Coming Out of the Woods: On Hugo Schwyzer and Accountability

Last Friday, I was getting ready to unplug from technology for a week in preparation for a busy end to summer and beginning of fall, and I got a few messages from people about how Hugo Schwyzer was melting down on Twitter.  I didn’t click any of their links, not having the energy.  Instead, I turned off my phone and headed to a wedding and then to the woods of Northern Minnesota for a week.

When I came out of the woods, this is what I found.  And I’ve spent the last 18 hours or so reading things like the #solidarityisforwhitewomen twitter stream and this piece from Mikki Kendall and others.  And I’ve been reflecting.

For those readers of mine who are not followers of this whole mess (good for you in many ways), here’s a very brief summary: Hugo Schwyzer is a professor who has for some time championed himself as a feminist (and also, strangely, a bad boy?) and who has been championed by many prominent, mostly White feminists as a good guy and an example of redemption.  He is an abuser who claimed to have gotten past his addiction that “caused him to abuse” and boasted a “redemption” narrative about turning one’s life around to work for good, all the while quietly (and not so quietly) continuing his patterns of abuse, particularly toward women of Color who he admits he could abuse without facing consequences because of his privilege and power relative to theirs.  For years, women (but particularly women of Color) have been calling him what he is, but too many of us didn’t listen.  It took him melting down and admitting his abuses for too many of us to pay attention.

As I’ve reflected upon all of this since coming back into the world of internet yesterday afternoon, I’ve know that there are a few things that I need to say.

First and foremost, I need to apologize.

Without caveat, I apologize to the women I have wronged by actively and tacitly defending Hugo Schwyzer.  I was wrong.  More particularly, as someone striving to be an accountable anti-racist ally and pro-feminist man, I apologize to the women of Color whose voices I ignored in hearing what I wanted to hear in this story.  I also apologize to the survivors, both male and female, who were traumatized over and over by Hugo Schwyzer and his platform, a platform that I helped to hold up.

Too often I defended the Schwyzer “redemption” narrative because it made me feel safe.  It made me feel better about the small and big ways that I have wronged people in the past and the ways that I have fucked up (and continue to fuck up).  This is not to say that redemption is not possible for some people, but I let my desire to support a prominent redemption narrative get in the way of my ability to listen, one of the most important things I should be doing should I want to act in solidarity and allyship.

Perhaps more terrible, though, are the ways that I simply said nothing.  There were too many times when I saw Hugo write or tweet something disgusting or simply questionable, and I shook my head and moved on to something else.  As someone who shares many of the same identity privileges that he does, it is my responsibility to hold people like him accountable, but I didn’t.  It was easier not to.  And that is not solidarity or allyship.

In addition to apologizing, though, I want to simply put forth some of the ways in which I need to reflect and learn from this terrible situation in hopes of inspiring others to reflection and change.

As a cisgender man who strives to be accountable, to be feminist/pro-feminist, to be anti-racist, to be anti-oppressive, I need to reflect on a number of things, and so should all people of privilege who attempt to ally themselves to those who are oppressed and marginalized.

In what ways do I continue to exploit my own racial privilege for my own benefit or the benefit of others (particularly others like me)?  In what ways do I exploit my own gender privilege in similar ways?  In what ways do I exploit any of my identity privileges to benefit myself or shield myself from criticism or critique?

In what ways am I accountable to people across difference, and in what ways am I ensuring that my relationships across difference are authentic and not tokenizing or exploitative?

For me particularly as a person who makes his living facilitating and writing and speaking about ending oppression, how can I continue to ensure that my work is accountable, responsive, and in true solidarity and is not simply self serving?  Is this even possible?

It is also important to note that I and many others supported Hugo simply because of his privilege.  As a straight, White, cisgender man with class privilege, I trusted him.  It was easy to do.  I saw myself in him, and it was easier to trust him than to listen to those who were crying out about his abuses.  After all, those who were speaking the truth about Hugo were/are by-in-large women of Color.  And that is wrong.

And this is one of the most important things for me to remember in all of this:  Women are and should be wary and mistrusting of men and of men who claim to be feminists particularly.  Men should not be given trust simply because we can say the right things in a blog post or can quote bell hooks.  We have to demonstrate every day with our actions that we are worthy of trust.

Similarly, White people (and particularly “anti-racist” White people) are and should be mistrusted and considered with speculation by people of Color, and those of us who strive to be White allies have to earn trust through everyday commitment to listening and accountable action.

Yet for me, I get defensive when people are wary of me and consider me with speculation simply because of my identity, and this defensiveness played a role in my trust of someone who shouldn’t have been trusted.  If I had done my homework on the man, I would have known that Hugo Schwyzer was not worthy of my trust.  But I didn’t.

And there’s a vital lesson in that.

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8 thoughts on “Coming Out of the Woods: On Hugo Schwyzer and Accountability

  1. “For me particularly as a person who makes his living facilitating and writing and speaking about ending oppression, how can I continue to ensure that my work is accountable, responsive, and in true solidarity and is not simply self serving? Is this even possible?”

    This is where you need to focus. You need to think about how you are able to monopolize on a movement that is founded and run almost completely by women. You as a man are able to “make a living” by being a comfortable and palatable presence (like Schwyzer and other white/cis/male self-proclaimed feminists) and by doing this are reinforcing the very same problematic things in our society which keep women, women of color, and non-male people from being listened, taken seriously, and even paid for the work that they do. It is probably not possible to make a living in this work and still be accountable and in true solidarity – so what will you do?

