Steve Biko on Allies: Reflections on Masculinity Work

drum-steve biko

Two weeks ago, I attended an engaging discussion on gender-based violence and what is involved in the work of stopping it. At this event, one of the panelists raised the issue of masculinity work as a crucial part of this. I was intrigued: whilst this is not my first time at the masculinity rodeo, per se, it was the first time I’d heard even a hint of what this means in practice, and what the relationship of this work to feminism and the women’s movement looks like.


To learn more about what it really means to admit men as allies, I spoke to a friend whom I’ll call B. B works for an organisation that works with men in an effort to reverse the damaging effects of patriarchy on both men’s and women’s lives and identities.*


I was interested, firstly, in the reactions of other feminists to masculinity work. I’ve been frank about the fact that I cannot do it. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that it is necessary. So, how does B do it and how do fellow feminists react? Mostly, not warmly. B told me that, “a lot of intellectual, academic feminists … feel like work on masculinity is a waste of time”. The reactions she has received from fellow gender activists range from curiosity (my reaction) to outright disdain: she reported being told that if she worked with a masculinity initiative, she could pretty much forget about finding work in the gender field ever again. Where does this reaction come from? My theory is that many feminists resent the ways in which men who do gender work are applauded as though they are exceptional, and are doing something radically different from the generations of women thinkers, philosophers and activists who have gone before. It is insulting to women who’ve been slandered, ostracised, endured grievous bodily and emotional harm because of they work they do to see all the praise lavished on masculinity work. Some of us feel that, as B eloquently put it, “the territory is being peed on”.


But all of us know that we have a crisis on our hands. And that crisis is of limited, violent masculinities being imposed on women. I told B that when I volunteered at Rape Crisis, I had the privilege of seeing women heal and grow and walk out of counselling with a life that continued in spite of the violence that brought them there. What I experienced of men was through the women I met, and my overwhelming sense was the presence of men as perpetrators. Most of the masculinities I heard about were those carried by perpetrators, and perpetrators stories began to merge with what I thought of as ‘men’s stories’. But to what extent can we allow those stories to become the only narratives we engage with? And how do we flip the script on those stories? It is clear that we have a crisis, and that reworking men’s narratives has to be part of the solution.


Admittedly, we can’t all participate in every part of the solution. B admits to me that in her work, she sees men struggling and occasionally failing. To attempt to live alternative masculinities that are steeped in respect for the feminine, and a recognition and celebration of the feminine in oneself isn’t easy. When I reflect on my time at Rape Crisis, and my experience of the worst parts of masculinities, I don’t know if I would be so empathetic to the struggle of men who are doing masculinity differently. I could forgive it, certainly, and understand in an abstract sense; but my own struggle with the violent masculinities imposed upon me makes it difficult for me to promise anything more.


This past week was the anniversary of the death of Steve Biko. I’ve written elsewhere about my struggles with Biko’s work, and how I reached a place where I can use his work to inform some of the questions around race and class that came up for me during a brief and traumatic stint at an NGO. This time around, I am engaging with Biko as I try to organise my thinking about men as allies within the women’s movement. Biko famously said of white allies to the black consciousness movement:


Rather, [they] should realise that the place for their fight for justice is within their white society. The liberals must realise that they themselves are oppressed if they are true liberals and therefore they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous “they” with whom they can hardly claim identification. The liberal must apply himself with absolute dedication to the idea of educating his white brothers that the history of the country may have to be rewritten at some stage and that we may live in “a country where colour will not serve to put a man in a box”. The blacks have heard enough of this. In other words, the Liberal must serve as a lubricating material so that as we change gears in trying to find a better direction for South Africa, there should be no grinding noises of metal against metal but a free and easy flowing movement which will be characteristic of a well-looked -after vehicle.


Biko’s argument is that the work of whiteness is crucial to the objectives of the black consciousness movement: for white people to become true allies to the movement, they need to recognise that the bulk of the work is necessary within white society. I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with this part of Biko’s work: doesn’t it suggest a reinscribing of race categories that are to blame for the problem? I understand, though, that Biko is articulating this work as part of the solution to the problem. Reclaiming white identity from the clutches of those who would use it as a tool of oppression against the ‘other’ is important, difficult and necessary work, that can only be done by white people. As he says, “there is no black problem… the problem is white racism”. And so it seems this would be the case for masculinities. There is no ‘woman problem’, what we have is a crisis of masculinities. Reclaiming and rearticulating masculinities that are not based on power over women is crucial to addressing gender power inequalities. As long as men feel that their identity rests on how powerful they feel in relation to women and to any other ‘others’, we’re nowhere near stemming the tide of patriarchy and all its attendant evils.


