A Small Matter of Privilege

Note: On December 9, 2012, this was reposted at MA’AM, Men Against Assholes and Misogyny.

Last night, my writing critique group got together for our bi-weekly klatch. It’s a great group. I’ve been with them for twelve years. There’s been some comings and goings over the years, but our core group has been set for a while, and a few of us go back to the beginning.

Every critique group has their process. Ours is very social, so there is lots of gabbing before we get to the critiquing. Last night, among our wide-ranging topics, we touched upon someone who is no longer with us.

It started as “I wonder whatever happened to …” and moved on to “…you know, I don’t miss that guy at all.”

Thing is, he was a bad fit. He didn’t share our goals, either in terms of writing craft or in terms of friendship. That’s fine, of course. We all gave it a try, and after a while he quit coming to our gatherings. He was probably as relieved as we were.

But an interesting point came up during the discussion. The group is currently three women and two men. One of the women said to me and the other fellow, “One thing about that guy is he kinda brought out the misogyny in you two.”

Wait, … what?

Now, at this point, a common response of the (allegedly) enlightened white male in America is to sputter and deny. “I’m not a misogynist!” We’re then supposed to list all the evidence for how we’re not misogynists: we support a woman’s right to choose, we believe in equal pay for equal work, we think Rick Santorum is a medieval douchecanoe and we think those Catholic bishops just need to STFU already. And don’t even get us started on Mitt Romney and the Republican War on Women. (*sputter*)

And we’d be full of shit.

Getting back to the moment above, to my and my fellow male’s credit, neither of us sputtered. I think I may have shown a little shock or dismay, but I didn’t try to defend myself. Because I couldn’t. Not really. The woman added, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad. I just think he made it easier for you guys. You know how privilege can be sometimes.”

That’s the thing. Privilege is insidious.

Mind you, all those defenses I listed above are true of me and of my male friend. We would both describe ourselves as feminists (admitting that the degree to which a man can be a true feminist is open to discussion and that there are those who would argue we can’t really be feminists).

I do believe women are owed the same rights as men. I think the patriarchy is profoundly damaging (for both women and men). Etc.

But the fact remains, one cannot escape one’s privilege so easily. For men, it’s there and we benefit from it whether we agree with it or not. We’re brought up in a culture infused with male privilege (and white privilege, and wealth privilege, and cis privilege, and … and … and …) so deeply that usually we can’t even see it.

But as a self-described feminist, this only makes me all the more responsible for acknowledging those times when I abuse our privilege—unconsciously or not. My friend sat across from me and pointed it out, and I needed to hear it.

And I needed to not sputter and defend myself, but to learn something. The pernicious nature of male privilege makes it all too easy to behave in ways I find appalling, even toward my friends. And if it’s that easy with those I personally know and care about, the danger is greater outside my relationship circles.

I’m glad my friend pointed about my unconscious misogyny, even if I also felt ashamed. And even more glad she felt she could. Too many self-described male feminists would only have sputtered and shut her down.

In light of the topic, I’d like to suggest some reading. Today happens to be the release day for a couple of superb books. Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris features a strong young woman fighting to save, well, everything … and time in running out. Blackbirds is Chuck Wendig’s hard-boiled tale of a strong woman who knows what’s coming next; spoiler: it’s not good news. I highly recommend both.


  1. It’s posts like this that make me wish you lived near me so I could join your writing group. And also carry you around on my back a la Luke carrying Yoda, only with more back pain and swearing. Wonderful post, Bill.

    • And the Dark Poodle of the Apocalypse would be on my back, and … well, you see where this is going.

      Thanks, Sean. :)

      • Turtles. All the way down.

  2. This is brilliant. It’s also true for those of us who are white women, though. Yes, we are women, but we were also raised in privilege for being white. It’s far too easy to wave that off or deny it.

    • There are layers and layers. Or, as Sean expresses it so well, turtles. All the way down.

  3. You are the total opposite of a douchecanoe.

    • Well, I have my moments. 😉

  4. Well done, Bill. This is a question that doesn’t have an answer for me. I’ve been married nearly 17 years to a great man and yet sometimes I am amazed by differences that seem clear to me and invisible to him, or others. And my kids are being raised in a privilege that is unknown to much of the world, or even the USA. Never ends.

    • Long run, there probably is no final answer. Just an ongoing need to remain open to learning and nurturing a willingness to accept constructive criticism. But it’s tough, even when those things are core values.

  5. Spot on. So dang insidious indeed.

    And what a fantastic little writing community you have!

    Carry on and watch out for the turtles.

    • They are a good bunch. I love ‘em!

  6. Bill, you are not a misogynist.

    • I know I’m not. But there are dangers to being complacent about the artifacts of culture we all carry with us. I don’t mind being reminded that my behavior may not match my values. (Oh, in the moment it isn’t so easy to hear, but upon reflection I’d rather know so I can fix it.)

  7. First, a confession: you wrote, “He didn’t share our goals.” But I read, “He didn’t share our goats.” There was a LOT of laughter.

    Second, I really liked this post, Bill. For one thing, like Sean, I wish I lived closer — because it sounds like you’ve got a well functioning group of awesomeness. And I like that.

    Also, both those novels are on their way to me. Mwhahaha! *grin*

  8. I like this post.

    And the fact that you used ‘douchecanoe.’

    Also, new favorite thing: Turtles. All the way down.

  9. Hi Bill. You know what the total opposite of a douchecanoe is? It’s still a douchecanoe. Except even more so.


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