[Breakingthesilence] a good text on gender stuff

ni co lu nicolu at chutelibre.org
Mar 30 Mar 18:26:56 CEST 2004

(anglais puis français)

Hi again. 
Kevin from escanda sent me this text that I find really good and interesting.

I was thinking to send it to the process list as a contribution before the
next preparatory meeting.

Apparently kevin worked on thematic issue of the green pepper on gender
and could send other texts in english. 

Salut voici un texte que m'a envoyé kevin d'escanda (le point d'un mec sur
les questions de genre) Je trouverai bien de l'envoyer sur les listes amp
avec d'autres en contribution avant le prochain rendez-vous de préparation
de la conférence amp.

apparemment kevin pourrait peut-être envoyer d'autres textes en anglais car
il vient de bosser sur une edition spéciale du green pepper magazine sur les
questions de genre.

cool !

nicolu /

Going To Places That Scare Me
Personal Reflections On Challenging Male Supremacy

by Chris Crass
August 21, 2003


part I: “How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!”

"What do you mean I'm sexist?" I was shocked. I wasn't a jock, I didn’t
hate women, I wasn't an evil person. "But how can I be a sexist, I'm an
anarchist?" I was anxious, nervous, and my defenses were up. I believed in
liberation, for fighting against capitalism and the state. There were
those who defended and benefited from injustice and then there’s us,
right? I was 19 and it was 1993, four year after I got into politics.

Nilou, holding my hand, patiently explained, “I'm not saying you're an
evil person, I'm saying that you're sexist and sexism happens in a lot of
subtle and blatant ways. You cut me off when I'm talking. You pay more
attention to what men say. The other day when I was sitting at the coffee
shop with you and Mike, it was like the two of you were having a
conversation and I was just there to watch. I tried to jump in and say
something, but you both just looked at me and then went back to your
conversation. Men in the group make eye contact with each other and act
like women aren’t even there. The study group has become a forum for men
in the group to go on and on about this book and that book, like they know
everything and just need to teach the rest of us. For a long time I
thought maybe it was just me, maybe what I had to say wasn't as useful or
exciting. Maybe I needed to change my approach, maybe I was just
overreacting, maybe it's just in my head and I need to get over it. But
then I saw how the same thing was happening to other women in the group,
over and over again. I'm not blaming you for all of this, but you're a big
part of this group and you're part of this dynamic.” This conversation
changed my life and it’s challenge is one I continue to struggle with in
this essay.

This is an essay for other white, middle class, raised male who identify
themselves as male, left/anarchist organizers struggling to build
movements for liberation. I want to focus on my own experience of dealing
with issues of sexism and anti-sexism from an emotional and psychological
centered perspective. I’m choosing this focus because it is personally
challenging, it has proved effective in working with men against sexism
and because of consistent feedback from women who I organize with not to
ignore these aspects of the work. Rona Fernandez of the Youth Empowerment
Center in Oakland writes, “Encourage men/gender privileged folks to
examine the role of emotions (or lack thereof) in their experience of
privilege. I’m saying this because I think men/gender privileged folks
also suffer under the system of patriarchy and one of the most
dehumanizing ways they suffer is in their inability/difficulty in
expressing feelings.” Clare Bayard of Anti-Racism for Global Justice puts
it pointedly in addressing gender privileged activist men, "It took years
of study and hard work to develop your political analysis, why do you
think emotional understanding should just come to you, it requires work as

This essay looks to the leadership of women, women of color in particular,
who write about and organize against patriarchy in society and sexism in
the movement. The work of Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Ella Baker,
Patricia Hill Collins, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, bell hooks and so many
others who provide the political foundations, visions and strategies for
the work gender privileged white men need to do. Additionally, there are
more and more gender privileged men in the movement working to challenge
male supremacy. There are thousands of us who recognize that patriarchy
exists, that we have privileges as a result, that sexism undermines
movement , that women, transgendered folks and genderqueer people have
explained it over and over again and said “you all need to talk with each
other, challenge each other and figure out what you’re all going to do.”
And yet there are far more white men in the movement who agree sexism
exists in society, perhaps in the movement, but deny their personal
involvement in it.

Lisa Sousa, who is part of the San Francisco Independent Media Center and
AK Press, told me that in recent discussions she’s had in groups about
sexism and gender, she’s heard the following responses from men: "we are
all oppressed", "we should be talking about class", "you are just using
gender as a way to attack such and such". When she raised the issue that
women leave the majority male group soon after joining, the responses
included: "men leave our group too, women are not leaving more, people
leave its a fact in volunteer organizations", "we just need to recruit
more women, if women leave, there's more where they came from".