However, the question of whether or not this work falls only to men remains. Biko’s argument would suggest that it does. I would argue that in the same way that Biko does not suggest we reinscribe and enforce racial categories, we don’t think of masculinity work as an opportunity to reinforce gender categories. Rather, seen through the lens of black consciousness, the work of masculinity means an opportunity to redefine gender work as going beyond repairing the damage wrought by patriarchy and abolishing it altogether from our gender identities. In the same way that white people are called on to contribute to the work of the black consciousness movement by redefining whiteness that doesn’t depend on oppression of the other, men are called upon to contribute to the work and the goals of the women’s movement by defining masculinity that doesn’t depend on patriarchy.


Seen this way, masculinity work is not a threat but an addition to the tradition of the women’s movement. Given the scale of the impact of patriarchy, it is a welcome addition. As B says, “We’re not beating ourselves; we’re not raping ourselves”. A system of interventions that begins to address the source of patriarchy can only be complementary to all the work that goes into addressing the effects.


And whilst I can understand that and support it, I know that I probably couldn’t participate fully in it. Which brings me to another layer in Biko’s argument. I returned to this part of his work when I was stuck in the aforementioned unhappy job at an NGO. One of the things that bothered me about the place was the way in which white guilt and middle class identity issues were being worked out on sites that ought to be sites of development and redress, sites that ought to belong to the black lives that inhabited and struggled with them. Biko had found something similar in liberal South Africa and characterised it thus:


…that curious bunch of nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names -liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country’s “inhumanity to the black man”. These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle for a place under the sun. In short, these are the people who say that they have black souls wrapped up in white skins… Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo.


I would argue that what Biko is contending is that where white liberals are involved in a joint struggle with the black consciousness movement, it must be on terms that are set with the agreement of both parties. At the time he wrote this, Biko himself worked with some white people, on terms that he himself set, and was comfortable with. So whilst he cautioned about the dilution of black consciousness by the “bilateral approach”, I would argue that his central claim was this: where resistance of oppression involves those who (on face value) belong to the oppressor’s group, there needs to be a careful negotiation and agreement about who is setting the terms, and what exactly those terms are. I can see how important this is for gender work. To truly accept masculinity work as part of the proud tradition of feminist resistance to patriarchy, such work cannot be seen as existing outside of the terms and objectives of this tradition. Unfortunately, some feminists (myself included) have encountered examples of masculinity work that positions itself outside of the gender work that has been done by generations of women, to the extent that it is in opposition to such work. Such work is off-putting, and smacks of the patriarchy many of us have dedicated our lives to, in the same way that some of white liberalism Biko encountered felt very much like a reproduction of what black consciousness was resisting.
Having said that, if Biko could accept that this was not the entirety of the experience of working alongside white people, can it hold that feminism can accept that not all masculinity work is a reproduction of patriarchy? I would argue that the new crop of masculinity work, of which the organisation B works for is a respected forerunner, can be taken is evidence of this. And whilst we don’t all have to participate in their work, surely we can understand the need for men who are true allies, and welcome them into our conversations (if not our actual work)? If we don’t, we run the risk of excluding a range of solutions and tactics that could end patriarchy and all of its damage.
When Biko was asked whether or not he could see a society in which black and white people could co-exist, he responded:

That is correct. We see a completely non-racial society. We don’t believe, for instance, in the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country, there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people. And those people will have the same status before the law. So, in a sense, it will be a completely non-racial society.

If a similar goal is to be realised for gender relations, a society in which no person’s rights, safety and access to a decent livelihood are determined by their gender identity, those of us committed to this goal will need to accept that we cannot create such a society without the full co-operation of both ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’. In the same way that feminism has reimagined women’s identities outside of the ‘oppressed’ label, we need to accept masculinity’s efforts to reimagine men’s identities outside of the ‘oppressor’ label. Surely a movement that doesn’t include both processes is incomplete.

*Full disclosure: B is a good, old friend.

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