"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Responsibility and Intersectionality

Malachi asked a simple question that has led to some not-so-simple discussions: "[W]hat else can a man do, either with strangers or friends, in order to be as nonthreatening as possible?"

Among the various topics of discussion that came up from the question and its answers were comments and questions about the various ways we might weigh responsibilities according to gender. Among the various comments, it was suggested that men have no obligation to help make women feel safer--that it's up to the women themselves, and only the women themselves, to make this happen. It was also suggested that what we are obligated to do and what we might do out of kindness may be two different things. Lots of opinions were offered across the spectrum as well. In general, it looks like men doing things like crossing the street, whistling/humming, or similar sorts of things isn't a big deal for a lot of men to do, but that some men feel put out that anybody suggests they ought to do it.

I think the discussion was helpful, though not only in the ways that Malachi perhaps intended. Instead of (just) suggestions about what men can do to help make women more comfortable walking down the street, we ended up in a discussion about whether or not men ought to care that women may not feel safe walking down the street. To echo one of the commentors, it just seems strange to me to have to figure out whether or not men ought to be trying to help in the ways Malachi has suggested...it seems cold to think otherwise. And for the most part, I do think that most of the resistence to such suggestions run along the lines of "...but men aren't responsible for how women feel," a position which I think ignores the complexities of the concept of responsibility in a world where we interact with lots of other people.

One comment in particular, though, brought these complexities to the fore, for me. Z said:

"This is the type of conversation that makes me feel like I need to teach my sons (Who would be black/ HIspanic) to just avoid women and white people all together if they have to whistle and hum, cross streets, and jump through hoops to avoid scaring women and white people. What if they run into another white person or woman on the other side of the street?"

The Intersection of Race and Gender
Z brings race into the discussion, and I think it's an interesting way to point to the complexities of our connections to other people, and to the notions of responsibility. The reason Z's example struck me so, I think, is that I have a strong intuition that it's the white people who hold most of the responsibility for feeling safe in this context, while I have a strong intuition that it's the man who holds most of the responsibility for appearing non-threatening in an analogous context. And, as such, it's where the conceptions of gender and race intersect that my own thinking about this stuff gets more interesting (to me!).

Part of my intuition regarding the racial aspects of these situations comes from a friend of a friend who is a large black man that leads medium-sized seminars. He remarked to me once that, as a large black man, he has a choice to make whenever he enters the meeting room where his seminars are held: He can either act in a way that makes the white people in the room (especially the white men) feel uncomfortable, or he can act in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Depending on the tone of the seminar, he might choose one over the other (sometimes it helped in teaching to make people feel uncomfortable, for instance). Of course, he said, this is true of his non-professional life as well, but it's very clearly apparent to him when he's leading seminars, because he is more in control of the entire situation by virtue of being the leader of the seminar.

After talking with him about this, it struck me that it is of course very unfair that he has to make this decision--as well as the fact that the 'default' position--what happens if he doesn't decide at all--tends to be that the white people are uncomfortable around him. What a burden to have to endure, really, to have it rest completely upon you whether people are afraid of you or not (to say nothing of the situations where there is nothing you can do to make people feel more comfortable, because their racism is so entrenched or some such). The intuition that I now have from this discussion and thinking about it is that it's an unfair burden that black men (and, of course, others) carry in this regard.

(I should note here as an aside that this is the least of my friend's worries, really; as far as bearing burdens, he's got lots to carry. I am not ignorant of the fact that this problem only scratches the surface of things.)

So when I think about Z's position and Z's sons, I think: Well, nobody ought to expect Z's sons to take all of the responsibility for white people's fear--it's the white people who need to take full responsibility for their own fear. But then, how can I also say that men ought to take responsibility for the fear that women may feel?

The answer is a messy one: Responsibility is tricker and messier than I have been treating it. First off, it should be pointed out that neither Malachi nor most of the commentors were adbicating (at least explicitly) any responsibility that women might have to feel safe themselves walking down the street. I come from the deBeauvoirian school of feminism, and as such like to recognize that where women have real choices, they may also be complicit in sexist problems. As such, responsibility does fall on women's shoulders, too. I recognize that this may be controversial for some other feminists, and I also recognize the real danger that people will take this as 'blaming the victim' as if I were taking such a simple-minded approach. But the possibility of complicity, for me, points to the complexity of the notion of responsibility.

When I walk down the street, I know I'm not a rapist. But I live in a world where lots of women have not only been sexually assaulted, but have had to endure various threats that may fall short of full-on physical assault; these threats can be traumatizing nonetheless--and as such, I think I have some responsibility to help communicate my good intentions (or my lack of bad intentions) while I walk down the street. Does this mean that I have all of the responsibility for women I walk down the street with feeling safe? Nope. But I still say I bear some of that responsibility.

Now, is that fair? Nope. It sucks, for all involved. I wish I lived in a world where I didn't have to think about this because women didn't have good reasons to feel unsafe walking down the street. But here we are, in this world. So, unfair or not, I still think I have something of an obligation. And I think other men do, too.

Which brings me back to Z's sons. As men, I think they have similar obligations toward women. But as men who identify as/will be identified as black/hispanic, Z's sons have an even more complex situation to deal with--and as such they may have less of an obligation to worry about how safe women feel. And they may have less of an obligation not because they have some 'privilege' or some such, but precisely because they don't have privilege--they've got more shit to think about. They have lots of burdens to bear that I don't have--when they walk down the street; ought they be more concerned about women in general feeling safe, or more concerned about the fact that here's one more thing they have to think about as black/hispanic men? I don't think I ought to speak for them, because the complexities of identity and of what to do in the world are such that I'm not sure that being a man (and therefore, in my opinon, being obligated to do things to help make women feel safer) 'trumps' being a black or hispanic man...or what that would even mean.

What I do know is that people who offer up simple solutions in this regard--whether they say "You're no feminist if you don't whistle while you walk" or they say "Men have no respoinsiblity to help women feel safer"--are probably not offerring up real-world solutions, solutions that will tend to make the world a better place for everybody. Instead of oversimplifying things (like I was doing, I think, as regards not considering the intersectionality of gender and race in this regard), we ought to take the complexities into account--so, for me, that means that it can be the case that men, in general, have some respoinsibility to help women feel safer; but it slso means that people of color (for instance) may have different obligations in this regard than white people. It may also mean that people who are privileged in various ways have more obligations than people who aren't--class issues and heteronormativity might play a part here too.

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