A lot of people are tired of sexism coming up in conversations. You’re not alone. (Many of you are so tired of the conversation that you already stopped reading this post.) But, before you dismiss the conversation with “not everything is sexism,” consider this:
No, not everything is sexism. But yes, a lot of things truly are. And the more we talk about it and learn about it and point it out when we see it, the more often we are going to see it in the everyday world around us, even in the seemingly harmless ways we engage in personal conversations with our friends and family or inside our own thoughts. Sexism is a huge part of the world, and it sucks to have to acknowledge that because, once we do, we must change. And changing is hard. And it might mean sharing power, and if people feel like they aren’t starting out with a lot of power to begin with, then the idea of sharing it (even with someone who has less power) is not appealing because we erroneously view power like we view the world’s resources: as both finite and scarce. Further, if we ourselves haven’t been socially responsible with the power we were born into, we tend to imagine the worst about other people’s potential to wield power.
The conversation on sexism is changing. It’s like in a game where you reach a certain level of achievement, so the game becomes harder. Well, world, Achievement Unlocked: Noticing Blatant Sexism and Misogyny. So now the conversation is getting harder because now it’s about pointing out the subtle infrastructures our society has in place that not only allow sexism to thrive but also allow it to lurk below the surface and masquerade as not-sexism. Making excuses for sexism or denying that sexism exists in a given conversation are both part of allowing sexism to live on. We all have sexism ingrained in us because we were all born into a sexist world. Even those who fight to dismantle sexism must continually examine the subtleties of their own sexist thoughts and behavior—regardless of their own gender, and especially regardless of their intent.
Intent is a huge roadblock to people thinking critically about sexism. Haven’t you heard the adage about the road to hell and how it’s paved? Intent is ultimately meaningless in any -ism conversation. Intent exists to make us feel better about our own mistakes. But good intentions are not our get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s not tacit permission to ignore the actual ramifications of our actions. Have you ever felt completely satisfied after getting your feelings hurt by someone saying, “I didn’t mean to” and leaving it at that? I know I haven’t. We didn’t mean to [insert bad action here]? Okay. But that’s not very productive toward reconciliation. “I didn’t mean to” has become a poor substitute for an apology, but it doesn’t take responsibility for what actually happened. We’re still responsible for reconciliation. We can’t resolve or change what happened by saying we didn’t mean for it to happen.
Personal experience seems to hinder the sexism conversation just as much as, if not more than, intent. Men look at the women in their lives whom they love—their wives, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters—and draw the inaccurate conclusion that, because they like those women, it must be impossible for them to ever participate in any actions that are sexist or misogynist or hurtful toward women as a whole. In the same way, women who don’t want to engage the conversation on sexism look at the nice ways their own husbands treat them and incorrectly conclude that, just because they don’t experience the oppression of sexism in their own lives, sexism must be a myth invented by someone with a political agenda. Using one’s own positive personal experience as a way to deny someone else’s negative personal experience has become a powerful weapon of privileged classes. It has never happened to me, and I’ve never seen it happen to anyone else; therefore, it doesn’t exist. To digress for a short second, this is a common defense of the privileged classes in the racism conversation. A white person may find it easy to think, I’ve never seen anyone be rude to a black person; therefore, racism doesn’t exist. Sadly, personal experience can also be weaponized in the exact opposite way. People who have had negative experiences use those experiences to form simple generalizations about complex issues. A woman was rude to me once; therefore, all women are rude, which makes it okay for me to be preemptively rude to all women I encounter, or to dismiss any ideas a woman puts forth.
I know there are people in my life who roll their eyes every time I bring up sexism as a possible factor in a given scenario. I’ve literally watched them do it. But I refuse to feel bad about making you uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable too. Imagine how tired I am of talking about the role sexism plays in everyday life! I promise you, I would love to stop starting this conversation as much as you would love to stop hearing about it—probably more! But we don’t quit just because we’re tired. That just isn’t how change works.
In conclusion, if your knee-jerk reaction to someone bringing up sexism is to deny or to argue? Maybe just pause and think before responding. Think about why you want to deny or argue or disagree. Could it be because that’s easier? Could it be because, if you acknowledge that sexism is a main character hiding in the wings just offstage of our lives, you might have to change something about yourself? Sexism is truly everywhere. And maybe it’s just a supporting role. And sometimes just naming it and noticing it without harping on it will go a long way toward finding a sufficient resolution. But we owe it to ourselves as a society to at least consider the role sexism might be playing. We must keep talking about it, no matter how weary we get.