Hierarchies, Power and Empathy

Men have a vested interest in maintaining the current system of unequal power relations between men and women. Women need to understand this. It’s very dangerous for women to assume that men are coming from the same place that women are coming from, or that the way women view the world is the same way that men view the world.

For example: there are some women who think that because they are white women who can see that they have white privilege, and that racism exists, and wish to bring these things to an end, that men are capable of being brought to a similar understanding about the oppression of women.

The issue is, however, that women, as an oppressed group, have the capacity to empathise with another, different oppressed group. We understand how it feels to be dehumanised, we can see commonality in our respective positions and situations, we have a higher likelihood of being able to see the humanity of another group of people who are oppressed, albeit on the grounds of race rather than sex (or on the grounds of race and sex for women).

Men, particularly white men who are at the top of the hierarchy, can only empathise with others who are like themselves, and have no frame of reference in terms of being able to assess the humanity of others, like women, who are unlike themselves.

However, it is sometimes the case that more powerful white men can empathise with less powerful men, whether white men or men of colour. This can lead to male-led and male-conceptualised social justice movements that are ostensibly for the good of, for example, ‘poor people’ or ‘people of colour’. Women assume that these movements are designed for the good of all people – women and men – but it is important to understand that within the frame of reference men have, they can only conceptualise the needs of other men. Men are concerned that there are other men out there who are not enjoying the full privileges they should have as men, and so these movements are actually designed to strengthen the power of all men as a class, across lines of race, religion, earning power and so on, and have absolutely nothing to do with women. The fact that men are sometimes capable of sympathising with other men, and working to better men as a class, does not mean that these men are good candidates for understanding feminist issues, or being involved in the struggle for women’s rights.

Furthermore, I think such white women underestimate the extent to which their own participation in systems that perpetuate racism is involuntary, accepted and invisiblised. It’s all very well to say that ending racism would benefit everyone, but this rhetoric quickly loses its authority when it comes up against how race relations are structured and stratified in the real world. The middle class jobs and lifestyles which reasonably educated whites are more likely to enjoy rely on the underappreciated and underpaid labour of an entire underclass of people in which poc are overrepresented, including cleaners, wait staff, transport operators, childcare providers, retail workers and many more. This inequality is only multiplied when applied to a worldwide context, where many countries are forced to supply raw materials, labour, food and goods to rich western countries. Simply being someone who is ‘against racism’ does not even being to address the degree of complicity that many of us have.

So for a well-off white women to say, well, I can see that it would be good if racism ended; therefore men will be able to see that it will be good if sexism ends, is erroneous for two reasons:

1)      It equates female conceptualisations of the world with male conceptualisations of the world, even though they are not the same due to different positions in the social hierarchy and being socialised to believe in different systems of values.

2)      It fails to take into account the scope of racism worldwide and what it would actually mean if racism ended. It would not mean that western lifestyles would continue on exactly the same, just with more black and brown faces in the boardroom. It would mean loss of wealth, loss of technology, loss of ease, more time spent doing hard labour in the form of growing food, raising children and whatever else. It would require an entire restructuring of our lives and our social values.

Now. That doesn’t mean that ending racism is not a worthwhile goal, but if we’re going to be serious about doing it, we have to actually understand what it will entail. A lot of men – perhaps most men – do understand (if only on an instinctive level) what they would be required to give up if women were no longer an oppressed class. In this way, they are again unlike women. White women who say ‘I want to end racism’ might be genuinely sincere, but sometimes naive about what such an undertaking would actually entail. Men who say ‘I want to end sexism’ or who agree with women that sexism should end, are not unaware of just how much their lives would have to change. And, for the most part, they don’t want them to. So men nominally go along with anti-sexist rhetoric, and perhaps get involved in feminism, not out of a genuine desire to create change, but in order to control and deflect discourse and ensure it does not become too effective in actually freeing women.

Again, based on their own ethical framework, women are going to be inclined to misinterpret these activities. They will see these men as being uneducated and misguided, and in need of more help and direction. This is because a woman who, for example, embarks on anti-racism work with the intent of actually working to end racism will necessarily as time goes on develop a more sophisticated understanding of how racism functions, and she will incorporate this into her activism, because her activism is intended to be effective. But men’s activism within feminism is not intended to be effective in terms of helping to end the oppression of women. It is intended to be effective in assuring their own continued access to male-class privilege by seeing that women do not get too out of hand. Their work is already doing what it is meant to do, and they are very happy with its effectiveness. But women are still assuming that men are innocently making mistakes and getting it wrong, and then waste copious amounts of time on men that could be much better spent on women.

In conclusion: I’m tired of hearing this argument. I hear it all the time from women when I name the agents of harm. And the fact that the women I generally hear it from are relatively privileged in terms of race and economic status only makes it more suspect. You know what? A lot of the time when I name the agents of harm to poor women and women of colour, they get it. They might not like what it means, but they don’t deny the reality of it. You know why that is? Because men don’t have to bother to play nicey-nice with those women they way they do with women who are higher up the social scale. And thus less privileged women have a more accurate picture of what men are like, and know that they are not ‘allies’ and are not invested in giving up their power.

3 thoughts on “Hierarchies, Power and Empathy

  1. mhairi says:

    Such a good post.

    Only (politically) Black women can effectively challenge the kyriarchy, for only they can properly understand the entwined effects of patriarchy and colonialism. That’s coming out now with the protests in India, Pakistan, Native American Reserves, and Egypt to name but a few.

  2. weirdward says:

    I agree. It makes me embarrassed to see the rubbish that 3rd wave white, western feminism is wasting its time on in contrast – choosing to enjoy porn, BDSM, defending the sex industry etc. etc. I can only imagine that the vast majority of women and feminists worldwide must utterly despise the stupidity.

  3. Delphyne says:

    This is such a wonderful article!

    Reblogged this at: http://medusagaze.blogspot.com/2013/06/hierarchies-power-and-empathy.html

    I also posted a direct link to this article on the Bra Busters FB page.


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