These comments are so familiar and while it is tempting to distance myself
from the men who made them, it’s important that I remember when I made
those comments. As a person who believes in movement building and
collective liberation, it’s important for me to connect with the people
I’m organizing with. As a person with privilege organizing others with
privilege, that means learning to love myself enough to be able to see
myself in people who I would much rather denounce and distance myself
from. It also means being honest about my own experiences.

When I think back to that conversation with Nilou and her explaining how
sexism operated. I remember trying not to shutdown and I tried to listen.

The word "But" repeated over and over again in my mind, followed by “it
was a misunderstanding, I didn't mean it that way, I didn’t know you felt
like that, I wasn't trying to do that, I would love to see you participate
more, I don't understand, no one said they didn't want to hear what you
have to say, we all believe in equality, I love you and would never do
anything to hurt you, it was circumstances not sexism, I don't know what
to do.” Looking back ten years later, it’s amazing to me how often that
same list of “buts” comes running to mind. I’m more like those ‘other’ men
that I’d like to admit.

Nilou spent hours and hours talking with me about sexism. It was
tremendously difficult. My politics were shaped by a clearly defined
dualistic framework of good and bad. If it was true that I was sexist,
then my previous sense of self was in question and my framework needed to
shift. Looking back, this was a profoundly important moment in my growth,
at the time it felt like shit.

Two weeks later, at our anarchist study group meeting, Nilou raised her
hand. "Sexism is happening in this group." She listed the examples she had
told me. The defensive reaction that I experienced was now amplified by
the 5 other men in the room. Other women started speaking up. They too had
experienced these dynamics and they were tired of taking it. The men were
shocked and defensive; we began listing all the reasons why claims of
sexism were simply misunderstandings, misperceptions. With genuine
sincerity we said, “But we all want revolution.”

After the meeting, the woman who had been in the group the longest sat me
down. April had been part of the United Anarchist Front for well over a
year and she too gave me example after example of sexist behavior. Men in
the group didn't trust her to handle responsibilities, even if they were
newer. She wasn't looked to for information about the group, nor were her
opinions asked for on political questions. Others joined our conversation
and men continued to challenge the assertion of sexism. April put forward
an example that she had just clearly explained to me and men denied it as
a misunderstanding. A few minutes later, I restated the exact same example
given by April and this time it was met with begrudging agreement from
other men that perhaps in this case it was sexist. April called it out
immediately, I hadn’t even fully realized what happened. I looked at April
as she broke it down. April's words coming from my mouth were heard and
taken seriously. There it is. I didn’t really want to believe that sexism
was happening, but now I saw it. I felt horrible, like a kick to the
stomach. Nilou and April desperately trying to get us to agree that there
was a problem. How could this be happening when I hadn’t intended it to? I
was scared to say anything.

Two months later, I was sitting in a men's caucus silently. We didn't know
what to talk about. More specifically, we were scared, nervous, dismissive
and didn't put energy into creating a useful discussion about sexism.
Nilou and April had suggested we spend a day talking about sexism and we'd
start with caucuses. "What are the women talking about", we asked
ourselves. When the group re-united the discussion quickly turned into
women defending themselves, defending their understandings of their own
experiences. I felt horrible and struggled to believe what I was hearing.
I felt completely clueless about how to move in a useful way.

Several people of all genders left early in tears, disillusioned and
overwhelmed by powerlessness. My Mom had observed part of our discussion
and asked to speak. "You're all taking on enormous issues and these issues
are hard. It makes me happy to see you all at such young ages seriously
talk about it. It shows that you really believe in what you're fighting
for and it's a conversation that doesn't happen in one day." I could feel
the heaviness in the room as we looked at each other, many with tears in
their eyes. It was clear that challenging sexism was far more then
learning how to make eye contact with women in group discussions, it was
challenging a system of power that operates on the political, economic,
social, cultural, psychological level and my internalized superiority was
but the tip of an iceberg built on exploitation and oppression.

Part II: “What historical class am I in?”

"Do you know what class you're in?" Being a white, middle class, male
taking Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies classes for all seven years that
I was in school, I was asked that question a lot. In a Black Women's
history class, someone offered to help me figure out where I needed to go.

