I am frequently drawn into the horror that is notalwaysright.com, and it can easily pass an enjoyable hour while I catch up with the latest examples of humanity done wrong. The site has several siblings, which I don’t generally read. Last week, however, I was pointed at this example from notalwayslearning.com. It touched so many of my personal buttons that I thought I would share it with you.
One reason I am concerned by it is that it is taking place in a school not a hundred miles from my house. I am a school governor as well, so I have something of a vested interest in this account.
So… what happened, it seemed, is that a large 15-year-old boy had twanged the bra-strap of one of his classmates several times. She had asked him to stop, but he carried on. She asked the (male) teacher to intervene and his sage advice was to ignore it. When the boy carried on pinging, to the extent that her bra came undone, she took matters into her own hands and had punched him.
The school called the mother, complained to her that it was difficult to get hold of her because the school’s business is more important than anything else, of course. The mother, being an A&E nurse had other concerns on her mind, but got to the school when she could. After attempting to shame her for keeping everyone waiting, the head then got upset with her because her daughter had punched a boy in school.
Full marks to the mother, because she immediately turned the tables on the school and saw what had happened in a rather different light than the one the school was shining on it.
The light the school was shining on it was male privilege.
This account provides one of the clearest examples of male privilege I have seen of late, of how people exercise it and how others collaborate with it.
To begin with, the boy exercised male privilege in demonstrating his entitlement to the girl’s body. He saw it as his right as a young man to reach out and touch a young woman. It was a very specific touch, too, nothing random. A bra strap is very much a person’s intimate, personal space, and undoing someone’s bra strap is serious invasion of that space, leaving the victim feeling half-dressed and completely unable to do anything about it until they can get to a private space with a door.
She asked him to stop, not completely unreasonable under the circumstances. He exercised further privilege when he decided that he didn’t have to listen to her, that his desire to access her body overrode her own bodily autonomy. As the mother pointed out, he was a good foot taller than she was, and carried twice the body mass. She didn’t pose much of a physical threat to him and he simply decided that his right to her outweighed her own.
Faced with an increasingly unpleasant situation, she turned to the nearest authority figure, the teacher. In this case, his role is completely clear. He has a moral and legal duty to protect the children in his class from harassment and, simply, to ensure a good standard of behaviour. She had every right to expect him to intervene to defend her. Instead, he fell back on the old stalwart of “just ignore it”. This can be interpreted in several ways, none of them particularly flattering to the teacher:
- The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was happening at all
- The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was harmful
- The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was wrong
- The teacher didn’t want to get involved in what could quickly become problematic for him and simply wanted a quiet life
For each interpretation, the teacher invokes privilege.
In 1, he assumes that the girl is lying simply to get attention or to get the boy into trouble. He doesn’t want to discipline a fellow male in front of the tribe (classroom) if he can avoid it, so he prefers to, in his own words, “just ignore it.”
In 2, the suffering caused by the bad behaviour is happening to a girl, someone outside his (male) privilege group, and he simply doesn’t stop to consider the situation from her point of view. The fact that she had explicitly brought it to his attention should be something of a giveaway to him that the behaviour is causing her distress, but he has never worn a bra, has never had breasts and simply cannot bring himself to consider that the boy’s behaviour was anything beyond simple childhood naughtiness. After all, boys will be boys.
3 is yet more sinister than 2, in my opinion. If he accepts that the behaviour is harmful but chooses not to intervene, he is tacitly approving of the boy’s behaviour. He is now colluding with the boy’s expression of privilege. He has set up a tribe and is sending a clear message that behaviour that intimidates non-members is perfectly OK by him. It’s OK, boys, it’s open season on bra straps, so get pinging.
4 doesn’t invoke privilege directly, but in choosing apathy as a policy, the teacher denies the authority given to him by society, the school and the law. He puts himself outside of the dominant tribe and sends a message as clearly as he does in 3. It’s still open season on bra straps, he can’t beat the indolence, so the boys can behave as they please.
Back to the narrative: she feels increasingly frustrated that her personal boundaries have been transgressed, has asked for help from the person legally bound to assist her but has been refused. The boy pings her bra strap so hard that it comes undone. She feels that she has exhausted every possible reasonable course of action so is driven to one that breaks social rules. She punches the guy to make it completely clear to him that invading her space, touching her intimately and undressing her in public has consequences.
The teacher whirls into action now, of course. Blood has been spilt.
There is a gathering of the teaching hierarchy: teacher, year head and headteacher. The girl is marched to the office. She is in big trouble. She punched a boy.
In a stunning display of male privilege, the male headteacher doesn’t see that the boy’s behaviour played much of a part in the incident (see 1-4 above). What he sees is that she hit someone, and that hitting someone is unacceptable. The (woman) head-of-year doesn’t speak up at any point. Her lack of action colludes with the display of male privilege going on. She may feel intimidated by all the men around, or she may not consider bra-pinging to be a problem (see 1-4 above). Either way, she also has a legal and moral duty to point out that the boy’s behaviour was wrong.
The boy’s mother is strangely silent on the issue. It is not known if she understands the situation from the girl’s perspective or not. Personally, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but she clearly does not see that she can speak out.
It takes the girl’s mother, descending on the meeting like divine vengeance to peel back the scales from everyone’s eyes. Once the mother re-frames the situation, everyone is able to see rather more clearly what happened. She challenges privilege and demands that everyone in the room sees the boy’s actions for what they were. Intimate touch without consent is sexual assault and she is willing to take this point as far as is necessary to drive that home to the school.
In the contest between don’t make waves and treating each other like people, it seems that not making waves is winning, but the tide may yet be turning. It won’t turn unless we make it, but we can do this together.
Looks like Snopes picked this up, and are casting doubt on the veracity of the claims at notalwayslearning.com. True or not, the story still provides a good example of what male privilege looks like and how it is quite easy to miss it when it is being used. The lesson remains clear: the use of privilege like this needs to be seen for what it is and it must not be allowed to cloud justice.