Feminism in Action: Interlude (What if I fuck it up?)

If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1

Dudes, there will come a time when you mess it up. No matter how well you mean, no matter how good your intentions are, you will say or do something sexist. When you offend. When you behave offensively. Right now, take a moment to accept this. If you keep on insisting, “I would never ever ever do anything sexist ever,” here’s what is definitely going to happen:

1. You eventually WILL do something sexist.

2. Because you’ve wrapped your identity, your sense of who you are as a person so heavily into being not-sexist that when this moment comes your brain will do everything in its power to resist recognizing or acknowledging your sexist words/action/behavior. Your brain will tell you that what you did could not possibly be sexist because YOU are not a sexist. 

3. You will deny, dismiss, diminish and otherwise make excuses for a sexist behavior which only throws old newspapers on a trash can fire. Your brain will preserve the sense of “I am not a sexist” at all costs. People will be angry that you can’t even admit that you did something sexist and that you are nowhere NEAR apologizing for it.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Trust me when I say that 95% of all Internet battles over calling someone out on a sexist action look like this:
“Hey, that thing you did/said was sexist because XYZ.”
“Nu-uh. It was not sexist because I’m not sexist. I have lots of feminist friends.”

LESSON #1: How to call someone out without assaulting their identity as a good person:
In this video, Jay Smooth is talking about being a racist vs racist behavior (see also: there’s no good in comparing “isms” to each other, all “isms” are connected via systems of oppression, all have effects on others but experiencing one “ism” doesn’t mean you know what all “isms” feel like). How do you tell someone that what they said was racist without getting mired in the “but I’m not a racist” discussion?:

Though he is talking about racism, his tactics for calling someone out (or calling yourself out) work well for calling out in general. It’s about holding people accountable for actions rather than throwing a label at them. Really, watch it. (And watch lots of Jay Smooth videos, because he has lots of good observations, cultural criticism, advice delivered in a totally approachable way)

LESSON #2: How to apologize correctly:
In the news lately? That’s right, Jonah Hill. Yeah, I’m going to talk about it. Here’s what happened:

1. He said something homophobic even though he may/may not be a homophobic person.
2. People said, “whoa, you can’t say that. That’s not OK to say.”

***Now, traditionally here, the person in Jonah Hill’s situation would have been stuck on “but I’m not a sexist/racist/homophobic person” and that sense of identity would have made it impossible for him to apologize. There would have been back-pedaling and excuse-making all of which is transparent to the marginalized group (in this case, the queer community) and unacceptable as an apology. Because, an apology has two parts: 1) what I did was wrong 2) I’m sorry I did that.

Repeat after me, an apology has two parts:
1) What I did was wrong. 
2) I’m sorry I did that.

It’s really quite that easy but for some reason (and this is beyond my level of socio-cultural critique) I feel like we’ve made it impossible to actually apologize to each other when we fuck it up.

So. What happened? Well, something quite remarkable actually. Jonah Hill admitted that what he did was wrong and said he was sorry he said it. He successfully completed a 2-step apology:

Whoa. This only seems revolutionary or remarkable because almost no one takes this path when they are confronted with being called out on regrettable behavior. Especially not celebrities who are often immune from this type of criticism and especially not comedians/comic actors who are prone to saying things like, “it’s comedy, everything is OK in comedy.” Yes, everything is OK in comedy – in the right context.

It shouldn’t be revolutionary. You don’t get a cookie or a gold star or high-five for apologizing. You aren’t suddenly a great ally to the XYZ community. It’s just the right thing to do. You are a person who is doing the right thing. It seems revolutionary because in our culture the right thing to do is not the normal thing to do and so the right thing to do stands out as exemplary. It stands out in many situations (stories about “heroes” returning lost wallets anyone?) What you should get is, “thanks man, I appreciate the apology.” And you move on. Hopefully, you’re forgiven, you let it go and you learn from your mistake. Because when you are truly “not a sexist,” you will apologize when you fuck it up and if you do it honestly and mean it, the other non-sexists in your life (who have probably also fucked it up at some point) will appreciate that you took the time to reflect on your behavior, take responsibility for it (by apologizing) and learn from it.

Let Jonah Hill be a role model of how to apologize because while he may have shouted “faggot” in a moment of anger and while that word didn’t come from nowhere, he recognized that what he did was wrong, he admitted it and he said he was sorry.

On this journey, you’re going to fuck it up. Be ready and able to apologize when you do. Start practicing now. Pretend you said something sexist, pull out a mirror and say, “I’m sorry I said XYZ. That was sexist, it wasn’t cool and I will do my best to not do it again.” 

Are you in a partnership? Do you know what a great skill it is to know how to apologize correctly? To be ready and able to do it when you need to? You were supposed to take the trash out. You didn’t. Your partner opens the trash to find it overflowing and gooey everywhere because the kids crammed more in and now it’s a complete mess. Because you forgot to take the trash out. QUICK. WHAT DO YOU DO?
a.) Well, I would have remembered to take the trash out if you didn’t ask me to pick-up doing the bedtime routine last night.
b.) I’m sorry I forgot. I’ll take care of it now.

I hope by now you realize that the correct answer is “B.” No matter what/when/how you fuck up in life, the annoyed or offended party never wants to hear why what you did was OK or not that bad. All they want is for you to admit that your behavior was wrong (validation) and a sincere offer to make it right. Bam! Done! You choose “A” and what happens? “Well I asked you to pick up the bedtime routine because I …” and down we go into a spiral of unrelated anger and frustration. I’m not talking about “yes dear” or “of course honey,” the kind of apology that passive-aggressively (and snidely) cuts at the legitimacy of the original request. I’m talking about accepting the fact that you are an imperfect person and when you cause stress to someone you care about through your own action/non-action, it helps the partnership to own up to it. If you aren’t doing it already, make an agreement with your partner to apologize to each other when you fuck it up and to move on (it doesn’t come up later in future disagreements) after the apology. Trust me, after the first few apologies it gets easier to say, “I’m sorry. I’ll fix it” rather than trying to explain away what you did.


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