Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to Enter Feminist Discussions at the 101 Level and Not Totally Mess Up

As it has become abundantly clear, I've been dealing with a whole lot 'o people who are new to (and relatively insensitive toward) discussions of gender. These past few exchanges have been a truly stressful experience for me. They've made me question my ability to engage with people who frankly don't care about issues of oppression and equality. They've made me want to go live in a cave where I only interact with other hardcore feminists who "get me."

And that's really sad--because if everyone who cared deeply about a cause became so jaded by interactions with uninformed people, that cause would eventually die out. There'd be nobody willing to spread/promote the messages. And that's really the last thing I want for feminism. I really believe there needs to be a space for 101 interactions. I'm not convinced that I'm necessarily the person to champion these spaces, for my own emotional health, but I do think they are important.

As such, after doing a few things to personally cope with this frustrating business, I've decided to channel this experience into something productive and hopefully useful. What follows are my suggestions for how to enter feminist discussions (and other discussions of privilege, oppression, and inequality) at the 101 level and not totally mess up! I should note here that some of the people I engaged with were actually just trolls. But for people who are new to feminism and would like engage in good faith, here you go...
1) Do some research. The internet and library exist for a reason.
When you newly enter into dialogues about oppression, it is extremely important that you do not expect your fellow discussers to educate you. If you are genuinely interested to listen to an oppressed person speak, there can be an impulse to say, "I had no idea about this! Tell me more. I really want to learn." That impulse to learn is wonderful but it is not the responsibility of someone else, who simply might not have the patience or time, to lead you through discovery. In fact, chances are if you've never thought deeply about sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, etc, it is because you operate from a place of privilege. Most people who are oppressed by these -isms do not have the luxury of being unaware of them. Therefore, asking someone to educate you can be pretty damn offensive. (And just in case it needs to be said, if someone offers up their knowledge or experiences, great, but this is about expecting your education to take place in these dialogues. That's just annoying.) Besides, for any issue you can imagine, there is someone who has written about it wonderfully, and they would love for you to access their work as a part of your education. 

2) Check your privilege.
As I mentioned, when you are entering into these discussions for the first time, you are going to become very aware of the fact that the world isn't experienced by everyone equally. At this point of realization, it's time to begin to consider how you've been privileged and start to "unpack that knapsack." How has your worldview been shaped by the fact that certain aspects of your person are seen as the default? How does not being seen as the default play into other people's experiences of oppression?

3) Listen. Seriously--LISTEN.
Going right along with #2, when a person brings up something that they experience as an oppression, or calls you on your offensive statements/actions, resist the urge to just start a debate. It's time to listen. And I mean really listen. We as humans seem to be predisposed to want to dismiss/downplay the really nasty things of our society as a way of pretending they are not there. For example, if a woman says, "Sometimes men rub into me on the subway inappropriately and it makes me sick" peoples' impulse is to often reply "Really? Are you sure that's what was happening? Maybe it was just an accident." Or if a black person says, "I don't think I got that job because the hiring manager was racist" the reply will frequently be "No, I'm sure that's not true. You don't know what was going on behind the scenes." Or someone will speak out against a rape joke and the response is "Lighten up! It's just a joke. It's not really about rape." All of these responses are not helpful. We do not stand to gain anything from further silencing the voices of the oppressed. A much more productive response is to actually hear what the person is saying and think deeply about their experiences/perspectives. We must trust that they are the authority on their own experiences. I just don't see how "This thing here really offends me because..." or "This is what happened to me..." is an opening for a debate.

4) Remove your personal intentions from the discussion and self-reflect.
This is the biggest fail that I see in discussions of gender over and over and over. A woman brings up something that offends her and then the men in the room jump into "Well when I say/do that, I don't mean it to be offensive" mode. Or people go all "Come on. You know me. I'm not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc!" And then the discussion turns into personal defense of how accepting/awesome the people involved are instead of an examination of the actual racist/sexist/homophobic/etc THING that was brought up in the first place. Just like refusing to listen, making it about who you are as a person is not productive. Consider this: if you feel the need to defend your actions/words, maybe it's actually time for you to engage in a little self reflection and think about why you feel this way. I know it is really hard to realize you've been wrong, but do not be personally threatened by this feeling; take it as an opportunity. Operating from a reactive/on-the-defense place will not help you in any way. Besides, these discussions are never really about the personal intentions involved. Rather, they are about how we all operate in a cultural context. For example, if you say "Nice shirt, man. No homo!" but then claim that you don't mind gay people and you have a gay friend so you couldn't possibly be homophobic, it doesn't make your statement any less offensive. Because saying "no homo" means "I have to state that I am not homosexual, because homosexuality is lesser-than and undesirable and I don't want to be associated with it." You intentions are irrelevant. 

5) Accept that there is no weakness in change.
So let's say that you get through all of this and you realize that something you say/believe/do is problematic. If you have really completed steps 1-4, then making a change probably wouldn't be that hard. I mean, if you've listened to other people, learned all about the issue, and really engaged in self-reflection, it would theoretically be simple to then change your behaviors. But I have seen a cultural trend to be very resistant to change. It's like behaving however you always have is by default superior to admitting that it's not cool to offend other people. This is where the "But I'm just being me! That's my sense of humor!" and "I'm soooo sick of the PC police!" people come in. I mean, really--what is so bad about trying to be a better person, insuring that you don't piss others off, and using language which portrays you as a compassionate, thoughtful person? HEAVEN FORBID. So if you realize you've been messing up, change it. And trust me, people will notice if you do.

6) Have a little grace.
If you mess up and say/do something that offends someone else, accept that and genuinely apologize. It happens to all of us. Don't resort to back peddling and "what I MEANT was..."

7) If it's not about you, don't make it about you.
Women, people of color, fat people, disabled people, gay people, trans people, etc. are allowed to have spaces to talk about their experiences. Every discussion about what it's like to be in one group doesn't require other perspectives. Privileged groups tend to dominate the cultural narrative so spaces for oppressed people to share are OK. Now I do believe that open dialogue between groups is equally significant, but again, for emphasis: Every discussion about what it's like to be in one group doesn't require other perspectives. If you find yourself reading or hearing a discussion amongst people of a group that you do not belong and/or you are not prepared to join in the dialogue, it's OK to revert to #2.

8) Lastly, don't be these people.
I'm not kiddingSeriously. Just don't be them.


  1. #7 rings true in my experience.. Most prevalently in my life it is really uncomfortable to be around people discussing eating disorders when they have no experience personally with them. It's like hey, you're talking about this thing you have no idea about and critiquing/analyzing right in front of me! It really does feel like someone is talking behind your back right in front of you.

    1. Yeah, I can see how that can be really difficult. There are few issues that I care DEEPLY about which I haven't been personal affected by (like rape) where I try to really advocate on behalf of the marginalized group, but also remember that's it's important to let them tell their own stories and be the experts on their own experiences.

      That's why what a lot of the eating disorder related stuff you'll see here is actually about body image challenges (which I struggle with daily.) I try to keep it safe, and I hope I am. I totally know what you mean though, a lot of people will just blurt out really uncomfortable things w/o knowing if their audience carries the scars of a hidden oppression (like rape, eating disorders, etc.)

  2. I've been dealing with 101 level feminist discussions recently that made me want to go live in a cave. When I read the title I thought it was adressed to feminists dealing with uninformed people rather than the contrary.. Good article though.


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