no, dude, it’s not bigotry

We interrupt the regularly scheduled MOOCopalyse in education with this little Public Service Announcement about oppression and outrage.

WARNING: This is probably a trigger post. It’s also probably a rant, though it isn’t meant to be. It’s intended to be spoken in my nice teacher voice. Don’t mind the shaking.

Rehtaeh Parsons died on Sunday in Nova Scotia. She hanged herself. After she was raped by four of her high school classmates who shared photos which got her shunned and slutshamed but the police took ten months to even interview the accused, then concluded there was no evidence to prosecute. Anonymous took an interest today and lo and behold, the authorities are re-opening the case.

That’s the backdrop. If you haven’t heard of Rehtaeh, you should go read her dad’s words about her. Especially the ones where he points out that no, she wasn’t bullied to death…she was disappointed to death, by people she trusted. By the societal mechanisms and social contract that are supposed to protect us and seek justice on our behalf, but so often fail victims of rape and all other kinds of sexual violence and abuse of power and instead heap further shame and re-victimization on those who are vulnerable. Especially – not only, but especially – young women. Especially when “boys will be boys” kinds of attitudes are brought in to justify the kind of systemic failure that led her to believe the world wasn’t a place she could live in anymore. Especially that.

But this isn’t about Rehtaeh. It’s about the fact that to many of us – men and women – her story is all kinds of familiar. Maybe personal, maybe no. Maybe just a horror we’d like not to see happen to anyone again. But CNN’s Steubenville apologia was only last month. Amanda Todd died less than seven months ago. We’re getting the message that this isn’t going to just go away unless we DO something. But we don’t know what to do, so we talk about it.

We live in strange times. Everybody gets to have a public opinion and 700 channels to share it on and I for one welcome our new Bedlam overlords.

But there is a strain of discourse rising in the cloud that is starting to permeate a great many of the conversations I happen on. It’s the idea that women critiquing men is oppressive and equates to bigotry.

Before I get the soapbox out, let me acknowledge it’s been a bad week on Teh Internets already. We’re all het up. Everybody has opinions about Margaret Thatcher and a lot of them are ugly which may well prove the old proverb ‘you reap what you sow’ but doesn’t make for a particularly productive public conversation. Kim Jong Un is rattling his soother sabre again. And from the What Were They Thinking Files, the world’s least thought-through call to racial reconciliation EVER, offending most people with ears but getting noses out of joint in the comments sections of major magazines, too.

(Note, fellow educators: a generation of anti-racist education in North America seems to have succeeded in making the word ‘racist’ an offensive thing to call somebody, while utterly failing to actually educate a vast swath of the citizenry about what racism, um, IS.)

Then the Rehtaeh Parsons story hit the media.

And it’s heartbreaking. Women AND men (and everybody else who may not fit the tidy binary) are sad and mad and want to make change and want to talk about it.

But there’s something weird to me about these conversations. I have a son as well as a daughter and a deeply vested interest in having this whole cultural mess improve for everybody involved. But when I see the people who are most societally affected by issues of rape, sexual violence, and patriarchal power responses Talking Out Loud about some of these awful, hidden, stigmatized issues, in public, and expressing their anger and frustration, I see that as good. I see that as where change begins. Maybe.

But if, god forbid, their conversation gets emotional or dares to generalize fear and anger, even in a culture where 90% of rape victims are female and 99% of perpetrators male, there is frequently a descent into accusations of “reverse sexism” and bigotry.

To which I quote The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Here’s the thing about bigotry, folks.

You’re right, generalizations aren’t nice. And they do tend to make playing nicely together across differences difficult. All of us would do well to remember that. But not all conversations are about playing nice: sometimes they’re about building up enough of a chorus to cross a Rubicon and not go back, about reaching that “we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore” place.

I think all of us have the potential to play a productive role in conversations about equality and sexism…whatever our gender. I absolutely believe that. I want everybody in on this conversation, mad as hell.

But part of this conversation will involve being mad at patriarchy and male privilege, guys. And that doesn’t mean being mad at you personally. Unless you stand in the place of defending the whole system. Unless you insist  on seeing any generalization of yourself as bigotry.

Let me explain. Generalizations – particularly about girls and sexuality – are at the root of the unequal power relations that not only allow young women to be gang raped at parties without intervention but to be revictimized after by both peers and the refusal of the authorities – the legal authorities, even the educational authorities – to dignify her violation with real consequences.

Yes, men are also raped, both by men and by women. This is true and generally the authorities don’t deal with the situation any better (sometimes worse) because that is the problem with rape: it is being made subject to the power of another and when you are on the low side of that equation systems of power like the law are simply not designed to raise you up. For women and girls, who are already on the low side of the gender power equation in our society, rape reinforces that status with a shock. For men, it must be like waking up in the wrong body.

But it is difficult to grow up in a female body and not have the generalizations that make women disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual objectification and sexual assault become, at some point, personal. The generalizing dismissals of “she wanted it” and “she was asking for it”: we have heard them all our lives. We ask ourselves, surely they wouldn’t say that about me? If we are lucky, we never find out. Many of us aren’t lucky. There is a lot of hurt and fear and anger and years of being subject to generalizations that are brought to these conversations about change. And when people are hurt and scared and angry they are not always the most careful about what they say. They don’t necessarily make the conversation safe or welcoming for men.

But that is not bigotry, folks.

In any societal binary – black/white, male/female, gay/straight – there’s a group with less power. Those in that group get generalized based on stereotypes all the time. These generalizations can have damaging and hurtful effects in all aspects of life, and they get institutionalized in phrases like “boys will be boys,” which essentially says, “that’s the way it is, dearie.” That’s sexism. Racism is the institutionalized power of whiteness. Heterosexism is the institutionalized power of straightness.

Bigotry is perpetuating a stereotype that reinforces the imbalance of power.

The generalizations DO work the other way, sure. Of course black people have stereotypes about white people. These stereotypes have been and continue to be a survival mechanism. Women have them about men, for the same reasons. Sometimes, in a story like Rehtaeh’s, those get triggered and people get angry and say things about “men” as a category that are not universally applicable and are hurtful to individuals. And I don’t think that’s productive. But neither is it “reverse sexism” or  bigotry, because the institutional power is NOT on the side of those generalizations.

It is prejudice, yes. It can be really hurtful to be on the receiving end of it. Absolutely. I think it’s important for men to talk about that, and for women to hear it. But until women are an equal proportion of CEOs and judges and law enforcement officers and other powerful figures that men face when they seek a place in society and justice when wounded, then that prejudice is not systematized. It’s not bigotry. It is a reaction against years of being diminished.

I think to participate productively IN those conversations we have to recognize that society does not yet treat men & women equally and IF we happen to fall on the power side of that societal equation and we are nonetheless keen to talk about issues of gender and violence and trying to prevent other people suffering what Rehtaeh Parsons suffered and her family continues to suffer, we need to come into the conversation understanding that the generalizations of how our gender has abused our power – and by extension, other actual human beings – will and DO fall on our shoulders.

No matter how sincere or good we, personally, are.

No matter how difficult it is to hear people make sloppy, sweeping generalizations that don’t apply to us.

We cannot show that those generalizations don’t apply to us by expecting to be treated with the privilege that marks our group in the first place.

If I choose to engage in conversations about racism, the generalizations about white people that will inevitably come out in that conversation as people work through their experiences will fall on me. Because I’m white. They’ll fall on me if I choose to engage in conversations about heterosexism, because I’m a woman with a male partner and therefore that particular inequality works and has always worked to benefit me while others suffer.

If I want to show that I’m an ally, I have to own that the inequality exists and privileges me.

If people of colour talk about white people as racist and I want to participate in that conversation toward their goal of making it better, I need to show that I get what racism IS and reject that worldview. That doesn’t mean rejecting who I am or being ashamed or beating myself up. It means digging deeply until I understand where my whiteness gets me treated as an individual rather a representative of a stereotyped group, and then being open to learning more about how I can help make change. Without getting butthurt by generalized anger, or needing the people on the oppressed side of the equation to make me feel okay. Same with classism. Heterosexism. Ablism.

