The weirdest thing that has happened to me in my career as a writer is people asking me to talk. Churches, community groups, schools, organizations, TV/radio, birthday and bachelorette parties. For some reason, people want to hear words come out of my mouth, which makes me a little uneasy, because I became a writer in part so I wouldn’t ever have to talk.
But I do it more and more now, and provided I’ve had a chance to listen to my confidence building soundtrack (it’s Jay Z’s The Blueprint album for those wondering, but you choose whatever makes you feel like a boss), I’m OK speaking to crowds. And they get comfortable enough to ask questions.
I write a lot about race and racism over at the day job for The Nation, so there are always questions about that. I also identify as a feminist, so there are usually questions about that, as well. The easiest is “why are you a feminist?” I know it’s being asked more as “why are YOU a feminist, seeing as you’re a man and isn’t that treason?” but the answer is simply I believe in equality. Feminism is a fight for equality. I’m down.
The tougher question is this: what is a man’s role in feminism? The answer: I have no clue. That’s not the whole answer, but it’s a starting point for saying that I don’t think that role is for me to define. I make myself available to do the work that the people directly affected by sexism tell me is necessary.
That’s not what people want to hear. They want a treatise on the actions men must make in order to serve the cause of feminism. They want concrete definitions because, I think, they want to be able to root out the fakes. It’s a problem I hear discussed often — men who identify as feminists but say/do explicitly anti-feminist things and use feminism to justify their words/actions. And that’s fucked up, on a few levels. It’s bad enough when anyone uses the language of the oppressed to justify that oppression, but it’s even worse when it’s someone from a group that is doing the oppressing. It’s a new level of deplorable to this theft of ideas.
But it’s also disheartening to watch someone you thought was on your side undo all the goodwill you’ve afforded them. To witness a person you thought to be a valuable asset to the movement prove their relative worthlessness.
So, I get why people ask me. Still, there’s something that doesn’t sit right. The idea that I would have the answer to this question, on the basis of not much more than being a man who identifies as a feminist, seems to be a privileging of my voice in a way that runs counter to my politics. Women have been answering this question long before I or any other man arrived to feminist thinking. Why would you not defer to them?
That’s always my preference, but that doesn’t jive with the way people receive information. In light of that, I’ve collected some of the best wisdom I’ve received from woman organizers to amplify their ideas. If I could source them directly to one person or another, I would. But they’re ideas from all over that I’ve synthesized here as a basic blueprint, based on what I’ve learned from feminists much smarter than me. A man who identifies as a feminist should:
1) Acknowledge sexism as a system of oppression. The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge it as a problem. Naming sexism as such is a basic requirement, but a necessary one nonetheless. Also note, it’s imperative to recognize it’s a system, not just a personal bigotry.
2) Listen. All of these are really important, but this definitely a contender for most important thing. And not just listen when it’s other men talking (I recognize the irony as I write this). In a society that teaches us to devalue the voices of women, actively listening/reading/engaging the work of women is revolutionary. It’s also how you learn where the fight is.
3) Interrogate their own complicity. It’s uncomfortable to come to grips with the fact that you’ve been complicit in a system of oppression. It can make you feel like a bad person. But you don’t act out of comfort. A man identifying as a feminist is going to have to make himself incredibly uncomfortable by accepting that his language/customs/traditions/beliefs have been informed by sexism and he has, consciously or not, been participating in that system that deleterious effects on the lives of women.
4) Change their behavior. Another contender for most important, and perhaps the most difficult. It’s one thing to acknowledge your complicity in a system of oppression, it’s a whole other thing to divest from that system and change the language/behaviors that you’ve become accustomed to. And look, everyone will fuck up here. Everyone. Myself included. It’s hard to change, particularly when there’s no reward for doing so. But if a man believes in the cause of equality, if they’re devoted to a feminist politic, they will be actively working toward that change.
5) Find community. In movements, you need community to support you, hold you accountable, and to build alongside. The community challenges you and struggles with you. If a man is going to be a feminist, he should surround himself with feminists (preferably ones that will actually seek to challenge him, not just marvel at the fact he’s a man who wants to claim feminism).
6) Use their privilege to disrupt the system. This requires a bit of sacrifice. It means turning down opportunities, prestige, and money to ensure those things are offered to women in equal measure. It means speaking up, in real time, at inopportune moments, about the injustices women face in your workplace/social environment/private life. It means (figuratively) chin-checking some of your closest friends and relatives on their retrograde ideas. It means risking relationships and personal achievement for a greater good you may never see. But if a man feels he is called to do this work, it’s something he can’t escape.
Still, I repeat: I don’t know. I’m learning all the time from different feminists about what they believe a man’s role in feminism should be. I listen. I take notes. I act accordingly. There’s no perfect formulation, and if there were, I wouldn’t take credit for coming up with it. I’m sure there’s a woman who said it better, anyway.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.