Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)

In Search of the Great White Male: Or, We Need New Terms

Shortly after writing my last post, I received a text from a friend, signed off with “#solidarity from an often sheepish-feeling avatar of Academic Male Privilege™”. I’d already planned on continuing my rant making space in another post for some of the things that I couldn’t find room for there, but wasn’t quite sure how to bring it all together. This text sparked some of the conversations and questions that underpin this post: conversations and questions about terminology, about laziness, and about how best to go about dismantling “the intersection of power structures [that bell hooks calls] the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” (a formulation I’m borrowing here from DTMH, because like everything they do it’s particularly neat and effective) as they operate within UK higher education.

The thing is, some of my best friends are men. And not just my best friends: my partner, my colleagues, my family members, my students. Most of them are able-bodied, many of them are white; some are straight, some are middle class. Increasingly, I find these relationships an obstacle to the kind of things I (think I) want to say. In the classroom, and in public discussions, I feel inarticulate and abstract, guilty of over-simplification and of scapegoating, frustrated by having to make the imperfect choice between blanket terms and complicated formulations that stack qualifiers on top of qualifiers. For me, these relationships bring into sharp relief the inadequacy of the terms within which conversations about inequality unfold, both in the classroom and in public discussions about academia.

In many ways, hooks’s Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy meets my intellectual and political needs very well. However, it can prove an unwieldy phrase in the classroom – doing it justice in this kind of setting requires conversations about the relationship between systems and individuals that aren’t always possible in the time allotted (caveat: I firmly believe that this time should be allotted from the very beginning of UG study, but sadly it rarely is – an issue that deserves its own post). In my experience, issues of race, gender, class, dis/ability, sexuality, and so on come up on a regular basis at all levels of humanities teaching, and it’s crucial to encourage students to talk openly about them without feeling like they haven’t read enough or will make terminological blunders that risk being misconstrued by their teacher and their peers in racist, sexist, ableist, classist, and/or homo- or transphobic ways. My feelings about this are elastic, changing according to (what I perceive to be) the needs of the students in question, and I try to prioritise intention and the willingness to be vulnerable over precision.

My feelings about the ways in which we talk about the kinds of systems and practices that sustain the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy in public discussions about academia, though, are very different. What I see here, and particularly in discussions about gender, is a pervasive laziness. At the heart of this laziness is, I think, an entrenched resistance to acknowledge, let alone engage with, both the complex relationships between systems and individuals at work in higher education, and the ways in which class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on intersect to let some people in and keep others out (as well as to let some people rise to the top, and others to hit all sorts of career-limiting ceilings). Talking about inequality publicly and with passion is incredibly important, but so are the terms and methods we use to do so. Targeting patriarchy–particularly by using gender to align a set of (identifiable) individuals with a wider system of domination that extends well beyond gender–not only elides these complex intersections, as I argued in my last post. Ultimately, it contributes to the perpetuation of this power structure by participating in the very practices that keep it alive: practices such as the failure to see individuals on their own terms, rather than as stereotypes, and the use of gendered/raced/classed language. Terms like “mansplaining” and “swagger” are not solutions. They’re part of the problem.

Riffing on Ehrenreich and English once more, different women experience sexism in different ways, and many women encounter forms of oppression that have little, if anything, to do with gender. So men experience privilege in different ways, and often with a side serving of classism, ableism, racism, homophobia, you name it.  I feel this perhaps most acutely in the classroom: where, like MH Beals, the gender talk that frames the relationships between myself (a straight, white, able-bodied middle class woman) and male students of different classes, races, abilities, and sexualities in terms of a simplistic dynamic of oppression and privilege seems especially absurd (and no, I’m not including that because it’s endorsing my last post – it’s an important point, well put):

I also feel it at home, and in an array of other interactions: the great white academic male is, if not quite a mythical beast, then one spotted rarely, and from a distance. The slings and arrows we aim at him almost always fall short, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do damage. What they chip away, though, is not the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy as it operates in higher education, but at the possibility of seeing the exclusionary practices that make academia inaccessible to some, limiting to others, and preferential to a few for what they are, and of working together to undo them.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is about how the language we use when we talk about exclusion and oppression in HE too often lets us down. Or, rather, that we too often compromise our intentions with poor language choices. But also, something more worrying: that this language makes it difficult to tell real resistance from complicity. Sexism is not a productive synonym for the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, and specific groups of men are certainly not a useful metonym for it. We need new terms, and we need them now.


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This entry was posted on March 24, 2015 by in Diversity in HE.

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