Holding the Space: Beyond ‘Agree to Disagree’, or, A Discussion of White Male Privilege

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I recently found myself engaged in another oppositional conversation on Facebook… and it was a very good thing.

It was the ‘Week of Brock Turner,’ the Stanford swimmer convicted of 3 felony counts of sexual assault of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was sentenced to 6 months in the county jail, only 3 months of which he would likely serve.  Social media erupted more violently each day with outrage and revulsion.  I, like many others, concluded that this represented a stark case of white male privilege at play, and I stated as much on my page.

A friend quickly denied the concept. We agreed that the sentence for Brock Turner’s heinous crime was absurdly lenient.  I wrote that I might have been more accepting of the outcome if he had owned his wrongdoing, and conveyed a sincere apology to the woman for violating her so egregiously.  My friend replied, “You’re nicer than me, I think he should have his balls chopped off.  But I’m old school.”  We both saw the result as unacceptable, but explained it from totally different points of view: he attributed it to the Turner family’s high socioeconomic status, and not to privilege of race or gender.

I shared this article, which I thought explained the phenomenon, one of unconscious bias, with relevant scholarly references.  He shared this article, claiming that white male privilege is an idea promoted by the political left to retain power over minorities.  I posted a link to Michael Kimmel’s TED talk, explaining the essence of privilege—that it is invisible to those who have it.  My friend then posted this article, a logical refutation of white male privilege based on what the author describes as the fallacy of critical race theory.  We each followed the other’s links, and criticized the content thereof (with civility, of course).

Several screens into the thread I realized we were each trying to convince the other, to change the other’s mind. It wasn’t working, duh.  I found myself sucked, again, into a typical tit-for-tat, back and forth argument over positions.  It started to feel like an exercise in futility.  Finally I wrote to my friend that I will study more (I still don’t really understand critical race theory), and meanwhile we can agree to disagree.  I thanked him for engaging, and we concluded the conversation amicably.  It got me thinking though:  Once we agree to disagree, what then?  Where do we go from there?  I still believe strongly in the existence of white male privilege, and he still strongly does not.

Let’s assume that both he and I—indeed most of us—are, in fact, kind, decent, compassionate, and intelligent people. Let’s assume also that we all seek productive and positive relationships with others.  What, then, are the best and worst manifestations of our respective beliefs?  I think it’s an important question.  How could we Hold the Space for the answers?  Here is my attempt:

 

White Male Privilege Exists

Worst manifestations

  • “All white men are misogynist pigs, oblivious to their inherent, unearned privilege, who perpetuate the oppression of women and people of color.” This attitude oversimplifies, generalizes, and stereotypes.
  • “All institutions are insidiously and irrevocably driven by white male privilege, and the only way to overcome this oppression is to treat it/people aggressively. We need to shame them in public until they get it.” This militant attitude incites and provokes, further alienating the very population it seeks to convert.

Best manifestations

  • “We all cannot help our unconscious biases—they are indoctrinated from a very early age and operate beneath conscious awareness. It does not automatically make anyone an inherent racist, sexist, or otherwise a bad person.” I see this as a nonjudgmental, objective, and mindful framework. It recognizes things as they are, however much we dislike them, with patience. It does not pit one group against another, and allows us to approach one another with openness.
  • “We can do our best to call attention, with civility, to white male privilege when we see it playing out in the workplace, social settings, etc.” The goal here is to bring it from unconscious to conscious awareness, where it can be better managed by intellect and reason. This is exactly how we work to overcome stereotypes and other unconscious biases. The first step is awareness, which can come much more easily in settings of nonjudgement, curiosity, and shared humanity.
  • “I will monitor my own biases in all realms, and look for contradictions to my assumptions.” Because I believe white male privilege is so prevalent, I risk over-attributing. It is my responsibility to check my perceptions against reliable and objective truths, or at least seek others’ perspectives for balance.

 

White Male Privilege Does Not Exist

Worst manifestation

“The concept of white male privilege is colossal lie, confabulated by the political left to wield power over minorities. Anyone who ascribes to this fallacy is unworthy of intellectual discourse.”  This attitude dismisses not just the idea, but the people who believe it.  It leads easily to name-calling and accusations, defensiveness and contempt.

Best manifestation

“I don’t believe in white male privilege, but I recognize other important contributors to poverty and social disparities. I will reject attempts to shame my point of view, and refrain from slinging insults in kind.  I pledge to work with others to effect positive change though good-faith pursuit of shared values and common goals.”  This is what I wish for someone on ‘the other side’ to say.  It takes the conversation beyond ‘he said, she said,’ and allows both parties to stand side by side to tackle important issues from different, and possibly complementary perspectives.

 

I am grateful to my friend for engaging with me on this topic. If not for him, I would never have come across the articles he posted.  I would not have questioned my position, or thought to consider the origins and merits of an opposite one.  The conversation called on me to practice critical appraisal as well as openness.  And while my opinion remains unchanged, its application is now more nuanced and thoughtful.  I like this idea of getting beyond ‘agreeing to disagree.’ By identifying the best manifestations of our respective beliefs, we can all contribute to a more just future.

6 thoughts on “Holding the Space: Beyond ‘Agree to Disagree’, or, A Discussion of White Male Privilege

  1. “The conversation called on me to practice critical appraisal as well as openness.” Sometimes we agree to disagree and our position becomes more solidified with critical analysis. Other times it opens us up to really consider if we stand behind that particular belief or it’s no longer useful to us. 💙

    Like

  2. Pingback: “Friendversary” | Healing Through Connection

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