Dangling Conversation.

Last March, after a very fraught period during the run-up to the presidential election we got to listen to Barack Obama make a personal and moving speech about race – not only its role in his life but that of America as a nation. After we breathed a sigh of relief that the Reverend Wright nonsense would disappear from the headlines for a while and basked in the  brief warm fuzzies some of us mused about whether Hillary Clinton would make ever deliver a similar address about gender. Some speculated that it could be a step in the right direction toward having a candid discussion about the sexism which played a heavy part in criticisms of Clinton during her campaign, not to mention the overall patriarchy that contributes to pervasive gender inequality and misogyny even in our daily lives.

But we women knew that speech wouldn’t happen.

It didn’t happen for the same reasons that this post very nearly didn’t happen.

This post is the product of many months of jumbled thoughts, complicated conversations (and arguments) with various people in my life, reading and hearing infuriating things and being utterly convinced that I had to say something then alternately being convinced I should just keep my mouth shut. This is the common quandary, the mental cost-benefit calculation that takes place whenever I want to speak up about something that is the big bad “F-word” – feminist. I have to decide whether I really want to risk someone (usually male) saying something reductive/apologist/justifying to me, whether I want to possibly get into an argument, whether I want to risk losing my temper, whether it’s worth possibly getting emotional and then being told that my emotionality somehow weakens my point (!) because I’m not being objective (!!) and I am biased (!!!).

Lately there seems be an endless piling on – every other story I see on the news or encounter in my Google Reader seems tailored to get my hackles up. The media reaction to Hillary Clinton’s  pointed answer in response to being asked for her husband’s views in Congo was the last straw. Among the many bloggers whose opinions I read about the matter was my own blogmate, Blackink. While I respect him, and his argument I think his response skirts the issue about why “keeping a cool head” may be easier for a black person responding to someone saying something crazy about race than a woman responding to a sexist comment and why so many of my attempts to engage men in feminist discourse generally lead to this.

G.D. has had the misfortune of helping me try to unravel why conversations about gender, sexism and misogyny go so badly between men and women. Admiring his willingness to be frank and open about these topics I asked him how, as a man, one goes about becoming less sexist. He answered that he didn’t think that he wasn’t sexist, and thought that was part of it.”Unlearning privilege is sort of like being a Christian – you have to admit you’re a sinner…then keep fighting against the sin.” That’s where the impasse lies. If you presume that you are a “nice guy”, that you “don’t mean anything by it”, that your way of seeing things is more or less balanced, then you’re bound to overlook the entitled position you’re speaking from.

For those of you who share our obsession with Mad Men think: Pete Campbell.

G.D. identified Pete as the quintessential example of this phenomenon. He thinks that he’s a “nice guy”. He’s baffled by Peggy’s eventual refusal of him, and feels emasculated by her advancement in the company. He acknowledges that Peggy exists and that she is a person, but to see her as an equal, with thoughts and desires that differ from his own is simply too much for him. He is convinced of the essential “rightness” of his perspective so he cannot conceive of a worldview that differs from his. As G.D. so aptly put it, this is what informs the “nice guy” narrative – men who think that because they are  breathing, employed and not criminals that women should automatically respect them, and that they can’t be sexist or misogynist. So you think women are people – whaddaya want, a cookie?

In his commentary on George Sodini, the always insightful Jamelle points out that “we are fairly sensitive to instances of racism, kind of sensitive to classism, and absolutely tone-deaf when it comes to misogyny” and that the acceptable disdain of women permeates our culture. This is why it is easier for Obama to keep a cool head in the face of Joe the Plumber or during the Reverent Wright debacle. There is considerable social censure related to racist remarks that does not occur when someone says something sexist or misogynist. As G.D. notes, we’ve bought into the idea that  racism is “ big E” evil while sexism, although problematic, is mundane. The comfortable offhandedness with which sexism is employed and its ubiquity means Hillary’s life – our lives as women – differ deeply from Obama’s experience. Constantly dealing with gendered comments, sexist insults and misogyny frays you at the seams. Overt instances of all these things hurt but sometimes, I feel like the ambiguous instances, the times when you think you’re talking to an ally only to have them casually say something that totally blows you away, are what lead to the mistrust and defensiveness so eloquently described by here by Melissa McEwan:

There is the unwillingness to listen, a ferociously stubborn not getting it on so many things, so many important things. And the obdurate refusal to believe, to internalize, that my outrage is not manufactured and my injure not make-believe—an inflexible rejection of the possibility that my pain is authentic, in favor of the consolatory belief that I am angry because I’m a feminist (rather than the truth: that I’m a feminist because I’m angry).

And there is the denial about engaging in misogyny, even when it’s evident, even when it’s pointed out gently, softly, indulgently, carefully, with goodwill and the presumption that it was not intentional. There is the firm, fixed, unyielding denial—because it is better and easier to imply that I’m stupid or crazy, that I have imagined being insulted by someone about whom I care (just for the fun of it!), than it is to just admit a bloody mistake. Rather I am implied to be a hysteric than to say, simply, I’m sorry.

