As a white male writer, it’s inherently problematic for me to write about feminist ideas. It’s hard for me to overcome the history of oppression perpetuated by my race and gender. Some call it “white guilt.” After a long internal struggle, I’ve had an epiphany: The best thing to do is shut up and listen.
Now in my fifth semester at ASU, a majority of my classes have touched on, if not wholly delved into, feminist theory. These discussions blow my mind every time. I’m learning about ideas that have altered my perspective of the world. In other courses I’ve taken, I usually have something to contribute to the class discussion, but the more I read feminist literature and listen to my peers’ experiences, particularly those of the female ones, I find I have less and less to say.
No matter how much I study, read and learn, I’m afraid I’ll never really “get it.” During class, I find myself sitting there, reading about and listening to the crimes and horrors committed over generations by whites, and especially males. Women of every race surround me and I half expect a few of them to hurl rocks at me, but they don’t. I feel such tremendous guilt when these issues of race and gender privileges enter discussion, and I’m compelled to suddenly silence myself — cut myself off from the discussion to focus solely on listening and understanding.
Anytime I think of contributing, I second-guess myself. I worry that the words I say sound misogynistic or chauvinistic. What if my words come off as completely ignorant? One wrong word can make my ideas fall to pieces. I don’t feel authorized to speak, and I think it’s because I’m not meant to. My lack of experiences has already removed me from the conversation.
I want to say, “I’m not like that! I’m on your side!” I want to assert myself as an ally, but I suppose what I really want is recognition, that is, reassurance from my female peers in my class that I’ve somehow figured it out, that I’ve transcended gender roles. But the need to assert myself so powerfully proves that I haven’t transcended beyond gender roles. I’d only be asserting authority in a domain in which I have none.
I can’t simply declare my allegiance, I must demonstrate it, and I’m not even sure I know how. That’s why I need to shut up and listen.
I don’t think men, especially white men, are ready to contribute to the discourse. It would be arrogant to think that in the mere 40 or so years since the emergence of popular feminist theory that male scholars of the discipline have completely learned the error of their ways. I have centuries of nasty history behind me; it’ll certainly take more than a few readings of Judith Butler to figure out what it all means.
I think the awkwardness, embarrassment and vexation I feel is a good thing. If I learn to embrace the discomfort, I think I’ll be in a better position to learn.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @MrJakeWAdler
Want to join the conversation? Send an email to email@example.com. Keep letters under 300 words and be sure to include your university affiliation. Anonymity will not be granted.