Duped By Dominance

June 12th, 2012

This post first appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 30, 2012.

I had a friend in graduate school, Miriam, a tall vivacious woman who was both gregarious and grounded in a really appealing way. A conversation we had one day has stuck with me over the years. She remarked that she and I might be able to work together in interesting ways because we had complementary perspectives on the “Race and Gender 2X2.” Of course, she meant that because she was a white woman and I was a black man, we held diagonal positions on a 2X2 matrix that captured our racial (black or white) and gender (male or female) identities:

This was one of the first times I had ever reflected on what had previously been an invisible consciousness. I knew I was black and understood my place in the dynamics of race in the U.S. But what surprised me was how that focus prevented me from paying as close attention to my identity as a man. With time, I reconciled this shortcoming by focusing on my fallback position—I was, in fact, a black male! That felt much better. I was giving a nod to my gender but not forgetting the ever-important race struggle that was integral to my U.S. experience.

In fact, I was playing an identity mind game. I was looking for a way not to deal with my male identity.  My colleague Heather Wishik and I are working on a new line of research that begins to map what was happening to me as I was confronted with my identity as a man. Our social identities—race, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied-ness, etc.—are always imbued with a dynamic of power. We call these “dominance” or “subordinance.” In any of these identities, you are generally one-up or one-down in the social order. Subordinance identities in the U.S. include being a person of color, female, LGBT, or lower class. Dominance identities are being affluent, heterosexual, male, or white. (By the way, in our research, these two labels don’t convey value judgments about a person’s character. Being a member of a dominant of subordinant group is just a description of how that group identity is situated in larger society).

Racially, I carry a subordinance identity by virtue of my blackness in the U.S. But by gender, I live a dominance identity. I am the youngest of three boys in my family and over the years, the next two generations of my immediate family are all boys. As I often tell folks, we have to bus women into my family. Masculinity is a deeply rooted part of my upbringing and my background.

And that is precisely why it was so invisible—and so uncomfortable—to me. One of the greatest subtle biases we all carry are connected to those identities in which we carry dominance. And most people have one or more of these dominant identities. It’s almost a guarantee that when we look closely at our dominant identities, our vision about them is clouded and distorted. Most of the time, we have a very hard time talking about them. We don’t have lots of insight into the experiences of being of that identity. With race in the U.S., I often encounter white people who don’t know what to say about their experience being white; they just have not thought about it that much. By the same token, I had a hard time just reflecting on my maleness in response to Miriam’s invitation. I wanted to make it my “black maleness” that was at issue. That was just another way of trying to cling to race and avoid dealing directly with my dominant identity as a man.

Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” helped articulate the experience of privilege and the role that power plays in our everyday experience. What we have to reflect upon today is how subtle and insidious power and privilege is in the way it shapes our perceptions, relationships, and colleagueship. In my case—like that of many others—my dominant identities hid behind my subordinant identity, pushing race front and center while maleness remained stealthily in the wings. Indeed, it’s no accident that power and dominance are often such difficult topics to address in the workplace. Dominance perpetuates itself by being psychologically and behaviorally elusive. The bias of privilege has a life of its own and no one is immune to its effect. Every man, no matter his race, creed, or color has to come to terms with how the dominance of maleness quietly shapes him.

How do you overcome this bias? There is no better antidote than awareness. By just reading this blog post, you’ve affected the bias by making it more visible. In addition:

  • Make sure that people who are conscious of these dynamics are a part of your network. Having social support in identifying, and when possible, counteracting the fruits of dominant maleness is essential. Like-minded allies help you to see biases and can support you and hold you accountable for doing something differently.
  • Keep people in your circle who are mostly oblivious to this stuff. Being aware of your dominance is exhausting. Give yourself a break and commune with people who are similarly committed to not being intense about this stuff every waking hour. I don’t suggest this lightly. Remember that dominance is as smart as you are and probably a little more devious. You have to feed it a little to keep it calm. Do so with benevolent intent.

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One Response to “Duped By Dominance”

  1. I find this a fascinating topic, first of all because I fit into the privilege category on your four main categories (male, white, heterosexual, financially secure). What strikes me is how upsetting the non-privileged position can be (I grew up poor and was long very aware of people who had more than me; it’s only in my 40s that I am gaining some distance from this), and yet how invisible privilege can be (i.e., I don’t experience being a white, heterosexual male as giving me power, likely because I am so used to it that I take it for granted). I think this is one of the reasons that people in the dominant role can underestimate the barriers people in the subordinant role face.

    In this sense, seeing how tense I can feel about the financially subordinant role, I might begin to grasp how people of color, or women, feel.

    I think there is another element here that is very important, that transcends race even as it exacerbates it. Since I grew up poor, I envied affluence, and when in my adult life I experienced privilege, I had a high of “at last, I too am part of the privileged — others can envy me now.” My ego gets a boost that I’m superior instead of inferior.

    But in this moment I am perpetuating the system of have’s/have nots. Today, I am searching for a paradigm of relationship and life success that is beyond privilege, so that I neither reject it nor crave it, but am committed to health and fulfillment of all people, regardless of color, gender etc. This helps me to let go of my own guilt, yet also stay active in my search to understand other perspectives and seek to meet their needs.

    Trying to sum up a lot in a few sentences. Hope you understand.

    Great piece, Martin.

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