Not every man does all of these things, or even most of them, and certainly not all the time. But it only takes one, randomly and occasionally, exploding in a shower of cartoon stars like an unexpected punch in the nose, to send me staggering sideways, wondering what just happened.

Well. I certainly didn’t see that coming…

These things, they are not the habits of deliberately, connivingly cruel men. They are, in fact, the habits of the men in this world I love quite a lot. All of whom have given me reason to mistrust them, to use my distrust as a self-protection mechanism, as an essential tool to get through every day, because I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship.

Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?

It’s harder to “stay cool” than one might think because of the hypervigilance that attends being female. “Women’s issues” are not abstractions for us – we cannot detach. I think if more men understood that, we could actually begin the conversation. If they tried to imagine living in my skin. What if  every time you were passionate about something someone called you “hysterical”? What if you could not be justifiably angry but were written off as “bitchy”? What if you had to fight tooth and nail for the legitimacy of your opinions because of the popular belief that people of your gender “lack logic”? If I am dealing with that, every day, my whole life, and I work my ass off to get where I have gotten and you ask me about my husband? Really?! Are you still shocked at the response?

What M.LeBlanc of Bitch Ph.D talks about, is what we need. Empathy. Until you can find it, we can’t talk. I am tired of trying to talk to men I know, admire and respect and have them misunderstand that which is fundamentally me. I am a woman. I am feminist. But that doesn’t mean I hate you.  I just think you don’t see me.  I wish you would.

  • Bourgie, JD

    “He answered that he didn’t think that he wasn’t sexist, and thought that was part of it.”Unlearning privilege is sort of like being a Christian – you have to admit you’re a sinner…then keep fighting against the sin.” That’s where the impasse lies. If you presume that you are a “nice guy”, that you “don’t mean anything by it”, that your way of seeing things is more or less balanced, then you’re bound to overlook the entitled position you’re speaking from.”

    A few weeks ago I was at an advisory group mtg for a national domestic violence initiative and we were JUST talking about this and what G.D. alluded to in the above quote. It was in relation to gender roles, patriarchy, misogyny and men having to come from a certain place of accceptance (accepting their role in a society that normalizes misogynistic attitudes toward women) in order to be allies in the anti-violence against women movement.

    Good piece.

  • This is a great piece. Thank you so much for writing it. It’s one of the ones I will mull over.

    I have only one quibble: You think Pete thinks he is a “nice guy?” I would take Paul or Harry for that, maybe, but def. not Pete, as I understand the concept.

  • I didn’t mean that Pete was a Nice Guy, so much as Pete’s entitlement is sort of an unalloyed manifestation of Nice Guy-ism. He’s self-pitying and entitled and oblivious.

    Remember the scene where he comes at Peggy and she’s like, “I could have you if I wanted you, but I don’t want you”? Pete is shocked because, well, who is Peggy to refuse him? He’s Pete Campbell, and she’s just outer borough trash.

  • ladyfresh

    oh phew. ya’ll left me hanging in that hillary discussion. I thought i was alone, i admit i gave up.

  • blackink12

    I dig this. This is a great post. I can totally understand where you’re coming from, universe. I really do.

    And believe me, I wrestled with myself, my experiences and my own paucity of knowledge about sexism before I put my fingers to the keyboard for the Clinton post. I was uncomfortable with my conclusion. Still am. I will also readily admit that I’m a sexist and possessing of racial prejudice, along with some other ugly traits I’m trying to rid myself of. (It’s weird because I was having this very conversation with my fiancee this week). Anyway, I’m working as best I can to “unlearn my privilege.”

    Here’s where I come with the “but” … but … I still think HRC was out of line. Not as a woman. But as a diplomat. I know it’s tough to separate the two … we bring everything we are and our experiencs to work everyday, right?

    HRC has certainly earned her right to greet misogny with indignance. Maybe she didn’t want to keep quiet anymore. But as much as possible, without resorting to my assumption of privilege, I really think she could have handled that better.

    I honestly can’t say what I might have done had I been in HRC’s position and homie called me a “nigger” – this is the only analogous situation I can think of. (Of course, it comes back to race for me. That’s all I got.) But I do know what I would like my response to be: that I straighten up, eye the offender, keep it together and acknowledge the question is out-of-bounds without popping off.

    This is some really hard shit. Because you/I want to address everyone as an individual as much as possible, but acknowledge the expanses between us. I’m a man but I’m not every man either. Let’s just talk. Things don’t have to dangle. We can correct ourselves as we go, even if things go mushroom cloud for a minute.

    That said, never feel the need to swallow shit with me. I’m always down for a good conversation. Even if I need to be checked. Because I’ll readily admit: I don’t even know all that I don’t know.

    Jeebus. This was a rambling response. In short, great post.

  • ^^^^ this is why i fux with y’all. for serious.

