Transforming male supremacy in our everyday activism and lives

Rodney Vlais

Every form of struggle for social and environmental justice, dignity and survival is, to a greater or lesser extent, about power. The power to shape or dominate the 'story', to define what's 'real', what's valued, what counts, what's visible, what's invisible. The power to shape organisations, institutions, cultures, sub-cultures, shared meanings, shared expectations, shared myths. The power to provide or withhold information, to gate-keep access to information, to define what information is valid and to be trusted. The power to develop and maintain hierarchies, to control decision-making, to use subtle and overt forms of propaganda to marginalise dissent and local autonomy.

This power is generally not earned. It becomes part and parcel of being privileged. I don't need to do anything to receive the benefits of being able-bodied and heterosexual. These benefits arise by virtue of my privilege in these areas. Ongoing occupation of Aboriginal and Islander nations and lands provides me with advantages, rights and resources that I didn't need to actively steal ... this stolen wealth is bestowed to me every day.

Whether acting in solidarity with local communities affected by unconventional gas exploration, South Pacific Islander nations threatened by climate change or 'free trade' agreements, or with old growth forests targeted by corporate interests, effective activist work requires us to be keenly aware of the dynamics of power including our own use of power. We acknowledge that as allies to their struggle, we have forms of power and privilege that we need to become un-blind to, learn more about, actively detect and monitor in an ongoing way, and transform, so that we don't add to the oppression of those who we wish to act in solidarity with. We need to tune our antennae to both the 'micro-politics' of privilege in the everyday, and to how power plays out in the bigger picture around us.

Being an aspiring ally is a collective struggle, to learn what it might mean to be white, able-bodied, human or economically privileged, and to not leave it up to those without privilege to hold a mirror up to our misuse and abuse of power. To discover how we have come to see our privilege as an entitlement. To take responsibility to make visible what is often invisible to us. And to learn from others about very different ways of co-creating and being sensitive with power, systems of valuing and re-valuing that can shake the very foundations of what we've been taught.

Not a simple dividing line

Of course, it's not a simple dividing line between those with privilege and those without. One might have privilege in some ways, and at the same time, experience marginalisation and oppression in another way that deeply affects the opportunities one has, how one is seen, one's access to resources, one's status. And some people experience multiple forms of oppression, including many of those who our campaigns are in the service of.

While we know this to a greater or lesser extent in our social justice and environmental activism, there is one dimension of power that we are sometimes particularly blind to within our autonomous or progressive communities. Or more correctly, that men in our collectives and communities are often blind to … gender, and what it means to benefit from male supremacy.

I've come to realise that we can't assume that because an autonomous collective or progressive community is growing antennae to detect racism, anthropocentrism or classism, that the men within that community are on a journey to develop their gender antennae. While I hear some conversations and genuine reflection about what it means to be white, or middle class, or from a Minority World (overdeveloped) nation, I hear little, from men, about what it means to carry male privilege and entitlement. This is not a moralistic observation from some enlightened space ... I'm reflecting on my gender blindness from my own history within progressive struggles too.

As a cis-gendered, able-bodied white male, who aspires to be an ally to women in their struggle for freedom from men's violence and misogyny, for control over their bodies and lives, sexual autonomy and emotional, social and economic safety, there is much that I need to take responsibility for.

I need to be more aware of the un-negotiated burdens of responsibility I place on to women, whether it be colleagues and activists or my partner and female friends. Who is most likely to listen out for signs of burn-out, distress or activist fatigue and trauma in our collectives? Who is most likely to notice and articulate tears in collegial or personal relationships that affect how a campaign functions? Who in a heterosexual relationship is most likely to keep track of their children's friendship formation during homeschooling or school, to ask how their day went and help them to process the emotional highs and lows? Who is most likely, in the months before the birth of a new baby into the family, to take responsibility for thinking about and researching which pram or form of modern cloth nappies might be best to buy? Which gender makes up 98% of the workforce in Australia's early learning and childcare industry?

Noticing and contributing to the emotional care of our activist and personal relationships, the relational pulse of our collectives, the social and emotional lives of our children, and caring for other children, of course isn't inherently a burden. But when these things are invisible to men, and through our entitlement and privilege are left solely or mainly for women to do, it can then become an un-negotiated burden of emotional labour onto women, crowding out emotional, physical and spiritual energy (and time) for the many other identities and ways of being that women could choose to pursue. And choosing to leave these things for women to do impoverishes our lives as men.

Hypermasculine cultures

As male activists and progressive change agents, we are influenced by wider hypermasculine cultures, by the 'man box', by prevailing norms of masculinity. Many of us work and play tirelessly, creatively, determinedly, to co-create a space outside, to co-author our own gender identities, to non-conform with white male supremacist ways of being. But that doesn't mean that we aren't influenced by predominant patriarchal stories about what it means to be 'a strong leader' or to 'work hard'. It doesn't mean that we don't take up more than our share of physical and decision-making space and power, that we don't shun emotional labour work for the more glorious 'out there' activist heroic identities.

And it doesn't automatically mean that we take action to challenge patriarchal and violent pornography. Or insist on maximum quotas of men (rather than minimum quotas for women). Or look out for subtle displays of sexism that contribute to the continuing objectification of women. It doesn't mean that we take note of when the first judgement we make when meeting a woman is of her appearance.

And unfortunately, it doesn't mean that women in our collectives and campaigns automatically feel safe from the threat of men's violence, whether that be from men in their personal lives and networks, or men from the collective itself. Violence against women and their children is not just something that happens 'out there'.

Taking action to non-cooperate with male entitlement

As men, there is so much that we could be doing – carefully, slowly, working collaboratively with women – to help transform the conditions that subtly condones men's emotional, social, financial, physical and sexual violence against women.

This starts with us men noticing and sensitively taking (non-heroic) action to non-cooperate with the male entitlement and privilege, the objectification of women, the un-negotiated burdening of responsibility, that all feeds a general way of thinking in relation to gender … a way of thinking that those who do use violence against women draw upon to justify and excuse their behaviour. While violence against women is always a choice, the actions of all men to cooperate or non-cooperate with male supremacist ways of being creates a climate that makes it easier or harder for some men to make the choice to use violence.

This is not about beating ourselves up as men. It's not about seeing gender as the only thing that matters. It is about realising, without being defensive or getting lost in a “I've stuffed up” response, that of course we are going to reproduce our male privilege in many ways, exhibit sexism, and act through entitlement. It's about recognising that all this is a consequence of the benefits given to us by virtue of being male. About recognising how this operates in the moment, about noticing, not leaving it for women to do the noticing for us.

About careful, sensitive, power-aware noticing … and non-cooperation to create spaces for freedom and dignity.

If anything in this article resonates with family/domestic violence or sexual assault affecting you or someone you care about, the national 1800Respect helpline operates 24/7 on 1800 737 732. The Men's Referral Service helpline 1300 766 491 provides an opportunity for men using violence to explore some first steps towards taking responsibility for their behaviour.

To find out about transformative justice approaches within and across collectives and solidarity networks to interpersonal violence including violence against women, see

Rodney Vlais is a psychologist-in-recovery with an activist history, and is a current member of FoE Melbourne's Policy Advisory Committee. His paid work is with No To Violence ( He is keen to hear of others who might be interested in exploring Challenging Male Supremacy work (see in Melbourne, and can be contacted on [email protected]

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016