“Real power is never given, it is always taken!”
Thus spoke US Congressional Candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during an event in support of her fellow maverick, NY State Senatorial candidate Julia Salazar, at an event in North Brooklyn’s Our Wicked Lady. During her introduction of Salazar, Ocasio-Cortez when on to cite several female legislators who unseated long-term incumbents despite being inexperienced and outspent.
To be sure, that maxim about power probably pre-dates human society itself. Our primate ancestors must at least have sensed, if not articulated it.
But what does that mean when so many on the side of social justice are calling for white, cis-gendered people of privilege to step aside, to lay supine in order for the neglected masses to achieve genuine authority or accomplishment in their fields?
Author and activist Mia McKenzie, writing in Black Girl Dangerous, proposes that white people demonstrate solidarity with marginalized masses by shutting up. She expands the notion of STFU as the role for privileged people by critiquing Emma Watson’s UN “HeForShe” campaign insisting: “it’s necessary for her to step aside and make room for women of color to be heard if gender inequality is ever to be eradicated? Because any real “game-changing” feminist needs to.”
That’s right. Emma Watson and other prominent white feminists can contribute more by doing less.
Can you really be said to have won at something when your competitors merely throw the game?
A great deal of ink has been spilled — or bytes cast into entropy — over the possibility of persons of privilege (PoPs) being authentic allies to those struggling for their share of our society’s ever-dwindling rewards, be it in the form of material wealth, authority, or simple acceptance. Many insist that even a demonstrated willingness from PoPs to listen to marginalized people amounts to putting the onus on the victim to make herself understood. And how unfair is that?
Is it unfair? Or just the way things are?
What does a true “ally” really look like?
For me it goes like this: A few months (& secretaries of state) ago I was at the UN Security Council press area just outside the Council chambers that permits representatives to hold post-session conferences. The roped off zone was filled with video, still shooters and reporters because the Council was debating possible sanctions against North Korea, and, among other high-level officials, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on hand.
As the session ended Tillerson was among the first to take his place at the podium, the mob of press shifting and coalescing in front of him. Vidiots, relegated to spots in the raised back, had moved forward, blocking the still shooter, while print reporters, having heard somewhere that sound waves rise like heat, held their iPhones well aloft to catch every word the Secretary of State had to say.
I edged my 6’2” frame through the press of press, getting high angle shots until I stumbled into a hole dead center in front of the podium. I got my shots of the Secretary, then looked behind me. A friend and colleague who stands maybe 5’3” on a good day had climbed some nearby steps to try to shoot over the mess of press. I gestured to her — did she want to join me where there was room in the eye of media hurricane?
Male privilege is something that exists. It’s real. I get it. It manifests in ways both trivial and potentially life-changing: walking down the street without being cat-called, to go a movie by oneself or have a drink at a bar; signing as primary on our mortgage despite my wife’s income and work-place consistency driving the terms of the loan.
I acknowledge male privilege wholeheartedly.
What I won’t do is apologize for it. Or feel guilty.
If you’re a feminist I’d like for you to think of me as an ally, as someone who’s on your side, but I won’t beg. What good would it do, after all? HuffPo’s own Emily McCombs wrote recently: “Even the men whom I love and trust seem tied up in knots about this gender business ― one gets the impression they are constantly fighting against their instincts, carefully choosing their words while I carefully arrange my face to receive them so that we can all feel good about remaining friends. To be intimate with these men is to always be waiting, a little, for the microaggression that may or may not come.”
So … she doesn’t trust them. Not really. Because at any moment we men might give into our instincts … and, let’s face it, aren’t we all Harvey Weinsteins or Bill Cosbys under the skin?
Isn’t that what underlies this critique of “toxic masculinity”?
I don’t know … maybe if I had a daughter I could indulge the notion that male instincts are inherently bad — that for the moment they should be suppressed until such time when they can be eradicated altogether. Like McCombs, I have a son, so mass deprogramming men from our maleness, however attractive in its Trumpian simplicity, is simply not an option for me.
Continues McCombs: “I can imagine a future in which my own spawn makes some woman feel as voiceless as the boys in my high school once did”.
“Spawn…” how charming. Lucky kid.
Since she brought it up, let’s look more closely at high school: studies show that girls grow quieter as they reach high school age, while boys become more verbally assertive, more likely to dominate in classrooms.
Boys can help reverse this tendency, carrying McKenzie’s logic further, by shutting the hell up, by not participating, creating a vacuum, which we all know — or would know if we’d only asked more questions in physics class — nature abhors.
Some feminists like Mary Daly approach the problem by teaching female-only classes. Daly takes on male students, but separately, outside of her primary class. Whether Daly believes that the need for separation is permanent or temporary I don’t know. Doesn’t it make sense that girls who adapt assertively to their classroom environment are more likely to carry over that assertiveness than girls in classes where the boys have been browbeaten into silence — because what else are we talking about when we suggest making boys responsible for girls’ alleged reticence?
