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The Carletonian

Re-centering masculinity: lessons from an anti-racism conference

<s recently fortunate enough to attend an anti-racism conference in St. Paul. The conference was two days of thinking and talking about race and white privilege in the United States at present. My attendance there sparked many new questions, giving me new frameworks through which to conceptualize anti-racism work. Most notably, a presentation by Heather Hackman, professor of Social Responsibility Studies at St. Cloud State University, introduced the dangerous notion of “re-centering whiteness” in anti-racism work. If focus shifts to white people and their experiences and guilt, it is dangerous because it diverts attention away from people of color, continuing the legacy of silencing and ignoring their experiences and thoughts. From this impulse to “re-center whiteness,” I posit that the re-centering process can normalize others with privilege, and I take as an example the notion of re-centering masculinity. Through this re-centering process those that then “must choose” between different parts of their identity or identities are most marginalized.

In anti-racism theory, oppression is prejudice plus power. For a concept or act to be identified as oppressive, it must have power on individual, cultural, and institutional levels and it must be prejudiced in behaviors or attitudes. Therefore, an individual lacking cultural and institutional power, such as a person of color, can discriminate against others but can never be oppressive.

Given this model, white people can be actively oppressive. However, the notion of “whiteness” allows white people to passively condone racism. Whiteness is comprised of white privilege, the system of benefits that white folks receive simply by being white in our society, and white supremacy, “the values, beliefs, ideals, behaviors, and cultural markers that justify racism on all levels (individually, culturally, and institutionally) and supports the existence of white privilege.” Thus, if white people, including myself, are not actively seeking solutions to problems of racism, we perpetuate a system that has normalized us; we are part of the problem, every day.

I am very much on my own journey coming to terms with my inheritance as a part of whiteness and white privilege. By no means do I pretend to be an expert, but given the above information I feel like I can do something about it. For this reason, I share it with you today.

Reflecting on the conference, I further recognized my ability to empathize with the struggles of people of color through my own struggles as a member of different marginalized groups. Not to say that I can understand their experiences, all I can do is grasp at experiences told to me. That said, I feel that how racism and whiteness are conceptualized can be extended to other forms of oppression and privilege, for example to masculinity.

Making this transition is not “re-centering whiteness” because there are queer people of color as there are women and trans folk of color, and the journey to end racism and white supremacy can therefore not end merely by targeting one “ism.” These intersections of identity are important because in discussions of masculinity, for example, the assumption is made that all men are straight, white, upper-middle class and cisgender unless otherwise specified. It is of the utmost importance to recognize that there are queer people of color and women and trans folk of color. Because people are complex, so is oppression. Peoples’ identities are complex, more complex than one marginalized identity or one normalized identity.

I would like to extend the conceptualization of whiteness to what I see in gender and sexuality work. Masculinity is an all-encompassing form of whiteness. Just as whiteness is normalized and re-centered, so is masculinity and thus whiteness, straightness, and cisgenderness. I see this in the way my office values work on masculinity issues over other issues and diverts attention away from groups that have been historically and culturally silenced and ignored. I see this when, in a discussion about Carleton’s new president, the pronoun “she” is conspicuously forgotten or stumbled upon as an afterthought. I see this in a series of articles in the Carletonian about “good manhood.” I see this in a Carletonian article that cites “both men and women” as though they are the only categories for gender. I see this in a community that persists in using the word “guys” to refer to mixed-gender groups, despite the request from its members not to do this. I see this in a community that physically and spatially separates its offices according to types of oppression.

This is not to say that work surrounding masculinity is not important. This is not to say that work around just one oppression is not important. It is to point out that, as with anti-racism work, there are two sides to a coin. There is a system that gives some unearned privilege and actively teaches them to not see this privilege. It is important to be mindful that we, as a community, are not re-centering attention to those who have historically received cultural and institutional backing. Furthermore, by strictly separating these “isms” out, we may be forcing our members to choose between different parts of their identity/identities.

To end, I ask: what can I do to challenge racism and white privilege today? And I ask you, as members of my shared community, that same question: what can you do to challenge racism and white privilege today? And I ask further, what can I do to challenge sexism, heterosexism and transphobia today? What can I do to challenge able-ism? Classism? Other isms? And what can you do? Because, to cite a fellow Carl, Mari Ortiz (’12), “if you’re too comfortable, you need to MOVE!” If you’re not being challenged, it is your responsibility to find a space where you will be.

Information about racism and white privilege copyright 2006 Hackman Consulting Group

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