Privilege Is Invisible To Those Who Have It

In Part 2 of this series entitled, Gender Equality Has Something In It For Everyone-Including Men, Dr. Kimmel makes the point that privilege is invisible to those who have it while discussing obstacles to men's engagement for gender equality. Later in the series he'll share how men benefit from it.  We invite you to read Dr. Kimmel's transcript below or watch the video above.

Dr. Kimmel:

So what I want to do is I want to take the phrase, "gender equality" and I want to use that phrase to talk about two obstacles to men's engagement for gender equality.  And then I want to make the case about why we should support it, after I talk a little bit about those obstacles.  

Now the first obstacle has to do with the word "gender" in gender equality.  And that is those responses have nothing to do with men because we men most often don't think that gender has anything to do with us.  We think it has to do with women.  For most men gender is relatively invisible.  I mean if you hear the word gender or we have a discussion about gender, most men think we are going to have a discussion about women, right?  

I mean, if you teach a course in my university, if you were to teach a course called like Psychology of Women, you get 95% women in the class.  Teach a course called Psychology of Gender, you get 90% women in the class.

GENDER REMAINS LARGELY INVISIBLE TO MEN

One of my students once said, “Well real men don't study gender.” 

The idea of making gender visible is our first task because gender remains largely invisible to men.  Most men don't know that gender is as important to us, as women understand it is to them, and this is political.  

So I'm going to tell you my own story about how I first started thinking about this.  30 years ago when I was in graduate school just across the bay at Berkeley.  

(A) bunch of us got together, and you know how those of you who have ever enjoyed graduate school, you know like, graduate students are like a very strange group of people. They will read an article in a scholarly journal that seven other human beings on the face of the planet will have actually read but they will think it is of momentous importance.  So anyway, a bunch of us were sitting around one day and we were talking and somebody said, now this is 30 years ago and somebody said, “You know, there's an explosion of writing and thinking in feminist theory but there's no courses yet.”  So, we did what graduate students would typically do in a situation like that, we said, “Okay, let's have a study group.  We'll get together once a week, we'll read a text, we'll talk about it, we'll have a potluck dinner.”  So every week 11 women and me got together.  We would read some text and feminist theory and talk about it.

And during one of our meetings, I witnessed the conversation between two women that changed everything for me.  One of the women was white and one was black.  

The white woman said, this is the part that's going to sound really anachronistic now, the white woman said, “All women face the same oppression as women.  All women have a similar experience as women, and therefore all women have a kind of intuitive solidarity or sisterhood.”  And the black woman said, “I'm not so sure.  Let me ask you a question.”  

PRIVILEGE IS INVISIBLE TO THOSE WHO HAVE IT

So, the black woman says to the white woman, “When you wake up in the morning and you look in the mirror what do you see?”  And the white woman said, “I see a woman.”  And the black woman said, “You see, that's the problem for me, because when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror..” She said “I see a black woman.  To me race is visible but to you race is invisible, you don't see it.”  And then, she said something really startling, she said,  “That's how privileged works.”  “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.  It is a luxury  I will say to the white people sitting in this room that do not to have to think about race every split second of our lives.  Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

So remember I was the only man in this group.  So, when I witnessed this I kind of groaned and I went, “Oh no...” and someone said, “Well what was that reaction?”  And I said, “Well, when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm kind of the generic person.  You know, I'm a middle-class white man.  I have no race, no class, no gender.  I'm universally generalizable.”  So I like to think that was the moment I became a middle-class white man…..that class, and race, and gender weren't about other people, but they were about me and I had to start thinking about them and it had been privileged that kept it invisible to me for so long.

Now I wish I could tell you this story ends 30 years ago in that little discussion group, but I was reminded of it quite recently. I have a female colleague at Stony Brook, where I teach, and she and I both teach the Sociology of Gender course on alternate semesters. So whenever it's my turn to teach, she'll always come to give a guest lecture for me and when it's her turn, I'll go give a guest lecture for her.  So I walk into her class of about 350 students to give a guest lecture and one of the students looks up as I walk in and says, “Oh finally, an objective opinion!”

THIS IS WHAT OBJECTIVITY LOOKS LIKE, YOU KNOW...DISEMBODIED WESTERN RATIONALITY

All that semester, whenever my colleague opened her mouth, what my students saw was a woman. Rayona, if you were to stand up in front of my students and say, “There is structural inequality based on gender in the United States.” they would say, “Well of course you'd say that, you're a woman, you're biased.”  When I say it they go, “Wow!  That's interesting. Is that going to be on the test?  How do you spell structural?”

One of the world's leading experts on men and masculinities, Dr. Michael Kimmel.

One of the world's leading experts on men and masculinities, Dr. Michael Kimmel.

So I want you to all see, I hope everybody even in the back can see, this (points to self) is what objectivity looks like.  You know, disembodied Western rationality.  

And, you know, women in the room know what I'm talking about because you've had a conversation, argument, disagreement,  discussion with a man who will say to you, “Now wait, let's look at this objectively.” The translation from Martian into Venusian is, “Let's look at this from my point of view.” This is objectivity.  So, this I believe is why men wear ties.  Because if you are going to embody, disembodied Western rationality, you need a signifier and what could be a better signifier of disembodied Western rationality, than a garment that at one end is a noose and the other end points to the genitals. That is mind-body dualism my friend.  Right there, very nice.

OUR FIRST TASK IN BRINGING MEN INTO A CONVERSATION ABOUT GENDER EQUALITY, IS BRINGING MEN IN TO A CONVERSATION ABOUT GENDER

So part of my argument so far is that our first task in bringing men into the conversation about gender equality, is bringing men into a conversation about gender.  Making us aware that gender is as important to us, as women understand it is, to them.  And that this is political.

Now the second obstacle I want to talk about is men's resistance to gender equality. Because there is a notion and not as shared in this room I'm happy to hear,  but there is a notion out there that gender equality is a zero-sum game that if women win, men are going to lose.  So I'm going to tell you a little bit about that.  

I was on a TV talk show few years ago very well-known black female host came out of Chicago and just let me state….(see Part 3 on this blog soon or you can watch it here now).

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