Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Duped By Dominance

Tuesday, 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.

Being In Hanoi

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

As I flew home to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think about the classic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera in a war-torn country. I could not have been older than that girl in the late sixties and early seventies when the Vietnam War took place (or as the Vietnamese describe it in English translation, the incursion of American aggressors.) Vietnam was a beautifully rich mosaic of culture, history, economic development, and unfathomable patterns of highway traffic. But I was most moved by my own experience of being a U.S. citizen in this country that was site where U.S. military forces battled Vietnamese forces on their home soil. And there I stood on that soil.

My identity as an American first surfaced powerfully as I stood within the walls of Hoa Lo Prison erected by the French to imprison Vietnamese people who were suspected of resistance to French colonial rule. The prison was built in 1896, but in the wake of the ousting of the French in 1954, eventually became a site where U.S. pilots—Senator John McCain among them—were imprisoned during our Vietnam War from 1964 until 1973. The prison became a museum in 1993 as a “monument to revolutionary patriotic soldiers who heroically lay down in Hoa Lo Prison.”[1] It was disturbing enough to view so much of the brutality visited upon the imprisoned Vietnamese as seen through the eyes of those who erected the monument. But in an odd way, I found a morose comfort in that part of the exhibit because I knew I would come upon the part where the U.S. presence was documented, and I worried that would be worse. It wasn’t, as it turns out, but the video images of planes dropping bombs kept me off balance, nonetheless. My American-ness came strongly to the fore in these moments.

When I travel internationally and I allow myself to sink into the place in which I am situated, I am reminded how much of who I am changes. In academics, we call this “fluid identity” and “context-driven identity.” But my experience was simply that I realized that I become invested in being someone when I am in the comfort of my homeland. I am American, a U.S. citizen who is African American, a scholar and expert on diversity, a native Clevelander, an educator. All of these selves have meaning and power for me and help me maintain my sense of self-esteem. It is who I am.

But when I go to places like Vietnam, I remember that when I am at home, I am a fish in a pond swimming around in water as though there was nothing in the world but water. It is not until I get out of my home and settle myself in that I realize I can come out of the water and experience something else. And come to see myself as someone else.

[1] Quoted from “Introduction on Remains of Hoa Lo Prison” placard at the museum site.