Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

  1. […] had a spate of resignations. If you want to volunteer, now would be a good time. -Foz Meadows on Why Teaching Equality Hurts Men. I’m actually not convinced that “hurt” is the right word, insofar as it seems to […]

  2. Thank you for this! I’m not convinced, as I said on my blog (sorry, meant to post here before posting in my space, but screwed up), that “hurt” is really a felicitous word. It seems to put the privileged on the same level as those suffering from the misogyny and racism. However, the entire attitude of assuming the world works the same way for everyone, and not understanding that this is not, in fact, the case, and that people quite unlike you are getting the short end of the stick, is one I’m very much familiar with.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Cheers! I agree it’s not a perfect term – hence the disclaimer near the end – but I couldn’t think of how else to succinctly express the idea that being raised with a biased mindset is itself a negative consequence of the system, and one which, while certainly not on par with the suffering of those it actively works against, is nonetheless worth mentioning.

  3. Osutein says:

    “Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality.” This is really well said.

    I remember, as a straight, white boy, one day being at camp and racing through the woods with some of the other boys. One boy taunted another boy and said he “runs like a girl.” We all laughed. One of the counselors, a man, overheard us, and took us aside. He scolded us for saying it and laughing at it. I think he even said “and what’s wrong with running like a girl?” At the time, we all made fun of him behind his back, but I wish now I could find that counselor and thank him for not letting that slide. He was awesome.

    It took me a long time to recognize my own privilege and how much the culture is specifically catered to people like me. The only area where I didn’t fit the normative mold was that I’m hopeless at sports and generally apathetic to them. This has, at times, caused me the pain you describe, the feelings of “not being man enough.” But, of course, that pain is ameliorated by otherwise being the norm, and having lots and lots of “geeky guy gets the gorgeous girl” narratives floating about in the culture to soothe my feelings of masculine inadequacy.

    • fozmeadows says:

      What an awesome counselor! And I’m completely sympathetic to that feeling of wanting to go back in time and smack your past-self upside the head for being an idiot. Younger Foz could be pretty cringeworthy.

  4. rodaniel says:

    But with regarding to raising children, maybe it isn’t a bad thing to strive for equality.

    This may be a off on ranty tangent, but something that I’ve noticed often since becoming a Dad is how society targets such a radically different path for kids.

    The owners of a local restaurant we frequent are very supportive of the high school kids and has liberally peppered their walls with booster posters of teenagers. At first glance, this seems really community-minded and a nice way to encourage kids – and it is. But if you look past that to the content of those booster posters, things get really muddy. All f the boys featured in those posters are in uniforms and poses representing their sport of choice – swimming team, track stars, football heroes. There’s an unspoken message, “We’re setting our sights high for these athletic young men to pursue sports well into college and maybe even professionally. But the girls… The posters featuring girls are almost exclusively of cheerleaders or other pep rally fodder. It’s as though the unspoken message contained in those posters is, “These girls are pretty enough to be arm candy for any of these hunky, athletic boys.”

    So, we’re subliminally grooming boys to be sports stars, but we’re setting our sights for the girls much, much lower – to be hookups, girlfriends, and if they’re subservient and lucky, wives.

    The good Lord knew what he was doing when he made me the Dad of a boy, because if I had a little girl, this sort of stuff would lead me to a very early grave! Every time I see parents buy pink this or that, little tea sets, or other stereotypically-girly stuff for their little girls, it sets my teeth on edge. Just as much as I emphasize to my young son that there are no jobs or activities specific to women – that men can (and should!) scrub floors, wash dishes, cook meals, and paint pictures

    • fozmeadows says:

      I’m reading a really excellent book at the moment called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, and the current chapter is all about exactly this phenomenon. People who argue that boys and girls are just different from birth, and that’s why boys like trucks and girls like dolls, tend to completely overlook the fact that almost every single item of clothing for little kids – from babies up – is gender-coded, as are toys, and that from their earliest moments, most people are teaching their kids to be one thing or the other. It maddens me whenever I see it, because it goes so unquestioned and yet is so detrimental in the long run. You have my respect and sympathy for trying to combat it!

      • rodaniel says:

        As much as I wouldn’t have believed it was true, there ARE some innate gender biases. Despite efforts on our part to go with gender-neutral toys and room decor, our son does gravitate naturally towards his wooden train set and Cars stuff. At almost 6, he’s probably the only kiddo in his class who still has – and sleeps with – an assortment of stuffed animals. But by the same token, he’s very into Legos and Play-doh. He’s excited by anything that moves – his latest obsession being “Beyblades,” which are essentially, um, tops. In short, he’s hardwired to be a boy.

        But as I said before, I’m doing my best to counter the low-brow societal expectations. My son cooks (cracks eggs like a pro!), helps with laundry, loves to sweep and vacuum, and gets a big thrill out of helping me wash the cars. More than just trying to break the idea that there are things that guys just don’t do, I want to equip him to be a self-sufficient, inquisitive, productive, and fearless adult, not just another knuckledragger whose main reason for getting married was because he can’t cook a meal, iron a shirt, or believes that scrubbing a stain out of a carpet is beneath him.

        • L says:

          I wouldn’t say he’s “hardwired to be a boy” as much as he’s “hardwired to like trains and cars.” No offense intended, but this kind of language bothers me. No one says anything when they see my son showing off his painted fingernails. But, when they see him being rough and throwing dinkies around, it’s “that’s a BOY for you.”