  • Aww Ink! You know I lub you, lol. Sexism and all!

    But seriously this is kind of dialogue is all I (and I suspect a lot of women) are really after. The very acknowledgement that you questioned your conclusion and felt funny about it, and tried to interrogate why you feel the way you do is a huge step in the right direction.

    I think all too often when it comes to difficult topics people fall into these argument “scripts” where we say things we are expected to say, or have heard and are repeating or just mouthing words that have been programmed way down in our past without ever really examining why we’re saying what we’re saying. Bothering to have t8houghtfulness and intentionality about what you say can be a pain in the ass (sometimes you feel like you have to choose words SO carefully!) but it makes for a more productive conversation in the end.

  • Aw. I can endorse Black’s willingness to talk because we’ve gone over the HRC thing, and sexism in hip-hop and back again. Even if we don’t always agree, I totally wish more men were willing to engage in the same way.

  • Kazaclysm

    Long time lurker posting here. Just to say that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Secretary Clinton’s response at that event. Especially as a diplomat. Congo has a huge problem with rape and mysogyny. As such, I find it difficult to see how Clinton’s tone was not an appropriate response to the question as she understood it.

    Diplomats have a variety of tools at hand with which to achieve their objectives. That may be calmly walking their interlocutor through their argument, other times it may be anger or bullying and threats (e.g. Dick Holbrooke, Alexander Haig).

    The effectiveness of each approach in itself is up for debate. From my understanding however, I would say that it is heavily dependent on context. Criticism for more assertive, forceful behaviour is rarely directed at men, and that is why negative perceptions of Secretary Clinton’s behaviour are treated with suspicion.

  • (Of course, it comes back to race for me. That’s all I got.)

    Exactly! When i was taking an intro-level women’s studies class, I was kind of blown by how analogous so much of it was. They’re not perfect parallels, obviously, but they’ve been really helpful ones in understanding how privilege works. The whole “angry black man” thing isn’t that far from the “shrill, shrewish bitch” thing.

  • “there’s a long list of black male politicians that will tell you that they feel judged differently for expressing their anger as opposed to their white colleagues.” Absolutely. I think I made this point in the OP about HRC, as layered onto Obama’s candidacy. I.E., Obama having to navigate this.

  • ladyfresh

    Not at all. i think your last statements are where the differences are in this particular case.

    We’re denying people their own agency. Thus, HRC isn’t HRC – she’s a stand-in for someone else. Sometimes people are just individuals, who bring their own experiences and biases to the table.

    Again. I probably should play my position right about now. I’m swimming out of my depth. But you all have definitely made me check myself and my preconceptions about how we treat women differently.

    How much of this is denying Hillary her own agency?

  • Molly

    Yes, I often feel that feminism in the mainstream is considered a “white thing”. As a white minority in my community, I chose to ignore feminist credos because they competed too much with struggles for racial equality–and often do; look at the way HRC easily fell into pandering to racists in order to try and win the Democratic primary, in addition to all that “bitch is the new black” crap that supporters threw out every time they were challenged. When I got to college, more established notions of feminism were perceived as having an embarrassingly culturally imperialistic lilt because it didnt account for complexities that arise when race, class and gender converge (I dont entirely disagree with this, but it is hard to come to establish mainstream paradigms when subcultures cant form a cohesive set of mission statements). I got a little bit older and realized that these are all important dialogues, but becoming an unapologetic feminist and being a thoughtful, empathetic person are not two competing ways of life.

  • maria

    hello, all. i have the good fortune to know blackink IRL, and he is nothing if not self-aware and self-“correcting,” as he puts it. a rare trait, to be sure.

    that said, i, a 51-year-old white woman in suburban maryland, DID call him on his HRC comment. an early supporter of HRC, i ultimately supported obama, to the degree that i canvassed, gave $$, made calls, etc. i, too, have experienced sexism in the workplace, in personal relationships, in politics…it truly colors so much of what we encounter in life. my divorced and navigating society alone, it’s even more on display. not pretty.

    i was pleased to see HRC get the SOS job, but do wish folks would be more patient with her. i didn’t see her reaction to that question as a fatal flaw that proved all her doubters right-she was unfit to be president, not at all. did it mean she would also push the nuclear button? no.

    she’s still learning the job of diplomat, and i also argued that obama has an almost unnatural cool that’s an impossible standard to apply to anyone else, and HRC has lived in bill’s shadow and been subject as a result to unfair scrutiny.

    i also have a 19-year-old daughter, an art school student who has spent the summer–of her own accord–plowing thru “the feminine mystique.” she was appalled by the reaction–lack of reaction, as you point out, universe, to the gym shootings.

    she said, this man went after WOMEN. because they were WOMEN?

    why isn’t this a hate crime? why aren’t more people talking about this? where is the outrage?

    amen, daughter.

    thanks for a great post, for giving voice to this hard subject and to blackink, who posted about this at his blog.