Students came into class today on fire about the latest news of powerful men who have been fired for sexually predatory behaviors. Part of the conversational aftermath of the #metoo movement is the reminder that these abuses don’t just happen in Hollywood, journalism, or politics. This abuse happens to people who have far less power, who may have nothing to gain – and perhaps a lot to lose – by outing a manager at a fast food job they need, or a predatory president in small business that might contribute meaningfully to the local economy. Of course, that default setting to “silence” is one way a “system of privilege” works.
My students have been analyzing the essay “What is a ‘System of Privilege’?’” by Allan G. Johnson. Johnson’s tightly written text anchors the chapter on sociological readings my co-author Stuart Greene and I included in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Because of the before-class chatter about predatory behavior, I led the students in a visual exercise about gender and privilege that is not original to me, but one I recommend. I wrote on the board: “What do you do every day to protect yourself from sexual assault?" I drew two columns, one for men, and one for women. I called on the men first. “Uhhhhh….” Awkward silence. Then laughter. A student ran his fingers through his hair in thoughtful embarrassment and said, “Uh — I keep my pants up? And I try to just … be aware?” That elicited some laughter, but by this point the women were on the edge of their seats, hands shooting up.
What followed was an avalanche of strategies, tactics, and survival skills that are second-nature to women socialized in U.S. culture. As my handwriting reveals, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the torrent of routine behaviors women use to keep themselves safe, from walking in darkened parking lots with “Wolverine keys” at the ready, to buddy systems to watch drinks and get home safely, to a range of small weapons tucked into purses. The air was charged. Women were angry, but also seemed vindicated to share this anger.
I made room for some silence as we looked at the evidence on the board before asking: “So, what do we make of this?” One person immediately said: “That is privilege. Some people never have to think about sexual violence. Other people have to think about it all the time.” Some of the men talked about how their female friends frequently ask them to serve as their “bodyguards” at concerts or at bars. Other men nodded, one noting, “Even though I’m smaller than some of my female friends, they still see me as their protector. I don’t know how to feel about that.”
We dove into Johnson’s essay, then, and students made connections to insights by Jean Kilbourne on “‘Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence,” and the lively analysis by Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden of alternatives to toxic masculinity in animated films in the essay, “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar.”
With a little prompting, students could draw out intersectional insights that unpacked these simple categories of “male” and “female” behavior. As Traci Gardner reminds us in her powerful post “Who Counts When We Talk about Sexual Harassment?” repeating simplistic gender binaries erases the experiences of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, as well as sexual violence experienced by men. Further, an intersectional analysis reminds us that men of color receive fear responses that are often heightened, as the terrible record of police violence reminds us. Male students let down their guard as they revealed their hurt feelings when women cross the street to avoid them, or pull their purses close when they pass, or assume they are “players.” Privilege might empower some, but it warps the human experience of all.
At the end of class, dozens of students spontaneously lined up to take photos of the board to share on social media. Their words are now part of the cultural conversation. #StudentsToo.
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky