Being a male feminist—like being a white ally—isn’t about making yourself feel better

Being a male feminist—like being a white ally—isn’t about making yourself feel better
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Gary Barker has devoted his life to engaging men in the gender equality movement. As the president and CEO of Promundo, a global NGO engaging men and boys to promote justice and prevent violence against women, Barker and his organization, which was started in Brazil, have collaborated with groups in more than 40 countries to educate people about healthy definitions of manhood.

“Everywhere we’ve looked, among men who believe in the rigid, tough guy versions of manhood, these beliefs are very strongly related to if these men are depressed, if they think about suicide, if they consume alcohol in unhealthy amounts, and with their life happiness,” Barker told Shiftbalance in 2017, as part of a video series on being a man. “But men have something to gain with changing as well,” he said. “We’re doing this for equality, so women have better lives, but men’s lives also get better, as we find over and over, if they buy into a more equitable, less toxic view of what it means to be a man.”

Barker is a co-founder of MenCare, a global campaign intended to help men become equitable caregivers, and a co-chair of MenEngage, an alliance of global NGOs and UN agencies committed to gender equality.

In conversation with Quartz, Barker explains why there’s no short-term business plan to gender equality, why he doesn’t identify as a “feminist” per se, and why gender equality demands that we engage, and listen to, angry white men.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I’ve been thinking about this at least since Anita Hill was being questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Just a few months after those hearings I moved to Colombia and then to Brazil to carry out a study on girls being sexually exploited. During that study, I worked with some amazing Latin American feminists. They encouraged me to ask not only what led the girls to be being exploited, but what leads men to pay for sex with girls, or to use violence against women, and what keeps the men who don’t use violence from speaking up.

That question was the beginning of the organization I founded, Promundo. Our name is a Portuguese contraction that roughly translates as “for the world,” with the idea that gender equality is a good and necessity for the world. It’s about women of course, but it needs men and it involves men. For 20 years, we have been working to understand and question men’s use of violence and the other ways that gender equality needs men and to call men into being part of the change.

In the course of our work, and with Me Too, we’ve learned just how long this can take. It’s easy to think that a great hashtag and a social media storm can be the change and we’ll be done. Tarana Burke and all the amazing feminist leaders I’ve been inspired by have affirmed how long this is going to take. There is no short-term business plan to equality. We’re going to be in this a long time.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I define myself as a feminist ally. It’s important that men acknowledge that we haven’t lived the reality of women and that women led and continue to lead the brave steps to create the feminist movement. Keeping the word ally in there helps us remember, as men, not to try to take over the march. It reminds us to say to ourselves: “I’m in the march with you, but I’m not in charge of it.”

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

The first thing that drives me, at home and in my cause, is to be aware. As tiring and annoying as it is, that’s where I think we must start every day. How are my voice, my body, my actions, possibly dominating, taking space that I need to share? And how does our work at Promundo achieve the goal of being an ally with the women’s rights movement? And if we’re truly aware, the rest follows. It means we’ll ask ourselves about salary parity, about who speaks at public events, about whether our work as a feminist-ally organization is creating more oxygen for the cause or sucking oxygen out of the room.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

The biggest threat to men in America is the fear and resentment felt by the millions of men who think their manhood is at risk because they are out of work or don’t have the job or income they think they deserve. All the changes in the economy, from the growth of service and care jobs and the decline of traditional kinds of male employment, to growing income inequality, mean that a lot of white men feel threatened. And in that fear and uncertainty, we have seen how they vote.  How they can be goaded into voting against their own interests. And we see the harm they cause, to themselves and others, from the increase in male suicide and male substance use and the outspoken white supremacy arguments and blaming women and immigrants for their decline.

It’s too easy for us on the progressive side to try to write these men off, to think of them as angry losers, or to say that they represent toxic masculinity, which completely alienates them and ends the discussion. If we want to heal the divide in this country we need to understand why many white men feel excluded and threatened, not to give voice to their resentment but to call them into a discussion about how all of us need racial justice and economic justice and gender justice.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, why are you inhibited to do so?

It’s a lot easier to work on one of our studies on men’s attitudes about violence, to present our work at the UN, for example, or to train teachers to work on these issues, than it is to have to hold a male peer accountable for his actions, to look a friend or peer in the eye and say: “Man, that was wrong and you caused harm.” But that’s what we try to do as an organization and that’s what I try to do as an individual.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I’m not afraid to say that as a man, men’s violence leaves me extremely anxious. I witnessed a shooting in my high school in Houston, Texas, more than 35 years ago. And since then I’ve seen men kill other men in Colombia and men with guns threaten others in the US and lots of other places. I am anxious about how many men are armed and angry, and feel they get their manhood from owning military grade weapons designed to kill human beings. And since you asked about anxiety, which is not easy to talk about, the other one I have is about growing old and about staying healthy or living with not being fully healthy. I’m a cancer survivor and I know how difficult it is for us to men to care for our bodies and to admit when we need help.

7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?

That inside I can still find that four-year-old version of me that picked flowers for my mother. That in spite of looking calm and poised when I give a talk or present an idea, I’ve got those flutters inside that I don’t know if I’m really up to it. That in spite of walking around in a body that it’s easy to think of as being one of the oppressors, I am capable of deep empathy.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Or that we’ll be criticized as men for speaking up too much and trying to take over… Look, being a male ally for feminism, like being a white ally for racial justice, is not about feeling good about ourselves. No one promised it would be easy. It’s extremely difficult to face the anger of our male friends. And we often don’t know what to say or do to support a female colleague who has experienced harassment.

We need to be extremely mindful that this discomfort pales in comparison to the harassment and bias women have faced, and the racism that people of color have faced. I have to believe that men, and white men, can get that. I think we can learn when to listen and when to speak out. It’s not bad for men, and white men in particular, to have to stop and ask for directions now and then.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

I couldn’t stop at just one thing. It would start with the all the times I put work ahead of caring for my daughter when she was young and with being an equal caregiver with my partner. And it would include all those times I didn’t show the empathy I should have. When I was silent instead of supportive. When my inability to express what I felt turned into anger or carelessness.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

The best advice I had about manhood didn’t come to me as advice. My father is a social worker and has dedicated his career to working on behalf of children who were abused or abandoned. He had a scholarship to play college football and he believed that a man could be a social worker, could dedicate his life to caring for others. And that I think is the best advice we can give young men today: by us as older men living a caring, connected, non-violent, full-hearted manhood.