We can all be in all these conversations. But we need to get that there are structural inequalities that are bigger than our individual experiences of them, especially where we’ve benefited from those inequalities. And we need to be able to hear the ways in which those inequalities have hurt other people, even if the stories are ugly and make us uncomfortable and want reassurance that the ugliness isn’t our fault. Maybe it isn’t. But we can only show that by being willing to stand next to it and use it as a mirror for our own actions and then making change. In ourselves. Which will allow the generalizations, ultimately, to die.

28 Comments no, dude, it’s not bigotry

  1. Amanda

    Oh, Bon. “If I want to show that I’m an ally, I have to own that the inequality exists and privileges me.” I think this is what is so hard, because it takes so much to overcome the fear of engaging in these conversations, which so often get heated and nasty. The idea that you have to also own some of the hideous, acknowledge it, it’s just hard.

    You mention the teacher voice, I get the mom voice, because it’s the really hard things that get us over the pass to the better things. I loathe acknowledging that even though my family has a wonderful, robust and progressive circle around us, we do not live in a world where my daughters are truly respected. Their bodies, to many, are still not their own. There are qualifiers that no one talks about for girls, for that matter there are for boys. Loved this by Dresden, which made me rethink so much:

    Anyway, I guess what I am saying is that despite how hard it is and despite not wanting to endure more speculation about my past by speaking out about my own experience with rape, I am ready to keep my voice at a volume that can be heard. For Rehtaeh, for Amanda, for all the girls who’ve been and those who will enter into this involuntary community of women/girls who had something done to us but for which we are blamed. We can change this, but it will not be easy.

    1. bon

      it’s that whole question of “truly respected,” Amanda…you made me think about what that means. i think it means, for me, where the default idea of “person” is one that isn’t gendered. that isn’t by default male. we still aren’t there.

      at the same time, i do think there are double standards around what boys get to do, as Dresden points out – i’ve watched Oscar learn to internalize those proscriptions from the time he was 4 and wanted to wear a ponytail on the top of his head as a dinosaur horn but got teased (i’d warned him that might happen, but it still broke my heart that it DID) – but i don’t think they’re caused by girl power or a sign that girl power’s outdated. rather girl power may not have really been the right way to go about addressing the inequality in our culture between what’s feminized and what’s masculinized. power is still on the side of the masculinized, whether it’s performed by a male or a female body. that’s the issue. a female body can take a certain amount of power by stepping into (some) masculinized power roles, but a male body still can’t give up power by choosing to be feminized. fascinating but so messy.

  2. Mom101

    I hadn’t heard about the Nova Scotia case until here. Just…horendous.

    All I can say is this entire post is sobering and important. And that I have so much more faith in the world knowing that people like you are in it, raising the next generation.

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  4. Arnebya

    You’re right. We CAN all be in the conversations. But we need to first look within and determine why we want to talk and what we want our words to convey. And yes, we have to first see where we fit in the discussion, take blame out, and reconfigure our piece in the puzzle of all the things. I see where I’ve judged victims (even being one myself; that is a learned behavior that I have had to deprogram from my being). I see where I’ve judged white people for pretending to “know” my oppression as a person of color (even though I get that it’s about trying to understand, not feigning comprehension.) I see that there are so many facets of race and relating and rape culture and and and that I sometimes feel all talked out, unheard. And then I take a deep breath and start talking again. I have to. Rehtaeh and girls like her, disappointed by US, deserve that and more.

    1. bon

      yes. judging victims is a learned behaviour, a distancing behaviour…i think it is one of the reasons we shouldn’t make clear gender distinctions in calling for change, because women can be just as much a part of the problem as men, even if from different power positions. i think teaching ppl to SEE those power positions and understand a) what’s wrong with them and b) how common identity positions and forms of speech uphold them would be a good start.

      i’m glad you’re still talking. don’t stop. i’m here beside you.

  5. Darrin White

    I am a man, and a fairly big one at that. Burly, and bearded. Since I was in my late teens I’ve been aware of people who were around me, particularly at night, and particularly when, at times, the only other person on a sidewalk, was a woman. Cross the street. Slow down or speed up. Move away, but not in a sudden way. Take a different route.

    For more roughly 30 years it has pained me that my mere presence can reasonably be taken to be a potential threat by many in the opposite gender. I knew I was safe to be around. They didn’t. Yet I have only other members of my own gender to blame -other men whose outrageous and irreconcilable behaviour has made the situation so.

