Several times in the last several weeks, I’ve found myself involved in an internet dust-up on twitter about “women in tech”. This is the politically correct term. But what it’s really about is the rampant misogyny and sexism in the tech industry. The most recent kerfuffle involved geekli.st. I won’t go over the details. Start at this article and then the internets will give you all the information you can stand. The short of it is that there’s a video promoting the Geeklist brand that made some women uncomfortable. And when one spoke up, she was systematically dismissed, marginalized and threatened, rather than having her issues taken seriously.
Over the course of this internet argument, I had several well-meaning and curious guys reach out to me to try and understand what all the fuss was about. They seemed like good people, but they were missing something about what it means to be sexist. Many men who come into these arguments are troubled because while they might see that something is wrong, they can’t see a clear set of rules that determine when something is sexist and when it isn’t. They’re also a little (or more than a little) frustrated by the seeming “double standard”, because many of the issues that women complain about, seem to happen to men too in some cases.
So I’m going to take a shot at explaining. This is going to be really tough. I am by no means a scholar. I have no authority on this issue. I’m just a man who has learned enough to be concerned about the problem. I’m constantly examining myself in an effort to ensure that I’m not a part of the problem. And if at all possible, if other men can start to examine themselves and their part in this, all the better. For convenience, I’m gonna speak directly to these men who asked me to write about it. All of this comes from my perspective. Not everyone will agree with my assessment, including some women. This won’t be perfect, but I’ll do my best.
Why is this a big deal?
I think this might be the place to start. Some men find it hard to understand why women can still be made to feel uncomfortable or offended. Aren’t we past that (No)? Haven’t we done a lot for gender equality (yes, but not enough)? Even if there are still some cases that are bad, aren’t we being overly sensitive (maybe, but mostly no)?
So in this incident, a woman was offended. Well that’s not exactly right, we can’t have a meltdown every time one person is offended. Several women were offended, lots of other people spoke out about the tastelessness of the video. But maybe that still doesn’t bother you. Would you believe that *lots* of women were likely offended by the video? And most of them will never speak up? Why wouldn’t they speak up? This may not seem right or intuitive. But one of the reasons is because this isn’t an isolated incident.
The reason this is a big deal is not because some women got offended. It’s a big deal because we are constantly doing things to offend women, every day. Every time you hear something about sexism, that’s just one instance of the pot boiling over. But women are constantly reminded by men that we objectify them, that we don’t fully respect them, that we exclude them. Every. Single. Day. If you had to deal with that kind of atmosphere, how often would you even bother speaking up?
Maybe you’re shaking your head right now. Maybe you think I’m blowing things out of proportion. That’s fine, just keep reading. And next time you get a chance, ask a few female friends of yours. Have a frank conversation with them. Don’t take my word for it.
How do you know this?
So what made me start to feel like maybe I understood what was going on here? It’s a hard topic. One of the things that occurred to me recently is if you try to speak on topics like this with any sense that you’ve got it “figured out”, you’re probably wrong. So what makes me feel confident enough to speak on it? In short, because I’m black. One day I started to realize that the things women go through, the history they’ve fought against, and the obstacles that are arrayed against them have lots of parallels to black people and American racism.
Stay with me guys. This section is about racism. Arguably an even harder topic. But I’m going to try to speak on it as it relates to sexism. If you can try to understand one, from my perspective, then you may get some insight into the other. Keep in mind that these are “parallels”. Any attempts to read into this as pitting racism against sexism are probably misguided.
So I talk to people about racism a lot. Despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to affect me much. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to be successful in the tech industry. As such I’m connected with lots of awesome people who are not black. Blacks are also woefully underrepresented in tech. But I try to keep abreast of current events, and I often share news items dealing with race. And occasionally I have similar conversations with white people about the race issue. Aren’t we past it (No)? Aren’t we being overly sensitive (maybe, but mostly no)? Don’t white people experience racism too?
