Swimming in Privilege
David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College from 2005 begins:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
These words ring particularly true today. As a man in a #TimesUp #MeToo #SayHerName world, it’s not enough to pay lip service for a second and move on.
The real work begins with acknowledging that I’ve been swimming in the water of male privilege every minute of my life.
I wish I could tell you I saw the water on my own.
My wife Manuela showed it to me, like a revelation, step by step.
Even in writing this essay, she lit the way. Initially I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what to write. I don’t feel I’m better than any man out there, or that I have anything to teach, and the more I learn about myself, the less comfortable I feel saying anything at all. So I defaulted to what felt safe— a celebration of the powerful women in my life, a restating of facts everyone already knows, and a toothless, non-specific, uninspiring call to action.
That’s when Manuela intervened.
“This whole essay I’m waiting for you to stop telling me what I already know and to start to do the work. The most helpful thing you can do for men is show them what you are wrestling with.”
So here goes.
Here are seventeen examples out of a hundred I could write about where I recognized my own male privilege in action, and it excludes the thousands I cannot choose from because I didn’t (or still don’t) even know I was (am) swimming in water.
- It starts small. My wife and I are riding in the car. She does a mental calculation. I compliment her on it, impressed by how fast she ran the numbers. “Wow, you’re good at math,” I say with a smile. I expect gratitude for the compliment. Instead, she stares daggers. “Why are you surprised? Do you assume that as a woman I’m not good at math? Would you have said that to a man?” The conversation goes dark. It takes me a few days to realize that my hurt at having a compliment thrown back at me is far eclipsed by the unconscious bias I showed in saying what I did.
- I’m out to dinner with an entrepreneur. She has twins. Somehow the conversation turns to parenting. Being without children, I expertly opine that women are fundamentally better at taking care of young children than men. I cite empathy and nurturing ability as women’s advantages. I suspect as a mom that she will agree. Instead the music of our conversation screeches to a halt. She informs me that this is precisely the kind of thinking that enables men, who are every bit as capable, to cop out of doing the real work of equal parenting. Blinding light.
- After a fireside chat at work with an industry leading executive, I feel good. She brought good energy; the crowd was into it. In talking afterwards to a woman in attendance, to my surprise and alarm she expresses disappointment, pointing out that the question I asked the exec about how she juggles being a parent and a brand president I would never have asked of a man. At first it feels unfair, as I know I’ve asked men the same question. Then I think about it, and I realize that the way I asked the question was different. It wasn’t a “tell us about your kids,” which I normally ask the men, it was a “tell us how you juggle it all,” which implies women should have more to juggle than men, and which is only true if we have lower expectations of what men should be doing in the first place.
- We are debating how to establish maternity and paternity policies at work. Someone points out that in Sweden parents get paid 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted, and that it’s equal for both men and women as the expectation is that both parents will contribute equally. My head explodes. We are nowhere close in this country.
- At a meeting, four men are dominating the conversation. A few of the women in the group try to get in, but are quickly cut off or interrupted. I don’t know which men in the room are seeing the pattern. I start to feel like the only one. My anger rises. Losing my temper, I inelegantly jump in to point it out. The room gets quiet, and I realize that maybe I’m getting emotional because I know deep down that I have spent the majority of my professional career doing the exact same thing.
- Our board is all men. I try to recruit a couple female board members but fail. One woman joins. Soon she resigns. Finally a woman comes on the board and stays. It takes two years from goal to outcome. After all that, it still dismays me to know that with six men and only one woman on our board, we remain below an already low average.
- I learn about the terms manspreading and mansplaining. I had no concrete concept of what either of those things were until they became words that reached my ears. Even after being educated on both, I catch myself relapsing. Everywhere I look I start to notice men cutting women off as they walk, entitled to the space in front of them. It becomes dizzying to think that I only see this because I’m paying attention for the first time.
- In a conversation with a male executive, he tells me that he doesn’t hire women because ‘it’s not worth the trouble.’ I mentally blacklist him. This was fifteen years ago and I was working in another country. What I didn’t do is rattle the cage that he should be fired or resign from the project in protest.
- #MeToo unfolds. It does not come as a surprise. I’m in Hollywood the week the movement is gathering steam, and powerful men around me are feigning ignorance. The faux surprise is disgusting. I begin to take inventory of my life, and I feel complicit. I’ve been in thousands of conversations dripping with misogyny. I’ve initiated many of those conversations myself. From my fraternity roots to my bachelor days in New York, I know I have not always shown up in ways that I am proud of.