          Your son’s a whole person, no matter his sex and gender. He’ll have his own preferences. And its just as likely that a girl would have the same preferences in that situation (I did as a child, and so did my sister). In the meantime, you’re doing your job in making sure he has access to all possibilities. *thumbs up* His interests may change in time. At least he’ll know he has an assortment of options if they do.

  5. davidjfuller says:

    Very thought-provoking and good post. I think I’ve been lucky to have some good teachers.
    When learning grade three Canadian history in Edmonton, we covered the settlement of Canada and the treatment of First Nations/Native Canadians. (This was in 1980-81, when the curriculum had already been revised to correct kids from saying “Indians.”)
    One morning, we all came into the classroom to find that almost all of the desks had been crammed into one half of the room, and the other half was mostly empty, with just three desks in it. Those of us on the crammed side had to do our normal math and spelling exercises in about a third of the time for each, with our teacher patrolling up and down the side, calling for us to work faster. And if anyone was able to succeed, she pointed it out and admonished the rest of us for not working harder. Meanwhile, the students in the other three desks played ball or drew pictures without having to do any exercises we were aware of. Those of us in the crammed side were all afraid of speaking up or questioning what was going on; it seemed to last hours but was probably more like half an hour.
    Eventually, the teacher granted us a break and when we came back she announced that we could relax and talk about what we had just been through — it was just an exercise to show us what it had felt like for the First Nations to be pushed on to reserves and lose all their normal lands, rights and privileges while European and Canadian settlers essentially did what they liked with their former lands. It was a huge eye-opener for all of us and there was a lot of discussion about it.
    Significantly, the three students on the wide-open side of the classroom were given one assignment for the exercise: to write down the expressions on our faces. These were the words they recorded: sad, surprised, afraid, angry. I have never looked at Canadian history — or First Nations rights, discrimination, and prejudice — the same way since.

    • fozmeadows says:

      That is some truly spectacular lessoning right there. Your teacher deserves a medal.

      • davidjfuller says:

        I forgot to add, another part of what she and the student teacher organized was spending a day on an actual reservation and meeting Native kids our own age. She was pretty amazing.

  6. David Curbis says:

    Why is it the female angle that men and boys never experience discrimination? That we are included in everything and that any exclusion is never as hurtful as to us as it is to other genders and races? Do you not know what men have to go through to be included? The fact that dady and society wants you to be tough, like sports, nor be afraid, don’t show emotion and dont be sensitive to others people’s remarks?
    I have been excluded in many aspects of my male life! I have been be rated and belittled for not being strong enough, not being agressive enough with women, that we men are the cause of all the trouble in the world. I was always an artist and saw the world differently, for that have been minimized when expressing an opinion, put at arms length and yes even psychoanaylized for being different. I never been much of a gear head, I had a dad who didn’t know how to relate to Me because of all my differences. I have been over looked by girls because I didn’t fit the “male” stereo type.
    But this comment will be seen as being short sighted and insensitive to women and minorities. Ok maybe as a man I am not at first glance dismissed but all the feelings and ideas and hopes that I have held had to be suppressed and put aside to fit the “male” stereo type. Not to mention the fact that I am white and male assumes I have certain ideas and assets automatically! Thaty feelings and experiences can never match up to those “less” fortunate then myself!

    • fozmeadows says:

      I didn’t say men and boys never experienced discrimination; I said it was comparatively unusual for them to experience exclusion in mainstream society on the basis of simply being male, with the notable exception that those who stray outside the parameters of a rigidly enforced definition of masculinity are invariably punished for doing so. I’ve also said that this is deplorable and worthy of a post in its own right. To borrow your phrase, you say you’ve experienced exclusion in your ‘male life’, which I take to mean that you’ve been reprimanded or belittled for not adhering to the traditionally masculine archetype. If so, I don’t see how this is at odds with my position: this is not a good thing, and certainly part of a toxic culture.

      And yet you’ve chosen to go on the defensive; to seemingly try and argue that the institutional and endemic discrimination against women, POC and LGBTQ individuals promoted by our culture is somehow just the same as, or even less important than, the difficulties facing straight white men who are penalised for not being perfectly masculine. I agree that toxic masculinity is a problem; and neither am I trying to say your experiences don’t matter. But if you can’t so much as acknowledge that, even when you’re suffering exclusion, your status as a straight white male still confers on you privileges and advantages denied to other groups, then what you’re basically arguing is that all discrimination is equal – that nobody is ever persecuted more than anyone else, which is clearly false.

      Your comment is only short sighted and insensitive because you’ve chosen to ignore the legitimate suffering of others and instead complain about how underrepresented your problems are, despite the fact that they, too, are mentioned. I don’t assume you automatically have certain ideas just because you’re a straight white male, but undeniably that status grants you ‘assets’ – by which I mean social privileges – of which you seem to be unaware. And until you come to terms with that fact, there’s not a lot I can do to help you.

      • Hanover says:

        You seem to be making a lot of assumptions about his motivations, and opinions on the comparative severity of the various forms of discrimination that have been mentioned. Just sayin’ that you might want to check those assumptions.

  7. All men are created equal. The rest of you can fight it out for second place.

  8. […] Why Teaching Equality Hurts Men from Shattersnipe […]

  9. […] Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation […]

  10. Tasha says:

    Just now discovering this. Excellent, honest, and searingly relevant in light of current culture wars at the end of 2013. Will be passing this along; cheers for the articulation —

  11. Tasha says:

    Reblogged this on louder please.

  12. Michael Fairclough says:

    Positive discrimination is discrimination. Hence the anger of men about losing out on a job simply because they are male. Or white. Not because the other guy was better.

  13. […] Allow me to end with another quotation: […]

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