The non-confrontational question that helps men become feminists

The non-confrontational question that helps men become feminists
Image: Ali Ghandtschi
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Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an intellectual who forces us to rethink the boundaries of our world.

His poetry stirs the soul; in To Betray the Nation, They Betray You First, a startling eulogy to South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela, who died in April, he wrote: “you knew the steel in your bones did not come from/ your husband but from struggle.”

A professor of English at Cornell University, he is also the author of The Rise of The African Novel, three novels of his own, and two books of poetry.

It is no surprise that Ngugi is able to traverse such planes in his writing. He was born in Illinois but grew up in Kenya before returning to the United States for his university education. He is the son of the legendary Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who argued in his work that true cultural liberation in post-colonial Africa depended on women’s liberation.

In African Feminism and the Dilemma of Class, Mukoma touches on conversations often lost in the dominant Western discourse on feminism. He reminds us that: “to mention feminism to African cultural purists you become an agent of Westernization,” touching on the fact that modern Western feminism is often blind to the plights of African women. This leads some Africans to criticize it as “un-African” and tied up in the privileges of the West. Mukoma argues that for African feminism to thrive, we must fight poverty alongside gender equality.

In this interview with Quartz, Ngugi speaks about the global “digital gender gap” and his recurrent confrontations with the realization that men and women experience the world on different planes. He also shares his list of essential feminist reading.

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

I am an associate professor of English at Cornell University, where a task force to enhance faculty diversity just released its findings and recommendations. The report reveals that out of 1,650 faculty members, only 136 are faculty of color—that is, 8.2% of faculty are black, Hispanic/Latino-American, American Indian, [or] Pacific Islander. And for women who make up 50% of the population? As per the report, “Women make up 32.6% (538) of the faculty but are 26.5% (237) of the full professors” or conversely, and perhaps more starkly, 73.5% of our full professors are male (and overwhelmingly white). Is it not crazy that even this space, where we study social change and its architects, is also one of the most unequal? It seems simple to me: You want to have more diversity? Then hire a diverse workforce across diverse fields. Who says women of color don’t do astrophysics, for example?

Two years ago, I was shopping for art pieces in an Ethiopian store with two of my friends. The artist, who had immigrated from Britain years ago by way of explaining why he left launched into an anti-homosexuality diatribe saying Britain was going to hell. We confronted him, but later I was telling my friend who is gay how surprising that was—artists in general are supposed to be progressive on social issues. His response was, “But that is the point, homophobic attacks can happen anywhere.” In that sense, that there are no spaces free off sexism has been the most important lesson for me. As men we first sexualize (and this act also infantilizes) women before seeing them as human beings. So we are always denying them their full humanity in all our interactions in workplaces, campuses, bars and night clubs, cafes, weddings, funerals, churches, just walking down the street, at home, etc.

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

I always find it funny that as men we can label ourselves as Marxist, Leninist, Democrat, Republican, BernieBros, and so on but get uncomfortable with considering ourselves feminist. I do consider myself a feminist—a radical black male feminist, meaning that I am a man interested in the interconnectedness of struggle in the tradition of, say, Angela Davis—that is, feminism as an ideology of resistance. This is where feminism is a theoretical tool that helps us tackle sexism, racism, homophobia, and political and economic exploitation. To put it another way, I cannot relate to, say, Sarah Palin’s brand of racist, pro-military-industrial complex feminism.

Part of the reason to paraphrase the revolutionary and male feminist Thomas Sankara, national liberation is incompatible with women’s oppression—that is to say, it is a contradiction to struggle for national freedom while keeping the structures of patriarchy intact. In this sense Western democracy remains hollow to the extent that it is patriarchal.

There is one sentence in Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, a book about her time as the first female chair of the Black Panthers that I think about a lot—she says at some point she realized that the Black Panther was a man. That in spite of a woman leading it, it was a structurally and ideologically patriarchal. So even though the Black Panther (and we should revisit Huey Newton’s lonely progressive stand on feminist and gay rights struggles) was fighting for black liberation, it carried within it this contradiction.

Because feminism for me works best when it ties questions of gender to racial and class marginalization, I think there is a racial and class bias inherent in the #MeToo movement. Think of how the original founder, Tarana Burke, was almost “tsunamied” out of the movement she started. Speaking to class, do we really think a non-unionized woman worker in a low-paying job can say Me Too about her bosses or co-workers and remain employed?

Secondly, to access social media one needs to access to the internet, but the digital gender gap means that poor women nationally and globally do not have the same access as the affluent. Because the #MeToo movement is now a global phenomenon, I think that is all the more reason that there should be a conversation about all those voices outside its radar.

And thirdly, there is a celebrity aspect to the #MeToo movement—a woman with 10 twitter followers will not have the same loud, public protection that one with a million followers does. I am not trying to delegitimize the movement or the methods—in social change you use all the tools at your disposal. But we should acknowledge its contradictions, its blind spots, as we should with all movements calling for social change.

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

As a scholar and writer, I have made a conscious choice to make sure that feminist thought runs throughout my teaching, writing and scholarly work. I teach a course, “Race, Class, Gender and Violence in the Enlightenment,” in which we look at the Enlightenment as a contradiction—on the one hand it makes the French Revolution possible, but at the same time gives racism and sexism philosophical cover. Last semester I co-taught a course on African women writers. In my latest work, The Rise of the African Novel, I show the through-line from early South African writers in the late 19th century to contemporary writers like NoViolet Bulawayo. And in my novels, say Nairobi Heat, women for better or worse are at the center. Muddy in the detective novel Nairobi Heat is a former Rwanda guerrilla war fighter turned spoken-word artist turned co-detective. In Mrs. Shaw, the women are co-main characters. Like Muddy, Melissa, a Puerto Rican radical nationalist, is an artist, a painter.

