Teaching About Being An Oppressor:
Some Personal and Political Considerations
Steven P. Schacht

I believe the truth about any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make a new one. Each writer writes the missing parts of the other writer's story. And the whole truth is what I am after (Walker 1983, p. 49).

No Status Quo
Women's studies programs have been established on the vast majority of college and university campuses in the United States over the past twenty-five years. While the founding and continued existence of these programs has frequently been met with resistance, they have also realized untold successes. Women's studies programs have seriously challenged every academic disciplines' conceptualizations of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality. These programs have also reinvigorated several fields of studies ongoing dialogues--many of which had long since grown tired and stale. Correspondingly, it has been one of the fastest growing academic fields. In many ways, women's studies has forever changed the face of academia.

A perhaps somewhat latent but nevertheless important outcome of this transformation has been the impact that women's studies (and feminism in general) has had on people like myself. That is, being a white heterosexual1 male from an upper middle-class background meant I was born into a social status that afforded me limitless opportunities to obtain immeasurable amounts of male prestige, privilege, power, and concordant wealth. Yet, as I enter my middle-age years (often another privileged male social status in our society) I find myself covertly and overtly rejecting the oppressive roles a male dominated society has cast for me, and replacing them with a feminist center and personal way of being (Schacht and Ewing 1998; Schacht 2000a).

This essay explores my attempts as a white male to meaningfully contribute to the Women's Studies programs on the various campuses I have taught and to the larger feminist movement. Recognizing that I must travel a disparate path than women to realize a feminist worldview (Schacht and Ewing 1997), I similarly acknowledge that as a male (pro)feminist2 instructor, the potential contribution I can make to women's studies is also quite different than female instructors (Schacht 2000b). The experiential knowledge I bring into my classes is very much situated in that of an incredibly privileged societal member: I am male, white, heterosexual, and from an upper middle class background (Haraway 1988). While being privileged has significantly decreased the likelihood of me being oppressed--as defined by Young (1988), I honestly can claim no experiences of being oppressed--it has correspondingly increased the likelihood of me being an oppressor. That is, both in action and mere presence, much of my life has been spent being oppressive to others. Accordingly, much of my privilege and status has been purchased at the expense of societal subordinates, as they were the real estate and obvious requisites for me being superior and doing masculinity: it was through the humiliation and degradation of others (sometimes in the form of their bruised and bloodied bodies)3, the resultant terror and pain in their eyes, and the typical powerlessness and helplessness of their response that I came to experience and fallaciously believe myself to be superior to so many others.

A great deal of what feminists have written about and is taught in women's studies courses, however, is about experiences of being oppressed and the unjust basis of these all too common societal realities. Since I lack any experiences of being oppressed, it would initially appear that I would have little to contribute to women's and other subordinated people's emancipation. Yet I believe that it is exactly through my experiences of being an oppressor that I can contribute to the creation of a more just world. By telling my different story of the how's and why's of being an oppressor, I hope to become a meaningful collaborator in the "whole story being written," ultimately done in hopes that new, non-oppressive stories might be envisioned and acted upon.

On Being Male and Over-Privileged

As I have written elsewhere (Schacht 2000 a & b), I increasingly try to teach my classes using a feminist pedagogy. This has meant that both the materials I use in my all my courses and the way I approach the classroom has changed significantly over the past fifteen years that I have been teaching. While I have previously explored in detail how I have personally benefitted from a feminist instructional approach and students' positive responses to my attempts, I have yet to clearly consider what exactly it is that I am personally trying to accomplish as a white heterosexual male professing feminism in my classes?

There are obviously numerous ways I could answer this question. Moreover, I would guess that many of my answers would be quite consistent with what women feminist instructors hope to accomplish in their classes. Ultimately, however, I hope to teach the participants of my courses that the reason that women, people of color, the poor, and so forth are truly disadvantaged is that certain individuals, such as myself, are truly over-privileged in our society. More specifically, combining the feminist materials I use in my classes that explore the various ways certain people are categorically oppressed and exploited with my experiences as a white male from an upper middle-class background, I attempt to share with the participants of my courses the ways in which much of the privilege that has been conferred upon me has been unearned, how I have benefitted from others' oppression, the often unjust nature of the rewards I have received, and what I am personally trying to do to change this.

