That’s a loaded headline. But what I’m talking about is the intersection between my white privilege, and the male privilege and ingrained misogyny of many men of color I’ve met. This is a sticky, messy, difficult subject to talk about. This post is hard to write. The details of the dream fade so quickly. But it was one of the most real, most visceral dreams I’ve ever had.
I woke up this morning with my head full of the dream I had last night. In the dream, I am some sort of travelling creative professional, and I’m visiting some sort of big businessy professional office. For whatever reason, I’m there after hours, perhaps with another travelling friend. Also there after hours is a man, I don’t know if he is part of the office, or another visiting consultant, or another customer, or whatever. He is from Africa. And he has taken a shining to me. He is following me around the office as I work on my project, attempting to flirt with me and making constant remarks about how attractive I am. Multiple times I try to shut him down, say I’m just focusing on work. Every time I do so, he gets more insulted and annoyed, until he becomes openly hostile. Until at some point, he starts trying to touch me and it becomes a physical altercation. He is unable to dominate me though, and I eventually send him packing, at which point he is vibrating with rage, shame, fury at being refused. It is now that this person becomes truly dangerous. This is about the time I awake and begin a slow foggy process of realizing that the dream is a dream, and not reality.
But the dream isn’t a complete fabrication. It is an amalgamation of various experiences I have had, over time. Most specifically, it reminds me of a very real interaction I had with a travelling activist/anarchist/mystic sort of man. This story takes place over the span of about a week. Maybe two weeks. A is a soft-spoken sort of person. He looks like someone you might run into at Rainbow gathering, which is probably quite likely. His demeanour is sweet and friendly and he wears a medicine bag around his neck, along with other mystic sort of jewellery. He is a good hugger. His baggy clothes conceal his thin, athletic body and his skin is a deep, dark brown/black tone.
For a while, A and I are staying in the same apartment. Him because he is a chronic traveller (i.e. habitually homeless), and I, well, for similar sort of reasons. There are lots of people staying at this apartment because M, the kid who rents it is also a chronic traveller, and though M had a job and paid rent at the time, he liked having a crew of travellers sleeping at his place. So M’s apartment has become a sort of traveller flop house. He hoped that the traveller kids would pitch in to help pay rent, but none of them had any money. I had a job, so I contributed to rent, which also afforded me the honor or dibs on the matress in the corner of the living and room and use of the shelves behind it.
There might be a total of six extra people staying in this one bedroom apartment. Not all the time, but pretty consistently. Sometimes someone sleeps on the couch on the back deck. The median age is 20, perhaps 22. M is 19, though he carries himself as a much older person, the way a kid who ran away from home to spend their high school years travelling does. But A and I are the oldest people present, by nearly a decade, respectively. This sort of makes us the defacto alpha male and female people. Temporary den mother and den father to a ragtag bunch of mystic anarchistic traveller kids. A is an expert dumpster diver, and regularly comes back with enough food to cook up a large meal for everyone.
And there is a spark between A and I. We’re both highly sensitive, intuitive people, both regard ourselves as shamanic healers of sorts. Him from his perspective as an African American reclaiming his cultural heritage, I from my perspective as a European American reclaiming my (pre christian) cultural heritage. We get along, and it’s not long before he’s sharing the bed in the corner of the living room with me. This is where my general love of cuddling and need for touch runs up against my lack of actual sexual desire, and collides with my general sensual sexyness. Hmmm. That sounds confusing. I like cuddling and being sweet and sensual and romantic, I just would usually prefer not to actually have sex, and this is a very tricky reality to navigate and confuses a lot of men folk. Confuses me, often enough. I end up having a lot more sex than I would actually like.
