Every time I post about sexism, along come some men to make the conversation be about them. They usually start with a question about what they as a man can do, or how it applies to them. Before too long the entire comment thread becomes about them. Or even if the other commenters don’t take the bait, the blokes keep coming back with more related questions, all of which has the effect of not adressing the subject at hand, but trying to bring it back to its “proper” place: talking about men.
Often, these blokes are nice people and are asking genuine questions. Sometimes the post has caused an actual epiphany for them and the shutters of privilege are lifting and they really want to talk about that. I understand! Truly I do. I’m white. I’ve been having epiphany after epiphany about my own white privilege and what a blinkered view of the world it has given me. The shutters have been lifting. It’s a wonderful thing. But the time to talk about your privilege-epiphanies is not in a comment thread about sexism or racism. Because to do so has the effect of shutting down actual discussion of oppression. I.e., your privilege winds up derailing the conversation and making it all about the you when the point of it is that it’s not about you. Go share your epiphany and your struggles towards becoming a better person on your own blog. Better still, stick around and listen.
I’m sure I sound cranky. Oh, those humourless feminist harridans yelling at you again! As it happens, I’m not cranky, I’m just a wee bit bored. Such comments are as regular as clockwork. Every time one shows up I have to decide whether to delete it (so the conversation stays on track) or whether I’m in the mood to give an introduction to Feminism 101, or whether to simply ignore it, or to jump in with a gentle reminder to stay on subject. In my last post on mansplaining, I had to delete a record number of comments.1 I hate doing that. But they would have utterly derailed the conversation.
I understand the intense desire to talk about you. We all want to talk about us.2 The vast majority of people I’ve met, including me, will respond to any conversational topic with an anecdote about themselves. It’s how most of us process information. “How does this particular thing apply to me?”
Problem is that the world we live in centres on people like you; white men run it. So much so that when someone like Chris Matthews (a white male USian pundit) approves of something someone not like him—Barack Obama—says, Matthews literally forgets that Obama is black. Thereby making it impossible that anyone will ever forget that Chris Matthews is white. As if that were even a possibility . . .
If you’re a man and the conversation is about sexism and women are sharing stories of their oppresssion, think very carefully before you comment. Ask yourself, is my question on topic? Will an answer to my question be about women or about me? Am I about to point out that perhaps this behaviour, that all the other women in the thread have described as sexist, is just rude and that anyone can do it? Ask yourself what your motives are? What’s at stake for you in proving it’s not sexist? Are you trying to feel better about being a man? Prove that you’re the exception? That there are nice men who aren’t like that?3
If you’re not adding to the conversation, don’t comment. If your comment is all about you, don’t comment. And if you’re bent on proving something is not sexist, then really really really really don’t comment.
Let us take the example of mansplaining. I realise that my sidenote in that post was a red herring. I described some of my own past rudenesses. Explaining someone’s name to them.4 And someone else’s religion to them.5 That was very rude of me. But in both cases I was not speaking from a place of privilege. The Linda who I helpfully told her name means “beautiful” in Spanish was white middle class and female just like me. Ditto the Jewish friend.6
So, yes, I was being annoying and rude, but I was not disregarding what they said because of their gender, I was not using my position of power to deprive them of having a voice, and I was not speaking on high from my privilged position.
Note: While men do this all the time they rarely do it on purpose or even consciously. That’s part of the problem. If most men realised they were using their privilege in these ways it would be a lot easier to get them to change their behaviours. But, sadly, it’s not just a matter of bad behaviours. That’s the problem with systemic inequality, people don’t see it.
I have been in the position of wanting to explain to a black friend that the behaviour they saw as racist wasn’t. Why, I happened to know that that restaurant gives everyone crap service. They’re slow and rude and nasty to everyone. But how did I know that the bad service they’d experienced wasn’t different in kind from the bad service I’d experienced? That on top of that restaurant’s slowness and rudeness and nastiness was a layer of racism. Even if it was just bad service, the fact that it could just as easily have been racism speaks volumes to the kind of world we live in. When I eat out in my own country it never crosses my mind that the bad service could be because of racism. Why would it?
Understanding the effects of racism and sexism when you’re white and a man has to pretty much be theoretical. Even if you’re poor, gay and disabled you can only understand through the lens of a different kind of oppression, which is every bit as appalling, but remains different in kind. Which is to say that just because I have experienced sexism does not mean I understand what it is to experience racism.
So, yes, I do get why men want to take part in these conversations. I understand why you find them uncomfortable, why you want to be told that you’re the exception to all those bad nasty men. I mean, who wants to think of themselves as an oppressor? Who wants to realise that they’ve benefited from systemic oppression? We want to think that we are who we are and have what we have because of our own unique me-ness. Not because we had the luck to be born in one of the wealthy countries, with white parents, and XY chromosones.
I want you to take part in the conversations here on this blog. Truly, I love all my commenters. But I’ve had it with derailing. At this point I don’t care how nice you are, or how good your intentions, I will delete derailing comments and send the offender a link to this post.
Thus endeth the sermon.
- Most of them mansplaining to me that “mansplaining” isn’t mainsplaining at all. It’s just rudeness. Silly little girly me for not realising that! [↩]
- Well, until we’ve done twenty interviews in a row then all we want to talk about is anything but us. “Can I be Alaya Johnson now? I’m sick of being me. What about Maureen Johnson? No? Oh, please, please don’t make me talk about where I get my ideas again! Aaaarggh!” [↩]
- Guess what? We know that. Many of us are married to, best friends with, related to, live with, work with, hang out with perfectly lovely men. [↩]
- Ironic, since I have lost count of how many times people have explained what Larbalestier means to me. Annoying? Oh, yes. Very. [↩]
- Aargh. So embarrassed. Never happen again. [↩]
- Yes, we’re still friends! [↩]