I decided that I was a feminist some time in high school. Deciding to claim an identity and living it out are by no means the same thing. For a long time, I marked the beginning of my journey as the evening when I argued with my father standing outside our apartment in Brooklyn. The argument ranged and meandered, as conversations between parents and children will do, but landed on me yelling at my father to stop telling me “be a man”. For a long time, I remembered that evening as my taking a stand for something. Lately, what I remember most about that night, is that while we extended our evening walk to have this argument, my mom was upstairs in the apartment doing dishes and laundry, after having cooked us dinner.
The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. Change happens in the space between the two. But if I am satisfied with my “End White Supremacy” T-Shirt and use it as a way to absolve myself from rooting out racism, then change doesn’t happen at all.
Today I was having another argument on Twitter, about being a man, and what it means to be a ‘real man’, and what the words ‘real men’ mean in the classroom. I may have convinced someone to read bell hooks, or maybe not. I definitely talked my way into writing a blog for Doug (Ed. Note- Truth, but I like hosting smart writing here). I definitely said things that people who aren’t men have already said. Is it still mansplaining when it is done among men? It is.
It might also be necessary to have men speak with one another about the harm sexism is doing and the need to examine and dismantle patriarchy. No, it is definitely necessary. But when I speak out in public, like let’s say on Twitter, it’s easy for the conversation to end at the acknowledgement. Hey look, this dude says he is a feminist and has called out a sexist thing. Applause. And after the applause, comes silence.
I have been having difficult conversations with a small group of activists within White People 4 Black Lives, who are working to examine their male privilege. Those conversations have been private, with less applause and more introspection. I am grateful for the leadership of men who’ve been discussing this longer than I have. The more I dig into sexism, the clearer it is that it’s not just in the culture but in me. As much as I don’t like the ‘real men’ hashtag that started this blog, I dislike that part of myself that is satisfied to clap-back and move on. The part of me that values competition and one-up-MAN-ship is what I need to change.
So back to the argument on twitter. Yes, it bothers me if there are people who think ‘male educators’ are somehow under privileged in schools. But there is a bigger conversation we could be having.
We could talk about the disproportionate amount of attention that men in schools get. How folks of all genders do the work, but men get the admin positions and awards. But should I be leading that conversation, when I’ve gotten those admin positions and those awards?
We could talk about how even in classrooms and schools dominated by women, patriarchy is the driving force. People of all genders need to start dismantling patriarchy in our classroom management, in our curriculum, and in our organizational structures. But can I really lead a conversation like that, when I started teaching without any knowledge of intersectionality, and certainly ran my classroom management with a deep ignorance of class, race, and gender?
We can talk about how our curriculum continues to put white men in the center, and how clumsy attempts at ‘diversity’ make the ‘hidden figures’ seem the exception that proves the rule. But is the conversation around meaningful inclusion in need of another white voice?
We could talk about how patriarchy harms children of all genders, how entitled men who abuse power, start out as little boys who are denied access to their emotions and denied the tools to understand the emotions of others. But none of these are conversations that should be led by me or by any white men for that matter. In fact, those conversations are already taking place. Kimberle Crenshaw described intersectionality in the 1980’s. bell hooks elaborated on the role of feminism for men’s liberation in the 2000’s. Since then educators, often led by educators of color, have been applying these ideas to the classroom. I just need to make room, to listen, to learn, and to support.
Meanwhile I have internal work to do. In my teaching career I have been handed amazing opportunities, and I have been constantly elevated, often when there were non-male and non-white educators who could have taken on those roles. I’ve been used to seeing myself as someone who steps up, but now I am learning to consider stepping back and getting out of the way. I used to think, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” where now I am trying out, “who in my community can I support who is already doing this work:?” This is painfully obvious stuff, but white male privilege is a powerful drug, it feeds us lies like perfectionism and “There is only one right way.” I have to admit that my way may not be right, and accept that for some reason that’s super hard for my inflated ego.
The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. The twitter persona I have is one of a woke activist teacher who is a great ally. I got a lot of digital high fives for calling out the problematic ‘real men’ language. To be honest, I even started writing down questions we could ask on #WeirdEd. Then I remembered #ClearTheAir and #EduColor and a quick search showed me that I was basically paraphrasing stuff that other teachers had already asked, in some cases three or more years ago. Questions about teaching with an intersectional lens, have been discussed in depth on those chats. And I should have remembered because I even participated in those conversations. Insert facepalm emoji.
Me ‘starting’ the conversation about male privilege in the classroom would be like that time Lyft decided they invented buses. So if I am going to contribute to an original #WeirdEd let’s ask this - What patterns are you trying to change in your teaching that are difficult to shake?
My pattern has to do with ego. It is tied to that self righteous teenager, who knew there was something wrong with ‘masculinity’ but didn’t take the time to notice how he was benefiting from it. My pattern is about a young teacher who thought he had to fight the system, but didn’t notice that he was the system. My pattern is about a teacher who was ready to lead the fight for change, but didn’t notice that others were already in the fight. My pattern is about wanting to be the change, without fully realizing that I need to change. Maybe other white men in education experience this, or is it just me?
Thanks to Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun I have a name for my pattern and it’s called ‘white supremacy culture’ Remember that t-shirt I mentioned? Getting the T-shirt was the easy part. Pulling out this thing that has roots in my ego is going to be hard. So that’s me being a real...person.
Alexander Fishman can be found on twitter. He is a teacher. His work is inspired by students who want to see real change in the places where they live. This is his 13th year in the classroom. He began teaching Regenerate Neighborhoods in Chicago and is currently the Elementary Technology Teacher at Campbell Hall in Los Angeles.