How about also undoing sexism?

Dear President Trump,

This morning I read another well-intentioned article about the scourge of slavery in the WP and was following along nodding and sighing when I came upon a reference to how in 1870 the 15th Amendment afforded African Americans the right to vote (byline: Michael Ruane). There was no reality check about how this right was only extended to male African Americans and instead “African Americans” were referenced. It’s just the latest example of this truly basic sort of oversight. On Sunday we passed the 99-year mark on women’s suffrage (19th Amendment passed in 1920), which was 50 years after male African Americans were granted the vote, and yet the big “we” can’t seem to acknowledge that half of all adults in the US were not deemed fit to vote for most of our collective history. And that’s not even touching on property rights, inheritance laws and divorce laws, and the basic chattel status of women and children for most of our country’s existence. We don’t seem capable of dealing with the history and ongoing legacy of both racism (to include the attempted genocide of Native peoples) and sexism in the same context – it’s one or the other as if they aren’t part of the same shitty oppressive system designed by white men for white men.

Given my take on this, it will not be surprising to learn that several times now when writing to you about the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop, I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to be in a room with 40-ish people of different sorts and instead of the central focus being on undoing racism it were on undoing sexism. I keep asking myself what it would be like to sit with a pretty even mix of women and men from different racial and ethnic groups and ideally from different socioeconomic strata, different sexual and gender identities, and different abilities and disabilities where we grapple together with the historical legacies of laws, customs, and norms that are predicated on the idea that men are intrinsically superior to women and women are intrinsically inferior to men. Sexism is as baked into our laws and culture as racism is and don’t you dare start listing all the successful, wealthy women you know to “disprove” my point.

There are thousands of horrible examples of how girls’ and women’s less-than status is still entrenched and entangled in our day-to-day lives (many of which feature you prominently), but at least today, I’m not going to write out a long, heavy list of them. What I am going to do is ask you to consider what it would be like to sit with about 20 women and about 20 men and go around the circle with the men first responding to the question “what do you like about being a man?” and then go around the circle again with the women responding to “what do you like about being a woman?” Hopefully the men could be honest and dig deep about the male privileges they enjoy since for this exercise to break things open they’d need to be real about it. But even if they said kind of dumb stuff like “I don’t have to wait in long lines at concerts to pee” it could still lead to an observation that public facilities are generally set up to meet the needs of men with a matching set for women even though there are some significant differences that mean that “equal” doesn’t really cut it, and this would point to the question of who thought this was ok and why. The point here is that you don’t have to go very deep or look very hard to find hundreds of thousands of ways men set up the world for men with little or no regard for anyone else.

So, okay, how about if after some basic trust had been established and it was clear that the men were there because they truly care about gender justice and the women were there because they truly care about creating a better culture for themselves, their children, and men, our imaginary undoing sexism workshop engaged in an exercise to unpack internalized sexual superiority and internalized sexual inferiority? Again, the men would need to go first.

I’d like to be wrong, but I’m guessing that the men would need some help from the women since their blinders are likely to extend out at least a foot from their faces and they’re likely to miss a lot of the assumptions under which they operate. I also think it might be necessary for a male facilitator to consciously and consistently paraphrase back when recording what the women say about internalized sexual inferiority to help keep it clear that the women aren’t just whining (I know it seems sexist to think that it would be necessary to have a man validate women’s experiences rather than another woman, but this workshop needs to deal with reality so I’m afraid a man would be more effective). Come to think of it, it might be really powerful if a facilitator did that same thing when the men’s list was being generated. Honestly, though, I’m not sure whether it would make more sense for a female or a male facilitator to do it. On the one hand, men listen to and hear other men better (and so do women), but on the other hand, it might better convey the weight of presumed male superiority to hear a woman speak it back. This would probably have to be worked out over a series of workshops to see what’s most effective.

Similar to the Undoing Racism workshop there would need to be time spent on gate-keeping, but there would also need to be good chunks of time spent on issues like violence generally and sexual violence specifically, romantic allegiances and how they facilitate and hinder dealing with sexism, unpaid labor, children, and intersections with other discriminated against identities. I think there’d need to be at least one more day than the UR workshop, if not two or three more days. But really, two days would be better than no days and right now, I think we are in no-days land when it comes to real, in-the-room-with-each-other-workshops geared towards undoing sexism and dismantling the patriarchy. I’d love to be wrong about this so if you know of such a workshop (even if you haven’t yet attended it…. OMG – can you even imagine you attending such a thing?), please do tell me.

May we be safe to point out when our social justice lens is too narrow.
May we be willing to step back and see the whole of how the white male patriarchy isn’t serving any of us.
May we recognize the strengths of those who haven’t given up on the dream of a more perfect union.
May we make peace with how messy and complicated this all is and stop glossing over reality.

Tracy Simpson

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