On listening to the Straight White Males

Difficulties in addressing issues of gender, race and sexuality are notoriously fraught with difficulty. Sometimes, an issue is so common and accepted that you don’t actually see it. Sometimes there are real cries of anguish masked in attention seeking behaviour, and sometimes there is genuine confusion behind crass attempts to overcome the issue. This week, I’ve seen some of those cries. Two things in particular stood out for me – firstly the unmasking of gay, female Black bloggers living in dangerous situations as straight white Western men sipping Chardonnay as they typed and secondly attending a straight white male dominated meeting on Scottish Independence and the coming cuts to public sector spending.

Firstly – for anyone unfamiliar with the story – earlier this week a Syrian lesbian blogger, “Amina Abdullah Araf” was unmasked as Tom McMaster, a straight white male living in Edinburgh. On getting caught out, McMasters issued a few half-hearted explanations, excuses and justifications, while making a genuine apology for his deceit to “Amina’s” mentor and fellow blogger “Paula Brooks”, who then also turned out you be – yes, you guessed it – a straight white Western male named Bill Graber

The fraud was only discovered because interest in “Amina” was piqued after “her cousin” blogged about “her” abduction by three armed men, following a period where “she” had been forced underground by state interest in “her”, all the while encouraging “her” fellow women and LGBT activists to maintain their activity. After “her” abduction, Syrian LGBT and womens rights activists put their own lives in danger trying to find out where “Amina” was, who had taken “her” and whether “she” was safe. Pissed off is quite an understatement for the feelings of these brave souls that risked their own safety to try to protect a straight white Western male’s fictional creation, thinking that she was real and in danger.

Now the internet is a strange space. As the NY Times famously observed, online no-one knows you are a dog. I doubt if there is a single female who was online in the early days of the net who didn’t play male at times to avoid the harassment and demands to cyber that were all pervasive in the days when men thought they owned the net. P laying about with gender, race and sexuality behind the anonymity of a computer screen is nothing new. But there is a massive difference between exploring aspects of your gender identity and sexuality in a safe anonymous environment and deliberately setting yourself up a fake persona masquerading as an authentic voice. There is a huge difference between adopting the identity of a privileged group in order to assume a stronger voice, avoiding the marginalization of your community and adopting the identity of a marginalized group because you believe you can tell their story better than they can as you already have that stronger voice.

When you play “straight white male” online, you gain power from a sense of wonder of what it is like to be listened to as an equal, and that empowerment you can take back to your marginalized real life. When a straight white male plays marginalized, they bring their privilege along with them and their assumptions of what the marginalised “should” be like, stripped of the complexity of living with marginalisation, the internalisation of oppression and the behavioural tics that it produces, as they slip back into their privileged role, feeling satisfied that they have done their bit for the oppressed.

Which brings me neatly to the other event of the week which set me a-thinking. Last night I went to a meeting on Independence and the Cuts, hosted by the Scottish Socialist Party. The small room was packed as around 50 people crowded in to see a PCS activist and Alan McCombes speak on the issues. Both Alan McCombes and the invited PCS speaker were very engaging, although it was disappointing to see that a male activist had been invited, despite some very good and prominent young female activists highly active, engaged and visible in the PCS campaign, giving an all-male “top table”.

Of the people who attended, approximately 15% were female; of the people who contributed to the meeting, less than 10% were. That percentage would have been zero, despite a higher proportion of female attendees indicating a willingness to speak than males, had it not been for the sole female contributor demanding that a woman’s voice was heard. I cannot put the blame for this sad state of affairs solely on the chair. While the male contributors effectively caught his eye, were persistent and forthright, the females who wished to contribute were notably more hesitant, raised their arms later and with less conviction. Experience of marginalisation, a feeling of being outnumbered and internalised cultural expectations of how a member of a marginalised community should act, produces behavioural attributes that re-inforce the marginalisation.

The qualitative difference between the words of the female contributor and that of the others was palpable as she recounted anecdotes from her experiences as an anti-poverty campaigner made a pleasant contrast with the high level Political analyses from the other contributors (or in the words of a non straight-white-male who walked out of the meeting…men droning on). This is a common experience of watching the differences in communications between marginalised and non-marginalised groupings. Marginalised groupings tend to confine their analyses to the particular, while privilaged groupings universalise their experience; marginalised groupings aim to carve out space for their oppressive experiences to be validated, while non-marginalised groupings seek to impose a hegemony of oppressive experience.

Why?

Some unkind souls may suggest that some of the contributors of last night like the sounds of their own voices a little too much; have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an unhealthy desire for self-affirmation. While psychoanalysis may explain away the behaviour, it doesn’t explain where these feelings come from. If the experience of marginalisation frequently goes unnoticed, only glimpsed at through chinks in the veil; the experience of privilage is almost never exposed. Yet patriarchy hurts men too; racism damages whites and heteronormativity harms the hetronormal.

I believe McMaster and Graber when they attribute noble motives to their deceit – a wish to bring marginalised voices to centre stage and stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed with the aim of a better world for all. I believe the contributors last night were genuine in raising issues of marginalised experiences in the reasons why we need an Independent Socialist Scotland while crowding out the voices of the marginalised. I have no doubt they care about these issues and however crass or counter-productive it may have been I am sure their intentions were good.

McMaster in a half-hearted apology explains that despite a good understanding of the issues and a high level of awareness of the region, he didn’t feel that he was being taken seriously as a straight white male when talking about Syria, so adopted an alter-ego to better put across his case. Only it wasn’t his case to put across. However much he may dislike the fact, he benefits from the persecution of non-straight, non-white, non-males – that is his story and he should have told it honestly.

As a Western socialist, it is uncomfortable to accept that our very existence perpetuates global misery, that the taxes we pay buy arms used to kill and maim, that our public sector pensions are invested in some of the most unethical companies on the planet and that our reliance on oil not only destroys the planet but causes global conflict. Such is the nature of the capitalism that we challenge.

And so it is for the straight white males, locked into a racist, patriarchal, heteronormative system which rewards their conformance to straight white male values and encourages them to perpetuate them by universalizing their experiences, drowning out the voices of others. By particularising the straight male white experience, recognizing it as such, identifying the privilage and challenging it we can overcome the unspoken assumptions of universal experience….and perhaps after the eighth contribution which starts “Speaking as a straight, white, male…” it will become obvious that its time to give someone else a chance.

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