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Help! I need to take down a “hierarchy of power”

Today, as I do every Tuesday and Thursday, I went to my “Gender and War” political science seminar. On paper, this class is everything I could have dreamed of: a discussion of “…topics [that] include gender biases in international relations theories, female and male roles in war, and rape as an instrument of warfare. Also assesses roles of women as leaders, actors, and objects of foreign policy.”

So when I walked in the first day, I was surprised to see that my professor was a middle-aged, white, cisgender, heterosexual man. I was hitting myself for not looking at the picture of my professor beforehand. What?! Why are you teaching this class? Why, when your WIFE is the leading academic in the field of international relations and its political intersections, are YOU here?

I tried to let my judgment aside. Okay. You are a veteran. You have your Ph.D. That is an experience that is valuable to this class that I don’t have. Maybe I can be a little less defensive. But then, he spoke. This professor is a fan of “anecdotal evidence.” He likes to show pop-culture film clips and say they are near empirical. After a discussion on gendered schoolyard bullying which he had yet to connect the content of the class, he asked, “Well, how do you feel about being called sluts and whores?” Although he is aware of the term “microaggression,” he commits them on a regular basis. I often take less than a page of notes on 80 pages of reading because he admits to “going on tangents, which is actually a traditionally feminine thing to do,” with pride.

Today, this professor said, “You know, I’ve had a female acquaintance say that I couldn’t teach this class, because I am male, and I must not know what I’m talking about.” I looked at him in horror. Yes. That is also what I feel. Am I too defensive? I couldn’t tell.

I thought of this professor as I read a response to Howlround’s #IdentityWeek. We are disseminating important information, the ideas of what life is like, what we stand for. In his Howlround article, Basil Kreimendahl noted that there is an obvious cultural hierarchy, with dudes like the one teaching my Gender and War seminar at the top. They tell stories from their perspective, which is a lot of people, but not all people. And not generally the people that they are.

Their position doesn’t give them less permission to teach, it just means that he should be the most aware of his own position, even when he thinks he is being silly or funny in class. Kreimendahl’s article noted the permission of cis people to tell or program the stories of trans people, and how people from different backgrounds know how to serve their own identity group. A cis man will know how make an audience access a trans story from a cisgender perspective. But that is not what all stories are for. Sometimes a story is specifically for the members of that community, and they should not be trying to make others feel safe.

To be taught by a professor that is making the subject that he teaches safe for him, and making it feel (for me) unsafe for not-men, he is in a cultural position of power in which I don’t feel capable of challenging him. I can’t ask him to find his “own way in” to the female perspective that he seems to know so well, because he is teaching it. Kreimendahl’s ideas serve stories going from the top (writers and programers) to the bottom (audiences), but how do I drill upwards from the top as a student in a university?

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