I understood why people asked me and I understood that the question wasn't
just about class as in a room, but class as in a social category in a
white supremacist, patriarchal, heterosexist, capitalist society hell bent
on maintaining control. I knew what class I was coming from and I knew
that my relationship to Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies was
complicated. I knew some people didn't want me in those classes and I knew
that my very presence made others feel uncomfortable. And many of the
teachers and some of the students told me that they were glad I was there.
It helped me see how complex these struggles are and that there aren’t
easy answers.

I went to community college for four years and then San Francisco State
for three. The majority of my teachers were women and people of color. I
had grown up in a generally segregated community and had few role models,
authority figures, mentors or teachers who were people of color.

What I read and studied in college - women of color feminism, Black
liberation struggle, Chicano/a history, colonialism from the perspective
of American Indian history, labor history and organizing, queer theory,
anti-racism from the perspective of immigrant and refugee women - had a
profound impact on me. However, having people of color and women of color
in particular grade me, instruct me and guide me was incredibly important
to my development on psychological levels that I wasn't necessarily aware
of at the time. Having people of color and women with
progressive/left/radical politics leading my educational development was a
subversive shifting of the power relationships that wasn't mentioned on
the syllabus but was central to my studies.

Learning in majority women and people of color settings also had a deep
impact, because it was the first time that I had ever been in situations
where I was a numerical minority on the basis of race or gender. Suddenly
race and gender weren’t just issues amongst many, they were central
aspects of how others experienced, viewed and understood the world. The
question I sometimes thougtht silently to myself, “why do you always have
to talk about race and gender”, was flipped on it’s head; “how can you not
think about race and gender all the time?”

Over time I developed a strategy for school. I'd stay pretty quiet for the
first month or so of class, pushing myself to really listen. In the first
week of class I’d say something to clearly identify myself as opposed to
white supremacy and patriarchy (sometimes capitalism) as systems of
oppressions that I benefit from, so people knew where I was coming from.
This was generally met with shock, excitement and a sign of relief. I
participated in dialogue more as I tried to develop trust through
listening and being open to the information, histories and stories. While
this strategy incorporated anti-sexist goals, it was also about presenting
myself in a certain way.

The other part of the strategy was to participate and raise questions and
other perspectives in my Western Civics, Political Science and other
white, male dominated classes. People of color and women I worked with
were clear that this was something they felt I had a responsibility to do.
"They expect it from us and dismiss us as angry, emotional, stuck in
victim mode. You need to use your privilege to get heard by white people
and men." The goal wasn't to necessarily change the perspective of the
Professor but to open up space for critical dialogue about race, class and
gender with the other students who were mostly white and often mostly
male. This was extremely useful learning as well, because frequently I
came across as cold, angry, self-righteous or unsure of myself, none of
which were particularly helpful. If my goal is to yell at men and white
people to alleviate my own guilt and shame for being white and male, then
perhaps that's a useful tactic. If my goal is to actually work with folks
to embrace anti-racism and feminism, then I needed to be more complex and
real with myself.

I grew up believing that I was a lone individual on a linear path of
progression with no past. History was a set of dates and events that,
while interesting to learn, had little or no relationship to my life. I
was just a person, doing my own thing. Then I started to learn that being
white, male, middle class, able-bodied, mostly heterosexual and a citizen
of the United States meant that not only did I have privileges, but that I
was rooted in history. I was a part of social categories - white, male,
hetero, middle class. These are all groups that have history and are
shaped by history. Part of being in those groups means being deemed
normal, the standard which all others are judged. My images of just being
“my own person” were now joined by images of slave ships, indigenous
communities burned to the ground, families destroyed, violence against
women, white ruling class men using white poor men to colonize white
women, peoples of color and the Earth.

I remember sitting in an African American women's history class, one of
two white people, one of two men, the other 15 people Black women and I'm
the only white man. We were studying slavery, Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching
campaign and the systematic raping of enslaved African women by white male
slave owners - millions of rapes, sanctioned and protected by law.
Simultaneously hundreds of Black men were lynched by white men who claimed
to be protecting white women from Black male rapists. I sat there with my
head down and I could feel history in my nauseated stomach and in my eyes
filling with tears. Who were those white men and how did they feel about
themselves? I was scared to look into the faces of the Black women in that
room. "While there is mixing of races because of love," the Professor
said, "our people are so many shades of Black because of generation after
generation of institutionalized rape." Who am I and how do I feel about