    I’ve read every article and post about Retaeh Parson with a lump in my throat, and wet eyes. And as I do, as I have done with other stories here and abroad, felt a growing unease about the “maleness” that I share with the perpetrators of these crimes, whether they were active in its commission, or complicit in the covering up, the ignoring, the excusing.

    But here I am, male, big, burly, bearded. So what steps can I take when only those that really know me well understand that I pose little threat to anyone under almost any circumstance? To me it comes down the role of “father”. My role as a father.
    I have two sons, who I have always thought of as men. Smallish men, at present, but men all the same. While small now, their genetics are such that they are not likely to remain so, and, by their teenage years, they will probably be tall and broad, like their uncles and I were.

    “Boys will be boys” has never been an excuse for anything, not should it ever be. I don’t tolerate it at home. I’ve raised hell about it at their school. Behaviour is either acceptable, or it is not. Violence and aggression is almost never an acceptable response, barring an immediate threat you your own person, or a friend or loved one. You must always stand up for your family and your friends. If anything, your responsibility as a man is to take on that role – To protect. To encourage. To make safe.

    In that light, I have to conclude that the failure of society, of our society, right here, is one of men. One of fathers. One of “boys will be boys”. One where physical power is accepted as an inherent right to impose your will over someone else – particularly women.

    It stands to reason, then, that when the women among us raise yet another cry of anguish we cannot dismiss it as bigotry in any form. It is not sexism. It is illustration. Illumination. Retaeh. Amanda. Malala. How a long a list could we make?

    Retaeh was failed by a great many fathers and what passes these days for fatherhood. I don’t mean for a second her own father – that man has broken my heart with his words and his love for his daughter clearly filled his world to overflowing. But her school administration certainly had fathers in it. The police departments had fathers in it. The boys who committed the despicable act of rape had fathers. The young people who felt free to taunt and shame Retaeh on the Internet all had fathers. Their collective silence and inaction is tantamount to approval.

    Where were they all? Where are they now? And that, ladies and gentleman, is the modern shame of having a “Y” paired to an “X”. And the biggest shame of this whole sad affair is that, by and large, it is women, not men, posting the articles, the petitions, the blog posts, and the essays. Where are we in this discussion, fellow males?

    1. Chelsea

      YES!!! Thank you for a male voice in all of this. If only there were more like you! Your boys will no doubt become the kind of men I hope my daughter will choose.

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  7. Laurie McBurney

    Thank you for your bravery in addressing this issue, Bon, and thank you for your openness and willingness to be a male voice in this discussion, Darrin. “‘Boys will be boys’ has never been an excuse for anything – nor should it be.” Yes. I read something similar recently: “‘Boys will be boys’ means girls will be garbage.” I know we can do better.

  8. Annie @ PhD in Parenting

    Thank you for this post, Bon.

    Have you heard the Creating Consent Culture curriculum that my friend Shannon is working on?

    She has raised enough funds to create the K-12 curriculum (which she’ll make available for free) for Ontario, but is still looking to raise funds to be able to adapt it for all provinces/territories, as well as for First Nations communities in Canada.

    It isn’t THE solution to this problem (which is complex and pervasive), but I think this type of model has the potential to address many of the underlying issues.

  9. loribeth

    This is really, really excellent stuff, Bon. You should submit it to a newspaper for their opinion section, or to a website like Huffington Post. Seriously.

    And Darrin, thank you.

  10. harrietglynn

    As the white mother of a black son (via adoption) and a Filipino husband… no real segue here…. When I heard the latest horrific teen rape story, I keep thinking about my son and what we do to ensure he A) NOT play not an active part in rape (obviously) and its insidious counterparts of shaming, passively sending on photos … BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY THAT he be a LEADER in standing up AGAINST IT. My son is only 3.5 (!) and he’s already tall, handsome, extroverted & highly friendly (no thanks to my genes – LOL). If his personality traits continue, he will need to use his power for good. In the meantime, I keep reminding myself that raising a strong, compassionate, caring human is most important than academic/athetic success.

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  12. Honey

    Just want to say Darrin White, our society needs more men like you :-) We have two little boys and our hope is that we can raise them to be men like that.