Peggy McIntosh (2000) in her classic and frequently reprinted article, "White Privilege and Male Privilege," explores the numerous ways that white people enjoy unearned skin privilege. Since I frequently use this article in my classes, I believe it provides an excellent model of how I attempt to explain the oppressive basis of my being (male, in particular, as this is the primary focus of my essay) to the participants of my classes. Her essay lists numerous (although far from exhaustive) ways that her being white confers unearned privilege to her on a daily basis. As she also notes, the conditions she chooses "attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location" and are ones that as far as she can tell her "African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances . . . cannot count on most of these conditions" (p. 477).

In her analysis McIntosh makes the important distinction between "positive advantages" and "negative advantages." Positive advantages are things such as adequate housing, nutrition, and health care that all people should be entitled to. As she argues, we should work to extend these types of advantages to all people and to make them the norms of a just society. Since many of these positive advantages, however, are only available to certain people, they remain an unearned and unfair privilege. On the other hand, negative types of advantage are ones that, because of certain peoples blind acceptance and/or unwillingness to reject them, further reinforce the hierarchical realities of our society. These are privileges that not only subordinate and oppress people but they also often further reinforce and enhance the status of the dominant party who is exercising them.

Although I explore both types of advantages in my classes, I most strongly emphasize the negative privileges that men have bestowed upon them in our society. The following list is a sampling of status conferring conditions I discuss in my classes that through my own past experiences--as either a witness to or an active participant of--I have learned I can count on during any given day. As such, although academic research can be found in support of all these conditions, since they are based on my experiences, I accordingly prefer to list them as just that, my observations and realizations. In keeping with McIntosh's framework, these are all unearned privileges granted to me that women are largely and, in some cases, entirely denied. Because of the limits of my own partial and situated perspective, this list should obviously be considered far from exhaustive.

1. I can be reasonably sure that most jobs I might apply for I will not only have a better chance of getting them than a comparably qualified woman, but I will be paid more than a woman doing the same job. In addition to having more and better paying employment opportunities available to me than women, should I decide to venture into a traditional female vocation (e.g., nursing or schoolteacher) I can still count on being paid better and promoted more often than my female counterparts.

2. When I go to lease/buy a car or home (or to have work done on them), I can expect to not only be treated in a far more professional manner than a woman (who are often patronized in these business transactions), but in most cases, to ultimately pay less for the product or service.

3. When I read the newspaper or watch the nightly news, I can largely assume that the vast majority of the stories will be about the accomplishments of men. Moreover, throughout the media I can rest assured that most positive portrayals are about men and their importance. Conversely, when women are made visible, it typically will be in a trivializing manner; as models (sex objects) to sell some good or service, or in the form of some self-help/defective-being product all "real" women need (e.g., cosmetics and weight loss products).

4. Should I enjoy watching sports, I am virtually guaranteed that all the important, most skilled participants will also be men who are paid unbelievable sums of money to reinforce my masculine and seemingly superior sense of being. Alternatively, I am almost equally guaranteed that when women are presented at these events it most often will be in the form of them being sidelined cheerleaders for the far more important men on the field. And in the few events that women are exclusively found, they will most typically be presented in a manner that largely denigrates their skills in comparison to men's. Moreover, I am virtually guaranteed that all the sporting teams I might cheer for will have virile names to further reinforce my masculine sense of importance. Sometimes when these same names are applied to their female counterparts, one's left with quite strange results: the women's basketball team at my alma mater is called the Lady Rams.

5. If I am sexually active, even promiscuous, I can largely count on not being seen as a slut, a whore, or a prostitute. To the contrary, most typically I will be held in high regard, perhaps seen as a "stud," with such behavior attesting to my superior sense of being.

6. I can largely count on clothes fashions that ensure my mobility and reinforce my status as an important person whereas women often are expected to wear restrictive clothing designed to objectify their status as a subordinate in our society. Moreover, since women's fashions are largely designed by men, I am virtually assured that the fashions available to me will both stay in style longer and cost less money.

7. I am not expected to spend my discretionary income on makeup, skin lotion, and age defying potions to cover my flaws, nor am I expected to spend money on dieting products (unless severely obese), all so I can be seen as attractive and socially acceptable.

8. If I am married or even cohabiting, I can count on my "wife" doing most of the housework and being responsible for most of the childcare should we have children, regardless of whether she works or not.

9. Should my "wife" unexpectedly become pregnant--or for that matter, any women I might have sex with--I can rest assured that it will be almost entirely be seen as her fault and responsibility to take care of, especially if the pregnancy is not desired on my part.

