I recognize that I was born into privilege. Being male, white and American comes with a set of assumptions and implicit biases that are deeply ingrained in me and the mores of our fathers. As a progressive-minded person who wants to be an example of attitudes and actions that foster a more just and humane society, I am willing to have my unconscious behaviors laid bare so that I might learn new ways of communicating and interacting with people and the world. But in order for this to occur, my hope must be met with more than mere outrage.
I’m on shaky ground from the start here. The title alone opens me up for attacks. Any suggestion that I might be dismissing the plight of the under-served or those victimized by generations of misogyny and colonialism, by reducing their suffering to the notion of political correctness, would be a highly risky stance to take. The social justice war is no joke. A new generation of warriors are waging battles on college campuses, internet forums, and at yoga centers alike. The courage to speak out and demand that other voices be heard is bolstered by the cumulative and pent-up effect of subtle prejudice and bigotry, made manifest by the anger of seeing institutions crumble and injustice reign. Being the beneficiary of unfair power imbalances puts me in what seems to be an untenable position.
Overcoming the societal structures that grant me my privilege is easier said than done.
It’s hard for me to get my mind around the macro picture of myself as a man in the world. It becomes clearer in the actuality of my daily life and is never more apparent than in the way my marital relationship often plays out. As my career has developed and I am bringing in a greater share of the household income, I have to admit that I expect my wife to take care of more of the parenting and managing of our home. It’s telling how easily I fall into the traditional roles of my parents, despite my fancy that I have broken their mold.
I can see how my wife has had to make more sacrifices than I have just because she is a woman. When I put myself in her shoes, I can feel the resentment at having to always ask me to help, of being forced into the role of nag so that she might steal but a few glimmers of the independence that being a mother and a wife easily squelches. At the same time, I am working as hard as I can to make ends meet and that’s not because I want it that way. Since I take on the larger burden of providing for our needs, taking fifty percent of the duties at home doesn’t feel equitable. If my wife had the job that was providing for us, I wonder if I would feel less entitled.
I always thought that having kindness in my heart was enough, but maybe it’s not.
Recently, a thoughtful Indian-American yoga teacher of the millennial generation left one of my workshops after being made uncomfortable by my doing Sanskrit chanting without providing any particular context beforehand. The chant in question is a ritual I have enjoyed for over two decades and has deep personal meaning to me. But it was also a prayer that this teacher had shared with family as a child. And hearing me, the charismatic white man in the front of the room, taking ownership over something from a culture that is not native to me felt wrong and unsafe. To me, it was an honest expression of affection and hope. But to someone else it was an example of colonialism and social injustice.
Only a few days later, an older woman and her millennial daughter, visiting America from India for the first time, came to my class and were overjoyed about my chanting. They attended almost every day for the two weeks they were in town and when they were leaving they hugged me and thanked me. They didn't require any particular context other than that they were attending a yoga class, and my whiteness or maleness didn’t seem to matter.
I can’t tell whether I’m at fault, political correctness has gone awry, or where progress can be made.
Unfortunately, I don’t know where I stand. Not just in the eyes of others, but in regards to what I ought to do. I love my wife. I want her to feel that we are mutual and equal in our relationship. But emotional capital won’t pay the mortgage. I love chanting. I don’t want to have that chanting amount to a form of oppression. But when the same behavior is viewed by some as microaggressive and others as loving, it’s hard to know what is what.
In my attempts to better understand these issues, there is rarely a constructive conversation to be had. Outrage is the only thing that gets heard among the scrolling din, and even the righteous seem prey to mob mentality and darker angels. Many of us need to be woken up about a lot of things. Addressing the power dynamics at the root of injustice will likely require thicker skin and a level of kindness that can withstand the overbearing weight of our dysfunction.