What You Talkin’ Bout Willis?: Discussing Black Male Privilege, A Series
Man thinks about a little baby girls and a baby boys
Man makes then happy ’cause man makes them toys
And after man has made everything, everything he can
You know that man makes money to buy from other man
This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl
He’s lost in the wilderness
He’s lost in bitterness
-James Brown, “This is a Man’s World”
I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.
In 2008, author, sociologist, gender analyst, and Social Worker Jewel Woods published “The Black Male Privileges Checklist,” a list of 94 privileges that Black men have access to that Black womyn do not. Woods’ list hews closely to, and is modeled after, the groundbreaking essay by Peggy McIntosh entitled, “Unpacking the Knapsack of Unearned White Privilege” in which McIntosh reviewed the ways that she could move through the world as a white person, in ways that were denied to people of color.
Woods comprehensive list of privileges which he can access as a Black male include:
- I don’t have to choose my race over my sex in political matters.
- When I read African American History textbooks, I will learn mainly about black men.
- I have the ability to define black women’s beauty by European standards in terms of skin tone, hair, and body size. In comparison, black women rarely define me by European standards of beauty in terms of skin tone, hair, or body size.
It mirrors McIntosh’s list which outlines 50 areas of white privilege, including:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
Both lists work to lay bare the day-to-day realities of privilege. With one substantial difference – many of us understand and accept, know intimately even, the reality of white privilege, but the idea of Black male privilege, smacks of contradiction.
Or does it? Over the next few weeks here at thebibliophile, I’ll be investigating ideas around gender, particularly:
- Woods’ work on Black male privilege
- Male privilege and intersectionality
- Male privilege and popular culture
I invite you to read, engage, and comment as the series of posts develop.
Black Male Privilege & Contradiction
Is the idea of black male privilege a contradiction? The initial reaction to Black male privilege, for me, was to wonder, why Woods uses a marked term. In literary theory, a marked term is a term,
“that has some limitation or boundary in its meaning when contrasted with an unmarked word [term] without such a limitation or boundary. Algeo points to the example of stallion (marked for male gender) and mare (marked for female gender) in contrast to the word horse, which is unmarked for gender.”*
In other words, Woods marks the term “male privilege” because he is drawing out male privilege as it is played out within a particular cultural context – the male privilege that is specific to Black socio-political realities and culture. I don’t think the idea of Black male privilege (BMP) is a contradiction, but I do think we have been conditioned to think of Black men as being in (constant) crisis, and as a result, discussing male privilege, in a meaningful way, in the Black community, becomes a crisis in and of itself.
Woods’ list, I think, raises uncomfortable, difficult, and challenging questions – even as he himself misses a vitally important marker: heterosexual and biologically-born male. Male privilege is not bestowed on all men equally. Men of color, differently-abled men, men from low-income backgrounds, transmen, gay men, or men who are deemed effeminate are often barred from full enfranchisement of male privilege.
That is why Woods’ carefully constructs a list that is appropriate for Black men – that takes into account that all men are not treated equally, while calling men to be accountable for working for their own privilege.
By removing the ability for readers to say, “As a Black man, I don’t have privileges” (read white privilege), Woods forces us to consider some key questions. For instance,
1. If Woods is speaking primarily of male privilege, why does he mark it as “Black male privilege,” why not simply call it male privilege?
2. What does it mean to speak about the ways that men in the Black community have privilege based on their gender?
3. What does it mean to consider Black male privilege through a heterosexual lens? Do all Black men have the same access to male privilege?
4. How could a discussion of male privilege shift conversations about racism?
5. How can we as a community of Black people have a conversation about Black male privilege, without blaming or alienating Black men?
Understanding Male Privilege
For Woods’ work to have meaning and value, I think it’s important to understand male privilege. Diversity practitioners like Paul Kivel have long discussed male privilege which include the privileges to as one man wrote:
- I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.
- If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
- I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.
- My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
- When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
Male privilege, like white privilege is a series of unearned benefits that are bestowed upon those who are seen as having power and social value, often based on systemic disenfranchisement and injustice.
