Can I Be sexist?
Im An anarchist!
By Chris Crass
25 August, 2003
"What do you
mean I'm sexist?" I was shocked. I wasn't a jock, I didnt
hate women, I wasn't an evil person. "But how can I be a sexist,
I'm an anarchist?" I was anxious, nervous, and my defenses were
up. I believed in liberation, for fighting against capitalism and the
state. There were those who defended and benefited from injustice and
then theres us, right? I was 19 and it was 1993, four year after
I got into politics.
Nilou, holding my
hand, patiently explained, I'm not saying you're an evil person,
I'm saying that you're sexist and sexism happens in a lot of subtle
and blatant ways. You cut me off when I'm talking. You pay more attention
to what men say. The other day when I was sitting at the coffee shop
with you and Mike, it was like the two of you were having a conversation
and I was just there to watch. I tried to jump in and say something,
but you both just looked at me and then went back to your conversation.
Men in the group make eye contact with each other and act like women
arent even there. The study group has become a forum for men in
the group to go on and on about this book and that book, like they know
everything and just need to teach the rest of us. For a long time I
thought maybe it was just me, maybe what I had to say wasn't as useful
or exciting. Maybe I needed to change my approach, maybe I was just
overreacting, maybe it's just in my head and I need to get over it.
But then I saw how the same thing was happening to other women in the
group, over and over again. I'm not blaming you for all of this, but
you're a big part of this group and you're part of this dynamic.
This conversation changed my life and its challenge is one I continue
to struggle with in this essay.
This is an essay
for other white, middle class, raised male who identify themselves as
male, left/anarchist organizers struggling to build movements for liberation.
I want to focus on my own experience of dealing with issues of sexism
and anti-sexism from an emotional and psychological centered perspective.
Im choosing this focus because it is personally challenging, it
has proved effective in working with men against sexism and because
of consistent feedback from women who I organize with not to ignore
these aspects of the work. Rona Fernandez of the Youth Empowerment Center
in Oakland writes, Encourage men/gender privileged folks to examine
the role of emotions (or lack thereof) in their experience of privilege.
Im saying this because I think men/gender privileged folks also
suffer under the system of patriarchy and one of the most dehumanizing
ways they suffer is in their inability/difficulty in expressing feelings.
Clare Bayard of Anti-Racism for Global Justice puts it pointedly in
addressing gender privileged activist men, "It took years of study
and hard work to develop your political analysis, why do you think emotional
understanding should just come to you, it requires work as well."
This essay looks
to the leadership of women, women of color in particular, who write
about and organize against patriarchy in society and sexism in the movement.
The work of Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Ella Baker, Patricia Hill
Collins, Elizabeth Betita Martinez, bell hooks and so many
others who provide the political foundations, visions and strategies
for the work gender privileged white men need to do. Additionally, there
are more and more gender privileged men in the movement working to challenge
male supremacy. There are thousands of us who recognize that patriarchy
exists, that we have privileges as a result, that sexism undermines
movement , that women, transgendered folks and genderqueer people have
explained it over and over again and said you all need to talk
with each other, challenge each other and figure out what youre
all going to do. And yet there are far more white men in the movement
who agree sexism exists in society, perhaps in the movement, but deny
their personal involvement in it.
Lisa Sousa, who
is part of the San Francisco Independent Media Center and AK Press,
told me that in recent discussions shes had in groups about sexism
and gender, shes heard the following responses from men: "we
are all oppressed", "we should be talking about class",
"you are just using gender as a way to attack such and such".
When she raised the issue that women leave the majority male group soon
after joining, the responses included: "men leave our group too,
women are not leaving more, people leave its a fact in volunteer organizations",
"we just need to recruit more women, if women leave, there's more
where they came from".
These comments are
so familiar and while it is tempting to distance myself from the men
who made them, its important that I remember when I made those
comments. As a person who believes in movement building and collective
liberation, its important for me to connect with the people Im
organizing with. As a person with privilege organizing others with privilege,
that means learning to love myself enough to be able to see myself in
people who I would much rather denounce and distance myself from. It
also means being honest about my own experiences.
When I think back
to that conversation with Nilou and her explaining how sexism operated.
I remember trying not to shutdown and I tried to listen.
