Challenging oppression is uncomfortable. Deal with it.

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Emma Watson got a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, for her speech at the UN on gender equality. At a time when feminism is receiving a warm cultural embrace, it’s always welcome when more people join the fold and use their celebrity to elevate the cause. But one part of her speech sparked some pointed criticism. As Mia McKenzie at BlackGirlDangerous writes:

In her speech to the UN, Ms. Watson said:

How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.

Here, she seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. Women haven’t given men a formal invitation, so they haven’t joined in. It’s not because, you know, men benefit HUGELY (socially, economically, politically, etc. infinity) from gender inequality and therefore have much less incentive to support its dismantling. It’s not because of the prevalence of misogyny the entire world over. It’s just that no one’s asked. OMG, why didn’t any of us think to ask?!

Mychal Denzel Smith at Feministing follows up on the key problem that men aren’t willing to be made uncomfortable by feminism.

And here lies another issue. Even the men willing to come to the table after accepting the invitation often refuse to be made uncomfortable. There’s no progress to be had if in order to get men engaged they are allowed to remain ensconced in their privilege. That defeats the purpose. The necessary work of feminist movement will challenge men to understand their complicity and require them to complete very difficult tasks. That’s what revolution is.

Yes, there are going to be men who realize they have been abusers, harassers, and rapists. That is not going to be easy for them to hear. Yes, men are going to realize that the language that is a part of their everyday lives is degrading and violent. It will not be easy change their tongues. Yes, men are going to realize that the economic, political, and social clout they enjoy is the result of thousands of years of repressive laws and customs aimed at ensuring their dominance, and much of that has to do with causing physical harm to women to secure their silence. And that is going to be really, really uncomfortable to hear. The truth often is.

Of course as we work for social justice, we want to make these movements accessible and as welcoming as we can to people who are at various points in the process of becoming allies and activists. But we can’t do that at the expense of being honest and acknowledging the pain caused by oppression and the benefits the privileged group gets as a result. But that can be a very hard pill for some people to swallow.

Last weekend, I went to see one of my favorite comedians, W. Kamau Bell. He performs trenchant, and hilarious, comedy that tackles race and white privilege. He told a story about a show the weekend before when a man disrupted the performance, complaining about the fact that he was “making fun of white people.” Apparently he was so adamant about being right that he stayed after the show to argue his case, after more than one person had told him to shut up. Now, on the range of things that make people uncomfortable when coming to terms with racism, sexism, etc., having to listen to a bunch of jokes about racism is not terribly daunting. Guess what? White people (or more pointedly, white supremacy and racism) deserve to be made fun of (at the very least). Humor is a powerful way to process our very fucked up society. And it’s hilarious. Also, as Bell pointed out, that “good looking white guy” is probably going to be just fine.

Recognizing and condemning racism or sexism in others is important, but it’s not good enough. Real progress can only come when we recognize our own role in these systems (a thought that certainly went through my head at the show as we all enjoyed laughing at those racists). Men should be part of feminism, but know that when you come you have to accept the ways that you perpetuate sexism and work to change that. As white people, we need to similarly recognize how growing up in a racist society has molded us, and we have to be willing to give up the privileges unfairly bestowed on us. It’s not about blame and making people feel bad. Sometimes there’s pain involved, but it’s an important part of the process of coming to terms with the damage that’s been done and becoming an effective ally. It’s about an honest accounting, the only kind that will allow us to truly make progress.



Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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