Part III: “this struggle is my struggle”

“I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white
heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of
reactionary-vested-interest-power.” - Robin Morgan from the introduction
of Sisterhood is Powerful

"Face your fear/ the fear is you/ you cannot run/ you cannot hide/ the
fear is you/ in the end, what have you done/ can it be true that the
damage you bring is greater then the good you make/ face your fear/
embrace your fear/ the pain inside is the truth inside/ let it out/ let it
out/ when the socialization is gone/ what is left/ the fear is more real
then the hope you create/ where will you go/ what will you do/ let it all
go cuz it's already you/ can I move forward/ can I move forward/ open it
all up/ you know it's all true/ the hope is you" -white boy emo-hardcore

I have and do go through periods of hating myself, feeling guilty, afraid.
I know in my heart that I had a role in liberation struggle and I know
through practice that there was useful work that I could do, but still the
question haunts me, "Am I just fooling myself?" That is, am I fooling
myself to believe that I am more useful then problematic. To be clear, I
think Robin Morgan’s quote is useful to struggle with, but not to get
stuck on. I grew up believing that I was entitled to everything. I could
go anywhere and do anything and wherever I went I would be wanted/needed.

Patriarchy and heterosexism also taught me, in subtle and blatant ways,
that I was entitled to women's bodies, that I was entitled to take up
space and put my ideas and thoughts out there whenever I wanted to,
without consideration for others. This is a very different process of
socialization than most other people in this society who are told to shut
up, keep it to themselves, hide who they really are, get out of the way
and to never forget how lucky they are to be allowed here to begin with. I
think it’s healthy to not assume you're always needed, to learn to share
space and power and to work with others to realize the role that you in
fact can and should play. What is unhealthy is how rare it is for gender
privileged men to talk with each other about these issues and support each
other through the process.

Laura Close, an organizer with Students for Unity in Portland, discussed
this in her essay, "Men in the Movement". She writes, "Every day young men
wake up and decide to get involved in activism. Often they encounter
language and discussions about their male privilege that alienate and
silence them without anyone actually supporting them to decolonize their
minds. Consider what it would be like for ally men to take our
younger/newer guys out to coffee and talk about his own experiences as a
guy in the movement. Talk about what you've learned! Consider what it
would mean for men to cheer on other men who are making progress towards
becoming allies." She put out a challenge for men to mentor other men
engaging in anti-sexist work.

I knew she was right, but the idea of really doing it made me nervous.
Sure, I had plenty of close gender privileged friends, but to make a
political commitment to develop relationships with other men and open up
with them about my own struggles with sexism seemed terrifying. Terrifying
because I could handle denouncing patriarchy and calling out other men
from time to time, but to be honest about my own sexism, to connect
political analysis/practice to my own emotional/psychological process, to
be vulnerable?

Pause. Vulnerable to what? Remember when I said that in Women’s Studies
classes I would identify myself as opposed to patriarchy, white supremacy
and sometimes capitalism? The level of consciousness of feminism, let
alone political commitment to it amongst most gender privileged men in
college was so low that just reading one feminist book and saying “I
recognize that sexism exists” meant I was way advanced. While the level of
consciousness and commitment is generally higher in activist circles, it’s
not that much higher. I have had two major struggles going on most of my
political life - genuinely wanting to be down for the cause and feeling a
deep level of fear that I wasn’t coming anywhere close to that commitment.
It’s far easier for me to make declarations against patriarchy in
classrooms, political meetings and in writing then it is to practice
feminist politics in my personal relationships with friends, family and
partners. This is particularly difficult when political men, like myself,
make so little time to talk with each other about this.

What am I afraid to admit? That I struggle everyday to really listen to
voices I identify as women’s. I know my mind wanders quicker. I know that
my instant reaction is take men’s opinions more seriously. I know that
when I walk into rooms full of activists I instantly scan the room and
divide people into hierarchies of status (how long they’ve been active,
what groups they’ve been part of, what they’ve written and where it’s been
published, who are their friends). I position myself against them and feel
the most competitive with men. With those I identify as women, the same
status hierarchies are tallied, but sexual desirabilty enters my hetero
mindset. What is healthy sexual attraction and desire and how does it
relate to and survive my training to systematically sexualize women around
me? This gets amplified by the day-to-day reality that this society
presents women as voiceless bodies to serve hetero-male desire, we know
that. But what does it mean for how I communicate with my partners who are
women and who I organize with? How does it translate into how I make love,
want love, express love, conceptualize love? I’m not talking about whether
or not I go down on my partner or say I love you, I’m talking about
whether or not I truly value equality in our relationships over getting
off on a regular basis.