The word "But"
repeated over and over again in my mind, followed by it was a
misunderstanding, I didn't mean it that way, I didnt know you
felt like that, I wasn't trying to do that, I would love to see you
participate more, I don't understand, no one said they didn't want to
hear what you have to say, we all believe in equality, I love you and
would never do anything to hurt you, it was circumstances not sexism,
I don't know what to do. Looking back ten years later, its
amazing to me how often that same list of buts comes running
to mind. Im more like those other men that Id
like to admit.
Nilou spent hours
and hours talking with me about sexism. It was tremendously difficult.
My politics were shaped by a clearly defined dualistic framework of
good and bad. If it was true that I was sexist, then my previous sense
of self was in question and my framework needed to shift. Looking back,
this was a profoundly important moment in my growth, at the time it
felt like shit.
Two weeks later,
at our anarchist study group meeting, Nilou raised her hand. "Sexism
is happening in this group." She listed the examples she had told
me. The defensive reaction that I experienced was now amplified by the
5 other men in the room. Other women started speaking up. They too had
experienced these dynamics and they were tired of taking it. The men
were shocked and defensive; we began listing all the reasons why claims
of sexism were simply misunderstandings, misperceptions. With genuine
sincerity we said, But we all want revolution.
After the meeting,
the woman who had been in the group the longest sat me down. April had
been part of the United Anarchist Front for well over a year and she
too gave me example after example of sexist behavior. Men in the group
didn't trust her to handle responsibilities, even if they were newer.
She wasn't looked to for information about the group, nor were her opinions
asked for on political questions. Others joined our conversation and
men continued to challenge the assertion of sexism. April put forward
an example that she had just clearly explained to me and men denied
it as a misunderstanding. A few minutes later, I restated the exact
same example given by April and this time it was met with begrudging
agreement from other men that perhaps in this case it was sexist. April
called it out immediately, I hadnt even fully realized what happened.
I looked at April as she broke it down. April's words coming from my
mouth were heard and taken seriously. There it is. I didnt really
want to believe that sexism was happening, but now I saw it. I felt
horrible, like a kick to the stomach. Nilou and April desperately trying
to get us to agree that there was a problem. How could this be happening
when I hadnt intended it to? I was scared to say anything.
Two months later,
I was sitting in a men's caucus silently. We didn't know what to talk
about. More specifically, we were scared, nervous, dismissive and didn't
put energy into creating a useful discussion about sexism. Nilou and
April had suggested we spend a day talking about sexism and we'd start
with caucuses. "What are the women talking about", we asked
ourselves. When the group re-united the discussion quickly turned into
women defending themselves, defending their understandings of their
own experiences. I felt horrible and struggled to believe what I was
hearing. I felt completely clueless about how to move in a useful way.
Several people of
all genders left early in tears, disillusioned and overwhelmed by powerlessness.
My Mom had observed part of our discussion and asked to speak. "You're
all taking on enormous issues and these issues are hard. It makes me
happy to see you all at such young ages seriously talk about it. It
shows that you really believe in what you're fighting for and it's a
conversation that doesn't happen in one day." I could feel the
heaviness in the room as we looked at each other, many with tears in
their eyes. It was clear that challenging sexism was far more then learning
how to make eye contact with women in group discussions, it was challenging
a system of power that operates on the political, economic, social,
cultural, psychological level and my internalized superiority was but
the tip of an iceberg built on exploitation and oppression.
Part II: What
historical class am I in?
"Do you know
what class you're in?" Being a white, middle class, male taking
Womens Studies and Ethnic Studies classes for all seven years
that I was in school, I was asked that question a lot. In a Black Women's
history class, someone offered to help me figure out where I needed
I understood why
people asked me and I understood that the question wasn't just about
class as in a room, but class as in a social category in a white supremacist,
patriarchal, heterosexist, capitalist society hell bent on maintaining
control. I knew what class I was coming from and I knew that my relationship
to Womens Studies and Ethnic Studies was complicated. I knew some
people didn't want me in those classes and I knew that my very presence
made others feel uncomfortable. And many of the teachers and some of
the students told me that they were glad I was there. It helped me see
how complex these struggles are and that there arent easy answers.