The first spark of trouble comes when we are watching one of the Matrix Movies. I think it’s the second one? The one that’s made up substantially of gratuitous car chases and ghostly white dudes with locks. There’s a scene where Niobe and Morpheus are talking, and Commander Locke shows up and the whole scene turns into a dudely stomping fest over Niobe’s attention. The scene pisses me off because it essentially takes away all of Niobe’s agency and makes her into an object of these two men’s Ego showdown. I said something about it, and A launches into complaints about how movies are constantly emasculating black men. Yes, that’s true, I say, But this isn’t about emasculating black men, it’s about black men using a woman to validate their own egos (I’m sure I wasn’t that eloquent, but that’s what I was feeling). His actual response, word for word: “Honestly, I feel like misogyny is kind of a white people thing.”
I was too stunned by this sentiment to respond in any way. This was not a thought that had ever crossed my mind as something even remotely possible. I had just recently read “Possessing the Secret of Joy” by Alice Walker, a book that deeply and fearlessly explores the depths of misogyny in African culture through the practice of female genital mutilation, and considers the broad impact that it has had on the world and American culture. And I had seen article after article about how black men consistently betray, belittle, and objectify black women. But it is also not my culture. Not my context. I was unprepared to have this conversation with this guy. And he just wanted to watch the movie anyway.
ofI’m not really sure where that happened in the context of our night time sleep cuddles. But the conversation was a red flag that was soon substantiated by physical experience. To begin with A wanted to spoon me. First of all, I am incapable of sleeping the spoon position. I need my damn space and I can’t sleep with another person touching me. Cuddling is nice before and after sleep, but for me, sleep requires at least some amount of physical solitude. Secondly, even though A and I are the same height, it was nearly physically impossible for him to big spoon me, because our bodies are so different. His height is made up entirely from his legs, and he has a quite short torso. My height is made up mostly of my torso. So when he tried to big spoon me, his face landed squarely between my shoulder blades. Pretty uncomfortable. So I rolled over to big spoon him. But he was clearly uncomfortable with that, concerned as he was with maintaining his masculinity. Whatever, I thought. I just want to sleep anyway.
But it’s nice to sleep with another person in the bed. It’s nice to fall asleep and wake up to gentle caresses. And A’s touch felt good. He has broad, flat hands, that feel warm and dry, like being caressed by the desert sun. But he wanted to give more than I wanted to receive, and he would get sort of aggressive with the giving. He’d be caressing me with lovely, soft, open palms, and then suddenly squeezing my breast and nipple in quick aggressive motions. I would be just falling asleep, and I would feel him slipping his hand in between my thighs, just because that’s where he thought is should be while he slept? There was never any asking, never any tentative, “is this okay?” verbal or otherwise. His hand was just there. When I physically moved his hand away with my hand, it would immediately return, with a slightly more aggressive motion. When I moved his hand away again, and pushed him away from me, he stayed away.
But in the morning, slowly gently waking up, his hands were again on me, at first with the sweet warm caresses that felt like the desert sun, but then again, without asking, between my thighs, between my labia, aggressively searching for my clit with movements that were too fast, too harsh, pressing too deep. Again I physically moved his hand away, and again it came right back. Half asleep and not really sure what was going on, in a semi passive state, I let him fiddle around for a bit until he thought he had accomplished something.
But not for very long. Soon I just got up, saying, “I have to go to work”. He smiled a sleepy smile and cooed at me, “but it’s a lovely way to wake up!” as if he had just given me a golden gift and I was to be grateful. In my head I thought, “Actually no, it just felt incredibly invasive.” But I bit my tongue. Some sick fucked-up part of my internalized misogynist programming said “Don’t say that, it’ll hurt his feelings.” Instead of saying what I felt, I was just cold. I didn’t respond to his cooing at all, I just got up and left.
The next night, we just slept. I wouldn’t let him touch me at all. The day after that, A decided to keep moving. I didn’t tell M the whole story in detail, just said that A had been “unconsensually handsy”, and M expressed his own annoyance with the guy in other things and that he was glad he was moving on.
