My boyfriend and I had a conversation. It went something like this:
Me: Sexism is ever-present
Boyfriend: But how do I know if I’m being sexist if no one has ever told me this?
Me: Has this never come up in conversation between you and your girlfriends (of any description)?
Boyfriend: Exactly, so how do I know where to look and how to start, especially given my long working hours and when there are other things I’d like to read about and learn about that I’m actually more interested in? How do I know what’s biased and what isn’t?
Me: What do you mean, what’s biased and what isn’t? We’re talking about feminism, of course it’s biased, it’s about women’s subjective experiences. (I show him examples of comic work by artist Emma and suggest to him that that’s a good place to start).
Conversation continues about something until it gets to this point
Boyfriend: It’s taken me a while to not feel personally attacked because when you were talking about problems faced by women, I thought you were referring to personal problems in our relationship. What you were actually discussing was feminism. I’d like to make it so that you don’t have to experience these aspects of sexism in our relationship, even if outside influences make that challenging. But sometimes I feel that by not brushing this off I’m at a disadvantage, like you don’t appreciate that I’m trying here.
Now this conversation was the culmination of many beforehand, ones not quite as civilised, ones indeed, far more heated and far more passionate and far more acrimonious. This was the temperate, considered, collected conversation that had taken us some time to get to.
It can be read in many ways, as words on a page are wont to (I haven’t given you much by way of stage directions, so emotional expression is at your discretion). And in the same vein, I have mulled over this discussion again, and again, and again. I have pondered what about it made me feel so exhausted.
My thought process began in this manner:
- Yes, you are right, you are trying and perhaps I haven’t been appreciative of this. Other boyfriends in the past had either chosen to outright dismiss the idea or if they did in theory agree, continued to spout sexist rhetoric. So that does make you better. And at least, more sincere.
- Additionally, it is hard not to feel attacked when you are made to question your privilege, particularly as it regards your relationship with your romantic partner. It’s easy to feel as if someone is criticising you for something you never asked for. So frustration is, perhaps, natural. Maybe I should appreciate the fact that you have broken through this wall and have even gone so far as to ask your female friends if they feel that gender plays a role in their relationships and therefore ascertain just how pervasive this issue is.
Despite, however, my attempt to take positively to this exchange, I continued to feel a lingering sense of injustice. Why?
- It isn’t fair that I have to be appreciative. Appreciative of what? Of the fact that you have taken your privilege for granted and no one up to this point has challenged you on that? Do you think you deserve a medal because you’re ‘trying to’, for a day, take into consideration a perspective far removed from your own?
- Everything is biased, it is simply biased to the white male gaze. The reason you don’t see it is because that gaze puts you in the centre and everyone else on the periphery. To understand my perspective, twice removed from yours, is to re-evaluate your lens. That requires an acknowledgement that your bias already exists.
- Your ‘interest’ in the subject matter is at best irrelevant and at worst further proof of your privilege. To pass as a woman for a day is to live and know patriarchy. Feminism isn’t a dalliance, it is a refusal to accept the lesser circumstances of our existence, a commitment to unapologetically place our own lives centre-stage. ‘Interest’ does not come into the matter.
My mind has, therefore, flitted from emotion to emotion, sometimes on the extremes of gratitude, other times on the headier ends of frustration. But days after reflection, with a steadier, more balanced head on the matter, I write here the following reconciliation:
Privilege has no obligation, or else it wouldn’t be referred to as such. If it is not the duty of the privileged to seek out understanding of their roles in oppression, then it should equally not be the responsibility of the oppressed to enlighten the privileged. Yet this is not the case, and never will be.
One of the many burdens faced by the subjugated (and I use this word cautiously, fully aware of the weight of it and recognising that I do have some agency and privilege in my own right) is the invisibility of their oppression to those with advantage. If not made aware of others’ plight, how do the powerful identify it? Where do they look, except through their own rose-tinted glasses?
The privileged have no need to recognise their privilege. But the disadvantaged have every desire to speak truth to power, for without it, change could not take place. So not only do those (we) on the periphery have to be subject to daily encounters of whatever -ism is most prevalent in their (our) lives, they (we) also have to bear the load of having to articulate their (our) struggle. This is exhausting. But it is an encumbrance I will have to reconcile myself with, or live the rest of my life in perpetual frustration.
The beauty of words, however, is that they also enable me to exclaim, to bellow out, this irritation and to have it be read, grasped, recognised and validated.
The identity of every woman of colour is carved around the fact that she is neither ‘man’ nor ‘white’. But by her very essence she is not the norm, and she therefore has much to offer and willing others have much to receive.