I went to community
college for four years and then San Francisco State for three. The majority
of my teachers were women and people of color. I had grown up in a generally
segregated community and had few role models, authority figures, mentors
or teachers who were people of color.
What I read and
studied in college - women of color feminism, Black liberation struggle,
Chicano/a history, colonialism from the perspective of American Indian
history, labor history and organizing, queer theory, anti-racism from
the perspective of immigrant and refugee women - had a profound impact
on me. However, having people of color and women of color in particular
grade me, instruct me and guide me was incredibly important to my development
on psychological levels that I wasn't necessarily aware of at the time.
Having people of color and women with progressive/left/radical politics
leading my educational development was a subversive shifting of the
power relationships that wasn't mentioned on the syllabus but was central
to my studies.
Learning in majority
women and people of color settings also had a deep impact, because it
was the first time that I had ever been in situations where I was a
numerical minority on the basis of race or gender. Suddenly race and
gender werent just issues amongst many, they were central aspects
of how others experienced, viewed and understood the world. The question
I sometimes thougtht silently to myself, why do you always have
to talk about race and gender, was flipped on its head;
how can you not think about race and gender all the time?
Over time I developed
a strategy for school. I'd stay pretty quiet for the first month or
so of class, pushing myself to really listen. In the first week of class
Id say something to clearly identify myself as opposed to white
supremacy and patriarchy (sometimes capitalism) as systems of oppressions
that I benefit from, so people knew where I was coming from. This was
generally met with shock, excitement and a sign of relief. I participated
in dialogue more as I tried to develop trust through listening and being
open to the information, histories and stories. While this strategy
incorporated anti-sexist goals, it was also about presenting myself
in a certain way.
The other part of
the strategy was to participate and raise questions and other perspectives
in my Western Civics, Political Science and other white, male dominated
classes. People of color and women I worked with were clear that this
was something they felt I had a responsibility to do. "They expect
it from us and dismiss us as angry, emotional, stuck in victim mode.
You need to use your privilege to get heard by white people and men."
The goal wasn't to necessarily change the perspective of the Professor
but to open up space for critical dialogue about race, class and gender
with the other students who were mostly white and often mostly male.
This was extremely useful learning as well, because frequently I came
across as cold, angry, self-righteous or unsure of myself, none of which
were particularly helpful. If my goal is to yell at men and white people
to alleviate my own guilt and shame for being white and male, then perhaps
that's a useful tactic. If my goal is to actually work with folks to
embrace anti-racism and feminism, then I needed to be more complex and
real with myself.
I grew up believing
that I was a lone individual on a linear path of progression with no
past. History was a set of dates and events that, while interesting
to learn, had little or no relationship to my life. I was just a person,
doing my own thing. Then I started to learn that being white, male,
middle class, able-bodied, mostly heterosexual and a citizen of the
United States meant that not only did I have privileges, but that I
was rooted in history. I was a part of social categories - white, male,
hetero, middle class. These are all groups that have history and are
shaped by history. Part of being in those groups means being deemed
normal, the standard which all others are judged. My images of just
being my own person were now joined by images of slave ships,
indigenous communities burned to the ground, families destroyed, violence
against women, white ruling class men using white poor men to colonize
white women, peoples of color and the Earth.
I remember sitting
in an African American women's history class, one of two white people,
one of two men, the other 15 people Black women and I'm the only white
man. We were studying slavery, Ida B. Wells anti-lynching campaign
and the systematic raping of enslaved African women by white male slave
owners - millions of rapes, sanctioned and protected by law. Simultaneously
hundreds of Black men were lynched by white men who claimed to be protecting
white women from Black male rapists. I sat there with my head down and
I could feel history in my nauseated stomach and in my eyes filling
with tears. Who were those white men and how did they feel about themselves?
I was scared to look into the faces of the Black women in that room.
"While there is mixing of races because of love," the Professor
said, "our people are so many shades of Black because of generation
after generation of institutionalized rape." Who am I and how do
I feel about myself?
Part III: this
struggle is my struggle
the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual
men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.
