Why are men so afraid of the word 'privilege'?

10 January 2017 - 02:00 By Buhle Nkosi

The truth is, acknowledging our privilege means we have to change

The author says that acknowledging one;s privilege requires addressing uncomfortable truths about who they are and how they live.
The author says that acknowledging one;s privilege requires addressing uncomfortable truths about who they are and how they live.
Image: iStock

Why are men afraid of the word privilege? But before I get a bunch of guys coming at me because “not all men” think like that, allow me to break it down.

As men, we benefit from male privilege, meaning that we don’t think about being raped... It doesn’t take away from the fact that we won’t have to deal with “unfair” gender-based scenarios, such as losing a job to a woman, but in most cases she won’t earn as much, and we have better chances climbing up the ranks.

Losing a job to a woman does not mean women are on an equal footing; this would still be an isolated occurrence in the bigger scheme of things. According to the McKinsey & Company Women Matter Africa report, “Only 5% of CEOs in the private sector in Africa are women, compared to 4% globally.” So why has this one word produced so much vitriol in the hearts of men?

Per the Cambridge Dictionary definition, privilege means “An advantage that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position.”

In a utopian world, we’d respect one another’s choices, and preferences and equal pay would be a reality, but we don’t. That’s when one realises that privilege isn’t the problem; it’s the connotations that come with it that stir the hornets’ nest.

Why? Because “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Spiderman realised his power and the responsibility that came with it: he knew that he had a moral duty to right the wrongs, and level the playing field.

That’s what we fear — that acknowledging our privileges means we’d compromise our “position”, have to change, respect the word “no”, accept that greater consequences are required for our actions, police our actions (the same way we police women’s lives) or put our fragility aside and respect choice.

Accepting change would mean acknowledging that a 4% to 8% conviction rate of every reported case of rape, isn’t only pathetic, but requires the courts to rewrite the rules and be less lenient on us. (Per Africacheck.org, there have been over 40,000 reported cases of rape every year, going as far back as 2008.)

It means not asking what she wore before she was raped; it means calling your friend out when they’re being a rape apologist; and yes, it means no more spiking of drinks, or verbally or physically threatening women into giving us their number.

We all can and should unlearn the sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal rhetoric we have been brought up on

It means taking some responsibility, not just enjoying the power. Sadly, we are intoxicated within our own self-righteous indignation. We dismiss women, not because we disagree, but just because we can. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — we are drunk with power and it has sadly corrupted our moral fibre.

I refuse to say “not all men” — if you feel that needs to be addressed to calm your fragility and somehow exclude you from the discomforts of truth, then you’re not part of the “not all men” committee you advocate for.

That we feel the need to have women correct themselves and rearticulate their agenda by saying “not all men”, highlights how we are blinded by privilege.

It is not uncommon for a man to disrupt a woman, to reassert his authority by reminding her that “not all men” rape, abuse their spouse, or cheat.

We say “not all men” because it is a passive aggressive and patronising tool we have at our disposal that can be used to casually dismiss what is often a very valid point. That phrase alone epitomises male privilege and our reluctance to change. When we say “not all men”, we mean “me”!

Privilege is not a bad thing; privilege is but a word. How we assert our privilege is what defines us: when a person puts together a food drive to help feed the homeless, that person is acknowledging their privilege.

However, for one to truly acknowledge their privilege, it will require having to address some very uncomfortable realities and truths about who we are and how we live.

It’s really not that bad — I know, because truth be told, I used to be a “not all men” member. I can’t say I am entirely “woke” and educated on all things gendered, but I can say I am continually unlearning.

We all can and should unlearn the sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal rhetoric we have been brought up on. And for us to do that, it will require a change of action and thought: that is what we truly fear, not privilege.



This article was originally published in 'Sunday Times The Edit Spring/Summer Holiday '16'. Available to select print subscribers this magazine is your ultimate seasonal fashion guide. Digital subscribers, read 'The Edit' online now.