Friday, August 21, 2009

"The Terrible Bargain"

A few days ago I read Melissa McEwan's piece "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck" over at Shakesville. Like many other readers, this piece struck a chord with me. As I read, I thought about all of the relationships I have had with the men in my life and the ways in which I let things slide or bite my tongue to keep the peace. Those who know me will probably find it unbelievable that I ever bite my tongue, but believe me, if I said it all, I doubt I'd have ever kept a job for more than a week.

At any rate, I recalled an incident about nine months ago with a former co-worker. Lets call co-worker "Tom." Tom seemed nice enough when we first met and we immediately had a flirty little banter going. After a few shifts together, Tom and I got to talking about ourselves and I shared with him that I am a Women's Studies graduate student and an active feminist advocate. This was when our friendly banter turned sour. Tom constantly made terrible, offensive sexist jokes, thinking that I'd find them adorable. He turned everything into some sort of sexist comment just to see what I'd do. When I confronted him, saying it wasn't funny and that it was really offensive, he did the old "you have no sense of humor" schtick.

Alas, working with him became a tiresome chore for me and some of his jokes made me angry for days. I eventually transferred to another location in part to get away from him. After that he texted me a several times to tell me another of his hilarious jokes. I am hoping that my non-responsiveness will give him a hint, since being blunt did not.

As I think about that exchange I think about the endless instances of sexism that we all swallow every day because we want to keep the peace and we want a reprieve. Of course, this is not peace, this is a silent and subtle war to remind women of our place as second class citizens.

Then I get to thinking of my male relatives, including my father, who say some of the most ignorant things I have ever heard and, again, I bite my tongue because when I don't the consequences are devastating.

Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution.

Then I think about whenever a man at work is really friendly and I thoroughly enjoy our conversation and then he ends it by calling me "little girl." Every time a situation like this arises, I am reminded, like Melissa, of the male privilege that we are all constantly swimming in.

In one of my undergraduate Africology courses, I had developed a wonderful relationship with my professor who was one of the smartest and most compassionate men I had ever met. I shared my undergrad thesis with this man and graciously accepted his comments and criticisms of my writing. And then one day in class he said that in 1865 following the passage of the 15th amendment, "African Americans were granted the right to vote." It felt like I had been slapped in the face, so stunned was I to hear this man whom I had trusted and respected erase the history of black women in America in one sentence.

I hope those men will hear me when I say, again, I do not hate you. I mistrust you. You can tell yourselves that's a problem with me, some inherent flaw, some evidence that I am fucked up and broken and weird; you can choose to believe that the women in your lives are nothing like me.
Or you can be vigilant, can make yourselves trustworthy. Every day.

Like Melissa, it pains me when men call me a feminazi or say that I clearly hate men. I don't hate men. I just don't trust them. Or rather, it takes a lot longer for me to trust them and even then, instances like these put me on the defensive. When I was younger I would say that I hate men after reading Andrea Dworkin's texts or listening to groups of friends tell of their sexual assaults or watching Law and Order SVU. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't all men and that men swim in the same water of patriarchy and male privilege as the rest of us.

But I hope that they will heed our call to make themselves trustworthy, to examine their privilege and to listen when we say "that is offensive" or "that is painful" or "that is sexist!"