Men wonder why women don’t trust men. Men get insulted when women generalize about misogynistic behavior in men and when we talk about these things that happen to us, they worry that we will think that they themselves are “like that”. They say, “don’t project that villainy on me!” I’m a good guy! But the thing is, EVERY SINGLE WOMAN HAS A STORY LIKE THIS. This isn’t the only story I have. I have other stories that I will tell, I will dredge them up out of my memories, and I will tell them because we need to know. These stories need to come up out of the shadows. People need to realize, know, and understand just how pervasive the sickness is. Misogyny isn’t just a few bad apples, running around forcibly raping people. If I called A’s behavior rape or sexual assault, he would be outraged, hurt, insulted. It would feed the msiogynyst fantasy that women go around falsely accusing men of rape all of the time.
But that’s exactly what A’s behavior was. It was sexual assault. Not because he was trying to assault me, but because he didn’t ask my permission. He wanted to give more than I wanted to receive and he would have taken my rejection of his gift has personal insult. He didn’t ask my permission, and he ignored my nonverbal “no’s”. Because his Ego couldn’t handle the pain of rejection. Because in his mind, being rejected was somehow emasculating, and his masculinity is somehow dependant upon validation from a female body.
A isn’t the only black man I’ve cuddled with. I’ve had lovely, sweet and tender one night stands with other black men. I’ve also had more than one sexual-assaulty one night stands with white dudes who wanted to “give” more than I wanted to receive. I will tell those stories too. But I’m writing this one because I woke up this morning with a dream in my head, and these memories sitting on the top of my consciousness.
Where do racism and misogyny intersect? Where does my racism and white privilege intersect with a black man’s misogyny? White men certainly aren’t less misogynist than black men. But their misogyny is more familiar. Their misogyny is framed in the polite, calm, intellectual tones of white culture. But misogyny is also rampant in activist communities. It’s rampant in anarchist communities. It’s rampant in spiritual new agey communities. People somehow think that being politically active, being politically conscious, being spiritually conscious, somehow absolves them of any sort of crimes of privilege. Renders them “safe” from committing acts of violation. “I can’t be part of the problem! Look see here, I’m working so hard to fight against it!” As I think about A and my memories of his hands, I see the face of Elliot Rogers, complaining that no one would sleep with him. As if women owed him somehow.
But the thing is, we’re all part of the problem. I am part of the problem when I allow my fear and internalized misogynist programming to silence my words of self agency. I am part of the problem when I’m too lazy to engage in a confrontation about boundaries, and instead allow my boundaries to be violated. I am part of the problem when I hold my tongue for fear of “hurting his feelings”. That’s my responsibility. My healing work. But speaking my mind comes with a very real danger, because as shooter after shooter has shown us, a wounded misogynist ego can too easily turn violent. No really, it fucking KILLS.
In martial arts training, I was taught that when sparring with a partner, to hold my punches was an insult to my partner. The purpose of sparring is to learn. The purpose of confrontation is to communicate difficult truths. When I hold my punches, it is as if I am saying, “you aren’t strong enough”. Women, in general, are learning to stop holding their punches. We’re learning to stop holding ourselves back. We’re learning to stand in our power and hold space for ourselves. Men need to learn how to be worthy. Men need to learn how to find validation and strength within themselves, and stop expecting us to provide it for them.
I’m learning how to stop holding my punches. I’m also learning how to be much much pickier about who I cuddle with. But being pickier can mean having much much thicker armour, being much more reserved with myself, building walls around myself, building a cage around myself. A cage of protection? How many people live in such a cage? Too many, I think, and then we get so lonely that we yearn to let our guard down, and again and again pick the wrong people to let it down for. Because so much protection deadens our senses, clouds our vision, confuses our judgement.
Instead, I will set myself free to be a wild animal. I will grow thorns and talons and sharp teeth. To develop a relationship of trust with a wild animal takes time, consistency, and sincerity. They are wary and slow, making sure to See a being clearly before allowing nearness. I will develop circles and communities of trust where I don’t have to have my guard up, because my community is already known to me, they are not a mystery, so that when I meet someone new, someone who looks shiny and sweet on the outside, I am not so starved for touch and attention that I open myself too soon, too much, that I let someone in who wants to give more than I want to receive, or wants to take more than I am freely giving. I will cultivate relationships with people to whom it is easy to say “no” to and who it is a joy to say “yes” to.