There are many people on campus who ask the community to consider and meditate upon issues of historical inequality. This can make those of us who belong to groups that have historically been privileged feel defensive. I can't help that I was born male. I don't want to feel like I'm being condemned as a woman-hating, sexually oppressive beast every time a women's studies major reminds me that men legally shaped society to their own advantage over women. That's not fair.
It is natural and valid for a member of a traditionally hegemonic group to feel defensive when surrounded by people talking about the gory details that embody the narrative of that hegemony. Such emotive responses to discussions of historical hegemony are valuable if they lead to critical and honest thought and discussion of the reasons behind such visceral initial responses.
We can respond to ruptures of our personal identity narratives, which always paint us in rosy shades, by frantically trying to cover up those ruptures with simplified bumper sticker narratives, or we can try to repaint the picture with a wider range of colors. We can try to construct an oversimplified reading of the issue in order to avoid addressing the painful facts of a history that we unwillingly own, or we can own the history and do the enormously difficult work of trying to carry it responsibly.
But why should we be forced to own a history in which we did not participate? That's not fair. Someone shouldn't be held accountable for attributes over which they exercise no control!
In a historical vacuum where the present was in no way shaped by the past, that would be true. Alas, such is not the nature of the world in which we live.
If you were born into a traditionally hegemonic group (in America, this means you can be described as white, male, straight, able-bodied, middle-class and embodying a variety of other characteristics), you benefit, by no credit of your own, from your part in such a group because of the historical foundation that was set up for you.
One example: if you're white, you benefit – not to your own credit – from the fact that those around you who are black have only been equal to you in the eyes of federal law for 46 years. That's less than the lifetime of one generation of people. If you can own that history every day without thinking about it because its effects are so normalized, then you can own that history when its darker realities slap you in the face.
And it is a slap in the face. I'm not disavowing the shock of being faced with a history that you don't want to hold and never asked to be a part of. I'm instead saying that when you feel that pain, try to understand it and the context from which it originates instead of running away from it.
In fact, we understand ourselves better when we try to understand our historical relationships to others. After all, concepts such as whiteness and masculinity can only be defined in terms of the seeming opposites of blackness and femininity.
Understand the "other" – so much so that you get to the point where the "other" isn't a space alien anymore – and you understand the self. Understand the self, and you can better navigate the world of humanity.