I’ve probably qualified enough of my reviews with this statement, at this point, to make my continued use of it superfluous, but old habits die hard: I am a white male. And though I think of myself as fairly progressive, I find myself disagreeing with liberals almost as much as I do conservatives. So, for whatever that’s worth, this is where I’m coming from.
I’ve always had an uneasy association with feminism. The immediate consequence of this tends to fall somewhere in the vicinity of frustrated defensiveness, but the long term consequence is that I generally don’t read feminist writers. In fact, I don’t read enough women, period. But that’s more accident than design.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t broadly agree with most feminists that I’ve encountered, or even that I don’t consider myself one. I married an ardent feminist, my sister is one, as well, and is never afraid to speak her mind. My maternal grandmother, I think, was a bit of a bad ass feminist in her own way – though I doubt she ever would’ve called herself one. The point is, I’ve been surrounded by strong women my whole life, and have never hesitated to speak out against casual misogyny observed in environments that are strictly male.
But….I’ve never read a book like this before. While I can’t say that I’ve actively avoided anything unapologetically “feminist” , I’ve never sought it out, either (The Handmaid’s Tale excepted). This can be contrasted, for instance, with my deep interest in African American history and the study of racial inequality and injustice – in which I’ve actively fought my own ignorance and continually try to acknowledge my privilege.
Now, having read We Should All Be Feminists, I think I understand why feminism leaves me so often discomfited. Or, at least, I’m beginning to understand.
Adichie asserts here that one reason men are resistant to feminism may be because men are accustomed to being in charge. While I can’t speak for other men, that’s certainly not my reason. But I think it’s close enough to the point that I’ve been wrestling with the idea over the last couple of hours.
Central to my reticence is the fragility of the male ego. That’s why I can embrace Black Lives Matter and issues of Civil Rights and criminal justice reform. I am not in any kind of existential danger. White privilege is very real, and the cultural and economic systems in place in the United States are built on systemic racism. I can actively seek to dismantle those systems without challenging who I am as a person, or my place in the world. And, quite frankly, a world without racial equality isn’t the kind of world I want to be a part of.
How this differs lies in Adichie’s description of the gender norms placed on men in our society. Specifically, the requirement that they (we) be “hard.” In my adult life – since my teens, really – I have soundly rejected these masculine gender norms, and have instead enshrouded myself in a self-effacing cloak of awkward weakness. It was partly started as a self-deprecating joke to prevent bullying (which I was never really a victim of, but always kind of feared, I think), and partly a way of embracing who I naturally am, without having to justify myself to my peers. I was an artistic kid who read too much and didn’t know how to talk to girls – so it’s easier to laugh at yourself, and it provides insulation against difficult situations and cultural expectations.
The net result of all this is a fragile ego. Instead of taking the hard route and learning perseverance, I’ve just turtled my way through life, which, I know, is its own kind of privilege. I’ve been able to laugh off my utter lack of masculinity, and no one really gives me flack for not meeting gender norms. If I was a woman, I doubt I would’ve had such an easy time of it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. I work in a largely masculine environment, and I know what gets said about women who aren’t feminine enough.
So when I am confronted with feminist issues – even though, again, I generally agree with the issues that are raised – my gut reaction is nervous defensiveness. It’s not that I want to stand up for men, it’s that I feel compelled to show that I don’t belong to those men. I’m not like that. #notallmen
And it grosses me out. I don’t want to be like that.
But after reading this, I truly feel – for the first time – like there’s a logical explanation for those feelings. I’ve spent much of my life trying to countervail gender norms in my own life, and, due to my privilege, I’ve grown to think this excludes me from the sexist paradigm in which we all live. Self-deprecation has been a kind of talisman that I’ve imbued with the power to immunize me against the very thing from which I’ve benefited: male privilege.
But we don’t live in a world where a person can just choose to not be a part of the system, especially when that system has been set up to protect and empower the type of person who has attempted to remove himself. The very act of self-removal is the surest sign of privilege. No one is holding me to account because I am not the target of the imbalance.
African Americans can’t simply remove themselves from white oppression. Gays and lesbians can’t simply walk away from hetero-normative cultural stereotypes. Women can’t choose to not be a part of a patriarchal society.
Neither can I.
These issues have always made me uncomfortable because they give the lie to my life of comfort and privilege. I am a part of this system, and its beneficiary. Denying that doesn’t make it any less true, and it certainly does nothing to benefit those who can’t delude themselves into comfort quite as easily as I am apparently capable. It just masks my complicity in the system.
So, I haven’t really reviewed this book. But I don’t know that I’m wholly capable. This isn’t really an area I consider myself knowledgeable in. In terms of the actual facts given – the actual cases of sexism and patriarchal oppression – I don’t know that there will be anything revelatory. There was nothing earth shattering here, for me. But the worldview on display here is so unmistakable and concisely expressed that the book is elevated into the necessary reading category. This is a philosophical masterpiece.
There are two views with which a person can come away from this book: agreement or the wrong one.