I had a jarring jumpstart to feminism.
Before I came to this high school, I was at a school called Allen-Stevenson. This school is an all boys, white, wealthy, and cis-het school. This school is the epitome of Audre Lorde’s master’s tools for me. The number of rape jokes thrown across the halls; the sheer quantity of n-words white boys would toss to the few boys of color at the school as if it was a signal of their friendship; and the amount of homophobia, racism, and sexism instilled in me was ludicrous. The messages about homophobia and heteronormativity and the toxic masculinity that ensued were so strong that I was shoved into the queer closet without realizing it. The boys of color at the school and the one openly out gay kid were there entirely as tokens. It was very clear that the school did not want to put any energy into the wellbeing and development of these particular students, and it subconsciously taught all of us that these students weren’t worthy of education either.
That was the mentality I had when I came to my current high school. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long until I was confronted with what this school’s values are, which are quite the opposite. I was in rehearsal one day, and I made a joke about consent. A student overheard me, and she was rightfully furious. I escalated the conversation, probably saying something about her being a “feminazi,” and eventually she slapped me hard across the face. She stormed off and I was left reeling, trying to take care of both my bruised ego and my stinging face.
I did a lot of thinking that day, and the subsequent weeks that followed. As a closeted white wealthy man with a background at a school like Allen-Stevenson, I never understood what violence or privilege looked like. I assumed privilege only meant privilege in terms of wealth, and violence was only physical.
When white boys are raised in environments like this, it doesn’t teach us what violence or privilege are and their different forms, and since we are also taught that we are always right, we cry foul on people who call out our violence. It was only when I understood how the violence I was perpetuating affected other people that I was able to change. Slowly, I started to understand what my place was in the world. I started to understand the many privileges I had, and how I was using my privileges. I started to see how I was using the master’s tools, and how I was perpetuating toxic masculinity, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
My use of anti-consent jokes delegitimized the sexual violence women and femmes (especially women of color femmes) experience, trivializing it to become a joke, and therefore, something to not care about. My being patronizing of feminism and the way I compared it to fascism continued a long historical line of white men undercutting the liberation of women by claiming such liberation means to eliminate and eradicate white men. I perpetuated toxic masculinity through my desire to ‘one-up’ my peers, and the way I participated in and excused the behavior of creating hierarchies of women and girls by using toxic and violent language, and believing in the ‘friend zone’ (which, at its core, indicates men and boys deserve sexual intimacy with women and girls).
Since coming out as bi, my participation in toxic masculinity has been a subject that I’ve thought about often. It was one of the first intersections of my personality that I realized existed. I’ve had to continually question and analyze how queerness and masculinity align. For instance, I’ve noticed that often, the gay men in my life switch attitudes considerably depending on if they are in a queer or straight environment. In a straight environment, I notice their voices get lower, they puff up their chest, and they participate in toxic language much more often. When I came into a feminist consciousness, I began to question why this happens. I asked myself questions like: “do queer men feel they have to act more ‘manly’ when around straight men?,” “why is being queer not considered ‘masculine’?,” and “What do we mean by these terms?”
For one, feminism allows men and boys to break down the gender norms assigned to us from birth. From the destruction of those gender norms, men and boys are liberated, free from toxic masculinity which restricts us from showing outward emotion, participating in non-physical and non-violent activities, creating deep and respectful relationships with women, and allowing us to feel those same bonds with men. Feminism also requires self-reflection, which for men and boys, is often lacking. Such self-reflection allows us to be more in tune with our bodies and decolonizes our minds, letting us live more fulfilling lives.
From my standpoint now, knowing the things this high school feminism class has taught me and understanding how feminism aims to liberate men and boys as much as it aims to liberate women and girls, it seems illogical that more white men and boys aren’t becoming feminists.
Yet despite the healing nature of feminism, white men and boys aren’t coming to a feminist consciousness. Each year, our school cancels class for a day and offers workshops on race, class, gender, and sexuality; this day is called #ItHappensHere, which explores specifically how racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia occur at our school too, thus “it happens here.” At the end of the day, students split into their affinity groups, which are groups based on personal identity. During last year’s affinity groups, I specifically remember that when white girls were called to discuss the intersections of whiteness and womanhood, all of the girls in the room set up their chairs in a circle and talked about this difficult subject, and the discussion was enlightening and successful. I will address that they did not achieve in examining how their whiteness intersected their womanhood. But, they did talk freely about the struggles of being women: dealing with sexual harassment on the trains, being afraid to walk alone at night, struggling to love themselves, etc.
But when white boys were called to discuss the intersections of whiteness and manhood, no one moved. I could physically see the discomfort on the boys’ faces, shifting their eyes around the room, scratching the back of their necks, checking their phones. It wasn’t surprising, but it did show everyone in the room the difference between white girls efforts to examine themselves and share their experiences, and the boys’ lack of effort to do the same.
Often, when I talk to white boys, they are afraid of being “attacked,” and what that really means is they are afraid of confronting themselves and their privileges. They are afraid of being uncomfortable. Because of that, we choose not to be feminists.
But white men and boys should be an important part of feminism. As the group that is at the top of the patriarchy, we hold all of the master’s tools and we use them daily. We are often the ones that hold up the patriarchy the most, using possessive and violent language that demeans women, accessing and abusing top positions of power, governing and administering from a place of privilege that never reflects the needs of people other than white, cis-het men, and enforcing strict codes of masculinity that enable heteronormativity and the gender binary. As such, we are a vital piece in tearing these systems down.