The night had grown late over the downing of drinks and a home cooked meal. We were seated in the living room — 6 men and me, the lone female ranger. As a woman who grew up playing Little League alongside my two brothers, I generally relish these environments. I love men. Despite the inevitable conflicts, their impact on me is potent and transformative. I appreciate their presence in the world and I know some upstanding ones, too. They listen astutely, bring sight to my blindspots, challenge me to shape my role in society, and whether intentionally or indirectly, they push me to rise into my confidence and compassion. I, too, listen close enough to let them under my skin because I respect them. Without respect, we are of little use to each other. At our best, we share a mutual drive to evolve, grow, and open ourselves to our own possibilities and shortcomings.
I dramatize the living room scene as it unfolds. I love when I get a VIP pass to King Arthur’s round table and the knights are opening a third bottle of wine. Genuinely, I’m glad to be here. There are few things I enjoy more than civil discourse and a long conversation that explores provocative territory with equal parts spicy punch and thoughtful depth. I appreciate realness and an honest hot take. Since we’re not in the 12th century, but the 21st, I’m welcomed as an equal, as the round table’s original design intended. So I’m sitting there like, Come on then, knights. Hit me with it.
The phrase “revenge feminism” is thrown out, catching me by surprise, and what do you think about that? Also, it’s a weird time to be a white man, so how do you think we should respond right now? Well, shit gentlemen, this comfy couch chit chat just got a bit loaded. I sit up on the soft beige sandpit just in time to save myself from dissolving into its cozy grasp. Taking a breath, I consider the questions, the implications and their feelings, laid out between me and these blinking, waiting men.
On one hand, it’s refreshing to hear men openly acknowledge their inner conflicts in response to the massive shifts in societal power dynamics slowly taking shape in our world today. Interestingly, this conversation did not take place in Los Angeles. Here, where our status quo as a “progressive city” is unshakeable, men are not always so forthcoming in socially precarious conversations. How helpful are labels if they help us evade self analysis? The “woke man” of Los Angeles knows that all he really needs to do is regurgitate the script that’s been written for him to get a pass into the Good Men club. I want to hear what he thinks, even if the honest answer is “I don’t know.” Humility is progressive; plagiarizing the Cliff Notes is redundant. If men do voice original thoughts or counter arguments in Los Angeles, it’s often squawked with more force than is necessary, as if to say, “Fuck it, fine! I disagree! Balls to the walls! Watch me do it!” Settle down, Sparky. You’re taking up too much space.
But damn, gentlemen. You do realize that when people, especially consistently silenced marginalized people, are finally given the chance to speak, it’s not an invitation to compete for emotional space, right? Practice some tolerance. Your reaction is not the responsibility of the one who elicits the reaction from you. It is not fair to ask that people who have been silenced keep quiet and muscle through the injustices thrust upon them. When you feel defensive, do you pause to examine why? This time in history is less of a personal attack and more of a cultural reevaluation of the stifling imbalances embedded in white masculinity that leave no room or respect for anyone’s humanity, including white men’s. No one can summon the resolve to move forward in pursuit of collective wellbeing without being granted the grace to grieve. There is an emotional process unfolding around us and it’s expected that you will be deeply affected. My question for you is, are you allowing yourself the space to process your feelings rather than asking others to reconsider theirs?
It’s understandable that Sparky would come out swinging, if he comes out at all. We resist the expression of others when we prohibit our own expression. By denying another, we reject an opportunity for our own transformation. In other parts of the country, white men feel comfortable enough to initiate a frank discussion on the prickly ways we relate. Here in Los Angeles, all thorns are generally avoided until it’s too late and Sparky’s too fired up for a constructive conversation. Why does this happen? Sure, the cultural landscapes are different, but it also comes down to respect. Respect must be present for anyone to safely sort through “problematic” viewpoints and gain understanding. This is when our communal responsibility to hold one another to nourishing standards comes in. In Los Angeles, there’s a high chance that a white man will be shut down instantaneously for offering anything less than Ultimate Wokeness, The End. Either he gets it right the first time or he’s out. A narrow social expectation does not provide safe space for men to reach greater awareness with support from trusted friends. Lads, it’s up to you to air out these issues and figure them out together. Without discussion, questionable comments and behavior continue to be swept under the rug. This excuse by denial benefits no one, not even the men who harm people around them, because it allows ignorance to perpetuate itself and for harm to go unchecked. Real love is holding each other accountable. Real love is addressing the hard stuff. Real love is taking responsibility for the ways we affect the world around us.
The knights are good men. Or, at least, they call themselves good men. They consider themselves progressive and by many standards, they are. Though they mean well, they have behavioral patterns that they cannot see. It’s human nature to miss a thing or two (or twenty) within ourselves, but we shouldn’t take self inquiry off the table just because it challenges an attachment to our identity. Perhaps self identifying as a “good guy” gives men permission to overlook the unpleasant layers required for inner work to be effective. We progress when we listen long enough to receive feedback and consider ourselves objectively. If good men can use their discomfort to assess their character and commit to developing compassionate strength, they may truly become great.
If at any point I strike a nerve, please refer to my introduction. Consider this: if I hadn’t eased you into this conversation by first reassuring your ego and establishing my undying love for you, would you still be reading this piece? When a friend asked me how I feel about coming across as a “crazy feminist,” I was surprised again. All I’m doing is showing up to the round table. It’s another way to dodge and dismiss perspectives, to flip the script, to procrastinate the reckoning. Diving into the discomfort with you is not my job. It’s also not for me to define what being a “good guy” means to you. I can’t give you the A-Z guide and I won’t hold your hand before my own, but I do want you to accept where you’re at and embody your full potential in service to your community. If you don’t have the answers yet, continue processing. Listen to people without comparing their experiences to your own. Stop looking for validation in the world’s reaction to you.
Weeks after the round table, I put one foot in front of the other through the streets of Los Angeles. A searing red blister forms on my left pinky toe. As I recall the vulnerability present on the beige sandpit, James Baldwin comes to mind. “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” My good men, call upon the knight within you who wants to be an exceptional man to summon your integrity at the edges of yourself. Our collective health depends on it.
Want to talk about it? I’m all ears. Feel free to email your thoughts.