You can practice gender awareness all you like, and it will still be incredibly easy to slip back into familiar patterns. But quietly washing your hands of it is not enough, and a dramatic renunciation can backfire.
A few weeks ago, I took part in a discussion after a film screening at the SOAS Israel Society in London. The film concerned the Wannsee Conference, where the “final solution” was planned, and the screening was organised by a member of the society, a barrister doing his PhD at the LSE. Of those present, three were men (myself included), and six were women, including one of the principal organisers of the society, a theater student who, as we remembered much too late, had said before the discussion she’ll want to talk about Holocaust education in Israel; and another principal organiser, a history student, who, among other things, has been exploring issues of complicity and real-time denial by combatants conducting ethnic cleansing in the War of 1948.
The credits rolled, and the barrister made some introductory remarks explaining the political and legal history after the events of the film. He then opened the floor to the rest of the group. Nobody spoke, so I pitched in. The third man, a history PhD student in his forties, picked up, and the moderator rejoined him.
Fifteen minutes into the discussion, it hit me that only we men in the room were talking.
Once I realised I was part of the problem, I contended myself with withdrawing from conversation. I was hoping one of the women present would step into my space, but in reality, all I did was let the two other men seamlessly fill up that space with their own conversation. And while women did join the discussion towards the end, they still spoke considerably more briefly (even if more to the point) than the men. The fact the men were in their thirties to forties, mid-career (myself) or PhDs and most of the women were postgrad or undergrad students under 25, didn’t help either. Whenever the discussion died down and no one would say anything, I would permit myself to pitch in with a comment, assuming that someone has to say something and no one was saying anything, so I might as well. I was usually rejoined by one of the men, followed by the other, and the dynamic cheerfully resumed itself.
After the discussion ended, one of the organisers said there should be a sign or a gesture established in the group that would mean “men, stop talking.” I agreed emphatically and was immediately confronted with the fact I didn’t actually do anything to stop what was going on.
So why didn’t I? After all, I realized the dynamic as it was happening, and there were a few things I could’ve done. I could have stopped the discussion and called out the dynamic that was taking place; I could have taken over briefly as moderator by directly asking one of the women present to contribute insights based on the knowledge that I already knew she had. I’m normally reasonably (though by no means exhaustively) aware of gender dynamics in groups I’m in, and have little reservations about calling them out – although, crucially, one of the women present usually does it before I have to.
This was the first element that allowed me to put my guard down: two of the women present were friends and feminist activists who normally plunge into discussions, lead them, and call out gender dynamics when they see them. Having them there allowed me to eschew responsibility and to wait for them to take the lead (which I tried to prompt by, um, vigorous eye contact). So long as they weren’t saying anything (ran the unarticulated tranquilliser at the back of my mind) things weren’t that bad, surely.
What I didn’t realize as this was happening, though, was the second factor: the sheer power and impenetrability of that centrifuge of three men talking – three older and “more experienced” men – and how difficult the vortex can be to breach, no matter who else is in the room. I’m putting “more experienced” into quotation marks because it’s not necessarily about genuine or relevant experience: much of the man-talk in the room centred on expertise on international law and on film trivia. In fact, as far as political and societal analysis of the type many of us hoped to get out of the discussion was concerned, I myself often look up to some of the women present. But what was taking place a certain type-casting on which gender dynamics operate: the content or relevance of our demonstrated expertise was much less important than the fact we were Three Experienced Men Talking – you know, just like we talk in any number of other meetings, on male-only (or 90 percent male) panels at conferences, at dinners, at parties, and on TV. Merely falling silent does not make you less complicit in that, not least because it allows the two other men to take the space you meant to leave for others to step into, but didn’t say so explicitly.
And retrospectively, this was the third reason why I allowed myself to slip into the gender dynamic I normally manage to go against: while dear friends and fellow activists, these two men were older and more “experienced” than myself – PhD students both, one a barrister – and, in terms of their own personal style of conversation, could go on talking for some time while making a point. In other words, I felt as if I was being talked out of the discussion and had to compete to retain my place in it, thus contributing my own share to the male-domination dynamic of the talk. At the same time, a portion of self pity and anxiety allowed me (hilariously) to frame myself as part-victim of the same dynamic, thus relieving me of the responsibility to do something about it.
Moreover, the fact I was vacillating between falling completely silent and making the occasional intervention merely legitimised the dynamic. Trying to steer their conversation away from technical jargon by engaging with it – in a bid to buy my place within the conversation before turning it – only reinforced it; while the fact three people were talking rather than two made it seem less unnatural and made it more difficult for those excluded to intervene.