- Robin Morgan from the introduction of Sisterhood is Powerful
fear/ the fear is you/ you cannot run/ you cannot hide/ the fear is
you/ in the end, what have you done/ can it be true that the damage
you bring is greater then the good you make/ face your fear/ embrace
your fear/ the pain inside is the truth inside/ let it out/ let it out/
when the socialization is gone/ what is left/ the fear is more real
then the hope you create/ where will you go/ what will you do/ let it
all go cuz it's already you/ can I move forward/ can I move forward/
open it all up/ you know it's all true/ the hope is you" -white
I have and do go
through periods of hating myself, feeling guilty, afraid. I know in
my heart that I had a role in liberation struggle and I know through
practice that there was useful work that I could do, but still the question
haunts me, "Am I just fooling myself?" That is, am I fooling
myself to believe that I am more useful then problematic. To be clear,
I think Robin Morgans quote is useful to struggle with, but not
to get stuck on. I grew up believing that I was entitled to everything.
I could go anywhere and do anything and wherever I went I would be wanted/needed.
Patriarchy and heterosexism
also taught me, in subtle and blatant ways, that I was entitled to women's
bodies, that I was entitled to take up space and put my ideas and thoughts
out there whenever I wanted to, without consideration for others. This
is a very different process of socialization than most other people
in this society who are told to shut up, keep it to themselves, hide
who they really are, get out of the way and to never forget how lucky
they are to be allowed here to begin with. I think its healthy
to not assume you're always needed, to learn to share space and power
and to work with others to realize the role that you in fact can and
should play. What is unhealthy is how rare it is for gender privileged
men to talk with each other about these issues and support each other
through the process.
Laura Close, an
organizer with Students for Unity in Portland, discussed this in her
essay, "Men in the Movement". She writes, "Every day
young men wake up and decide to get involved in activism. Often they
encounter language and discussions about their male privilege that alienate
and silence them without anyone actually supporting them to decolonize
their minds. Consider what it would be like for ally men to take our
younger/newer guys out to coffee and talk about his own experiences
as a guy in the movement. Talk about what you've learned! Consider what
it would mean for men to cheer on other men who are making progress
towards becoming allies." She put out a challenge for men to mentor
other men engaging in anti-sexist work.
I knew she was right,
but the idea of really doing it made me nervous. Sure, I had plenty
of close gender privileged friends, but to make a political commitment
to develop relationships with other men and open up with them about
my own struggles with sexism seemed terrifying. Terrifying because I
could handle denouncing patriarchy and calling out other men from time
to time, but to be honest about my own sexism, to connect political
analysis/practice to my own emotional/psychological process, to be vulnerable?
to what? Remember when I said that in Womens Studies classes I
would identify myself as opposed to patriarchy, white supremacy and
sometimes capitalism? The level of consciousness of feminism, let alone
political commitment to it amongst most gender privileged men in college
was so low that just reading one feminist book and saying I recognize
that sexism exists meant I was way advanced. While the level of
consciousness and commitment is generally higher in activist circles,
its not that much higher. I have had two major struggles going
on most of my political life - genuinely wanting to be down for the
cause and feeling a deep level of fear that I wasnt coming anywhere
close to that commitment. Its far easier for me to make declarations
against patriarchy in classrooms, political meetings and in writing
then it is to practice feminist politics in my personal relationships
with friends, family and partners. This is particularly difficult when
political men, like myself, make so little time to talk with each other
What am I afraid
to admit? That I struggle everyday to really listen to voices I identify
as womens. I know my mind wanders quicker. I know that my instant
reaction is take mens opinions more seriously. I know that when
I walk into rooms full of activists I instantly scan the room and divide
people into hierarchies of status (how long theyve been active,
what groups theyve been part of, what theyve written and
where its been published, who are their friends). I position myself
against them and feel the most competitive with men. With those I identify
as women, the same status hierarchies are tallied, but sexual desirabilty
enters my hetero mindset. What is healthy sexual attraction and desire
and how does it relate to and survive my training to systematically
sexualize women around me? This gets amplified by the day-to-day reality
that this society presents women as voiceless bodies to serve hetero-male
desire, we know that. But what does it mean for how I communicate with
my partners who are women and who I organize with? How does it translate
into how I make love, want love, express love, conceptualize love? Im
not talking about whether or not I go down on my partner or say I love
you, Im talking about whether or not I truly value equality in
our relationships over getting off on a regular basis.
