In Black And White: When Male Privilege Does Not Exist

My Dear Readers,

I just finished reading an article that, among other things, points out that I am “part of rape culture” simply because I am a male, and that it is useless for me to state denials and objections to this newly gained status.  For all intents and purposes, it is what it is now, and it’s best that I accept it and simply move on to work towards the prevention of rape.

According to Marshall University’s Women’s Center’s website:

“Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

So, if I am assumed to be a member of “rape culture” simply because I am of the male gender, does that mean that white people are members of a racist culture, simply because they are white or European ancestry?  Following that logic, we could say:

“Racist culture is an environment in which racism is prevalent and in which racial violence against blacks is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Racist culture is perpetuated through the use of racist language, the stereotyping of black people and the willingness to remain silent and thus be accepting of racial violence, thereby creating a society that disregards the civil rights, liberties and safety of black people.”

The writer of the article points out the following:

“I saw how my desire for a woman to satisfy me ran deep. Even my curiosity, a trait that always made me proud, was marred with the same sort of male-centric presumption that fuels rape culture. I expected to be satisfied. That attitude is the problem. I started reading and kept reading until I understood rape culture and my part in it.”

The writer points out the following behaviors that contribute to rape culture:

  • Blaming the victim (“she asked for it”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (boys will be boys”)
  • Sexually implicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get rape
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

With some changes, these could just as easily be examples of racist culture behavior.  Doing this, however, perpetuates the idea that mandatory inclusion in either culture solely based on gender or race is valid and ignores the disservice it does to the individual who, regardless of their gender or race, does not subscribe to the behaviors attributed to either culture.

The writer, a white male, takes the position that he is a member of “rape culture” and being so, makes it his mission to make women comfortable while he is in their presence.  For instance:

“When I cross a parking lot at night and see a woman ahead of me, I do whatever I feel is appropriate to make her aware of me so that:

a) I don’t startle her,

 

b) she has time to make herself feel safe/comfortable, and

 

c) if it’s possible, I will approach in a way that’s clearly friendly, in order to let her know I’m not a threat. I do this because I’m a man.”

Any male can choose to initiate these behaviors or actions as indicated.  In doing so, he is voluntarily taking on the responsibility of recognizing the woman’s vulnerability—something he can do without the risk of personal loss or potential harm to himself.  However, if the male in this situation was black, his presence may actually serve to heighten the woman’s fear, and in doing so, increase the risk for that black male.

I will provide an example of incident in which a black man attempted similar actions of creating comfort for the woman:

“While leaving my office in the late evening, I found myself walking behind a white woman.  I made my presence known by humming a tone. As she got into her vehicle I continued to walk past her.

Two minutes later, I found myself surrounded by police cars and spread over a patrol car.  The woman, although aware of my presence and safe in her vehicle still called the police on me, claiming that she was in fear for her safety.”

In contrast, the writer of the article describes his actions when he comes into contact with a woman who is unknown to him:

“Basically, I acknowledge every woman I meet on the street, or in an elevator, or in a stairway, or wherever, in a way that indicates she’s safe. I want her to feel just as comfortable as if I weren’t there. I accept that any woman I encounter in public doesn’t know me, and thus, all she sees is a man — one who is suddenly near her.  I have to keep her sense of space in mind and the fact that my presence might make her feel vulnerable. That’s the key factor — vulnerability.”

In this statement, the writer acknowledges the power of male privilege, and his focus on having a woman feel comfortable in his presence is an affirmation of both his willingness and ability to be able to let go of power should he desire to do so.

A black male doing the same would place himself at risk of being accused of setting the stage for a sexual assault of another type of crime—because the woman’s assumptions about the man because of his race would trump the efforts of the man to make her comfortable from a gender perspective . To prevent both the accusations and targeting, it would be in the best interests of the black male to avoid visual or verbal contact with the female as well as maintaining a safe distance.

The argument of mandatory culpability because of gender or race is that the designation serves to victimize and takes away any empowerment of the individual to either transform his specific behavior or to advocate for transformation to a gender and racial equity society. Essentially, regardless of what he does or does not do, he will be viewed as threat to another’s “vulnerability.”

Furthermore, the designation serves to blame potentially innocent men and boys for actions that may not be under his individual locus of control. If black males did as the writer chose to do—acknowledge that because of his gender, he is a member of “rape culture,” they would be affirming already held stereotypes about black men and thereby setting themselves apart to be targeted and victimized.

It may be that what theorists have conceptualized as rape culture, is actually a different way of viewing male privilege.  The common theme between rape culture and male privilege is that males are holders of the privilege that is used to inflict psychological and physical wounds on women—one of the most powerful of these being rape.

Male privilege can be defined as a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to individual as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class.  While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being male, benefits from male privilege.

Although the writer makes a big deal of “letting go of male privilege,” it is clear that he can, at any time, restore that privilege, and he knows it.  As a result, the designation of “belonging to the rape culture” would have minimum consequences for him and for people in his same class and racial societal group.  However, such a designation for black males would only provide support for stereotypes and have long term consequences as well as targeting by factions of the dominant majority, such as law enforcement, the judiciary, and legislative bodies.

I am not suggesting that black males do not maintain male privilege; on the contrary, black males enjoy male privilege within the boundaries of the African-American community. However once the black male steps outside of his community, he loses his comfort zone, and like females, he too is at risk, but this time, by giving credence to the racial assumptions held by the dominant majority.

Concluding Words

The willingness of the writer to accept the designation of being a member of “rape culture” is comparable to the publication of the nonfiction book entitled “Black Like Me.” The 1961 publication is based on the story of John Howard Griffin, a white journalist living in Dallas, TX.

Under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen.  In addition he spent fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp to darken his skin to that of a black man.

In doing so, he spent six weeks traveling on Greyhound buses throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.  The objective was to pass as a black man and in doing describing his experience.

It appears that Griffin’s experience of living as a black man for six weeks was traumatic.  Following the publication of the book, he received an outpouring of letters of support from sympathetic whites, helping him to get through the “stress of the experience”.  Furthermore, his exposé of racism and hatred towards the black male resulted in such hostility and intense death threats to his family that he moved his family to Mexico for several years.

The traumatic experience of Griffin passing as a black male for a limited time, as well as the hostility and death threats which followed his publication, all illuminate the impractical nature of generalizing a group for their gender into mandatory membership of rape culture.  Furthermore, it affirms that blacks and whites as it relates to maleness, do not share privileges of gender equally.

The writer of the rape culture article is able to conceptualize himself without penalty as a member of rape culture.  The consequences of a black male being held to mandatory membership will, by its nature, have severe and even deadly results.  Furthermore, Griffin’s exposé of black male life shows that male privilege, as true today as it was then, is nonexistent outside the boundaries of the African-American community

One can only imagine the relief that Griffin, a white man, felt after his six weeks of “passing” as a black man was over, and then imagine the horror he felt as the hostility and death threats towards his family for his actions began.

We wear the mask that grins and lies

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

We wear the mask.

 

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues.

 

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