not in Primary anymore

waking up to my (male) privilege

By Derrick Clements

It’s going to take me a while to get to the point of this post, but stay with me. It’s not a parable. It’s just a play-by-play reenactment of a troubling and somewhat invigorating realization I had this week, which turns out to be a realization I have already had before, which makes me wonder if I’m really getting it or not. But, as I’ll get to by the end of this, there might be a reason for that.

I slip easily into nostalgia. Generally, this is something I like about myself, that I can time travel in my mind with little effort. And that skill has come in handy at BYU, a place that exists in almost constant construction and renovation. I can’t think of a time I have been more wronged by my university than when they decided to tear down Deseret Towers — my first college home (R-5, baby!) — while I was on my mission. I couldn’t even give it a proper goodbye in person — I came home from Brazil and it was just… gone! In its place, for a long time after that, was dirt, grass, and a zombified Morris Center that, no matter how many times I peered in the windows to try to recapture the feeling of Sunday dinners, never became a cafeteria for me again.

Because I never had a proper mourning for the old towers, I used to walk across the lot on my way to work at the MTC, day after day, struggling desperately to visualize exactly where crucial moments in my life took place years before. The funny thing is, now that I no longer work at the MTC, those same lots, now replaced by new dorms, make me nostalgic for my old job that I loved, and those long walks to work that I loved as well.

Despite BYU’s best efforts, Provo still has intact many artifacts of my past. As I walk down streets soaked in my romantic maturation (in all its happiness and occasional pain), I see the apartment complex where I awkwardly transitioned from mission life, and feel embarrassed and perplexed by the person I was when I lived there. Nearby is a house that I really want to go inside again. The last time I did was probably 15 years ago, when two of my sisters lived there when they were students here. I remember the living room and kitchen perfectly. It kills me not to know if it still looks the same.

Tonight, I walked by that house again and noticed a sign in front advertising a vacant room. I instantly began formulating a plan to get some female friends to pretend to be interested in renting it, just so I could go in and see what the place looks like now from the inside. I spent the next block or so calculating the moral justifiability of that dishonesty.

The artifacts that trigger my memories are not always physical. Finding an old file on my computer can be just as transportive as an object or a familiar scent. And even though I’ve had my current computer only since 2010, it has files on it from when I was 13. Do I really still need the paper I wrote about The Golden Compass in middle school? (Answer: YES.)

As a teacher’s assistant during the last year, I have read some pretty terrible papers written by freshmen. I definitely did not ever remember writing as badly as some of them. But this week, as I was reorganizing my digital file cabinet, I read one of worst papers I have ever read, and it was by me, my freshman year. I probably wrote the thing up there in those rose-colored glass Towers of Deseret.

In the paper, I set out to speculate what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln would have thought about modern issues like affirmative action. And I quote:

Every “modern” period has faced unfamiliar terrain.  With every passing era comes new technologies, new understanding, new types of employment, and new social problems.  But to solve the tough questions of each modern era, the only place to look for guidance is, imperfectly, back—to past generations, even though past generations never could have experienced the question firsthand.   Speculation delving into the mindset of the past’s great minds can however be extremely powerful.  Intellects such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln were focused on the particular issues of their days, but their wisdom can transcend their time periods to answer today’s toughest questions.  Looking to them is a good idea because of their timelessness and brilliance.  Furthermore, if today’s scholars do not look back, they can never hope to gain greater understanding of the present and how to shape the future.

I am sorry to put you through that. Side note: isn’t it so cute and Mormon of me to think that the solution to complex problems is to just see what people in authority might have thought about it? Aw.

The point is I bask in all available memories, not just the ones I am proud of. Which is why I was able to get through a folder I found on my computer this week called “IM Conversations.” Remember Instant Messenger? IM is to gChat what land phones are to cell phones. And IM for me was my primary medium for personal discussions with friends and, in particular, girls, and, in particular, the first real relationship of my life.

It’s odd, so incredibly odd, that those sincere, private, serious, important conversations exist, today, on my MacBook Pro, in exactly the same format as they did originally, as words on a screen. No pages have faded, no words altered. The only thing that has changed about them is that now, both speakers are now separate individuals from myself, instead of just the other person.

I did not, for example, remember how utterly insecure I was, or how zealous I was in my language about my religion, or how judgmental I occasionally was toward others. And I was especially surprised to see how shockingly oblivious I was to my own male privilege. In these conversations are words that express my heartfelt affection, yes, but you can also find in them also all the evidence you need to convict me of implicit boxification of women and their roles.

Misogyny accidentally and invisibly fueled the way I complimented and expressed affection. Like how dirty energy might be used to power a hospital. The intentions were good, but the context was inescapably evil.

Male feminists cannot ignore the way male privilege permeates every perspective we have. Believing that men and women are really equal does not take away the advantages that society has (arbitrarily) given us since birth. Claiming to be a feminist does not erase the problems that feminism seeks to solve.

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One of these words is not like the others.

Male privilege is not something that “bad male feminists” have — it is something that all males have, feminist or not. If you are having a hard time noticing your privilege, that just so happens to be the leading symptom, so you’ve almost certainly caught a bad case of it. It’s a nasty bug that has been going around, but fortunately there is a remedy. Just check it.

So you’re a male feminist, I must always remind myself. Your enlightened attitude does not make you immune to the powers of your privileged paradigm.

See, this is what is so tricky about privilege. That 16 and 17-year old Derrick I was reading from is not a bad kid. In fact, that kid prides himself on how well he “treats” women. But much to the embarrassment of his older self, what Derrick v.1 intends as a remark of loving affection is actually just neutered objectification. And what he mistakes for enthusiastic human respect is actually just pedestal-worship.

Reliving old memories helps me check my privilege. As I read what my younger self wrote, I can see much more clearly than I could then the problems with my own thinking. And better a decade late than never.

Also, seriously, Derrick? I can’t think of a time I have been more wronged by BYU than when they knocked down Deseret Towers? Perhaps I can look past my own nose to see some gay students, or non-Mormon students, or disaffected-Mormon students, or non-white students, and what they confront every day, whether they want to or not.

As @MalePrivilege says, “it turns out it’s easy to go on hiatus from stuff that doesn’t really affect you.”

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I’d love to know what other tools you have — how do you identify within yourselves your own invisible crutches of privilege, and what do you then do about them? Whether the privilege be male, or white, or Mormon, or whatever particular label in whatever social context, it’s unavoidable, and it prevents positive change from happening. So let’s remember it.

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3 Responses to “waking up to my (male) privilege”

  1. Roseanna

    I loooooooveeeee this! Makes me stop to consider my racial/economic privilege. But also, I don’t think it’s bad to mine the words of great leaders from the past… Just gotta take it with a grain of salt and realize that Mr. Lincoln was acting from a place of privilege and in his own context (and skewed perspective) as well.

    Reply
    • Derrick Clements

      Thanks Rose. 🙂 And I agree that looking to the past is really useful, but I took it too far in that paper — there is a line between studying/remembering wisdom of great people in the past and speculatively projecting my own opinions on top of dead heroes. And in that paper, I left that line in the dust.

      Reply

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