Finally, and this was the fourth element: all this allowed me to tune out the gender-dynamic awareness I normally try to maintain, and not to snap back into focus until the discussion was already over. I only realized most of the things listed above on the tube ride home; at the time, I was oblivious enough that when noticing the history student next to me seething silently, I passed her a sympathetic note asking if she was tired – implicitly shifting onto her the responsibility for not speaking out rather than onto the dynamic in which I myself was participating.
So what are the interim lessons learned? They go beyond specifically male privilege alone and can apply to any situation where, on the one hand, you, whatever your gender identity is, find yourself benefiting from a hegemonic dynamic taking place, even if it’s a hegemony you renounce and sincerely hope to deconstruct – and on the other hand, participants from the wrong end of the dynamic appearing to be unable to break through it, at this point in time.
Lesson one is that privilege is much like alcoholism: you can be dry for years or spend a lifetime unlearning it (which I have by no means done, only having begun to think seriously about gender in the last couple of years or so), and still find it incredibly easy to slip off the wagon. It’s not a surprising parallel, because both concern addiction to an immediate sense of empowerment. If anything, male privilege is more insidious because you don’t actually articulate it. You (hopefully) don’t negotiate with yourself like you do with alcohol: “Oh, I’ll partake in the pleasure of patriarchy in a small way, just this once, no one’s going to know.” Not thinking about it or being distracted momentarily is enough to slip into it, setting in action half-dormant processes that are always there to carry you much further than you anticipate.
A second lesson learned is that as a member of a hegemonic group you’re never “just a participant”; you can’t say that you’re not the chair of a given meeting, or that you can safely leave it in the hands of members of the non-hegemonic group to dismantle the dynamic that benefits you at their expense.
You need to engage with this dynamic proactively, but (and this is the third lesson learned) do so while being honest about the manner in which you do and the results you’re expecting or are likely to achieve. Sometimes (god knows) dramatic interventions are necessary. You can stop the discussion, call out the privilege and explicitly vacate the floor for those who haven’t spoken yet. But even on occasions that seem to leave you little other choice, this type of intervention risks silencing the silent even further. It essentializes everyone, explicitly or implicitly requesting them to speak as representatives of their group rather than bring in their own nuanced contribuition.
Other times, the setting you risk producing is even more patronising than the original privilege dynamic – more patronising because you take the argument meant to subvert the privilege, and turn it to your own benefit, casting yourself as the “nice” and even “contrite” member of the hegemony who graciously enables the members of the oppressed group present to have their say, touchingly at his own expense. To start with, you won’t really be helping the situation much or actually rejecting your own privilege since you construct the space you make for others to speak in as a space dependent on your power. On a lesser note, you’re likely to evoke both the enmity of the non-privileged (who don’t need to feel like they’re being done a favor) and of the privileged, who will feel you aggrandizing yourself at their expense and being somewhat of a caste-traitor.
An alternative to this clusteruck is a series of consistent but small and strategic interventions. Instead of merely retreating into silence or making contributions in form of statements, ask open questions, whether of the group (inviting those who haven’t spoken yet to pitch in), or directly of members who you know have knowledge to contribute but who haven’t spoken yet (whether directly, if you can do it conversationally and comfortably enough, or implicitly, so as not to put them on the spot). There’s almost no intellectual contribution to a debate that can’t be restated as a question, very often improving considerably in the process.
At other times, don’t feel out of place to cut a particular fellow-privileged short if you feel they’re taking over. Remember, if you’re a member of a privileged group, you’re never just a participant; you always have more power, and therefore more responsibility than “just” a participant, if such a thing exists. Fourthly, be mindful of the fact that since the balance is already tipped in your favor, almost anything you do can turn to your advantage, and keep guard against it; once you break the dynamic that needed breaking, don’t take over the discussion and make it your so responsibility, and therefore your power, to keep it on the track. Step back in only when you feel it’s necessary for you to do so, just like you did before.
Fifthly and finally, never let your guard down. Make it a habit to assess, consciously and routinely (say, every 15 minutes) what power dynamic is happening here and whether you can also contribute – not fix it singlehandedly, but contribute – towards making it a much more equitable one. So long as the hegemonic order relevant to the group persists, the power it feeds into you doesn’t disappear – and neither does your personal share of responsibility, to yourself and to your friends and allies, to dismantle it.