While I believe in he co-educational process, perhaps one year or one semester of same-sex education in grades seven or eight would help to prepare girls to participate fully.
Patriarchy impacts girls in other, more insidious ways. Recall that near ubiquitous meme from a year or so back, insisting: “Don’t shame her for wearing shorts. Teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”
Both assertions are spot on. But, wait a moment here: I attended the Los Angeles Unified between 1969 and 1972, when the district’s hitherto strict dress code collapsed like the USSR, after which pretty much everything short of students in their birthday suits went.
And in the immortal words of Karen Finley, nothing happened.
I can guarantee that no boy of any sexual orientation complained to parents, administrators or teachers that he couldn’t finish his homework or master algebra because his female classmates wore shorts or a tank top.
Rather parents, teachers and administrators find themselves ill at ease with their daughters’ attire. Not wanting to appear un-cool or neo-Victorian, they pretend to be acting on behalf of boy students who need their succor the way Seattle needs more rain.
So, yeah, teach boys that girls aren’t sex objects. But it won’t stop the old folks demanding modest attire. Tell boys to stfu in class. It won’t raise girls’ hands.
Kids learn by example. My father, a veteran of the Pacific Theater, thought feminism was some kind of women’s plumbing disorder, best kept between her and her Ob/Gyn. Because the woman he married, my mother, was a smart and capable and gifted with neither good health nor longevity, he cooked dinner, washed dishes, scrubbed floors, cleaned windows, dusted, vacuumed … the entire drill. He wasn’t trying to be anybody’s ally. It just needed doing.
Same for me. In nearly forty years of marriage I do them because they need doing. I don’t virtue signal and I didn’t raise my son to, either. If I had had a daughter instead, I hope I would be able to provide an example of the correct balance between speaking out and listening politely. But that might be something she learns best from mother and female peers.
Insofar as the wider culture is concerned, media already depicts males as irreparably thick while women and girls are smart, focused and masters of krav maga. If media were all it took to revive Ophelia, she’d be winning Olympic gold in the decathlon by now.
The correct approach is to use whatever privilege you might have — bearing in mind it’s never as much as everyone else thinks — and then give the other guy, whomever he or she happens to be, a hand whenever the need arises. But, casting that privilege aside? Who does that help?
Moving, to the workplace: women, we’re told, in spite of some impressive gains, still only comprise about 25% of working photojournalists are women. That’s a problem. Right?
Depends. Photojournalism is a great field, equal parts exciting and challenging, offering the ability to change the world by showing people what’s really going on. It’s also shrinking faster than Alice in Wonderland, with newspapers, magazines and web sites jettisoning entire photo departments, leaving a pool of independent contractors to scramble after pieces of an ever-shrinking pie.
If you’re like me and you have no other choice because you aren’t good at very much else, then you stay in the game, perversely grateful that you don’t have too many years left.
But would I advise young people to follow me into the field? No. Perhaps the next generation will invent a new way to make pictures sell, but right now one might as well undergo an apprenticeship tuning pipe organs as begin a career in still photography. So if you’re a transgendered Nigerian lugging her first Nikon D5 and freshly minted NYPD credential, I’m happy to make room for you on the press scaffold, but please don’t interpret my negativity about the future of photojournalism as a reflection of your skin color or sexual orientation.
When our son was a baby my wife and I traded off being his primary caregiver for his first four years. I can’t count the number of times people, nearly always women, paused to compliment me (typically after a few, friendly-seeming questions to ascertain that he was really mine and not a child I’d stolen from some momentarily untended bassinet) about how refreshing it was to see a man deeply involved with his child.
Didn’t this imply some deficit in the Y chromosome that rendered men largely incapable of basic childcare skills?
One could chose to see it that way. On the other hand, my circumstances led me to encounter other fathers as primary caregivers, while theirs most likely did not. My perspective was different.
This was, of course, a time when the social media and terms such as “microaggressions” were part of the future and not the present. Generally speaking people’s behavior conforms to society’s expectations. If men aren’t expected to be good, involved parents, then it’s likely they won’t be.
More importantly, part of growing up involves learning to accept things in the spirit which they’re offered, whether it’s a gaudy, hand-knitted holiday sweater with mismatched sleeves, or a compliment about one’s commitment to child-rearing.
Imagine if Ocasio-Cortez, instead of taking on and defeating one of the House’s most powerful, entrenched Democrats by way of pluck, fortitude and exceptionally good timing, had instead been gifted the seat by an “ally” who suddenly felt the need to make way for a female Latina, one of a demographic that is grossly underrepresented in Congress already?
Under those circumstances, would it be possible to imagine her victory having the impact it’s had across the entire US political spectrum?
“That’s borrowed power,” Willow Rosenberg explained to Rupert Giles during their confrontation in the season 6 finale of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. “No way it’s going to be strong enough.”
The hand that rocks the cradle, or rises in the air to ask a question, or signs off the multi-billion dollar merger might go through many iterations in the next few decades, but only when the rest of it passes through the many hurdles society sets before it. An often lonely, but necessary process.