Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
By Roba Dekamo, Contributor
Most people experience some level of privilege based on a combination of characteristics society considers integral to who you are. Some factors that influence privilege include your race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity. Based on these characteristics, your life will be harder or easier, and unfortunately you don’t get a say in the matter. Many folks are able to live easier lives due to privilege. For example, white folks are less likely to be pulled over while driving and men are less likely to be targets of sexual violence. However, one privilege I never considered, likely because doing so would contradict its very nature, is the ability to forget.
A friend of mine invited me to take part in McMaster University’s Mens’ Walk in Solidarity with the the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. As we made our way through campus, we stopped at four memorial sites: the Student Memorial Garden, Nina de Villiers Rose Garden, the Montreal Massacre Commemorative Stone and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Memorial. During one stop, a group member reminded us of how frequently we may pass by these sites, often daily, without giving them much thought. He defined this as “the privilege to forget”.
This isn’t to say men are dismissive of acts of gender-based violence and their impacts, but to say that, as cisgender straight men, many of us don’t have to carry the weight of our very safety being threatened on the basis of gender. Therefore, we can either consciously or unconsciously ignore the realities that women and non-binary folks face on a daily basis in terms of their physical security.
My daily decisions aren’t impacted by the threat of violence because I am a man. I don’t consider how late I can stay on campus if I am not walking home with friends. I don’t prioritize being aware of my environment or worry about who I’m surrounded by when I am out dancing. The women in my life can’t say the same.
While walking through campus with my mom, she helped me realize how easily I am able to forget. We crossed paths with a few friends and when one of them, a female engineering student, stated her program, she was met with all the affection I had come to expect from my mom but with one additional praise I didn’t anticipate: she called her brave. She cited the events of Dec. 6, 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre, where a man killed 14 women in a horrible act of misogyny because he said they were “feminists” for being in engineering. My mom reassured this young woman that her decision was hers to make, and that by defying gender norms she had been brave and made at least one mom proud. I’m sure her own mother was also very proud but unfortunately we are still waiting on a quote from her.
My mom found my friend brave for pursuing her passion, for choosing a field of study dominated by men and for doing what she wanted regardless of the standards. Brave for doing what men consider normal. This was another reminder of my privilege to be able to dismiss the concerns that women often have to take into account when making decisions. Will I feel safe and comfortable in this space? Welcomed or alienated? Is the discomfort worth pursuing something I want? I never had to face these questions when weighing my options in high school.
I remember a time in my first year when five women I was friends with mentioned that they always felt better when I joined them on late night escapades to find a kegger or backyard party. I was taken aback by the statement, not just because I’m built like a determined toothpick but because I never considered my physical safety to be in jeopardy by simply being out at night. To be fair, this anecdote isn’t as much about forgetting as it is about learning, but even beyond this experience years ago, these thoughts don’t occupy mind nearly as much as I’d argue they should.
I learned a lot from those friends and they helped me realize a few things: my understanding of the world was very limited and I had a lot to learn, but also we as a society need to share more. Sharing the burden of repairing broken systems and perceptions, but also sharing our experiences to help inform and educate each other about things some individuals may never experience themselves.
Violence against women and gender-nonconforming people exists 365 days of the year, at a rate drastically higher than men experience. This allows a lot of male identifying folks the luxury of tuning out the subject for 364 of those days, and acknowledging its significance as it arises, be it a news article, story from a friend or national observance.
Year round, men need to ask more often, listen more intently and genuinely care for what women and non-binary folks have to say about these issues. We can use each others’ experiences to learn a lot about the things we can never experience ourselves and hopefully this can help change the ways we think and act for the better.