The idea and work around Black male privilege, seems to me, to be a worthy conversation – even as the very idea of even discussing Black male privilege treads in race traitor territory. Statistics suggest that Black men are in crisis: 1 in 3 Black men between 20 and 29 are involved with the criminal justice system, Black male unemployment reached 15% in 2009, only 3 out of every 100 Black male kindergartners will graduate from college, only 41% of Black men graduate from high school, 1.46 million men out of a population of 10.4 million have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction.** The statistics go on and on and on….Determined to drive home the narrative of Black male crisis.
To paraphrase, NPR Tell Me More host Michel Martin, can I just tell you, that Black men have been in crisis since we got off those boats? And collectively, men and womyn have been working to achieve racial justice in this country for centuries. There have been marches, forums, reconciliation meetings, apologies, lawsuits, standoffs, R. Kelley, and books upon books, on top of essays, and layered with treatises. Yet, in 2010, with a Black male President of the United States, Black men remain in crisis.
Who benefits from the narrative of Black male crisis? And when do we begin to return to language that acknowledges systemic oppression as contributing factors to Black male statistics, instead of pathologizing Black men, and ultimately the people who birth (and often raise) Black men: Black womyn?
Can I submit to you, that we as a people will remain in crisis until we deal with the very real crises of oppression within our midst; until we confront gender, homophobia, and classism. And yet, as I write this, I have a hard time finding my voice. I’m worried that I will be seen as blaming Black men, hostile, a man-hater, somehow betraying the race. And I’m a womynist! I spell womyn with a “y”!
But that’s how deep it goes. I wonder, how many other womyn and men, feel silenced into not discussing the very real presence of black heterosexual male privilege – there must be legions of us. And why is there such resistance to having the conversation. I can understand the reluctance to discuss white privilege on the part of many white people, but to intimately know and understand the impact of privilege, recognize that you have a privilege and then decide not to address that privilege, I’m completely and utterly confounded by that. After all, this is well-worn terrain. First groved into place in the 19th Century in battles for voting rights of Black people and womyn, later during the Civil Rights’ Movement, then most explosively when Alice Walker published A Color Purple, and again during the Anita Hill hearings. Why do we keep delaying this conversation and the work that must be attached to such dialogue?
What Woods offers then, is the opportunity to have a dialogue about the ways that privilege also plays a role in the statistics regarding Black men, particularly highlighting that once a Black man makes it through the gauntlet – graduates from high school, avoiding the criminal justice system, teen or early adult parenthood, homicide, makes it through college, and perhaps even to graduate study, that Black male will indeed face racism along his path, but he will also gain access to a great deal of privilege. And according to Woods, he may be far less likely to act in ways that do not reify male domination and power, particularly when it comes to womyn, and even more so, when dealing with Black womyn. He will in short, benefit from a great deal of intraracial privilege.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis, is his Founder’s Day speech at Morehouse earlier this week, sought to address BMP. He recounted a story in which Dr. Martin Luther King read aloud a letter from Septima Clark, suggesting that Dr. King put womyn in charge of organizing and leading marches in the south. Dr. King did indeed read Clark’s letter, but as the story goes, he read it aloud at an SCLC meeting, to laughter. What does that mean? How can we balance the idea of the lofty goal of equality with the realities of exclusion? What happens when people we revere, are unable to see an aspect of oppression in their own midst?
What does it mean when we are trapped so that as Patricia Hill Collins explains we see,
“Whiteness for feminist thought, maleness for Black social and political thought, and the combination for mainstream scholarship – all negate Black women’s realities. “***
While we as a community of Black people speak about issues of race and white privilege, we speak far less about issues within our own community; specifically the uneven dichotomy that demands justice based on race, and ignores or deems as culturally appropriate, injustice within our own communities based on gender.
Putting It In Context
When Chris Brown assaulted, (yes I brought up Chris Brown!) Rihanna, I waited and waited and waited for a prominent Black male to speak on domestic violence. When John Mayer let us all know about his white supremacist anatomy, I waited for one of the many Black male artists who have collaborated with him to say something? I mean, where was Kanye, that man is always running his mouth, where was he on this one? There was no real conversation. Oh sure, lots of blaming, many equivocal statements, but not a decision to put it on the line. No one was willing to go on national television and say “Hip-hop doesn’t care about Black womyn.”