    Additionally, you may want to go back and look at the research that supports actual sexual assault prevention – these one-off presentations and “trainings” you do are proven to be not only unhelpful, but harmful in creating any sort of actual change in ending sexual violence.

    • Jamie – I wonder if you are going to respond to my comment? I am wondering what your thoughts are as you think about your role in perpetuating some of the same problematic norms that Hugo Schwzyer perpetuated, and what you are planning on doing to change this? Also, what are your thoughts about your one-time presentations that are directly opposed to best practices of sexual violence prevention? Are you planning on changing the work that you do?

      • Gloria,

        I appreciate your comments. I have been reflecting extensively on my own place and practice in this work in hopes of coming to some clarity.

        I have been talking with a number of people, but particularly women of Color with whom I have relationships and mutual trust and respect, about the nature of my work, and one thing is clear: no matter how I do the work, it will likely be problematic at one level or another. What is not clear, though, is whether it is possible to be in accountable and true solidarity while doing the kind of work that I do. I appreciate your perspective, and it is part of what is pushing me to ensure my practice is responsive and ever-changing and accountable.

        Another thing that is clear to me is that my work should never be done in simple isolation. The more collaborative, particularly collaborative across difference, that it can be, the more accountable it is. As such, a big focus of mine lately has been investing in collaborative projects and trainings and relationships that I’ve been working on for a while. Does doing so eliminate the possibility that I am reinforcing some of the problematic norms that Schwyzer perpetuated? Most definitely not. But at the same time, work that is done in collaboration across difference is also quite transcendent from what Schwyzer was doing.

        As far as your critique of one-off presentations, you are absolutely right, which is why I work hard to ensure that my work is done through consultation and not simply as some sort of “motivational speaker.” There is endless research about how one time presentations are counter productive. As such, I work to offer trainings with tools based in research and best practices and to build ongoing consulting and training relationships with clients to ensure that the tools, messages, and best practices I offer are not simply one time, feel good speeches.

        It’s clear to me that you want my work to stop. And as my work continually evolves and changes, it inevitably will not look in one month or one year as it looked one month ago or one year ago. But it is my hope that I can find a way to do my work ever more accountably and in collaboration with those with whom I’ve worked hard to build trust.

      • Jamie, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I don’t think you should quit doing your work, but I did bring up the best practices and problematic aspects because of the vast disparity that exists between people (almost exclusively white, straight, cis men) who consult/train/speak at colleges, businesses, etc. as a lucrative career and people (almost exclusively women and other marginalized people) who work in community or nonprofit agencies and are not paid well for the work they do and are constantly struggling to fund their work. I would wonder how you work to promote equality in pay, promote the good work that people at these agencies are doing, and increase visibility for the words, knowledge, and experiences of marginalized people. I will say that as a woman who has worked for a great many years in sexual violence prevention, it is a continual frustration to see young men break away from community-based work to do “consulting” work that is so far away from what we know works in prevention. I hope that you consider what I have brought up. Thank you.

      • Gloria,

        I think the disparity between White consultants (particularly White, cis-male consultants) and consultants of Color is one of the most pressing issues in the field. For me, my response is evolving, and it varies by who I am collaborating with in the work. In all of the contracts that I share with a trainer I sometimes work with who is a woman of Color, we structure our pay to where I am paid 69 cents for each dollar that she earns and we highlight this for the institution that is paying us to encourage them to look into pay disparity in their organization (since the national number is $.69 to the dollar for Black women to White men). In another collaborative relationship, my training partner (a woman of Color) wants to ensure that the work is equally compensated.

        In other ways, though, I talk to my clients about the politics of hiring me as opposed to someone else.

        Most importantly, I try to look at the audience and make sure that I am the best fit as consultant and trainer. For instance, if a college wanted me to talk to sororities, I would refer them to a trainer with whom I have a relationship because I do not see my work as working with women primarily. What do I have to tell them? My work is primarily in working with men. Similarly, if a school that is primarily a school of Color asked me to come in and talk about diversity, I would refer them. That is not my work.

        None of this is perfect or an answer. This paired with trying hard to ensure my work is based in research and best practices perhaps can bring me closer to accountability, but I still wrestle with whether it ever makes me accountable. Thus, it is a journey for me, and it is one that I am wrestling with all the time. And in the end, it might mean that my work changes drastically in time because I decide, in listening to those I trust, that solidarity and accountability are not possible in the work that I do.

  2. It would help if you also apologised to Hugo’s victims – the woman he tried to kill, the students he sexual preyed on, plus countless others we’re probably not aware of because Hugo is unlikely to have confessed to everything he did yet.

    At the moment Schwyzer’s victims are being ignored in favour of the story that this was only about racism or indirect triggering, but not real direct harm to women committed by a predatory violent man which was simply brushed aside by people who thought Schwyzer could be useful to them. As well as racism, this is about misogyny.

    If you truly believe in redemption narratives, when it is well known that abusers and sexual predators very rarely change and must be treated with suspicion at all times, then you have no business working in the field of men’s sexual crimes. You need to reassess.

  3. […] 7.  Coming Out of the Woods: On Hugo Schwyzer and Accountability […]

  4. […] failed as an ally. Though I have apologized publicly, I still have to carry this weight of failure as I seek to do better, and earning trust is harder […]

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