Recently, I volunteered at Men Can Stop Rape’s Healthy Masculinity Summit through my internship at an organization that focuses on dating violence. It was awesome.
There were roughly 200 people there and it was easily the most truly diverse group of people I have ever been in. In keeping with the conference theme, there were actually men in attendance (which was the FIRST question that about half of the people I told about this conference asked me).
And despite the fact that I was only a volunteer, there were a number of ways that all of us volunteers were able to participate, which made it all the more exciting.
However, despite the fact that I have never felt so at home with such a large number of (mostly) like-minded people, my real realization came less than two days after the conference when I was hanging out in a friend’s apartment with a small group of people.
The original purpose of the evening was to celebrate a friend’s birthday but mostly we ended up chatting and playing card games. Now, I still don’t know how this leap in conversation was made, but at one point, a female friend of mine lost it a little bit and started calling out a male friend of ours about his white male privilege and how unaware of it he was.
By this point in the evening, she and I are the only women left in a room full of our male friends. Now, I knew immediately what she was talking about but she (like most people when they are angry and slightly drunk) was not as coherent as she could have been and most of the people she was addressing had consumed even more alcohol than she had. They immediately went on the defensive, commenting on how hurtful it was to be called sexist. Now firstly, neither my friend nor myself used the word sexist for a couple reasons 1) it would just set them off and no one would listen anymore…which ended up happening anyway and 2) sexist really wasn’t the best word for most of the issues we were talking about. They have been known to make actually sexist comments from time to time but this conversation was mostly about awareness and privilege. And secondly, instead of listening to what the reasoning was, there was an immediate shutting down that precluded any attempt to explain what we were actually trying to tell them.
I had been at this healthy masculinity conference not 48 hours prior to this and, I have to admit, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the mental whiplash I was experiencing. These are smart people who I respect and care about greatly. But, here they were, telling me that they couldn’t possibly be sexist because they are good people with their hearts in the right place. As though that negated everything else. As though being a good person wasn’t an ongoing process and the very reason my female friend had brought this whole thing up in the first place.
I am a feminist. That is a huge part of my identity as a person, it is how I view the world. Almost everyone who has any sort of extended interaction with me knows this. I don’t try and hide it, yet somehow this conversation felt like a punch in the gut. I had been letting comments slide and not saying everything that I wanted to, and why? To make sure my friends still liked me? So that I wouldn’t be mocked? I don’t really know.
But I do know a few things after this encounter that I didn’t consciously know before.
I know that this abrupt conversation late at night didn’t work, that the people we were talking to weren’t listening and that it ended up being a preaching to the choir moment.
I know that I felt the need to appease everyone in the room and then got angry that I was the only person expected to be rational and logical and was expected to appease everyone. I was expected, both by the other people in the room and by myself, to not be confrontational and to apologize for assisting in the bruising of their egos. And I know that I’m not ok with that.
I know that I need to do better about living out my ideals and morals. And I think that the best way to do that for my group is to be more consistent and point things out as they happen instead of boiling over at a later date. And I know I will have help from some of my other friends with this.
I know that two things stuck out in my mind from the conference on masculinity: 1) Not cosigning bullshit (which is what I was doing with my silence) and 2) There is a difference between being safe and being comfortable. Maybe we all need to be uncomfortable a little more often.
And I also know that, while this was prompted by a conversation about gender privilege, I need to remind myself about my race, class, and sexuality privilege more often. I know that this is about personal growth as well as trying to help my friends grow.
And I know that all of this is hard. But that is part of what makes it important.
Any suggestions about how other people have addressed these issues would be wonderful. I think it could lead to a really interesting conversation and be very helpful in our future dealings of these sorts.