I think we’ve all been in situations in which a conversation takes an unexpected turn. I humbly offer the following one such example:
Leslie: “Hey, we should go eat at that restaurant over there.”
Ron: “Which one are you talking about, there are like three different restaurants in this area.”
L: “The one with the two girls standing in front of it…”
R: “What two girls? Oh you mean that one with the brown hair and her fat blonde friend? Yeah we should go there, I love that place.
L: “Fat? Why did you just call her fat? She’s not fat, that’s so mean.”
R: “Oh I’m sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. Sensitive audience.”
L: “What do you mean sensitive audience? Just because I don’t think you should call people fat doesn’t mean I’m especially sensitive.”
R: “No I just mean… I get it… women and their weight, its sensitive, I get it.
L: “Women and their weight? Me finding your comments on the way that woman looks offensive has nothing to do with being female. It’s just plain rude. Not to mention that insinuating that I have a problem with your comments because I’m a woman and therefore sensitive about my weight is not only cliché but kind of sexist.”
R: “Sexist?! I’m not sexist. You’re blowing this whole thing way out of proportion. Wow, way to make it a gender thing. I cannot believe you just called me sexist. You know, I’m not even hungry anymore. Let’s just go home.”
And just like that Ron cuts off the conversation. Once the dreaded term “sexist” comes out, the conversation is pretty much dead. Sexist is just about one of the worst terms you can call someone (add to that racist, homophobe, among others). No one wants to be associated with a manner of thinking or behavior that is largely considered offensive and outdated. Once that term in uttered from one person to another, all conversation around the issue that caused the term to be brought up in the first place is over. In this case Ron, who made the “sexist” remark, no longer wants to discuss the issue just as Leslie really wants to make her point.
And that’s a shame. The reality of the world many people live in is that sexism (and other isms) no longer linger out in the open, easily identifiable and agreed upon by all, but rather sexism lives in the shadows, ingrained in certain behaviors and thought patterns. It’s ironic that as more work has been done to bring about the equality of women and men, it has become harder to have honest conversations about those issues and attitudes that continue to promote misogynistic and sexist thought. It’s almost impossible to have an open and honest conversation about the problems that continue to plague the fight for gender equality without someone feeling defensive and wanting to wish it away.
A similar issue can be seen around the birther movement in the United States. Many people believe that the push for Barack Obama to release his birth certificate is born out of racism, a desire to attribute an otherness to the first African American president. Yet if you read any comment sections on the numerous opinion pieces that have been written on the subject, you have many individuals who are quick to assert that racism no longer exists, that black people are trying to make an issue out of nothing and that blacks are really the ones that are racist against whites. The validity of those arguments are inconsequential. The problem is that by being so quick to make those arguments, the conversation is being shut down and those who feel marginalized are being told to keep their opinions to themselves, echoing a history of being silenced.
Honestly in the above situation, both Leslie and Ron are limiting the possibility of open dialogue. Ron is defensive and therefore not willing to listen while Leslie has thrown out labels rather than creating a space for conversation to flow.
In situations of perceived racism and sexism, we aren’t all going to agree on the specifics of the case, but we have to be able to discuss it. If we’re trying to create a world in which the oppressive and domineering forces that have for so long plagued human history become a thing of the past, then we have to be able to understand each other. One way of doing this is by listening to other people’s experiences. In doing so, we have to allow people to feel their feelings – this way we validate their reality. It’s only through the process of listening to others’ sorrows and experiences that we can create a common foundation; that we begin to see reality and truth as one. And perhaps once voices can be heard we can move past these labels which so often gloss over the full weight of the situation and only create greater distinction where there could, in fact, be inclusion.
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