In response to the #notallmen vs. #yesallwomen, one of the frequent themes I saw was:
I’m a good guy. I’m not like those other guys. I’d help more but I just don’t know what to do.
You probably are a good guy. I know a lot of good guys. I have many good guy friends. I hate to break it to you but no amount of your being a good guy eviscerates institutionalized sexism. Look, I want sexism gone as much as you do. Probably I want it more. Probably I’ve had to do more work at undoing sexism in my world than you have. Probably, even though you are a good guy, you have been socialized to expect that women will soothe your anxiety, concern, worry, sadness and other negative emotions that come up for you when you think about women you know having to deal with really concrete examples of sexism in action. But asking for re-assurance that you’re a good guy? Ah, that’s sexism in action, too.
Recognize that when you come to me complaining that discussions of straight white male privilege bother you or make you uncomfortable, when your response to a discussion of privilege is not this:
[Caption: This is a really great, no-nonsense acknowledgment of privilege]
but rather, “hey I’m not like that” (or you know, #notallmen) – you’ve turned a critical discussion about privilege back around to you, re-centered it on your need to affirm that you are a good guy and not part of the problem. But you are. Unless you are actively working against bias, confronting your privilege, you are.
Recognize that when you say, “I don’t know what to do,” what I hear is, “I am too lazy and I don’t care that much to think about what I might do. I really just wanted some re-assurance that it’s true that I can’t/am not obligated to do anything.” Recognize that you can just decide to “stop thinking about it” and it goes away. For me, sexism never goes away; I don’t really get to stop thinking about it. Even if I really, really, really want to. Asking me how you should be fighting sexism is like asking an over-tasked parent, “how can I help?” That parent doesn’t have time to stop, think and delegate you a task – that itself is work. It’s more helpful to just step in and, you know, DO SOMETHING USEFUL rather than putting an additional task on an over-tasked person. Ask yourself what you spent the last hour doing. I spent it writing this post. Now, ask yourself what other things I might have accomplished in this hour if I didn’t need to spend it working on fighting sexism. Fighting sexism takes up a lot of time and energy and yeah, at times, I am pissed that I am STILL having to spend time fighting sexism when I could be spending time doing just about anything else.
That said, I am going to put my resentment aside, I am going to take a leap that with a little direct instruction some of you WILL do some work, and I’m going to start posting a series of concrete tips. Actual action items you can get working on right away. But here’s the deal you are making with me: you are not allowed to tell me why what I’m asking you to do “won’t work” or talk about how hard you have it as a man or say “yeah, I have to deal with this too” or re-direct the conversation around your needs, men’s needs. If you actually want to help, you need a) to be willing to do the work and b) take direction from non-men. Ready?
CONCRETE TIP #1:
Stop referring to women as “mothers, daughters, wives, etc.” When you are trying to drum up some empathy or urgency in the face of sexist injustice, do not say things like: “what if she were your daughter” or “these aren’t just women, these are people’s mothers, wives and daughters.”
Why? Women deserve rights and respect and equality because we are human. By relying on describing our relationships with others, you are re-enforcing that a woman’s worth is in her usefulness to others. Regardless of whether or not we are anyone’s wife, mother, sister, daughter, etc. we deserve fair treatment. Worse, with some of this language (wives, daughters) you are referring to historical situations in which that relationship implied actual ownership. Ancient history you say? This legacy lives on every time a father “gives away” his daughter at a wedding. A mother does not give her son away, he is already standing in front of everyone on his own. How often have you heard, “these are our fathers, husbands and brothers?”
Extra Credit: Don’t just stop at not using this language yourself. When you hear it from others, call it out and take a moment to educate people about it. If you see it in print, take a minute to write a letter to the editor or leave a comment on a page.