Why I call myself a rehabilitating patriarch
Why I call myself a rehabilitating patriarch
I call myself a rehabilitating patriarch. I think all men who want to be or claim to be allies should too. It’s not an original idea really, it comes from the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their members always call themselves recovering alcoholics. It keeps them in acknowledgment of the big problem they faced, in acknowledgement of the monsters they became under a poisonous addiction. It serves as a reminder that they need to consistently work to change themselves. That self-identification is a critical part of their recovery process and that the process is continuous.
I think all men should call themselves rehabilitating patriarchs!
I think all whites should call themselves rehabilitating racists!
I got this idea from a conversation I once had during a chance meeting with a rich South African white man. This gentleman was a very candid white man and a robust debater. As is often the case in South Africa, we got to discussing race. He told me something provoking: that in his own opinion and experience all whites were some level of racist. Some were unconscious, and others were consciously racist. He told me the worst kind of racists were those who thought they were not racist at all.
I had to agree, the unconscious racist is often the most enthusiastic defender of the status quo, those people that are always saying the solutions suggested by people are too radical or too early. They fail to recognise that racism is both personal and structural. They normally say the following:
“how can I be a racist – if I have the following
- So many black friends
- Done so much for black people
- Live in this black area
I am not a racist, everyone who knows me will tell you”
Oftentimes this is in response to blacks pointing out that those particular people have done something they found to be racist.
The gentleman believed that all white people should think and refer to themselves as racists. He told me that in his opinion the least harmful white person was one who recognised that they lived in privilege and that at some point had practiced some forms of racism. Those who disavowed this racism but remained cognizant of how quickly it is to slip back were the least likely to perpetuate harms. Those are the true fighters of the system from within the white community. When he said it to me it sounded just like Alcoholics Anonymous. I was struck by this view and this conversation on how a person in an oppressive group and with privilege should view themselves.
This one conversation with this candid white man made me reflect on my position as a black man in the global order and on the African continent in particular.
As a black man, I am part of the most oppressive institution in the history of mankind (see even the reference is oppressive). I began to think if I should refer to myself as a recovering patriarch. My conclusion was YES. While my first response to this was – but I am not a patriarch, I began to think of the book “Dreams from my Father”. Barack Obama speaks in the book of how sometimes he would have to confront micro aggressions at home. He didn’t call them that, but he was referring to those uncomfortable moments when his grandparents who were white said something which was racist. Or when his own mother did the same. I have no doubt that many women in our lives have cringed in some moments when we have done the same.
Men are poisonously addicted to patriarchy and its privileges. There is not a shadow of doubt that patriarchy in all of its forms is one of the biggest continuing injustices. I would posit that patriarchy is worse than colonialism, slavery and apartheid combined.
Patriarchal thinking is in many ways a form of ideological alcoholism. You are born into a system that teaches you as a man from an early age to oppress women, whether consciously or unconsciously. It’s the reason we become TRASH as men. My recognition of the pervasiveness of patriarchal ideology is what convinces me that men should call themselves recovering patriarchs. That is of course if they are interested in disavowing the system.
It is easy to point out patriarchy, the harder step is accepting that you are a part of this system of oppression. It took me a while to accept that while I am not a rapist, while I am not a Chris Brown, I am a part of that system. I may feel like I am a better man than Harvey Weinstein, but I am still part of this group of men. I am still part of this deeply entrenched institution and ideological frame of living.
Reflecting on my own life, knowing what I know now. I can spot moments growing up when I found myself acting in a disgusting patriarchal manner or benefiting knowingly from patriarchal protections.
It’s such a pervasive benefit, when I visit my uncle and only the women are expected to do the dishes- I benefit. When I sit back and watch TV while they clean and cook, my own cousins and age mates who just happen to be women- I benefit. How different am I from the white man who takes the promotion/ takes the higher pay knowing that he is getting it because of his whiteness, his proximity to influence?
I have said and done sexist things. I thought they weren’t at the time. I came up with elaborate defences to explain them away. They sounded like this
“I am not a racist…I have black friends”
My precise response went something like this
“how can I be a sexist…
- when I have done so much for women,
- when I have so many women friends in my life,
- when I love women and
- when I was raised by women”.
I sounded exactly like the unconscious racist. While I could easily spot the racism in some acts by white people. I had failed to reflect with the same rigour on my own conduct. I know now that you can still act in a way that is sexist and patriarchal even with all of those things being true.
I know now that I have benefited from patriarchy and I have conducted myself in a patriarchal manner. I must therefore apply to myself the argument I apply to the person who acts in a racist manner.
I have a big issue with racism.
I think a lot more white people have to be candid about the nature of structural racism, to be reflective of all the wealth they have accumulated because of this phenomenon and think about how they can implement proactive and meaningful redress. Not just paying their taxes and doing something for 67 minutes once a year for Mandela.
If I believe that for white people, then I have to believe that for men.
This is why I say all men should call themselves rehabilitating patriarchs. We have all sipped on this elixir of misogynoir, from our childhood days till now. How can we be anything but addicted? We have to work on our collective recovery as a group. We have to show each other the extent of this condition in our everyday lives. In the home and in the office.
