Clarisse’s Advice Column arises again! Masculinity & African activism
I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:
A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.
I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?
The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?
Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.
I wrote back:
Firstly, thanks for this letter. If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this. And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question. I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”). I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism. But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….
As for Africa. I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.
Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships. Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult? Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them? If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities). It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.
If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first. Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university? Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.
I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.
Thanks again for your letter. SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!