I am sitting in the back row of a crowded Zanzibari bus when we pull over at a stop and a large man climbs in.
There are four seats in the back row, all occupied, but around here it is standard practice to squeeze in five.
Just my luck, this man angles straight for the (as yet invisible) space to my left. I move over, so does my neighbor and the space appears.
As the ride continues along uneven roads chewed by heavy rain, the man slowly, probably inadvertently, maneuvers his full mass into what had formerly been my seat. He sits with his legs apart and the full breadth of his shoulders extending beyond.
I find myself stuck in an anomalous gap between two seats, one hip unluckily placed atop a hard metal edge. (If you have never traveled by bus outside the “West,” it must be mentioned that local African buses are not like American or European ones.
In this case, imagine a minivan or small school bus that has been taken apart and put back together again by a six-year-old. It pretty much looks the way it’s supposed to, but there are a few holes that weren’t there before, and a couple bits and pieces are sticking out at uncomfortable angles. This is the kind of bus I am sitting in, thus the hard metal edge and the six inch gap between seats.)
First my thigh starts to lose feeling, then my butt.
Now, I am on the small side of average, and I don’t have a whole lot of weight to be throwing around; nonetheless, I do my best to protect my turf, wiggling my shoulders and hips in an effort to carve out some of the space I have lost. There’s no use. The man is impassive—seemingly oblivious to my discomfort.
I end up sitting sideways, pressed against my partner who is equally pressed against the window. I suppose I could ask them to shift over, but I don’t want to be rude (ironies of ironies).
I am reminded of a Tumblr that was popular a while back: “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train: A classic among public assertions of privilege.”
It is exactly what it sounds like, and makes the argument that taking up more than your fair share of space is not only rude, it’s also an assertion of privilege. That is, as a privileged member of society, a man is free to take up as much space as he likes—free to ignore the impact that decision might have on others. I believe the phenomenon may also sometimes be referred to as “manspreading.”
Of course, we are all the size that we are—hips of a certain width; shoulders a certain breadth. We can’t help that. Still, I have been in countless similar situations, and most people will try to squeeze in as much as possible, pressing their legs together or sitting forward.
Once or twice though, there will be a man who refuses to budge. I don’t think these men intend to cause discomfort; I think they are simply unaware.
That, in a nutshell, is male privilege (or privilege of any kind). Most people do not intentionally exercise their privilege; they are simply unaware of their advantage, and in the case of a crowded bus or train, unaware or unconcerned that they use that advantage at the expense of their neighbors.
Some mocked this Tumblr campaign, but then again, some people also mock the concept of male privilege. I think anyone who has ever been squished between two privileged males will appreciate its brilliant simplicity.
To be fair, I should mention that women can take up too much space on the train—or bus—too. This is also rude and privileged—I have no doubt that at some point in my life I have been that person. We probably all have.
Each time it happens to me, though, I become that much more likely to never be that person again.
Author: Toby Israel
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Stanley Kubrick on Flickr