But I would like to add that I do not think it is enough to include women as feminists in my teaching and writing. It is important to show they are multifaceted. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for the Vindication of Women’s Rights, also wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men on the French Revolution and was anti-slavery, an abolitionist (in a sense a practicing intersectionalism albeit also flawed). Or today Angela Davis, whose seminal work, Women, Race, and Class, is a critique of white feminism, racism, and capitalism, but she also works on abolishing the prison-industrial complex, class oppression, and unjust American foreign policies.

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

The first question is which men in America? Black men? Gay men? White men? Rich men? Poor men? Documented or undocumented men? I ask this to say that we have to acknowledge that expression of masculinity is also dependent on the man’s positioning—that there are different shades and degrees of lethality when thinking about masculinity. It is more complex than I am making it here, but it is important to consider the different shades of masculinity in order to confront patriarchy.

With that caveat, I think the biggest threat to men is masculinity itself, because it stops all of us from being fully human and fully self-actualizing. And that complicates our interpersonal relationships with women because our sense of self is defined against women.

And it makes us vulnerable to manipulation. We become tools for hyper-capitalism and unquestioning patriotism—bad citizens of the world. In part it is perceived threats to masculinity expressed as a need to protect the race, white women, and country that led white men to vote for Trump—the all-in-one-bigot president.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

I am now more likely to call out sexist behavior amongst my peers than I was when I was much younger. I don’t keep racist company—why should I keep sexist company? I refuse to be part of male bonding that happens at the expense of women. Say I am at a bar having a drink with a male co-worker with whom we are barely acquainted. The fastest way to bond would be talk about our women colleagues, or the female customers, bartenders, or a random woman walking by. But why should we bond through the dehumanization of another?

I also refuse to be part of conversations that see women’s accomplishments through their physical appearance. One glaring example was when Wangari Wa Maathai won the peace Nobel Peace Prize—I was at a bar with male friends in Kenya—and the conversation turned to her looks. This woman who had been tortured by the dictatorship, who had sacrificed so much in her fight for the democracy that we were enjoying–what was it about our sense of masculinity that needed to “bring her down a notch?”

I should add, humor has its place in these conversations. For example, I did point that with our beer bellies and receding hairlines we were most certainly not the standard bearers of good looks.

Now, I have been a happy party to such dehumanizing conversations—I am not trying to be self-righteous—but it is something we have to rise above and confront.

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

That in some ways I am irreversibly damaged by the demands of masculinity. By that, I mean that it surely must take a toll on ones’ psyche to constantly emotionally self-circuit, that as men we are emotionally stunted and hence unable to have full empathy for others. So, as a man with an eight-year-old daughter, how I do bring her up in such a way that she has full emotional expression if I do not have it? If cannot model it myself?

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

To say I am a feminist does not mean I do not have masculinist baggage, or that I do not benefit from patriarchy. I say this because my sister and I had gone to see a manager (I can’t remember for what or why) at different points. While my visit had gone smoothly, the manager had hit on her. If she hadn’t mentioned it, I would never have thought of it. But it made me realize from early on that, even though she is only one year younger than me, we experience the world differently. One of the greatest powers of masculinity/patriarchy is to make men oblivious to it. Like in racism, where white people think racism doesn’t exist because they don’t see it. I would like them to know that I am trying.

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?

Come on, grow a pair already! Stop whining! Man up! Putting jokes aside I would tell them that we cannot be for social change and expect no pushback from allies and non-allies alike—that is how we grow and learn.

With that said, all my male friends almost without exception have told me by that by talking about radical male feminism and the #MeToo movement I am setting myself up for a take-down. Or I am walking myself into a trap of sorts. Female friends without exception have thought it’s a good thing. So I think that amongst men there is some self- awareness and questioning that is quickly turning into self-censorship. We as men have to somehow find a way of breaking out of that self-perpetuating and also self-serving silence, and learn to live with some degree of vulnerability.

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?

Because of my work as an academic and writer, where we work independently save for the monthly departmental meetings, I can’t think of anything specifically in the workplace. But home, it turns out, is a different matter.

In my mind, we do not have a gendered household—so I do most of the cooking, I drive my daughter to school and back, I clean—all in all we try to split chores evenly. But I just asked my partner, who is an OB/GYN, if that is indeed true and her answer was an empathic and immediate, “No.” For example, she does book all the doctor appointments for our daughter, takes her to most of the birthday parties, violin lessons, etc. In a lot of ways, it goes back to the privilege of obliviousness. The lesson is simple: Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ask.

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

With one of my good male friends we have an effective way of checking each other. It is a simple question: Do you really want to be that guy? Translating into whatever idiotic/selfish/sexist/classist thing you were about to embark on, rethink it. And it works coz no one really wants to be seen as that guy. So my advice would be for young men today to ask themselves or each other: Do you really want to be that guy?

In all seriousness though, the most important thing we can do as men is to read and question. That is, read widely and tease out the contradictions of everything that you read. For starters I would recommend the following books and essays.

Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

Kindred by Octavia Bulter

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Cherríe L. Moraga

“The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements” by Huey P. Newton

“Sexual Assault: When You’re on the Margins: Can We All Say #MeToo?” by Collier Meyerson

“The Emancipation of Women” by Thomas Sankara – an African global feminism blog written by Minna Salami (and watch out for her forthcoming book in 2019, Sensuous Knowledge: A Radical Black Feminist Approach For Everyone)