The fact that my
partners have provided far more emotional and financial support then
I have for them. Im talking about having almost never zoned out
on what a gender privileged man is saying because I thought about him
found myself zoned out thinking about sex while listening to women speak
who are organizers, leaders, visionaries, my friends, my comrades. Im
all about crushes, healthy sexual desire and pro-sex politics, thats
not what Im talking about. Im talking about power, entitlement
and womens leadership marginalized by hetero male desire. I wish
I didnt get defensive on a regular basis, but I do. I get frustrated
and shut down conversations about how power operates between my partner
and I. I get defensive about how the world interacts with us and how
that influences our dynamics. I know that there are times when I say,
ok, Ill think more about it when really Im thinking,
leave me alone.
a confessional so that I will be forgiven. This is an on-going struggle
to be honest about how deeply shaped I am by patriarchy and these systems
of oppression. Patriarchy tears me up. I have so many fears about whether
or not Im capable of being in healthy loving relationships. Fears
about whether or not I can be genuinely honest and connected with myself
so that I can then open up and share with others. Fears about organizing
to genuinely build and share power with others The scars of patriarchy
are on every single person I interact with and when I push myself to
see it, to really look and take the time to think about it, Im
filled with sadness and rage. bell hooks, in her book All About Love,
writes that love is impossible where the will to dominate exists. Can
I genuinely love? I want to believe. I want to believe in a political
practice for gendered privileged men forged in opposition to patriarchy.
I do believe that
as we struggle against oppression, as we practice our commitments, we
actualize and express our humanity. There are moments, experiences and
events when I see patriarchy challenged by all genders and it shows
what we can do. I believe that this is our lives work and that
at its core its a fight for our lives. And in this fight we realize
that even in the face of these systems of oppression, our love, beauty,
creativity, passion, dignity and power grows. We can do this.
post script: we
must walk to make the struggle real
necessary to get into the hard emotional and psychological issues, there
is also an endless supply of conrete steps we can take to challenge
An organizer working
on Palestinian Liberation wrote me saying, some things gender
privileged people can do: offer to take notes in meetings, make phone
calls, find meeting locations, do childcare, make copies and other less
glamorous work. Encourage women and gender oppressed people in the group
to take on roles men often dominate (e.g. tactical, mc-ing and event,
media spokespeople). Ask specific women if they want to do it and explain
why you think they would be good (dont tokenize). Pay attention
to who you listen to and check yourself on power-tripping.
She is one of hundreds
of thousands of women and gender oppressed people who has outlined clear,
concrete action steps that people with gender privilege can take to
challenge sexism and work for liberation. There is an abundant supply
of work to be done. The larger issue for me has been, what will
it take for me to actually do that work, to actually prioritize it and
follow through on it? In additional to men talking with each other
as discussed above, we also need to hold each other accountable to follow
through. There are a lot of heavy emotional issues that come up in doing
this work and its critical that we help keep each other from getting
lost and help each other take concrete steps forward. Asking ourselves,
how does our work support the leadership of women? How
am I working to share power in my organizing? How am I making
myself open to hearing feedback from gender oppressed people about my
work? Each of these questions generates next steps to make it
happen. Examining and challenging privilege is a necessary aspect of
our work, but its not enough. Men working with other men to challenge
male supremacy is just one of many, many strategies needed to develop
women-led, multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist,
working class based, anti-capitalist movements for collective liberation.
We know that sexism will work to undermine movement building. The question
is, what work will we do to help build movement and in the process expand
our ability to love ourselves and others.
Much love to the editorial crew on this essay: Clare Bayard, Rachel
Luft, J.C . Callender, Nilou Mostoufi, April Sullivan, Michelle OBrien,
Elizabeth Betita Martinez, Sharon Martinas, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
Rahula Janowski and Chris Dixon
Further Reading -Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment -bell hooks, Feminist
Theory from Margin to Center -Paul Kivel, Mens Work: How to Stop
the Violence that Tears Our Lives Apart -Maria Mies, Patriarchy and
Accumulation on a World Scale: women in the international division of
labour -Barbara Smith, The Truth that Never Hurts: writings on race,
gender and freedom