I guess I am going to have to remain disappointed. Because when it comes to discussions about gender, our community, not just men, but the our communities for the most part, remain woefully unsophisticated in its understandings about gender. And when we do not step it up, to have more progressive, nuanced, liberated understandings, we end up getting played.
We have swallowed the internalized oppression that teaches us that heterosexual men as the dominant figure in a community, equals healthy society, even as we supposedly refute and refuse white cultural ways of being. It seems we are unable to follow the suggestion of Malcolm X that,
“We ourselves have to lift the level of our community, take the standards of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied…we’ve got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes…we have to come together with warmth.”
That ultimately instead of attempting to mirror white structures of power or culture, to truly be liberated, we need to think creatively about what culture and community we need, what is healthy, what is just, what is progressive? What will allow us to share and model equitable uses of power, and not just replicate a culture that never had our success in mind in the first place?
But in Africa…
In Africa, what? My favorite argument regarding oppressive gender dynamics in the Black community involves the phrase “that in Africa we did…” In Africa men were kings over everything, especially womyn. In Africa, Black womyn didn’t have any attitude. In Africa, Black womyn didn’t complain. This is wholly inaccurate, it’s irritating as all get out. For one, Africa, is not a country, it is a continent with 52 countries, several thousand languages, many cultures, and 10,000 years of art and civilization. Not to mention a substantial history of cultural groups that recognized more than one gender.
Beyond the obvious problems of inaccuracy, this statement romanticizes Africa, even as it remains hostile to the realities of actual people from the continent of Africa, by erasing the cultural and individual differences and longings of people from the contient. The continent of Africa was impacted by European contact, just as those who were transported across the sea were. To assume that gender is an uncontested terrain in African nations, eclipses the realities of millions of people – and it utilizes the powerful tool of monolithizing a people. Moreover, it misrepresents the history of the African continent, at the same time that it is being used to silence those within the community who raise uncomfortable issues that challenge power structures, that if we are honest, really are no longer working for us.
One has only to look to Uganda, where a law is pending that would use the death penalty to punish citizens who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual to understand that gender, gender identity, and sexuality are not only contested, but in many ways basic human rights are being challenged.
Unless what you have to say is, “but in Africa…” many countries are still working to overcome systemic oppression as the result of colonialism, or “but in Africa…”, particularly Rwanda, there have been great attempts at micro-lending to increase wealth, and womyn are creating safe havens for other womyn, then the “But in Africa,” back in the day statement, really isn’t of any good use. Because it also doesn’t allow Black people to evolve. It chains us to an imagined past, when in the very real future, we have work to do.
Equity in Practice
I’m not naive enough to think that if we all stop doing the two-step to “Dance in the Name of Love,” that gender within the Black community will be solved. But I do think the very simple act of engagement, what is called in Buddhism, mindfulness, can suggest a path that gets us to at the very least be thoughtfully conscious about the culture we are supporting or consuming. And ultimately remind us, that back in Africa, in the day, we had many different ways of being, and so many building blocks from which to create beloved community.
Here are some places where we can start:
1. Read Jewel Woods list of Black Male Privileges and Peggy McIntosh’s work.
2. Set aside time to really think about the list. Journal about it, talk to a friend about it. What are your reactions? What do you disagree with and why? Are you willing to make changes?
3. Take a moment to look at what media you consume? How are womyn portrayed?
4. Ask yourself, “do I have different standards for men and womyn?”
5. Gather a group of friends and have a dialogue about the list. You can do it over dinner, FaceBook, Twitter, or email.
And maybe Huey(as voiced by Regina King) said it best….
In a few days, talking about Lil Wayne, Tiger Woods, and sexuality….
* Western Literature in Context, Volume I (Davis, 1994, 323)
** Statistics from Black Male Community Empowerment Forum – http://morehousemaleinitiative.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/stats-on-aa-males2.pdf
***Patricia Hill Collins (2000, 12)