By Guest Contributor L’Heureux Dumi Lewis, originally published at Uptown Notes
A few days ago, my talk at the 143rd Morehouse Founder’s Day Symposium went up on the web. The talk was entitled, “Shadowboxing the Self: Confronting Black Male Privilege.” I was very excited to give the talk because I knew that it would ruffle some feathers, but I viewed it as a labor of love. My goal is to speak truth that inspires thoughts and actions. While not everyone will agree with me, this is not a surprise, I do think the conversations that Black Male Privilege (BMP) has generated thus far are good. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive and many are asking for clarification. I’ve decided to respond to three thematic questions I’ve received, most often from incredulous Black men. I highly recommend that you watch the video of the talk below. This is an emergent area of research for me, though I’ve been living Black male privilege (BMP) for some time now. There are a number of great talks from the Founder’s Day symposium with was a 4 hour plus affair (My talk was only 35 minutes). Please do check them out.
1) What is Black Male Privilege? Is that like irregardless?*
I got this question a bunch. I think its because, on its face, the placement of the words Black male and privilege close together appears contradictory. Indeed, I want you to think about the juxtaposition and open up to the possibility of its existence. While most of us are used to the crisis narrative of Black men in America, we continue to overlook the ways that male privilege is experienced and leveraged by Black men in our everyday lives. While most folks who asked this question didn’t watch the video (all you have to do is click play). I’ll write out the working definition I gave during the talk, “a system of built in and often overlooked systematic advantages that center the experience and concerns of Black men while minimizing the power that Black males hold.”**
The hidden and overlooked nature is what is crucial for understanding privilege. It is the careful analysis of the social fabric of our world that will make privilege visible, even to Black men. I am not suggesting BMP explains all gender and race inequality -that would make it a perfect explanation- I am saying BMP has a significant contribution to gender and race inequality- thus BMP is a partial explanation. I am most concerned with the Black community, so I have discussed BMP as it relates to Black men and Black women. I’m not making an argument about BMP relative to White Male Privilege. If you want to do that, do so at your own risk . BMP is akin to White privilege in that it is often invisible to those who benefit from it the most! It is the accumulation of these unearned advantages that matter but are often dismissed as inconsequential. These advantages are often thought to be insignificant, unless of course you are on the receiving end of the oppression.
2) Why are you trying to tear down Black men?
I have no desire to tear Black men down, quite the contrary, my goal is to build US up. However, I am all about tearing down undeserved privilege. I delivered this talk first at Morehouse because it is the premier space for educating Black men and the site where I first realized some of the ways I was falling prey to Black male privilege. Years later, I met brother Jewel Woods who had been doing some amazing activist work with Black men around men’s issues which included work on domestic violence. His dedication to building stronger brothers by confronting issues of privilege that emerged as compensation for oppression was renewing. My goal is to extend Jewel Woods’ work and add contextual nuance around BMP. I have two central gripes with BMP: 1) it oppresses others – particularly Black women- and 2) it robs Black men of their power. That’s the part many brothers beefing with me keep missing. If we continue to rely on our privilege for a sense of worth, purpose, and manhood we’re going to recreate the same broken community we have now.
3) What has BMP gotten me [insert incredulous screwface]?
Again, if you listen to the talk, I point out a number of material benefits that are not commonly, easily, or often documented: sexual consumption that a blind-eye is turned to, the silencing of black sexual assault, greater pay and promotion, to name a few. Still many have asked me via facebook/twitter/email, “so what has BMP gotten me?” this is often attached to saying “I got thrown in jail” or “I’m unemployed.” The answer is right there, Black Male Privilege has created the ability to sidestep your own power to oppress by saying you’re oppressed. Sadly, it has been a tradition to revisit the harm we feel as Black men on Black women. The most traditional example is, abuse at the workplace for the Black man has meant abuse for the Black woman at home. But you don’t have to go that extreme to understand that privilege for one begets oppression for another. See, BMP breathes and breeds on the idea that no one could possibly do harm if they’re being harmed, nothing could be further from the truth. Black Feminists/Womanists have been pressing Black men on this false belief and exposing its consequences, but men, by and large, have ignored them. I am clear that my engaging this as a Black man (sadly) adds legitimacy to the concept, but if this is the case I hope that we as Black men can begin the work of dismantling BMP. There are many ways we can begin, some of which are referenced in the video like male study circles on campuses. In everyday life we can begin by holding our brothers accountable on the ways we manipulate opportunity for the advancement of Black men, and the oppression of Black women. That could be calling out male-centered networks, calling out exploiting the Black dating pool, there are many areas. It is easy to turn our back on BMP and many will. Ignoring it says nothing about merit or value, but it does say something about our future. As Deming said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” I am ecstatic to hear many people talking and grappling with this concept and these issues. This is about community. This is about accountability, not blame. Accountability can transform a community, lack of accountability can destroy one.
I look forward to hearing more from you.
Footnotes (yeah I put footnotes on a blog post!)
*Get it? Irregardless isn’t really a word. Regardless = without regard. Irregardless would = without without regard … there’s an internal conflict that makes it illogical, get it? Never mind, it’s a nerd joke. You’re probably not even laughing right now… unless you’re a nerd.
**It’s a working definition because there are a lot of things to be worked out and I don’t want to define it in a too limited way. More study will refine and potentially expand or narrow the definition.