I had a really interesting encounter the other night. A poor chap, rather ignorant in the workings of the world had the misfortune to find himself surrounded by feminists. I spoke to him only briefly, but I’m sure he’s quite a nice fellow really – but hey – a lot to learn.
Apparently he had started a discussion on whether we should be supporting feminism or promoting gender equality. He leaned very much to the latter, believing that only supporting women’s struggle would give them unfair advantages which ultimately undermined the aims of gender equality. Several women present then pointed out that he was missing the point - that women were systemically oppressed and that the aim of feminism was to destroy that system. In the course of this discussion he made a couple of sexist remarks. A pro-feminist nearby overheard these and started challenging him on the remarks, and a further discussion was had on whether these were acceptable things to say, a female friend of the chap in question happened to pass and, as a “joke” to diffuse the tension that was building, asked her to go to the kitchen and make him a sandwich.
Cue Feminist Rage
Well, I have no doubt that the chap has got the message that he upset some people, but at the same time it was a quite a well handled call out and a reasonable reaction. I do suspect tho he is wondering who all the dangerous man-haters are and there is undoubtably a contingent that think – good grief, what a bampot. But hey, call outs aren’t easy to give or take, it wasn’t ignored and it was resolved after a fashion.
He himself appreciated that he was no great feminist scholar, but he really didn’t see what he had done so wrong. And, you know, I actually sympathise with him. Sexist behaviour is everywhere you look – you see it on the streets, at home, in the college or workplace. You see it on billboards, on the TV, on websites. You see it down the pub, with your mates, on facebook. It surrounds you – everybody does it, it must be acceptable.
And thats why the callout needs to be done. We take it on in communities, workplaces, colleges and the media, but we also take it on when we see it. We’re working for a world free of patriarchy, free of sexism and free of womens oppression. And the most important environment we can change is the one right there in front of us. Sometimes the environment we are facing is national – when we are protesting or speaking to the media, but mostly its not, its in the minutiae of everyday life.
Anyways back to the “joke”. Feeling a tense situation brewing, he asked his female friend to go to the kitchen and make him a sandwich. Now really, is that so bad? Hey, I’ve asked people to make me sandwiches before, and I’ve joked with people that I’ve known about unacceptable things because they knew my true character. Our objection to the “joke” he claimed was because we had taken it out of context – the context that he said it to his friend who knew his character. But this is missing a much wider context – that it was a sexist remark made in an offhanded way while in discussions about things which he said that others had interpreted to be sexist.
The reasons why it was sexist and unacceptable
1. It is sexist and unacceptable for a man to ask a woman passing to drop what she is doing and go to the kitchen and make him sandwich.
2. It was a direct challenge to everything that was being said – the remark was underlined with “I can make a very sexist remark and get away with it”
3. It sought the collusion of a female friend – she (quite appropriately) interpreted it within the context of their friendship and took no offense at the remark
Now, there was a lot of good things about this call out. That people were willing to challenge in the first place and not just let it go. That it had been made known that other men also found sexist behaviour unacceptable. That women took the lead in the challenge. That there was support available for women who were feeling overwhelmed by the situation. That people were willing to explain to him what they felt was not acceptable and explain issues of sexism to him calmly. His reaction also had good points – he was willing to listen to people, make no defense of sexism and there was an understanding that he had upset people. At the same time, it could have gone better. The main call out was done on the nook of a stairs, which led to a feeling of him being penned in. At times the frustration became evident through the challenge and there was a general negativity around some of the interaction. Even by resolution, there was no acceptance that his remark was unacceptable or worth apologising for.
The thing is that although this was a “private joke” between two friends, it was made in a semi-public environment, private jokes, like other intimacies, should be kept for private. That environment was one in which there was already a concern that sexism was being expressed and there was already a level of denial around women’s oppression and exposure to sexism to the extent that a member of a the same privilaged group stepped in to express how unacceptable he found it.
The patriarchy swilrls around us all the time, it is unsurprising that it rubs off and attaches itself all over the place to all kinds of people. It wont smash itself you know, which is why we have to constantly challenge it, not only in other people but also in ourselves. If someone calls you out – listen and reflect. Defensiveness does no one any good. They are calling you out because they have been offended by something you have said. Appreciate that and also that offending people is something that you should really avoid doing, and apologise for if you do.
One last thing. As I challenged him and just as I was leaving the converstation he accused me of being patronising. I probably was being. Rather than taking this comment on board and appreciating that as an older person I was using the advantages of age to counter his gender advantage, I responded with a very patronising remark. I’m sorry, it was wrong of me.
We should all check our privilege.