During the Spotlight Health conference in Aspen on Friday—part of the Aspen Ideas Festival—Parker was invited to pose a “big idea” to everyone in attendance. It was big: “divesting of what I feel to be the cornerstone of most structural oppression in the world.”
Parker argued that dismantling patriarchy would “cause many injustices to crumble: racial and ethnic tension, class wars, sexual identity oppression, Islamophobia. Imagine if men could see reproductive justice as their battle to fight—not from a place of chivalry, but from a duty to humanity.”
He also told the story of how he met his hero Gloria Steinem a year and a half ago, and she gave him a bracelet. It was inscribed, “Imagine if we were all linked, and not ranked.” That has become his personal mantra. The audience was into this, and even more into his culminating challenge: “I will continue to divest of the patriarchy, and I call upon all patriarchs—both male and female—to join me. Then and only then can we be linked and not ranked. Imagine that.”
I wanted to know more about how a person might divest, in practical terms. So we talked the next afternoon. A condensed version of our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity.
James Hamblin: If I’m aware of problems with conceptions of masculinity and want to not be part of the problem, what do I do?
Willie Parker: The first thing is to become responsible. Acknowledge that life chances in this country aren’t uniformly equal, and that there is such a thing as privilege. There’s such a thing as male privilege, and that is institutionalized as patriarchy. That’s heavily influenced by religion, and it influences government, and business, and everything else.
So the first step is to recognize that we live in a patriarchal world. You’re born into that from the very moment that the birth attendant says “It’s a boy.”
Once you realize that, you have to recognize, okay, what about that feels right or wrong to you? If you start with the premise that we're all humans, then you start to question, what are the real differences between men and women? There are certainly biological differences, but that doesn't mean there should be differences in people’s access to opportunity.
So when you get all of that, then you have to figure out what is my role?
That requires you to be self-aware. In what ways am I privileged? A racial system in a society that values white privilege puts me at a disadvantage. But being male in a patriarchal society puts me at an advantage. And in both cases, I conclude that isn’t fair. Privilege—in ways that you haven't worked for—isn’t fair.
Hamblin: So then the only moral option is to divest of that privilege? And this doesn't just mean saying I value all people equally and wearing a t-shirt that says “Male Feminist.”
Parker: Even if you’re at that point, there are still probably biases you’re not seeing. Do you balk at taking directions from female bosses more than male bosses? Think back. Or if they’re gay when you’re straight? They’re black and you're white? If so, then you've got to work harder to recognize and divest of that sense—any sense that’s still somewhere in there, of “I should be the boss because I'm white, and I'm male, and I'm straight.”