  13. Neil

    In his comment, Darrin’s message to his son, “You must always stand up for your family and your friends. If anything, your responsibility as a man is to take on that role – To protect. To encourage. To make safe.”

    In her comment, Harriet’s message to his son, “NOT play not an active part in rape (obviously) and its insidious counterparts of shaming, passively sending on photos … BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY THAT he be a LEADER in standing up AGAINST IT.”

    Even in this discussion of power and privilege of men, why do we still insist that men use their power and privilege, even if it is FOR good, not evil.

    Are those the choice for boys — rapist or policeman?

    Little boys are given as many mixed messages and little girls.

    Be strong.

    Stand up for your family.


    Be a leader.

    Stand up against.

    Since when does the male chromosone make these attributes an essential part of maleness? We complain when toy companies want to market pink Barbies to our daughters, but consider it normal for boys to play with guns.

    Boys will be boys. You are falling into the same trap.

    I think part of the historic problem is that we expect our men to be the soldiers and police force and the protectors of the world, and with that endless burden on their shoulder, they embrace this power in ways that corrupt it.

    Why do we have to define men in such traditional “masculine” terms? THAT is part of the discussion as well.

    1. Loukia

      Wow, yes.. Bon’s post has me thinking and re-reading and re-reading it, and your comment has me thinking and nodding, too. I think life is also hard on boys. As a mother of two boys, I want THEM to feel protected, too. They’re also just as open to being bullied as a girl, I think… so much to think about, so much we should DO… but WHAT. It’s all so much.

    2. Amanda

      Aren’t we talking about acknowledging a way that it has been, not stating an enduring fact about gender?

      I don’t have sons so I cannot speak to raising them, what I can say about the path we’ve taken with our daughters is that it involves considering oneself as a protector. Stand up for yourself, stand up for others, be a leader. As to the gun bit, I don’t know that it’s necessarily true. I think it may be more what Bon was saying which is that there is a line that you walk as a parent, preparing children for ridicule they may get for picking something other than what has been commonly accepted. Some parents just don’t allow it which prevents the teasing but does perpetuate your point about limited options for boys. My daughter had her desire to to be batman for Halloween shamed out of her right along with her public love for the color blue because classmates and their parents said it wasn’t for girls.

      I was often shamed about being tall, marveled at for being strong, as if this was an extraordinary feat.

  14. Loukia

    The internet is the worst thing I think, for teenagers. Facebook for 12-17 year old is just awful. I was bullied in grade 7. Beaten up. Imagine I’d come home to message about how awesome the girl felt doing that to me blasated online? God, it was hard enough. I feel completely powerless when I think about how we can fix the problem, how we can stop bad things from happening to young people, but I don’t know. The innocence is gone.

  15. Suzanne

    One of the privileges of privilege is blindness to one’s privilege.

    A White guy I know bitches about doing the laundry for his 3 sons when his wife is away on business. I’ve said in so many words to shut up, I don’t want to hear it. I can say this because of my privilege: I care more about what’s just than his opinion of me, AND the power relation between us is even in the contexts in which we interact. A part of my privilege comes from being gay. My sense of self is not tethered personally or socially to the approval of men (as a group).

  16. gerardo

    Many people think admiting they have priviledges inmediatly makes them a target.

    Which is kind of an awful truth.
    If I say that society is treating me better because Im a man, or because Im upper class, or whatever, the first reaction Im going to get is a negative one.

    I dont think I have to be ashamed for what I didnt do. Im not there to show anybody that Im an ally. People that see me work will know.

    When I finally forgot about the binary way of thought I realised I was not “white” or “male”, Im me. Then I realised I didnt have to be ashamed of nothing, that I didnt have to justify white men and that I do not have to hold a position in this twisted game. I was free to look from outside.

    And from outside It is easier to understand the problems. Binary thought is the power. This is not about men vs women, and I hate when people go there, because thats missing the point. binarism is the cause of sexism.

    Because when I was a kid, 12 years or something, I though I was a “man” so I was on the “male team”. And there is no team, no nothing. When someone starts talking about men vs women I prefer to ignore It cause It doesnt adress any material problem.

    Im a materialist at hearth. I prefer to ignore ignorance, I donth think ideas shape the world, people cant talk all they want. It enfuriates me but Its not whats important.


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