The fact that my partners have provided far more emotional and financial
support then I have for them. I’m talking about having almost never zoned
out on what a gender privileged man is saying because I thought about him

I’ve repeatedly found myself zoned out thinking about sex while listening
to women speak who are organizers, leaders, visionaries, my friends, my
comrades. I’m all about crushes, healthy sexual desire and pro-sex
politics, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about power,
entitlement and women’s leadership marginalized by hetero male desire. I
wish I didn’t get defensive on a regular basis, but I do. I get frustrated
and shut down conversations about how power operates between my partner
and I. I get defensive about how the world interacts with us and how that
influences our dynamics. I know that there are times when I say, “ok, I’ll
think more about it” when really I’m thinking, “leave me alone”.

This isn’t a confessional so that I will be forgiven. This is an on-going
struggle to be honest about how deeply shaped I am by patriarchy and these
systems of oppression. Patriarchy tears me up. I have so many fears about
whether or not I’m capable of being in healthy loving relationships. Fears
about whether or not I can be genuinely honest and connected with myself
so that I can then open up and share with others. Fears about organizing
to genuinely build and share power with others The scars of patriarchy are
on every single person I interact with and when I push myself to see it,
to really look and take the time to think about it, I’m filled with
sadness and rage. bell hooks, in her book All About Love, writes that love
is impossible where the will to dominate exists. Can I genuinely love? I
want to believe. I want to believe in a political practice for gendered
privileged men forged in opposition to patriarchy.

I do believe that as we struggle against oppression, as we practice our
commitments, we actualize and express our humanity. There are moments,
experiences and events when I see patriarchy challenged by all genders and
it shows what we can do. I believe that this is our lives’ work and that
at its core it’s a fight for our lives. And in this fight we realize that
even in the face of these systems of oppression, our love, beauty,
creativity, passion, dignity and power grows. We can do this.

post script: “we must walk to make the struggle real”

While it’s necessary to get into the hard emotional and psychological
issues, there is also an endless supply of conrete steps we can take to
challenge male supremacy.

An organizer working on Palestinian Liberation wrote me saying, “some
things gender privileged people can do: offer to take notes in meetings,
make phone calls, find meeting locations, do childcare, make copies and
other less glamorous work. Encourage women and gender oppressed people in
the group to take on roles men often dominate (e.g. tactical, mc-ing and
event, media spokespeople). Ask specific women if they want to do it and
explain why you think they would be good (don’t tokenize). Pay attention
to who you listen to and check yourself on power-tripping.”

She is one of hundreds of thousands of women and gender oppressed people
who has outlined clear, concrete action steps that people with gender
privilege can take to challenge sexism and work for liberation. There is
an abundant supply of work to be done. The larger issue for me has been,
“what will it take for me to actually do that work, to actually prioritize
it and follow through on it?” In additional to men talking with each other
as discussed above, we also need to hold each other accountable to follow
through. There are a lot of heavy emotional issues that come up in doing
this work and it’s critical that we help keep each other from getting lost
and help each other take concrete steps forward. Asking ourselves, “how
does our work support the leadership of women?” “How am I working to share
power in my organizing?” “How am I making myself open to hearing feedback
from gender oppressed people about my work?” Each of these questions
generates next steps to make it happen. Examining and challenging
privilege is a necessary aspect of our work, but it’s not enough. Men
working with other men to challenge male supremacy is just one of many,
many strategies needed to develop women-led, multiracial, anti-racist,
feminist, queer and trans liberationist, working class based,
anti-capitalist movements for collective liberation. We know that sexism
will work to undermine movement building. The question is, what work will
we do to help build movement and in the process expand our ability to love
ourselves and others.

Much love to the editorial crew on this essay: Clare Bayard, Rachel Luft,
J.C . Callender, Nilou Mostoufi, April Sullivan, Michelle O’Brien,
Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, Sharon Martinas, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Rahula
Janowski and Chris Dixon
Further Reading -Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment -bell hooks, Feminist Theory
from Margin to Center -Paul Kivel, Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence
that Tears Our Lives Apart -Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a
World Scale: women in the international division of labour -Barbara Smith,
The Truth that Never Hurts: writings on race, gender and freedom

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