10. Should I decide to rape a woman in my quest to feel superior, I can rest assured that it is highly unlikely that she will report my misogynist criminal activity to the police. If, however, I should incur the unfortunate charge of rape, unlike any other crime, I can count on my accuser's life and status to simultaneously be on trial to determine if she is worthy of being named my "victim."

11. To demonstrate my superiority, should I feel the need to physically assault my "wife" (or other women that I might purport to love), even to the point I might kill her, I can be reasonably assured that I will largely not be held accountable for my actions. Conversely, should a woman partake in these same actions against me, especially murder, I can count on her being held far more accountable for her actions.

12. Moreover, should abusing my "wife" not be sufficient, I can additionally turn my perversely exercised authority on my children. Should I get caught, unless it is someone else's child, I know that the most typical punishment will be for my children to be removed from my home, and that my "wife" will also largely be held accountable and blamed for my actions; thus, diffusing some, if not most of my responsibility for what I have done.

13. Should I decide to divorce my spouse, or have this decision forced upon me, if children are involved, I can count on her being the primary caretaker of them (unless I should desire otherwise), and to correspondingly experience an increase in my standard of living often with the full knowledge that her's will significantly drop.

14. Should I not have a woman immediately at my disposal to denigrate and further support my false notions of superiority, I can easily and cheaply go out and purchase or rent pornographic depictions to serve as a surrogate for this purpose. If this does not sufficiently reinforce my feelings of superiority, I can go to a strip club, a peep show, or a mud wrestling/wet t-shirt contest to have live depictions of female subordination (in the flesh), or even better yet, go out and purchase a prostitute for these same purposes.

15. When venturing out in public I can reasonably rest assured that I will not be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Conversely, should I come across a woman in these same contexts, I can largely count on a simple terrorist/manly man stare on my part to make her feel uncomfortable in my presence. The same also holds true for most public drinking places. If I am especially brave, I can expose myself to a woman or masturbate in front of her to even further reinforce my masculinity, and forever implant this image into her head, yet largely count on not getting caught or punished.

16. Should I have specialized medical problems, I can rest assured that the majority of research dollars being spent are to find cures for male health problems using largely male research subjects (an extreme example of this would be Viagra, which was developed for male impotence that has promising yet unproven usage possibilities for female sexual dysfunction).

17. Should I feel the desire to search for positive role models in positions of authority, nearly everywhere I look I can easily find a male to fill this need. If my identification with these specific male role models is not sufficient to bolster my perceived self-importance, I can easily further reinforce this perception by largely seeing most women in subordinate positions throughout our society.

18. When I listen to my radio or watch music videos, I can be assured that most of the performers I will listen to will be male who often explicitly denigrate women in the verses of their songs. Moreover, most of the few female artists who make it on the airways will be conversely singing songs that reinforce male dominance and female subordination.

19. When attending school I can often count on the teacher (he or she) to perceive my inquiries and presence as more important than the females that are in attendance.

20. At the schools I attend I can count on more monies being spent on the activities men traditionally partake in, especially sports (even with the passage of Title IX over 25 years ago), and in general have wider array of activities available for me to participate in.

21. I can also be pretty confident that my parents will be supportive of a wider array of activities for me to partake in, spend more money on them, and give me more freedom to explore my surroundings.

22. When undertaking conversations with women, I can largely count on my voice being heard more often by both of us, my comments to be more validated, and should I feel the need to interrupt a woman while she is talking (further reinforcing the importance of my voice) I will in all likelihood be generously forgiven for my transgression.

23. Should I ever feel the need to verbally denigrate someone to boost my masculinity and false sense of being, I will have available an endless cache of derogatory terms that refer explicitly to women to accomplish this task. Conversely, the few derogatory terms that refer explicitly to my male gender I can often use in a positive, affirming manner: "Scott, you're such a 'dick head' or 'prick,' buddy."

24. If I so choose, I can count on numerous all male contexts to be available to me for my pleasure and affirmation. And although there are a few exclusive female settings (some auxiliaries to men's groups), I can still count on the ones I might attend to almost always be perceived as more important replete with activities to support this assertion.

25. Finally, should I choose not to partake in any of the above conditions, the mere fact that I can make this choice is in itself indicative and quite telling of the privilege upon which it is predicated. Moreover, I can still count on other men partaking in them, which ultimately still maintains my superior status in society. All that is expected of me is to remain silent and I, too, will cash in on my patriarchal dividend.

