Often, I’m asked what I’ve specifically done to combat certain systemic issues.

In most cases, I can readily answer this question. I choose to walk rather than pay for an Uber and support a business with—at best—questionable ethics. I am open about my sexuality as to inform others that they are not alone, and will be heard. I vocalize my concerns about the prejudice of religion to those who share my faith. I suggest alternative, low cost activities, in order to accommodate the interest of all my friends of differing socioeconomic backgrounds. However, when the question is about gender inequity and gender violence, my response is not as clear.

I sometimes think I cross my T’s and dot my I’s when concerning issues involving gender. On the outside, that’s how it appears. People see me as someone on the front lines, but there is a difference between fighting bigotry on a systematic level, and practicing what I preach in my everyday life.  The question now becomes––why do I allow myself this excuse? What drives my silence, and why is it so easy for me, as a man, to not speak? 

I have a few theories, but am no closer to answering this question. It’s true that I oftentimes think that it is not my place to speak on behalf of women. I shouldn’t speak up when I see mansplaining in my STEM classes because it takes away from the “academic environment,” Calling out a male friend who makes a sexist comment won’t make a difference because he’ll probably just do it when I’m not around.

Obviously, I see that these arguments are simply excuses. I could speak up and easily support a female peer. So why don’t I? At least in my social circles, people speak up when someone says a racist, homophobic, or elitist comment that is related to my own identity. Even if it’s simply acknowledging how inappropriate the comment was, the acknowledgement of my struggle makes me feel wanted and welcomed. 

I remember when I got into Duke, and everyone in my high school calculus class exclaimed, “It’s ‘cause he’s black.” My white best friend’s swift reprimand and affirmation of my intelligence was one of the most meaningful moments in our friendship. So why am I complicit when it comes to sexist comments? A swift rebuke of these bad behaviors can bring peace of mind to the offended party, and send a clear message that prejudiced behavior is unacceptable. However, in situations where I should speak up for others, I instead often remain silent.

I’ve endeavored to rectify my complacency by trying to be loving and encouraging outside these moments of conflict––by always having an open door for my female friends, by listening to those women in my classes, and supporting them to persist in spite of bigotry. I try to engage other men on campus in conversations about what it means to be a good ally and to cultivate relationships where my female peers feel comfortable voicing their opinions. While this is valuable as a form of labor, it also means that I push off my duty as a caring citizen to a time when it’s convenient for me and on the terms which I’m comfortable with.

My silence is a result of knowing that I am not hurt by my own inaction. It’s the implicit belief that negotiating my privilege is something that can be completed by a finite number of actions rather than the careful, intentional lifework it ought to be. 

It’s the idea that my “good guy” checklist—being respectful in class, active in campus reform efforts—can somehow absolve me of being complicit in the patriarchy in other areas of my life. Externally, people have always seen me as a good ally and a good friend. But If I can’t grace a person in need with the same compassion that others show me, how am I doing enough? If I don’t use my privilege to speak up when I see injustice, how am I doing enough? 

I could make a vow to change from this moment on, but I’ve made that vow to myself many times. As I’ve gathered from many conversations with other men, I am certainly not alone in breaking that vow. We use our male privilege to be silent. We use it to avoid confronting sexism in the moment. We use it so we can stay comfortable, despite knowing our female friends are not. 

This privilege does not exist in a void, it is a result of a society that tells us that masculinity is not caring. It is part of a culture that says masculinity is being silent when our voice threatens even the description of masculinity to which our ancestors ascribed. It’s part of a system that teaches men to notice troubling behavior, while encouraging men to remain silent when their friends are implicated in such behavior. It is founded in America; it is sustained at Duke.

How then are we to hold ourselves accountable for changing our erroneous ways knowing we have the privilege to ignore whatever methods we conclude are best? Hopefully by surrounding ourselves with others who want to maintain that goal for themselves; with the aim that collectively, we will find the courage to break the silence.

Tevin Brown is a Trinity junior and a member of the Duke Men's Project.