy” is always a good thing.
15. In most TV shows and movies I see, most of the folks doing the rescuing, the saving, the fighting and the moral authority are people of my gender.
In doing justice work–whether around race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, ability of status—it is important to remember that being a “good person” isn’t enough. The flip side of systemic discrimination, bias, prejudice and marginalization is that some groups enjoy privileges, free passes and acceptance that “others” do not. To be truly engaged as a partner in challenging sexism, men must understand not only how women are affected, but what privileges men enjoy (even unwittingly) at women’s expense.