That last one is interesting. One person said to me “I’ve experienced more reverse racism against me than I’ve seen racism against blacks”. I asked him what he meant by that and he clarified that he had been called “honky, cracker or terrorist”. I’m assuming this person was white. It was on twitter and I could only see his avatar. But I might be assuming too much. Particularly with “terrorist” thrown in there. I’ll get to that in a bit. But for our purposes, let’s assume this is a white person. I’m sure lots of white people have had this experience. Angry black people is a real thing, and I’m sure some insults have been hurled. Maybe even some punches thrown.
But I want to examine this definition of “racism”. Say you were called a honky. Definitely has racial tones. But how does a white person feel when they’re called this? You may feel hurt. You may feel offended. You may feel angry because it implies something about your morality or integrity. These are serious things and not to be overlooked. But do you think that is equal to what happens when I hear the word nigger?
Let me tell you what happens.
All of the above are certainly there. But there is more. I’m instantly aware that I’m in a dangerous situation. I’m confronted by a person who has used a word that means they do not respect my humanity. Historically, that word was given to us by people who had branded us lower than common animals. That word was used as people shackled us in chains, beat us, raped us, and killed us. And I’m not even talking about slavery.
These things continued to happen even after we had been “freed”. We were seen as second class citizens. We were given the lowest place in society, where the most successful of us could still be spat on by the poorest, most ignorant white person you can imagine. More so, this was completely acceptable behavior. No repercussions were forthcoming when white people took out any frustrations they deemed fit on us. What were we supposed to do? Speak out? Would you speak out if it meant that you could be killed and no one would bat an eye? No one of importance anyway. Your family, your community would be devastated. But they had no hope for redress. Their pleas would simply be ignored.
Fast forward a little. Didn’t we get past that? Didn’t we realize we were wrong and that we could do better? Didn’t we get together and say as a people that we wouldn’t allow this kind of injustice anymore? Yes we did. Most of us anyway. But what about the people who didn’t agree? The people who were not on board? Do you think they changed their behavior just because they could no longer operate with complete impunity? No.
I grew up with adults telling me that I had to be careful around white people. Not that I should hate them. But that I should be wary of them. Cops most especially. Because at any time, they could decide to take my freedom or even my life from me. Still I was fortunate. As a younger child, these things didn’t touch me. I was never spat on, never felt discriminated against. But as a young man, I had my share of incidents. In just one incident, I was stopped by police when walking through a neighborhood with a friend minding my business. I was told I “fit a description” of someone committing a crime. I was frisked, thoroughly. I was roughly handled in places I do not voluntarily allow men to handle me. But what was I to do? I was scared shitless. Then I was put into the back of the squad car. No miranda rights, no charges levied, not even being told whether I was being arrested. The police officers talked. Looked some things up on their computers. I don’t know how long, but I remember being terrified. Then they let us go. Just like that, I was allowed to continue my life.
And that’s my personal experience. There’s no “I know a guy”. Or “I’ve heard about such things in the news”. It happened to me. But that’s not even the worst of it. What about what we hear in the news? I can’t stop reading about Trayvon Martin. If you haven’t read about this, please do. Because it puts a fine point on my argument. Trayvon was also a young black kid walking through his neighborhood minding his business. A man who wasn’t even a cop came up to him, accused him of “being suspicious”, started harassing him verbally and physically. When Trayvon dared to fight back, because he thought we lived in a world now where he could do that, the man took out a gun and killed him. That’s bad enough. That’s terrible. That’s not even the worst of it. The man who killed Trayvon has not even been arrested. He told the police that it was he who was assaulted. He told police that it was he who feared for his life. He claims he shot and killed this kid in self-defense. And they bought it. They didn’t test him for drugs. They didn’t investigate his claims. They didn’t investigate the claims of eye witnesses who have a different telling of the story. They didn’t talk to Trayvon’s girlfriend who said he called her and told her that he was afraid. The police just let this man go on the strength of his word. He’s still walking around free today. His word against a dead, unarmed black boy who “looked suspicious”.
