You have only my word for this, but I wasn’t born straight, white, or male. In fact, I wasn’t even born. I arrived later, probably after an encounter between an infant and a mirror. When that happened, I probably had learned some of the ropes for being male. That started when someone in the hospital had a look between my legs and placed me in that category. After this confirmation, people began treating me with that fact in mind. My aunt got a telegram in Greece from my grandmother that read ‘BOY OK’. I learned to read early and by age 5 my grandmother had bought me an illustrated book on Julius Caesar. Not as early career guidance, I imagine. The point is I doubt my sister got something similar on Alexander the Great.
I don’t know when I properly realised I was straight. I mean, straight as a description probably came in my late teens, but things like the Beano’s Dennis The Menace, who would dish out beatings to Walter the Softy who liked to play with dolls and had a poodle called Foo-Foo were an early instruction manual that there were some boys who were not really boys but something else masquerading as a boy and that it is was ok to visit them with random and arbitrary violence. It became clearer to me that I was straight after I began to get abuse, as many other boys did, for being ‘queer’. ‘Queer’ was the insult that came with doing well in tests at school, with playing a musical instrument, with having long hair, and maybe carrying an art folder around. My closest friend at the time got the same: we were both ‘queers’. Despite the occasional scrape the insult did not bother us much since it did not feel like any kind of attack on who we were and I can’t say that it fostered any great empathy with people who were properly marginalised by such disciplinary violence since we didn’t know anyone in that situation, for reasons that ought to be obvious.
Realising that I was white is a different thing: the first black people I remember seeing were Floella Benjamin and Derek Griffiths from Playschool, Uhura from Star Trek, and Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. Also, St Martin de Porres from those magazines that my childminder would deliver. There was a Sikh doctor who attended to me once, one dark-skinned boy at school, but for the most part, life in the flesh was white as a norm, punctuated occasionally with racist jokes -I laughed- and a feeling fostered that we were living in the civilised world and not wherever the missions money collected at school was going.
I don’t identify as straight, white or male. I don’t see any virtue in any of these things. I don’t feel part of a straight community, or a white community, or a male community. Although: most of my friends are straight, and white, and male, and the institutions of the society in which I live favour the straight, the white, the male, because they were built to that purpose. When Gardaí board the train after crossing the border and make a group of black people get off the train, I know it is not I who am not in danger. It is other people who are being targeted, not me. When someone daubs a swastika on a gay bar, I know that it isn’t me they want to eliminate. When the laws of the state exercise ownership over women’s bodies and prohibit them from having an abortion, it isn’t me who is compelled to endure an unwanted pregnancy and labour. And in every such case, being straight, white and male, I can opt to do nothing. I can opt to say “this is not about me”, which is a substantial privilege, an access to a security beyond the reach of others, and a form of glue that maintains systemic oppression.
In fact, I can, along with many other straight white men, act as if none of this has anything to do with heteronormativity, or racism, or patriarchy. I can look upon acts of oppression and violence -homophobia, racist attacks, misogynist violence – as bad things done by bad individuals, the result of bad ideas lodged in certain people’s heads, in a society where the straight white man is just one category of individual among many: neither good nor bad. I have a wealth of resources to call upon for this. I can open any newspaper, for one.
I can also consider these things – heteronormativity, racism, patriarchy – as secondary questions. Bad, for sure, but secondary to the overall problem of class exploitation under the specific historical social form known as capitalism. What’s more, since I’m relatively free from the effects of these things, and not required to endure them and struggle against them on any given day, this gives me relatively more time to analyse them with a view to how I might raise the consciousness of others. I can ascend above the fray, all the petty disputes that cloud the bigger picture, name things for what they really are, and make my prescriptions.
But what happens if no-one listens? Or worse, they can’t fathom what I’m trying to get across, or are appalled by it? A problem here with being straight, white and male is that no-one may have led me to consider how the categories and the language I use to understand the world, along with the way I move freely around in it, though they appear natural to me, are a longstanding product of domination, and patriarchy has been around a lot longer than capitalism. If someone confronts me with this, I may dismiss it as weak-minded and silly nonsense, and I’ll probably find plenty to back me up on it. The dominant usually find it easier to present themselves as clear-sighted and grounded, as opposed to what appears to them as garbled or infantile or abnormal or unnatural. I can survey the mess and conclude I had no part in it.
What are straight white men supposed to do, then? Learning to listen, recognising habits and trying to undo them, and trying to grasp that a better world cannot and should not be made in their image or in the sound of their voice alone might be good for starters. Given how so much of this operates unconsciously, they (me included) will be very bad at it and may never become good at it, but even trying probably helps. It seems inevitable that doing this, and even talking about it, will be made appear by some as the start of some endless cycle of feeble-minded self-flagellation, or betrayal and capitulation to the forces of collapse. But there is an entire order that deserves to be collapsed.