I am guessing that it is quite easy for the reader to see the unjust nature of each of the above conditions. Although a handful of participants in my classes will sometimes challenge their prevalence and/or applicability to their own experiences, most easily ascertain the unjust nature of these and numerous other privileges. Once each these unfair negative advantages are presented and discussed, I always reserve a significant amount of class time to discuss what each of us might do to resist their occurrence. For the female participants of my classes this is usually accomplished by exploring the various attitudes women hold--internalized oppression--and corresponding behaviors that women often undertake to support such outcomes. For the male participants this usually involves me exploring ways men might release the firm grip they have on maintaining their existence--quite literally in some cases--and coming up with more just approaches to life.

Release the Penis and Let the Blood Flow to the Brain.
Isn't it Amazing the Things One Might Ascertain?

We live in a society where ignorance truly is bliss, especially for those with unearned male privilege and status, which in turn often provides men with an excuse to deny the existence of the very real and harmful sexist hierarchical realities that surround us and the active role men must play in their maintenance. While some men are willing to admit that women are disadvantaged in our society, very few men are willing to acknowledge that they are over-privileged (McIntosh 2000). After all, to actually do so would mean that men would not only have to admit the unearned and unjust basis of their advantage but perhaps even personally change and give-up some of their privilege. In the highly competitive world we live in giving up any advantages--earned or unearned--one might have in the game of life would seem foolish at best to the vast majority men.

And yet, as a partner, a mother, a sister, a daughter or just a friend, most men have significant women in their lives that they deeply care about, love, and sometimes even view as equals. I believe herein lies the true promise of the feminist pedagogy that I bring to my classes. Instead of abstractly talking about male dominance and women's subordination, I attempt to put a face on oppression. I offer my own experiences of doing unearned male privilege, and recognize the harm it inflicted on others--both female and male. Often courageous male students will also offer their experiences of doing male dominance. In all classroom discussions female students freely and frequently offer their experiences of being oppressed by men. Combined with constant reminders by me that the "who's" and "what's" we are talking about are our partners, parents, siblings, children, friends, and each of us, emerges lived images of the oppressor and oppressed. These "faces" of sort demonstrate how all too common oppression is, how harmful it is for so many, and why each of us--women and men--should join together to bring about its end.

By making men aware of the unearned advantages that society confers upon them, coupled with the knowledge of how this is oppressive to the significant women in their lives, many men are left in an ideological bind: how can they personally express concern and respect for the welfare of these women all the while supporting realities that cause women's oppression in larger societal settings? While I realistically have no meaningful way to measure the answer to this question, I have witnessed many men (although admittedly not all) in my classes very much loosen the otherwise firm grip they have on justifying and living the male privilege that society so unjustly confers upon them. A world without unearned male privilege would be a significant step in the pursuit of a non-oppressive, egalitarian future.


 References

Haraway, Donna. 1988. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of a Partial Perspective." Feminist Studies 14: 575-591.

McIntosh, Peggy. 2000. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies." Pp. 475-485 in The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality, edited by Tracy E. Ore. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Schacht, Steven P. and Doris Ewing. 1997. "The Many Paths of Feminism: Can Men Travel Any of Them?" Journal of Gender Studies 6(2): 159-176.

Schacht, Steven P. and Doris Ewing. 1998. Feminism and Men: Reconstructing Gender Relations. New York: New York University Press.

Schacht, Steven P. 2000a. "Paris is Burning: How Society's Stratification Systems Makes Drag Queens of Us All." Race, Gender & Class 7(1): 147-166.

Schacht, Steven P. 2000b. "The Promise of Men Using a Feminist Pedagogy: The Possibilities and Limits of a Partial and Situated Perspective. Unpublished manuscript.

Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers' Garden. New York: Harcourt-Brace-Janovich.

Young, Iris. 1988. "The Five Faces Of Oppression." Philosophical Forum 19:270-90


Endnotes 

back 1. While in my classes and personal interactions I increasingly refer to and identify myself as queer and/or simply sexual, since my partner is a woman, and acknowledging that most people still view and treat me as "heterosexual," I am using the term accordingly here and throughout this essay.

back 2. I use "(pro)feminist" as an inclusive way to recognize both men who identify as profeminist and a perhaps equal number of other men who think of themselves as male feminists.

back 3. The ethos of the various male groups I belonged prescribed that one should never be violent towards a woman. Accordingly, although I have severely injured innumerable men, I never have been physically violent towards a women. Nevertheless, when I was younger I often did use economic resources to be controlling and abusive to many women.


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No Status Quo

Teaching About Being An Oppressor