In honour of the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, I caught up with Dan Tres Omi, a freelance writer and lecturer whose meaningful and powerful writing I came across in Clutch Magazine in a article titled Black Male Feminist – What Being a Feminist means to me. I wanted to ask him why he became a feminist and why he thinks women’s equality is important for men also.
1. It is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD) this year. What does IWD mean to you?
When I think of the International Women’s Day, I immediately think of people like Phoolan Deviof India. Devi who was murdered in 2001 then reminds me of Ida B. Wells. Both Devi and Wells were warriors and both were responding to their immediate crises. They used the pen as a sword to fight for the rights of women everywhere.
Most recently I think of Wangari Maathai of Kenya who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. She stands out because she was on what later became the Green movement since the 1970s. What I enjoy the most of Maathai is her looking to raise the quality of life for everyone by doing something very simple: planting trees. When you learn about what she went through to just launch her political movement off the ground, you realise that she went through what a great number of women go through every day when it comes to patriarchy. She is a single mom just like my mother. Like my mother, she refused to sit back and just let things be. She rolled her sleeves up and went to work the best way she knew how. If anything, we should be taking cues from Maathai.
2. When did you become a feminist and what led you to make the decision?
Becoming a feminist was a long process. I never set out to become one. As a matter of fact, I was one of those who became a rabid dog if the term ‘feminist’ was mentioned around me. I pounced on anyone who claimed to be a feminist. I thought it was a white thing and excluded women of African descent. I thought it was antithetical to Pan Africanism.
I consider myself a critical thinker. When I wasn’t a feminist, I did see disparities between men and women but didn’t have the terminology to put two and two together. After reading folks like Dr. bell hooks and Audre Lourde who provide a clear analogy of white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, I was able to put those things together and have a better understanding of those disparities. I was able to connect the dots and see how patriarchy is connected to white supremacy.
Again, it was a slow process for me. I can say it took about ten years for me to come around. Like anyone else, I was raised in a steep patriarchy. I had to learn about male privilege first and realize that privilege is not just invisible but relative. I have to thank many of the sisters I worked with who are feminists. They refused to back down and I thank them tremendously for not giving up on me. I said some harsh and hurtful things during those discussions. They could have easily chalked me up as a loss. They didn’t and I am so grateful for it. So I am living proof that the most reluctant brother can get down for the cause.
3. Despite the male privilege, do you believe that men also suffer from gender inequality and in what way?
Men suffer from gender inequality because of the disparities between men and women. If the quality of life is not raised equally for everyone, we all suffer. Gender equality is good for all of us, men, women and children. Women should earn equal pay. Women should have the same access as men do. This is good for everyone. My daughter and my nieces should be allowed the same career paths as my sons and nephews. That’s a win-win for everyone. Inequality only helps a handful of people. One might assume that privilege and patriarchy is advantageous to all men but this is not true. For example, patriarchy maintains a status quo that still places men of African descent as second class citizens.
We cannot claim to want equal rights and deny this to our woman. So when I hear men cry that there is ‘reverse sexism,’ I have to point out that they sound as ridiculous as white men who claim there is ‘reverse racism.’
4. You are a Pan Africanist as well as a feminist. How do you reconcile that feminism hasn’t always considered those cultures outside of the white western one and that Pan Africanism doesn’t always embrace the struggle for gender equality?
That’s a great question and it’s one I get all the time. First of all, Pan Africanism is a political ideology that is not based on a cultural basis. Pan Africanism is in fact a concept that came up outside of the continent by Africans in the Diaspora. Some people aren’t happy when this is bought up. It makes sense, since the continent is made up 54 countries with separate histories and cultures. Oftentimes, we Pan Africanist base our understanding under Afrocentrism but the idea that Africa was once a unified nation is a myth.
All of the notable Pan Africanists who were born on the continent, studied abroad, and then came back to become political leaders of many African nations learned Pan Africanism while they were abroad. Many political leaders who took up the mantel of Pan Africanism were ran out of office. In the 21st century, Pan Africanism touted by political leaders in Africa is still unpopular. Pan Africanism is a reaction to white supremacy. If there wasn’t any European colonialism, Atlantic slave trade, or a deliberate European exploitation of African resources, would Pan Africanism exist?
I’m not saying Pan Africanism isn’t valid. It is tremendously important and I think it is a political ideology that provides the only viable solution for self determination for all of Africa and the people in the African Diaspora. If it wasn’t, none of the leaders who espoused this ideology would be dead or run out. If it wasn’t a viable option, then European powers would not go out of their way to destroy it and its adherents.
The problem is too many Pan Africanists don’t see beyond just kicking out the colonialists. Too many of our leaders are European in black face. Many of us intend on replacing the heads of patriarchy and continue the exploitation of our own especially women. This is not going to work. Women have to be a part of the struggle and the solution. If we don’t realize that then we are no better than those who enslaved us to begin with.
5. Do you have any black male feminist role model/s and why?
Kevin Powell was the brother who set me on the right path. I enjoy his honesty. I enjoy the fact that he realizes he is a work in progress. If there is anyone who made me realize what male privilege is it has to be Kevin Powell. It’s a shame that in his work to expose male privilege, he has been vilified and his work virtually ignored.
The film maker Byron Hurt hit out of the ball park with his documentary “Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” This film pretty much drew the line in the sand when it comes to patriarchy and hip hop.
Finally, Mark Anthony Neal was the first person I heard use the term black male feminist and it is Neal’s work that pretty much made me accept that term. I am not suggesting he was the first person to use the term but he was the first person I heard use it.
6. What has been the greatest challenge in being a black male feminist?
The greatest challenge is realizing that there is male privilege. The scary part is that there are days when I wake up in the morning and I embrace male privilege without even knowing it. It is so easy to slip back into patriarchy mode and revert to being sexist. I remember teaching my sons Chi Sao/sticky hands. Unintentionally I called to them only when I began their lessons. My wife pointed out that I never called my daughter. For a moment I wondered to myself why she would ever need me to teach her Chi Sao or spar with her as a girl. Then my heart skipped a beat. There I was, a black male feminist, denying my daughter lessons in Martial Arts because she is a girl. Turns out, she is my best student!
7. In ten years from now, where do you hope that the black community will be in terms of gender equality?
I hope that feminists such as Dr. bell hooks becomes as intrinsic to Black Liberation as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. I hope that we read and learn about feminists from other African countries and countries in the Diaspora and their work becomes more familiar to all of us. [Editors note – see post on 7 African feminists for a start]. I hope that when we talk about Arturo Schomburg, we also talk about Ida B. Wells in the same vein. I hope to see the same level of respect given to women in our communities who put in work and are not overshadowed by their male counterparts. I hope to work with more men who see women as partners in our struggle.
Thoughts, questions? Do you agree with the point raised by Dan Tres Omi, that contemporary patriarchy is a Western concept and one which ultimately stifles Pan Africanism? Do you see a link between male privilege and white privilege?