All of these things. All of these things flash through my mind when I hear the word nigger. And that’s when it’s overt. That’s only the times when people who have this hate in their hearts even bother to tell you that they hate you. Most of the time, you will never know. You will never know if they aren’t hiring you because they don’t want too many of your kind around the office. You will never know if they told their daughter she couldn’t see you and that’s why she didn’t call you back. You will never know if that judge gave you 5 extra years on a small drug charge just to “keep you off the streets”. You will never know if the guy who is following you through the convenience store is just checking on you, or if he is ready to blow your head off if he thinks you’re going to steal something. You will never know if they reject your legislation because they simply don’t agree, or because they will never allow a nigger to successfully run this country. Big things and small things. Every day we deal with this. Every. Single. Day.
Would you trade your few honky incidents for that? Do you still think these definitions of “racism” are equal?
As a small final note to this chapter, it is my opinion that if you are called a terrorist, you should feel some of the same dread for your life and livelyhood that I’ve described above. With the atmosphere in this country right now, that word is gaining almost as much fear, hatred and violence behind it as the N word. I would be concerned.
I thought we were talking about women
Yeah, that last section got away from me. But are the parallels starting to emerge? The length of that section on racism should tell you how much this issue affects me. How it permeates my life and colors everything I am. From what I understand, this issue of sexism does something similar for women.
Every time they walk into a room full of men, there are countless things they have to consider. When men look at them, it may not just be a look. When men reject them for jobs or don’t invite them to conferences or make off color jokes with them, they can never be sure what that means.
There are a lot of facets to this, but let’s talk about objectification for one. The way I define this (which is not from a textbook), is when women are treated as though their sole purpose is for the sexual gratification of men. That sounds harsh doesn’t it? It sounds far-fetched and removed from the innocuous examples we seem to be harping about. There was a video with a half-dressed woman. So what? Men like looking at women. Is that bad?
Ostensibly no, but if you think that’s the extent of the issue, then you’ve actually outlined part of the problem. The only person with autonomy who is considered in that reasoning is the man. He wants to lust over women, so he should be able to. How does the woman feel? What does it mean to her that a man is looking at her, undressing her with his eyes, and picturing explicit sexual things that he would like to do to her? Is it starting to feel creepy yet? Let me ask you, as a man, how would you feel in a room full of strange men looking at you that way? Not so great? Now ask yourself why a woman would feel any different.
Because she is heterosexual, you say (we’re assuming hetero). Because if I was in a room full of women looking at me, it might be kind of cool, you say. Now you’ve hit on the other important point about this sexism thing. Most men don’t understand that most women are not like them. Most women don’t get off on being the object of sexual desire to strange men. They don’t enjoy the idea that strange men are preoccupied with their sexuality. It doesn’t matter what you would like. They don’t want your lust infecting them. It means something different to them. The rules you use as a man do not apply the same way.
So why is this? Why are they so different? They still like sex right? (yes they do, but there’s also a lot there to explore) Well why doesn’t it manifest the same way for them as it does for us? Let’s go back to that woman in a room full of men thing. Why is she apprehensive about the prospect that these men might be looking at her with arousal? It is because men can exert power over women.
Whoa, back up. This is sounding bad right? But stay with me. A woman knows that at any time, if she’s in the wrong situation with men, or just one man, they could decide to take away her control. Simply by virtue of being stronger. Historically, when men have wanted something from women, they have simply taken it. In “westernized” societies for many centuries, women have been subservient to men. They were expected to obey and to serve. Their livelyhood was dependent on a man providing for them. If they did not obey they could be beaten with impunity. Their children could be taken away. And they were not considered equal members of society. No right to vote. And this was considered normal. Sound familiar?
The history between men and women is complex. Just as complex as that of blacks and whites. The effects are still being played out today. We’ve all read the stories about the woman who was raped. But her attacker got off scott free. If he was even arrested. Many victims are shamed and blamed for what happened to them. Like it was their fault. The man was just doing what men do. She gave “signals”. This still happens today. In our oh-so-enlightened society.
So sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, when a woman finds herself in a group of strange men, she may be uncomfortable. She might be apprehensive about whether these men see her as a peer or as a sexual object. Maybe they try to do both at the same time. Let’s say something happens to heighten this sense of sexual objectification. Like projecting pornographic images on a large screen to these men. How would that make a woman feel? Can you imagine? So when women complain about objectification today, it’s because they know what men are capable of. The fact that some men still look at them as merely sexual gratification has cause to make them fear. More so, because these men look exactly like the good ones.
But women are tough. They have fought hard against these things. They’ve managed to create an atmosphere where that kind of thinking is not okay. They don’t have to overtly fear as much as they used to (but if you think they don’t fear at all, you’re mistaken). Mainly these days, it causes women frustration and anger when they see instances of objectification. Because we *should* be past this. They should *not* have to keep dealing with this. We should *know* better by now. And yet, I’m writing this because some men still don’t even understand that it’s a problem, and that they are part of it. And some women too.
And we’ve only really talked about objectification. We haven’t even touched on the other hundreds of indignities, both large and small, that women deal with on a daily basis from men who don’t respect their autonomy. Sexism is a wide topic. I can’t cover it all here.
But unfortunately we’re not done yet.
On the meaning of Privilege
Okay, I’m not sure who’s still with me. If you are, I hope I’ve got you thinking. I hope you’re starting to examine the things that you do every day that might make women and/or minorities feel insecure. Notice I didn’t say the things you “might” do. The things you DO. You definitely do. You just don’t notice it and nobody tells you.
You may be saying I’m full of shit. That the problem isn’t as big as I make it out to be. You may be confident that you’re not part of the problem. You may be thinking of all the counter-arguments that usually arise at this stage. You may be still thinking you just don’t get it.
This is also a very important piece of the puzzle. You don’t get it because you don’t *feel* it. These things that we are talking about rarely come up in your life. You try to understand them objectively or intellectually, but you will fall short. The things women go through, men most often do not. The things black people go through, white people most often do not. The reason you get to act like these things don’t exist, or if they do they are remote and not a huge deal, is because you are part of a privileged class.
Privilege is a peculiar thing. It is related to terms like elitism or aristocracy. But it’s actually not the same as those things at all. It just so happens that those things also generally come with privilege. But even someone who feels like they are low on the social class scale can enjoy privilege.
The way I define this (which is not from a textbook) is when a class of people have advantages given to them automatically, simply by being a member of the class, that are not afforded to members of other classes. Let’s put this into context. As a man, you have probably never felt objectified. You don’t understand the offense, because it’s not something that even affects you. That is a privilege you (we) receive as a man. We don’t have to fear that the sexual appetites of women will impose themselves on us. Sure there are some exceptions. There always are. But they are remote. Removed from us. We don’t lose sleep over this issue.
In the same way, if you are a white person in this country, you enjoy privilege. You do not fear that, if you are suspected of a crime, the police will throw out all concept of justice and due process and just take away your freedom or your life.
But wait! Maybe you do. I know lots of people who are outraged over the recent decisions by the Obama administration that degrade our civil liberties (NDAA, etc). The president can indefinitely detain you, he can sentence you without a trial, and he can even order your death with no accountability for that action. All he has to do is say you’re “suspicious”, er, I mean a “terrorist”. That’s scary right? Well for me, this is not a new thing. For me it doesn’t even have to be the president. It could just be an angry cop, or a racist judge. You rail against these things like they are new, because you are now vulnerable. You are no longer part of the privileged class that did not have to worry about these things happening to you. You could be labeled a terrorist at any time. You fear for yourself and your loved ones. So now you feel it.
And that’s what is so insidious about privilege. Many times, people that enjoy it don’t even realize they enjoy it, unless they lose it. It doesn’t even register with them that the lives of others don’t have the same baseline as theirs. We will never lose the privilege of being male. We will never truly be able to grasp what privileges that affords us compared to women. We don’t even have to think about it. And when we are forced to think about it, our natural reaction is denial.