- I comb over my bookshelves: my estimate is that 80 percent of what I have read in my life was written by men. I start paying attention to what my wife reads, what she listens to, the culture she absorbs. I start thinking about all the books I haven’t read in my life, of all the perspectives of women out there which I have not explored. Inspired by my wife’s voracious reading of them on our honeymoon, I dig in to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. They reawaken me to the wonders of women’s fiction, and remind me that the imagining the lives of women requires learning not just from the women who we know in real life, but also the women, whether real or fictional, who we don’t.
- A man who I am interviewing orders a red wine. I make fun of him later, with other men, for not ordering a cocktail or a beer. Later, he cries in a one-on-one meeting with me. The mockery sidebars continue. It’s only now in looking back that I see sexism is not just oppressing women, but in the very idea that there are “male” and “female” behaviors, and the multilayered problem of oppressing not just women, but also the emerging “women-ness” of men.
- I start thinking about language. History = his story. You guys = you people. Mankind = just men. Once you start to see it, male privilege is embedded not just in our systems of thought, but in all the language we use. My wife maintains the word bitch should go the way of the n-word. Women can use it, at their discretion, but not men. It carries with it centuries of repression.
- A man I know tells me he won’t have dinner with his women colleagues, but will with the men he works with. I take stock of the staggeringly disproportionate amount of time I’ve spent in my career socializing with men versus women. I start to wonder all the ways that might affect advancement and career trajectory, how I might have both benefited from it in my career and fostered unfairness once I became a leader.
- At a business dinner, there are four, small circular tables and about twenty people. Half of the attendees are women. I am assigned a seat at a table filled only with the most senior ranking men present. Many of the women who worked hardest on the project are seated at their own table, together. A joke is made, in passing, by one of the men there about it being the “kids’ table.” It was awkward, and it begged a painfully obvious and symbolic question: how are women supposed to ascend if they don’t have a seat at the table with the men in power? The right move for me as the CEO of the client company was to intervene and juggle the seating on the spot. Everyone would have responded, and the humiliation would have shifted from the women who were excluded and to the men who made the seating arrangement. Instead I just sat there, too much of a coward and too slow on my feet to convert awareness into action.
- Before we got married, my wife and I spent six months in therapy to address our problems. One of them was all mine — which is the issue of me steamrolling her conversationally with extroverted enthusiasm, and not creating the empty spaces for her, a self-proclaimed and proud introvert, to be able to get in. I adjust course and try to shut up. Slowly, things get better at home. It dawns on me that I had been doing the same thing in my professional life for years. I start spending most of meetings silent. I start inviting people who are quiet at the table what they think. I start to see my core role as facilitating a vibrant discussion, which requires equal contributions from others while I as the leader spend most of the time listening.
- My team asks me to interview a transgender athlete. As our conversation unfolds, I see the ways in which I still am limited to a heteronormative worldview. My definition of gender expands beyond just two genders. I’ve been saying LGBTQ for years, to fit in, and had given very little thought to either T or Q.
- My wife and I are in an argument. At some point I bring up that I pay more of the rent. She holds back tears, and reminds me that we had agreed to the way we were paying the bills, including paying for utilities and groceries and as big a chunk of the rent as she could afford. She went on that she brings a lot to our relationship too, not all of which can be valued in dollars and cents, and that in 2015 women in the U.S. were paid, on average, 83 percent of what their male counterparts received annually, (This compounds over a woman’s lifetime, and that it’s worse yet for African-American and Latina women.) I am reminded of the scene in Fences, where Denzel Washington bellows at his son about putting a roof over his head. I think of the eons of men who have used economic power unfairly secured to lord it over the women in their lives. I am reminded of all the ways men wield power, physically or financially or sexually or otherwise, to undermine the humanity of the women they love and who love them. Later it is me that will be crying.
I am not a wise old fish with the answers. But I’m not a young fish anymore, either.
I know that the work begins with the listening, to truly hearing the talented women around me. I know I should stop questioning their realities and instead acknowledge their challenges. I know that then I must partner with them to be a force for change, and that this needs to happen in all spheres, personal, professional, and civic.
I know that this effort also demands serious conversations between men, conversations which we know are not happening, certainly not enough. It means not being afraid of calling men on the carpet, of calling myself on the carpet, that when I see the worst of me in them, even if it exposes my fundamental underlying hypocrisy, to call it out, and to in return not just ask that they do the same for me, but to demand it.
It’s time for all of us fish to wake up.