Coming to grips with my male privilege

Humans of Howard | Kamau Waset | March 30, 2016

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I have male privilege, and I’m just beginning to come to grips with what that means.

For nearly two years, I have been fighting on the vanguard of criminal justice reform. My time in the #BlackLivesMatter movement has encouraged me to speak very boldly against racism and institutions of injustice. I’ve spent a great deal of my time thoroughly examining whiteness and how the political construction of white privilege completely ravaged my black community and the democratic principles that were forgetfully promised. Yet, throughout that time, I never paused to interrogate other forms of privilege—particularly my own male privilege.

This privilege has been blind to me, and in many other ways, it has blinded me. For all my years, I’ve never had to examine what it means to live in a society that values a man’s word over a woman’s right to not be sexually assaulted. I’ve never had to think so much about the inequality between my paycheck and that of a woman’s. I have the privilege to vote for what a woman can and cannot do with her own pregnancy—and never once in my life did that bother me until now. Sure, I was raised to be aware of these things. Yes, I was raised to be a gentleman; to always listen and to value a woman’s word and body, and to treat a woman as I would my own sister. But aside from being taught the decency that every human being should have, I was never taught to examine my male privilege. It was not something I would learn until I was able to draw my own comparisons between police harassment and catcalling.

One day, I was sitting outside Starbucks, people watching, when I witnessed the repugnant harassment that women go through on a day-to-day basis. A beautiful young woman caught my eye. I glanced at her as she waltzed past me. I didn’t say anything, though, but I admired her from a distance. Just then, an older man walked in her opposite direction. He grinned as he attempted to snatch her hand, and as he did, he said something—though I couldn’t hear what. She spun around and said, “Don’t touch me, you are fucking disgusting!” The man watched her walk away as he shouted, “Well, alright, bitch!”

It was shocking. I was so stunned that I couldn’t bring words to my mouth. All I could do was watch in anger. Then it hit me: This is the same type of harassment that I’m fighting against from predatory cops. The stops, the frisks, the questions, the absurd entitlement, the damning act of authority over another person’s body—it is all the same. The way that a woman is assaulted and expected to keep quiet about it, as well as the media’s defense of her attacker, bares semblance over the cases I risk my life to fight. The comparisons between rape survivors and the victims of police brutality became clear to me. You can imagine how my mind was absolutely blown.

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To a woman, this is no new revelation; but to me, this was groundbreaking because I began to think about all the times I’ve contributed to this problem. In middle school and early high school, my male friends and I tried our best at exercising our masculinity by bragging about how many women we’ve had sexual encounters with. It was a chest beating competition, essentially. Many of us bluffed but the exercise was very real. The man with the most “bitches” won. The man with the least “bitches” was a “bitch.” The idea was to stack our relationships with women as one would a deck of playing cards. Though some of us participated out of peer pressure or sheer desire to be a “man,” the problem it represented was all too real. In that circle, we praised dehumanizing women to objects so that we might feel better about our flawed ideas of masculinity.

What a terrible expense.

Other forms of male privilege became obvious to me as time went on. I was raised in a society that exploits the idea of a disposable, dependent, hopelessly irrational woman. This country’s ideal woman prostrates to the sexual whims and desires of men. She is most useful through her body and is assaulted with an array of words when she chooses to preserve it—bitch, dyke, prude, stuck-up.
Our idea of women has been so far removed from reality that we value her only in convenient pieces—We want a woman who’s successful, but not more successful than her husband. We want a woman to be straight forward with her words but if she’s too outspoken she’s a bitch. We disrespectfully catcall women with hallow promises of respect. The hypocrisy is profound.

What’s most damning is that as men we’ve been taught to be skeptical of women. We’ve been taught that when a woman expresses her emotions she’s just being dramatic or irrational. When she communicates her concerns, we lessen the value of her word by assuming that her feminine qualities overshadow her ability to reason. And because of this, when a woman expresses that she’s been raped, we look the other way. We rationalize it. We invent ways to unsee it by making rape an expectation—“She shouldn’t have been drinking.” “She shouldn’t have been wearing tight clothing. “She was a flirt, what else was he supposed to do?” We lift responsibility off the shoulders of rapists and onto those whose voices are drowned out in our refusal to see a systemic problem.


The world that women are forced to live in is as completely unknown to me as my blackness is to a white man. I don’t know what it’s like to be catcalled or to ever fear the possibility of rape. I’ve never known what it’s like to be valued for my body and to explain to someone why they can’t have it. I’ve never lived in her world. But every day she is forced to live in mine—and that is the premise of my privilege. My privilege, just as with white privilege and other forms of supremacy, is built on oblivion and an inability to see the suffering of those who don’t have that same privilege.


And I’m only now taking pause to examine all of that.