The two catalytic events of our time that have pushed forward the discussion of privilege, sexism, and racism are without a doubt the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter (most recently rejuvenated by the George Floyd protests). The conversations that have resulted from those two events are extremely important and I’m not trying to downplay them in any way. Instead, I want us to consider more than just the two simple frames our conversations have been forced into as a result of those two events and to shine some light on some less-discussed dynamics. But first, let me describe the range of conversation that each movement permits us to have.
The Me Too Movement almost exclusively focuses the lens on the dynamic between men and women of the same race, specifically white men and white women. The movement argues that men, specifically white men, have used their position of power to silence, keep down, and sexually harass women (ranging from inappropriate jokes to unwanted sexual advances) with impunity. The George Floyd protests focuses on the indignities that black people have to suffer at the hands of the police, especially in comparison to white people, ranging from racially profiling to outright murder of black people.
So, in summary, the two resulting frames that get adopted by mass media are:
- Me Too Movement = focus on men vs. women, specifically white women in relation to white men
- Black Lives Matter = focus on black people in relation to white people
One relationship that was touched on briefly in the George Floyd protests but not in great detail, and which also intersects with the Me Too Movement, is the one between white women and black men. It was not really explored when Me Too was at its peak, but there was an implied undercurrent that black men were more privileged than white women, mainly because the movement kept pushing male privilege as a whole. After all, black men can join their fellow white male colleagues in oppressing and harassing women. However, that has now been flipped on its head during the time of the George Floyd protests. A video came out recently of a black male bird-watcher in Central Park trying to gently convince a white woman to leash her dog, per city rules. The woman was indignant and called the police, claiming that the man was threatening her life. Here the #BelieveAllWomen of Me Too runs against the systemic racism of Black Lives Matter. In a different time, that innocent black man might have gotten lynched.
So, does that mean that white women have more privilege than black men? Should the problems the Me Too Movement tries to address be subjugated below those of Black Lives Matter? I think such an interpretation is way too simplistic. One problem that many have with the Social Justice Warriors of the left is that they create a hierarchy of privilege based on the indignities you have to suffer. To simplify greatly, in their mind, white men have more privilege than white women and so the opinions of white men, especially when talking about the Me Too Movement are invalid. Similarly, white people have more privilege than black people. But such a hierarchy can be way too simplistic. There is no strict hierarchy. Privilege is fluid. For example, walking home at night from a party, a black man is almost always in a position of privilege in comparison to a white woman as he does not have to worry about the potential dangers that white women have to deal with. Conversely, when stopped by a police officer, white women are in a position of privilege in comparison to black men, and probably even white men. Let me repeat it again. Creating a strict hierarchy of privilege from which to evaluate the world is way too simplistic. Let me give a couple other examples that are close to my heart: evaluating privilege between Asian men and Asian women and between black men and black women.
Men are believed to have more privilege than women, so therefore Asian men must have more privilege than Asian women, right? After all, Asian men make more money than Asian women and can rise in the corporate ladder as a result of the patriarchal society we live in. That is certainly true to a certain extent. Yet, what if we consider the two in a different angle, that of sexual desirability? I think the importance of sexual desirability is obvious enough that I don’t have to argue for why, but if I do, here’s a quick summary.
From time immemorial the goal of the human race was to procreate and pass their genes onto the next generation. We have all been beneficiaries of the powers of natural selection. You cannot procreate and pass your genes onto the next generation if you aren’t sexually desirable. Instead, your genes will be wiped from the gene pool and you will miss out on a central part of the human experience.
So, why am I bringing this up in relation to privilege? Well, it turns out that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups when it comes to dating. This also bears itself out when it comes to portrayals in mass media and the world around us. Most interracial couples involving Asians are between a white man and an Asian woman. The reverse is extremely rare. In fact, Asian men are depicted as being nerdy, feminine and without any interest in sex. No wonder they’re so undesirable! So how are we to weigh the privilege Asian men receive in the corporate world against the privilege Asian women receive in the dating world? I don’t have a good answer for you. My point is simply that you can’t put the two of them on a strict hierarchy.
I mentioned that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups in relation to dating. The other is black women. Okay, you say. That’s a double whammy against black men when comparing them to black women. Not only do they benefit in the corporate world, but also in the corporate world? Black women must be lower in the privilege hierarchy then. Well, not quite. Black men face far higher incarceration rates than black women (1 in 3 black men vs. 1 in 18 black women, according to this site). It’s pretty hard to live a privileged life when you’re looking at the world behind the bars of a prison cell. And that’s not including the indignities suffered at the hands of police that I’m sure black men have to deal with a lot more than black women. Black men are constantly depicted as violent, a stereotype that extends beyond the United States and therefore bear the brunt of police harassment.
My goal in writing this essay isn’t to invalidate the Me Too Movement or Black Lives Matter. I agree with the goals of both of those movements at a high level (though of course I have plenty of issues with some specifics). Rather, my goal is to highlight that the frames adopted by most large media organizations, and therefore the public, are only a subset of all possible frames and that privilege isn’t necessarily a strict hierarchy. There are plenty of other examples out there (for instance, the racism Jeremy Lin faced on his path to the NBA). You just have to make sure to look.