I can’t want social justice for myself but not for others. That would make me a hypocrite. Worse that would make me TRUMP, remember when he was calling for a reformed primary election system, he spoke loudly about how it was rigged against him and Bernie Sanders. There was even a book supporting that very premise doing the rounds in academic circles called “The Party Decides”. He was making a valid point, however as he started pulling ahead in the election, he dropped the arguments. When prompted, he said he only had a problem with it when he was losing. Now that he was winning he said he had no problem with it and everything was fine. There are more examples of Trump’s hypocrisy of course, the man is the poster child for it.
I can’t subscribe to that kind of logic. To only care when I am the victim. To only seek justice for myself. My victimhood in one scenario must make me empathetic to anyone suffering from oppression. I should want to end it because I know what it feels like to be subjected to the same. If I oppose racism, then I must oppose patriarchy as well.
The challenge is there is no 12-step program for this. There are no groups where willing men can gather and reflect on their role in the system and how they can reform. How does one actually rehabilitate? How does a group currently rehabilitate?
Currently there is a difficulty in holding the discourse of reformation/ recycling/ rehabilitating trash.
I watched a debate once on a national televised forum where one man tried to voice his opinion and he was shouted down. Watching the women in the room get agitated was very informative about the extent of the hurt. One lady said that she was so triggered by the words the man uttered and could not let him continue. Another woman said that his speaking was violating a safe space for women to speak.
I am part of a debate community where there is a women’s forum. A platform for women to discuss their issues safely and to mobilise and organise strategically around issues that matter to them. A very valid cause. There is also a queer forum which exists for the same purpose for queer people. One member of the community was inspired by that and wanted to form a forum where men could come together to examine their patriarchy, to discuss how to confront it. How to dismantle it. He called it the “Men’s Forum”. I cannot speak to the authenticity and sincerity of this man’s intentions, but this is what he publicly stated as his reasons for wanting to form a “Men’s forum”. This forum was soundly lambasted by women and by the queer members of the community. They said it was offensive for men to create this kind of forum and that they must find other ways of being allies.
To be fair I felt exactly the same way when white lawyers even mentioned that they wanted to create a white lawyers forum. This was in response to the formation of the BLF (Black lawyers Forum). I was of the view that they didn’t need one, white males are at the helm of corporate law. The corporate legal community is white dominated, and it seemed to me that every big law firm was exactly a white lawyers forum.
I also feared that it was going to be a platform that would be used to consolidate the discrimination and the systemic exclusion. I was distrustful of the intentions of white male lawyers and those who suggested this idea. I thought to myself, why do they want this now that we have some platforms where we can speak. I was opposed to it and I think I remain opposed to it. There is a trust deficit and the reasons for that deficit existing are valid.
Most times it’s easy to walk away from these conversations as a man. There is no pressure to discuss this, we are not the oppressed. Hence, I think there is a need to find or create spaces where those men who do want to change, men who see the impact of patriarchy and are willing to deconstruct this institution can grow.
So, at this point I am searching for a place where I can learn, where I can find other men who are reflecting on their role in the patriarchal status quo. Where we can confess our infractions and where we can get help. An Alcoholics Anonymous for men. I think this is necessary, I think it’s something men need. We must deliberately keep patriarchy and how it has impacted women at the forefront of our minds.
However, while I believe that, in the same way that I think genuine whites should not make a forum to discuss race, or a forum based on race, I believe men should not make forums to discuss patriarchy. There is a trust deficit and the intentions of anyone making that kind of a group would always be tainted by the history of the very patriarchy they are trying to escape.
While I think the idea of a forum is politically problematic, there are perhaps other ways of finding a path of continuous rehabilitation. The alcoholics anonymous has a famous 12 step program, I do believe there may be merit in men creating is a personal development program for themselves which directly aims at addressing patriarchy head on
Perhaps such a program would include the following twelve steps:
- Searching yourself with ruthless honest and make an inventory of your role in a patriarchal system
- Admit to yourself and to God the exact nature of your wrongs,
- Commit to removing this acts from your life altogether.
- Teach yourself about sexism and misogyny and about how to recreate our culture to eliminate them.
- Do your homework and seek out women’s perspectives. Read articles and books about intersectional feminism. Read articles and books that have nothing to do with feminism but that are written by women. Look at your bookshelf. Is it full of mostly male authors? Think of why that might be. Then, commit to exclusively reading work by women — from all different countries, with different backgrounds and identities — for a week, a month, a year or more. Ask the women in your life for recommendations of books that changed their lives, books where they felt deeply heard or seen. Read those books.
- Ask the women in your life to share their stories with you. Be okay if they don’t want to. And if they do want to, really listen.
- Have conversations with your male friends, colleagues, and neighbours about sexism and misogyny. Instigate the difficult conversations. Ask hard questions of yourselves and one another. You have likely lived most of your life without having to think about these things.
- Realize that doing this work is not a one-shot deal. If you want to be an ally, it means you commit to a lifetime of continuing education. It means you look hard at your own shit. It means you look for ways to support the women in your life. It means you determine ways to work on a community and systemic level.
- At the same time, men, especially those with a wide audience, should be talking to other men about feminism, toxic masculinity, and male violence.
- Not to dominate the discourse – as you are not the victim
- Make a list of persons you have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Carry your lessons and your message to the man who is still participating in patriarchy.
Of course the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. In this case I would venture that for this to work there must be a real desire to dismantle the patriarchy.
Doing this work doesn’t make you a hero, but it does make you a better human