What Makes a Man? 2012 Conference Recap

by | February 17, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Racism

What Makes a Man Conference Imageby Jasmine Peterson

A Discussion of the Constructed Roles of Men in a Patriarchal World (and how we can resist and redefine manhood)

Flying home after a rather busy weekend in Toronto, I’ve finally got time to reflect on the What Makes a Man: White Ribbon 2012 Conference that I attended Saturday. This was the second annual conference organized by Jeff Perera, a co-founder of the Ryerson chapter of the White Ribbon Campaign.

As I walked through the custom vinyl banners, and looked at the stalls – I realized I had an amazing time. It was a day packed full of powerful speakers, which makes it a bit difficult to succinctly collect my thoughts about all of the important discussions that were initiated. The thing I most enjoyed about this event (other than the surprise guest appearance by Michael Kaufmann) is that it was a dialogue between panellists and guests – instead of a lecture.

I think this is particularly important in feminist spaces: we’re all experts of our lived experiences, and we all have valuable things to bring to the conversation. It’s a collaborative process, a dialogue, and that’s important in addressing issues of equality so all voices can be heard.

A predominant theme that emerged through the discussions was the need to dismantle patriarchy in the pursuit of equality; specifically, as contingent upon addressing the issue of colonization. Through Heritage Moment commercials on television we’ve all come to know that ‘Kanata’ means ‘the village’.

However, as the opening presenter elucidated, Canada is actually an aboriginal word meaning ‘settlement’. To acknowledge that this country is a settlement would be to acknowledge that it is a shared land, that it isn’t owned by a select group of people but that it is a common space. Patriarchy and colonization are closely interrelated: they both maintain inequality and facilitate oppression of certain groups of people.

It is certainly important to deconstruct these institutions that create and maintain oppression, yet at times I felt as though the conversation became divisive. In her presentation, Kim Katrin Crosby called for coloured women to unite – Brown, Red, Black women. And as I sat there, a seemingly White woman, it occurred to me that this is suggesting that White women aren’t coloured women. Does that mean they are colourless?

Her discussion was powerful, beautiful, and emotional, and I appreciated her words. I also appreciate that living in this culture as a Black woman is not the same as living in this culture as someone who is presumed to be White. However, I think as long as these groups of women are sensitive to racial issues and aware of the privilege that being White affords them, we can all work together as allies, and more effectively so in this capacity than separately, toward the common goal of a society free of oppression and inequality.

To me, this event is an important part of the movement toward redefining gender roles, working to end violence against women (and against men), and in addressing a number of important social issues that result from institutionalized patriarchy. These discussions need to be had, and I was glad to be a part of this conversation at Ryerson.

In the discussion led by Slutwalk Toronto, a theme emerged of allies and consent. I’d actually not explicitly considered the role of consent in the work of allies. This struck me as a particularly important conversation.

As a feminist, I advocate not only for the rights of women, but for those of men, but I find that many men are suspicious of my position as an ally (often because of the misconception that feminism is merely about elevating women, I often face disbelief when I describe feminism as an egalitarian movement).

Conversely, I tend to appreciate male allies, and I don’t have any predisposition to be suspicious of a man who says he’s an ally of feminism. However, I have seen that there is some understandable hesitancy among some feminists to include men in the movement, or suspicion about their motivations to be involved. So, while I am enthusiastically accepting of male allies (and thus implicitly consenting), this conversation did bring to my attention that perhaps for others it is important to ensure more explicitly that they are a consensual ally rather than a self-identified ally.

Violence against women (and men) is supported by dominant social structures. It is a consequence of patriarchy and colonization, of power dynamics, and of inequity. The White Ribbon campaign is a movement that is working to include men in the discussions about ending VAW, by having them stand against it and resist complicity.

As allies of the women in their lives, the majority of men disapprove of violence against women in its many forms (sexist jokes, sexual harassment, physical assault, sexual assault) but don’t always interfere when they witness it occurring. It can be a difficult and daunting task to be the one man in the room who interjects when a sexist joke is made, to say: “This isn’t okay. We need to speak respectfully of the women in our lives”.

But as was discussed in these conversations throughout the day, it often only takes that one brave man to build the momentum. One man has the potential to inspire the men around him to stop being complicit and to vocalize their disdain for such behaviour. This, I think, is part of What Makes a Man.

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