I remember an experience I had in Japan when I was the only foreigner in a group of people being introduced. Somebody went along the line introducing each person in Japanese, “this is Kenji, this is Satoshi, this is Ichiro.” When they got to me they said, “this is gaijin.” Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner (literally “outsider”). I later complained to my friend about how disrespectful it felt. He responded, “That was the respectful way to introduce you.” In other words, they are not being intentionally rude, so the problem is with how you are experiencing it.
That brings up an important question. If an act is not intended to be disrespectful, does that mean the any experience of disrespect is due to a problem with the perception of the person who experienced it? I think most therapists would argue that impact trumps intent. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you intended to say, what counts is what people heard. If you gave a speech about bananas to a group and they came away thinking you talked about apples, you don’t blame the audience. You change your speech.
If it seems like an obvious point, why do we all get so confused when we start thinking about it in the context of sexism?
Driving home today I was stopped behind a car at an intersection. It had those stick figures on the back window representing the family. Dad, Mum and two kids. It struck me in that moment that all the stick figures I can remember seeing for heterosexual parents are in that gender order – man then woman.
What kind of impact would it have to put the sticker of the woman first?
I try to imagine what I would find myself thinking in that case. Is the man a step-parent to the kids? Is he a stay-at-home dad? Is it the woman’s car? Reflecting on those thoughts, I realize they each involve removing something: parental status, employment, ownership.
Then a very interesting thought occurs to me: I have never thought about the ways in which women are diminished by being the second sticker. Never considering that reveals how normative it is for us to see women as second-place.
This privileging and diminishing does not come out of the intentionally biased actions of any of us as individuals. We don’t put the stickers on cars in that gender order to intentionally place men in a superior position. It’s just how these things are done in our culture. Sure, there are individual men out there who advocate for the maintenance of male superiority. But the vast majority of us never asked to learn how to be sexist. It’s not a problem with our intent, we are all for gender equality.
The problem is that believing we are for gender equality means we fail to notice when we don’t have that impact, when we act in ways that spring from male privilege. And when we are confronted on acting on our privilege (being sexist), we respond that we’re not sexist. In other words, “I didn’t intend to be sexist, and I don’t see myself as sexist, therefore I couldn’t have been acting in a sexist way. The problem must be with your perception of me.” We start thinking that intent trumps impact. Here’s a nice example of how we do that:
How does this relate to therapy? If we don’t believe as therapists that this is the experience of women or people of color or gay people or immigrants or whoever else is in a marginalized group, then imagine how much we will miss about their experience. And not only miss things, but also dismiss their actual experience as a problem with their perception.
We need to start noticing the ways in which we act out on the sexism we have learned and to be receptive to hearing about it. To believe women when they tell us we are acting in a sexist way and try to work out what that might be. To assume that there are many ways in which we diminish women far beyond just the order of stickers on cars, and to start working to undo that. To stop interrupting women when they are talking. To assume women know what they are talking about even when we feel skeptical. We wouldn’t ask “What do women want?” if we listened to women in the first place. The list goes on.
When you think about how so much of therapy is about good listening, you start realizing how critical it is to understand this. Sexism is a lens we wear that we never asked for or put in ourselves, but which distorts how we see things. In order to begin really listening to and believing in the experience of women (not to mention people of color, lesbian and gay people, Jewish and Muslim people etc.), we must first acknowledge we are wearing this lens. None of us go into therapy as a career with bad intent, but the impact of practicing therapy without a clear understanding of oppression is almost certainly one in which we unwittingly do harm.
I wouldn’t have begun to have any of these thoughts if it were not for the tireless efforts of many women over many decades working to open our eyes to how sexism really works in our culture. For training, check out The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. A good place to start is the Undoing Racism workshop, which teaches an analysis of the foundations of oppression that underlie racism, sexism and many other forms of prejudice.
If you are anywhere near New City, New York, then join us at VCS for a weekly training for professionals on oppression analysis. Thursdays from 4:30-6:00pm.
Also check out The Everyday Sexism Project, which is an amazing place to learn about the many different ways in which women experience sexism on a daily basis. They are also onTwitter.