Denial. That is also a strong force at work here. It starts with the definition of these things. That’s why I try to define these concepts like objectification and privilege the way I see them. Every discussion should be framed by our a mutual understanding of what we’re talking about. Because many men have created their own idea of what it means. And that has allowed them to deny that they do it.
Many men like to think of objectification as an overt thing. They confuse it with exploitation. They assign negative connotations and malicious intentions to it. They decide that only “bad” people do it. This is a neat psychological trick. What it does is give me a way out. If only “bad” people do this, there’s no way I’m doing it, because I’m not a bad person. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. So they go to great lengths to avoid doing that. Including twisting the definition of things to serve that goal. It’s the same with racism. So we can start to examine some of the counter-arguments and see them break down.
“It can’t be that bad. Men looking at attractive women is a natural thing!” – What’s natural does not automatically equate with good. It’s arguably natural for you to want to hurt someone when you’re angry at them. Being civilized means that you restrain yourself from doing that, because it causes harm to the other person. In the same way, you should restrain yourself from abusing your sexual gaze with women. It does them harm.
“It can’t be that bad, women often participate in objectification!” – Yes and black people do commit crimes. But some black people committing a crime does not give us the license to sentence all black people to a life of fear and struggle. Some women being okay with objectification does not mean *you* can think it’s okay. The issues with the oppressed class do NOT negate the responsibility of the privileged class. You still have to work on bettering yourself.
Believe me when I say that responsible black people have real problems with our criminal element. And responsible women have real problems with these ladies who continue to prance around in their underwear for the enjoyment of men. We should try to improve these things. But that is a separate issue to what you do with your privileged position.
“It can’t be that bad. It happens to some men, and we handle it okay.” – First of all, when it does happen to men, they do not handle it okay. Do some research on the effects that emerge when men truly feel objectified and sexualized without their consent.
More importantly. We have to stop drawing these false parallels. The fact that it happens to some men, in remote instances, that you’ve kind of heard about, just doesn’t cut it. It is not on a grand enough scale. You cannot use this to tell women to “suck it up”, “deal with it”, or “lighten up”.
Let’s draw this comparison to the example about civil liberties. People are really upset about that. But how many US citizens have been detained? How many US citizens have been killed? Not very many in the scheme of things. Even considering that we don’t know about some of them. But if I told you to “lighten up”. “It’s probably not that bad”. “Some of those guys *are* terrorists”. Does that make you feel better? Probably not. And this type of thing doesn’t even happen every single day.
So what can I do?
This has been a long journey. If you’re still with me, I hope it’s not because I’ve completely convinced you. I hope it’s because you’re starting to ask more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface of both of these issues of sexism and racism. And remember, I’m probably not qualified. I probably got a million things wrong about sexism because I really don’t have the credentials to speak on it. I’ve made some generalizations here that won’t hold up to hard scrutiny. If there are women still reading, I hope you’re not completely furious and I hope you’ll try to educate me where you feel I’ve misrepresented.
Again, I’ve only given you my understanding. But that understanding motivates me to try hard every day not to abuse my privilege with women. The same way I hope that white people don’t abuse their privilege with me.
It’s hard. Not only because there are no set rules to follow. Not only because we (men) are not really wired to thoroughly empathize with women on the issue of sexism. But mostly because, once you really start trying to be mindful, you realize that you will never be done. You will have to fight to stay on the right side of this thing constantly. Your stupid brain will try to get the better of you in ways you won’t even realize until it’s too late. You’ll wonder how you got to the point of people screaming at you on twitter. You *will* mess this up from time to time.
So what can you do? Just fix it. Apologize first, then fix it, however you can. And try to understand what you did wrong so you don’t inadvertently do it again. And then go about your day as normal and be thankful that you are privileged. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but it is a great responsibility.