Hear Women Speak On Women [A Small Rejoinder To My Privilege]

Jose VilsonJose7 Comments

Mona Eltahawy and me, Aspen Ideas Festival 2013

Mona Eltahawy and me, Aspen Ideas Festival 2013

I have tons of stories from Aspen, but only one I’d like to share in this space.

After former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, US diplomat Richard Haass, and Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy went at it onstage (verbally), everyone started to clutter around their favorite. While I didn’t see too many people around Haass, the room was evenly divided between Albright and Eltahawy. After her vagina monologue, I jumped onto the Eltahawy line.

While a couple of my colleagues wanted to build a friendship with this sparkplug, I just wanted to thank her for speaking up and out in this predominantly male setting.

So I’m in line when this short White lady looks up at me and says, “So, are you here to talk about women’s issues?”

OK, OK, OK, what? I said whatchu mean am I here to talk about womens issues you trying to make me feel like I don’t belong here that I shouldn’t care that what you have to say matters more than what I do because you have some inferiority complex that says let me get this Black guy away because I can’t tell why he’s really here like omg you’re so the reason why I don’t give one ounce of …

Then, after a small breath, I said, “What do you mean? I’m here to hear women talk about women. That’s an important thing.”

Sure enough, she smiled and turned back around. I doubt others saw my twitch of disgust. At first, I didn’t get why she brought her prejudices to this event. My second thought was, “Maybe she too is tired of men trying to tell women about what they should do, how they should feel, and what they should think about the regulations of their own bodies.” My third thought was, “Can we assume a bit of intellect and compassion here?”

It’s disheartening, but I get it. One of my passions happens to center around teacher voice, and, as of now, the teaching profession has mostly a female voice. I’m not saying men can’t contribute their voices. I’m simply arguing that the fate of women is inherently tied to the fate of teachers. Thus, in my male privilege (yes, there is such a thing as Black / Latino male privilege), I want to come into these situations as someone’s equal, not above or below based on my gender.

When I got to meet Mona, it was obviously all love. I thanked her, took a picture for my friend, then posed for a picture of my own. She might have stood shoulder-height, but her personality is really where her stature lies. I came to hear women speak on women’s issues. Tucking in my privilege made me a better man, not lesser.


Comments 7

  1. I think, as I hinted on Twitter, I keep coming back to this article because there are a couple of ideas I want to explore some more, if that’s okay.

    First, I feel it’s a shame that woman turned around, because I feel like it would have been interesting to explore more fully where she was coming from. It sounds like you felt she was dismissive of you. Am I right about that, and if so, was there something in the tone of her voice or in the nature of her smile that made you feel that way? And/or – and I can certainly see myself feeling this way in the same situation – was it the fact that she turned around, effectively cutting off the conversation?

    Second, I love your point about the fate of women being tied to the fate of teachers, and I think that is absolutely accurate, at least for now. To me, though, there’s a big difference between saying “I’m not saying men can’t contribute their voices” and “I’m not saying only women can contribute their voices.” I feel as though we really really need the full range of genders in teacher voices. I know, though, you wrote that phrase in relation to an anecdote about yourself in relationship to women in a “predominantly male setting.” So, am I nitpicking and/or does my point make sense?

    1. Post


      Yes, something in her tone sounded like a Southern “bless your heart” or even a slant sardonism . As a master of sarcasm, I didn’t take too kindly to it. Having said that, I had to check my privilege at that moment because a) I knew better and b) it’d be hypocritical of me to answer any other way besides the way I did evntually answer.

      Also, believe it or not, I did want to mention that I have a “cis” privilege too, but in the context of the specific conversation, I didn’t think that provided clarity as to the root of the issue. I totally get you, though, and I do wonder if I wasn’t hetero, would I have received the same reaction. Food for thought.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think I would have reacted the same way in the moment, for the same reasons. And I can easily believe you considered mentioning cis privilege. Interesting question if you would have received the same reaction if you weren’t hetero – or at least weren’t read as hetero. My guess is yes, given some of the issues I know to be percolating in the feminist community around intersectionality.

  3. I get so mixed up and frustrated as someone who comes from the power culture (white, middle class, male, straight, legal citizen, family man). I try to listen. I try to ask. If I speak up, I feel like I can be speaking up on behalf of people, telling their stories, etc. (I feel this way often in my advocacy for immigration issues). But if I stay silent, I condone injustice.

  4. It’s a conundrum, John. And different situations require different courses of action, which further complicates it. I wonder if the key isn’t in the phrase “on behalf of people” – finding the balance between on the one hand joining in the conversation so the pressure isn’t constantly on historically oppressed people to always take the lead and on the other hand appropriation. And always being willing to back off and apologize without expectation of forgiveness if (when?!) we mess up, as we pretty much inevitably are going to. At least, that’s how I see things these days.

    Just in case it was misread by anyone, I also want to clarify something I said in my last comment about being “read as” hetero. I speak as someone who has periodically been read as female and periodically read as gay (probably for the same reasons, come to think of it), though in fact I am neither. Those readings nonetheless have everything to do with how some people have treated me. I was just thinking that in that situation, she never got to know you (her loss) and so how she read you matters more in how she treated you than who you really are.

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