Stop asking what you can do, start asking how you dismantle the system

There are a lot of things that make me tired right now. Existing in a pandemic is like that apparently. But nothing makes me more simultaneously more exhausted and angry than the fact that we are still having the tedious discussions we’ve been having this week in the UK about both racism and sexism. Never has International Women’s Day seemed more of an empty gesture than it has this week.  

For anyone not paying attention: we started the week with the airing of an interview between Meghan, Harry and Oprah Winfrey in which Meghan spoke about the racism she’s experienced at the hands of the royal family and the British media and the impact that’s had on her mental health. This further fuelled the toxic cocktail of racism, misogeny, and classism directed at her by a large portion of the British press – most notably in the case of Piers Morgan saying that Meghan was lying about feeling suicidal – and a far too large section of the general public. It’s utterly ridiculous that when a woman says the racism she experienced led to her having serious mental health problems that so many people refuse to acknowledge the pervasive racism that is present in Britain. We waste so much time litigating what racism is and clutching our pearls whenever you mention that a country that colonised a large portion of the world on the basis of white supremacy could possibly be little bit racist.

The other major story this week that’s hit so hard is the disappearance of Sarah Everard. A policeman has now been arrested and charged with her abduction and murder. Despite this the police are encouraging women not to walk alone in the area, refusing to allow (and then violently suppressing) a vigil in her memory, and trying to tell us that we have no reason to be scared. Even though everywhere I turn I see stories from women of how the police ignored and minimised the harassment and abuse they experienced. Even though the policemen who took selfies with the bodies of two murdered Black women in London last year are still employed. Even though there are women and girls, particularly women of colour and trans women, who go missing and are murdered every single day who do not get a manhunt to find them or their murderers and whose families never receive justice.

Whilst all this is going on the same tired old conversations are happening: people are asking why an adult woman was walking home at 9 o’clock at night (during a pandemic where we’re being discouraged from using public transport) rather than asking why someone chose to abduct and murder her. Women are sharing their stories of harassment, rape, abuse, and violence and being told they are lying or blamed for the trauma they’ve experienced. People are saying “but not all men” or “I would never do this” instead of asking why it is that so many men are chosing to harass, assault, rape, and murder women.  Yet the thing that has annoyed me the most are the men who are asking how they can be less intimidating to women when they’re walking down the street near them. Contrary to the replies you’re getting from women keen to pat you on the back for your basic self awareness of your privilege, the real answer to this question is simply: you can’t. 

Why? Because we still live in a society that considers women lesser, that encourages men to think of women’s bodies as theirs and their minds as inferior. If you don’t believe me, take a brief look on Twitter – at the mentions of any woman who has a role in public life, or who appears on the news or on TV to express their opinion on basically any subject. Take a particular look at the abuse that women of colour experience – Diane Abbott is perhaps the clearest example of this but she’s not alone. Take a look at the statistics released this week that found that 97% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Consider the fact that lockdown has seen a rise in domestic abuse and a rise in the numbers of women being murdered by their partners. 

No it’s not all men. But it’s a lot of men. And some of those men are your friends, your family, your colleagues, people you know and love who you’ve always considered to be good people. It’s not about being good. Fundamentally this is not about individual actions but about a continued system of patriarchial and racist oppression. It’s about participating in a system of power where you are at the top, even if you didn’t ask for it and don’t want to be there. 

So if you’re a man who wants to make the world better for women, here are some suggestions of how you can start to dismantle patriarchy with us:
1. Learn about feminism, from women. And not just from women who are white, cisgender, straight, or able-bodied. There are at least a million books out there – from academic feminist theory to accessible pop culture guides, there is literally something for everyone. This excellent thread links to a few lists to get you started:

2. Listen to women. In your home, in your workplace, in your family, in your friendship groups, on the internet. Listen to women you don’t want to sleep with, who don’t fancy you, who aren’t related to you. Listen to them like you have something to learn from them (you have), like they are more knowledgeable or more experienced than you (they are), like they matter (they do). What’s more, listen to women of colour when they talk about the racism they experience, to queer women when they talk about homophobia, to disabled women who talk about ableism, to trans women who talk about transphobia. We are all different, we all experience different intersections of oppression and prejudice, and we all have experiences to share that matter.

3. Talk to the other men in your life. Call out sexism when you hear it – from the minor “jokes” to the really offensive statements. Talk about your thoughts, your feelings, your struggles – if you need to, get therapy and encourage other people you know to do so to. Men suffer under patriarchy too because you’re constantly told that it’s weak to have thoughts, feelings, and emotions – it’s a pernicious lie and it’s harming you (and probably every other man you know)

4. Make space for women. Ask whether the panel you’ve been invited to speak on is all male and all white – if it is suggest women, particularly women of colour who might be better placed to contribute. Notice who is in the room when decisions are being made at work – are your female colleagues there? Why not? Don’t talk over women or take credit for their ideas. Share what you are being paid and challenge your workplace to publish gender and ethnicity pay gap data. 

5. Challenge the system. Vote for political candidates at all levels who are committed to gender and racial equality and who support policies that will lead to systemic change. What does this look like? Funding for women’s refuges and for community resources that support women, advocating for the adoption of shared parental leave and flexible working policies, supporting police reform and funding for legal aid.

Women don’t need performative allyship: from feminist t-shirts to exaggerated road crossing, there are a lot of ways to look like a feminist which don’t make the slightest difference to the lives of women. Instead, we need men to be in this fight with us. We need you to be prepared to go to the mat for us, to see us as full human beings, to challenge those around you to see us and treat us as such too. 

Further reading and watching from women smarter and more qualified than I am to discuss some of the issues above:

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