Have Them Figure It Out

Often in conversations about social justice, the pushback comes not because people don’t want to do something about racism or misogyny, it’s that they don’t believe (or are actively avoiding believing) that those problems are real. Unfortunately, the greatest trick the patriarchy and systemic racism ever pulled was convincing the world they didn’t exist. Decades upon decades of cis men and white people using these systems to their own advantage and perpetrating or ignoring the harm inflicted on people of color and women have woven racism and misogyny so deeply into our society that many people assume that this is now just “the way things are.” Getting someone to recognize the existence of white supremacy and the patriarchy is foundational for moving forward with any conversation about social justice, and it’s often the hardest part. Here’s a strategy that can work:

Come to an agreement on the objective definition of white supremacy, patriarchy or another issue you want to address (ableism, transphobia, etc.) Use a dictionary - it’s much better if you use an impartial reference instead of giving the definition yourself. Then work backwards from there: ask the question “Do we live in a patriarchy?” - based on the definition you found. Instead of going back and forth with opinion and anecdote, treat this as a research question, use google and do the research together.

So, if you go with the patriarchy example, you’re going to find a definition like this:

“Patriarchy (n): a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line. A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. A society or community organized on patriarchal lines.”

Talk with them about what evidence you could look for together to find out if we live in a patriarchy or not - what statistics might prove or disprove it. You will probably end up thinking about looking up:

  • Percentage of heads of households who are male
  • Percentage of children who take their father’s last name
  • Percentage of Fortune 500 companies owned/run by men
  • Percentage of men in state and federal government
  • Percentage of men in positions of religious power
  • Percentage of news/media organizations owned/run by men

Obviously, numbers that run above 50% indicate patriarchy - a system in which men disproportionately hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

For “Do we live in a white supremacy,” you will find a definition like this:

“White supremacy (n): the belief, theory, or doctrine that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, especially black people, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society.”

You can ask some of the same questions - just replacing “men” with “white people,” and add a few more:

  • Percentage of Fortune 500 companies owned/run by white people
  • Percentage of white people in state and federal government
  • Percentage of white people in positions of religious power
  • Percentage of news/media organizations owned/run by white people
  • Percentage of books used in schools written by white people
  • Percentage of white teachers
  • Percentage of white police chiefs

You should be sure to be clear about the actual percent of white people in America (about 63% as of the 2010 census)...so numbers that are higher than 63% are the indicators of white supremacy.

This will work best when you don’t say a lot. I included potential statistics here as examples to get you thinking, but you should let the person you’re talking with really take the lead on deciding what to research. Discuss it together and offer ideas, but let them make the decisions. Here’s why: people are much more likely to believe something and retain that belief if they figure it out for themselves. (see “Just Ask Questions”)  The follow-up for this little research project should go back to the question-asking - “So what do you think?” “Why do you think it’s like this?” “What do you think we can do about it?”

Jennifer Hare