Six years ago I wrote this:
Browsing on the internet this week I seem to have read a lot about misunderstandings.
They happen every day. We rarely see the world from someone else’s perspective. If we are lucky we occasionally share random points of view.
I thought this:
“impact is more important than intent—whether we meant to hurt is not really the point. It’s how our actions were felt by the other person”
was such a neat way of describing the dichotomy where someone is insulted/offended by words that were never meant to do so. (Credit for the quote to Bird, which in its original context was in relation to sexual harassment training).
It’s hard to apologise when you never intended to do anything wrong. But when you have been hurt and that’s not acknowledged at all, it’s even harder. It stays with you and colours your view of people you once thought were friends.
I know. I’ve been in both positions. I wish I didn’t get it wrong. But I also wish people didn’t get it wrong with me too.
Lack of communication and honesty ruins relationships of all sorts. It would be nice if we could trust people enough to be honest with them, to say when we are offended, to say what we really think. But it doesn’t happen. And another relationship falls off the end.
Sirius picked up on the issue of intent this week, in relation to sexism.
But rather than start with sexism and feminism, let’s look at a couple of other minority groups that are discriminated against.
Over on Sirious’ blog, Ruth related a tale of years ago being pulled up for saying coloured people, in her ignorance, instead of black people.
I was brought up in a racist sexist environment. When we went to a local rugby match and the black player got the ball, one of our friends yelled: ‘Give ’im a banana!’ And of course we laughed.
When a tall black man with dreadlocks approached me in a quiet car park, I wondered whether he was going to mug me, rape me or knife me. I looked around. No one to help me. He offered me his car parking ticket because the time hadn’t been used up. I was no longer a teenager at a rugby match, I was a career woman in my thirties, and realised just then, how horribly racist I still was, even though I professed not to be.
In the same job, I was increasingly concerned about how disabled women were being treated for screening services.
One of my male colleagues had told a female one that if a disabled woman in a nursing home refused cervical screening she should be sedated.
There are a couple of sexist issues in this.
The first, obvious one, is that all women have the right to refuse cervical screening. It is not compulsory. It is not up to a male doctor to make that decision for anyone.
Secondly, my colleague in charge of nursing homes chose not to ask me about the policy. I was in charge of cervical screening. I knew the national policy, legislation, and procedures inside out and upside down. I chaired our local cervical screening quality assurance group which included surgeons, GPs and pathologists.
So why did my colleague choose a male doctor who had no specialist knowledge of the subject instead of me, as the policy lead? We haven’t just got implicit sexism here, we’ve also got differential knowledge, ie that ‘doctor must know best’. Or maybe we just had workplace competition between women?
While chairing breast screening meetings I listened to the radiographers refer to women as wheelchair-bound. This is a non-starter. The intent of the radiographers was good, they wanted to provide the service to women using wheelchairs, but the whole approach was of dealing with a difficult problem rather than thinking about it from the perspective of the women.
I called a meeting, jointly with a colleague who worked with disability groups. It was a fucking disaster. What I intended to do, was to get the patient perspective across so that I could get the clinical side to approach breast and cervical from the women’s perspective. But the best-laid plans of mice and women …
What actually happened was that a formal complaint was sent in against me and I had to go on a disability awareness course. Which was really interesting and involved two days out of the office at a seaside hotel.
However, back to the meeting. I wanted to improve the service for disabled women. I wanted their views on how to do this. I wanted to get the radiographers to change their language and not treat disabled women as second class citizens.
The first disaster was a room change. The reception staff swapped us around at the last minute so we ended up with a smaller meeting room. No double doors. Piled high with junk around the edges. Absolute manna for an irate woman in a wheelchair who took at least ten minutes to be able to get into the room, let alone to the table.
My good friend the radiographer provided the next minefield. Every time she referred to wheelchair-bound ladies, I wanted to dive underneath the desk. My local disability rights activist in the wheelchair criticised everything. Especially me. I seriously wondered why the hell I had bothered.
But, what were the lessons?
Did I have the right intent? I think so, to improve the services for disabled women, and to get their view, not just what I thought was needed.
Did I use inappropriate or discriminatory language? I doubt it very much.
Did I stuff up with the room booking? Originally no. I had booked the main conference room with double doors. But, the rooms were changed for a ‘more important’ meeting. Should I have kicked up a fuss? I didn’t. Pragmatically in terms of politics that was the right decision. Ms Disability Activist was going to complain about something regardless. From the POV of someone in a wheelchair, she was being discriminated against.
Was our policy of room bookings wrong and discriminatory? I think so. But are poorly-paid reception staff expected to deal with the finer political power play points? No.
Was I misinterpreted/misunderstood? Of course. Or so I would say.
Was the awareness course worthwhile? Very much so. The politics around disability were interesting, and I was interested to see how, as in many cases, disability came before feminism.
So let’s return to feminism.
It’s easier to point out discrimination when there is a physical perspective. That person is in a wheelchair, has a white stick/guide dog/ hearing dog, has a different colour skin.
What isn’t so easy, is when discrimination is based on 50% of the population and is aimed at every essence of her being.
It’s not as easy as changing buildings to make sure wheelchairs can enter, or paving stones so that blind people can tell the difference, providing audio tapes or Braille, or remembering to caption blog photos so that software can read it out to people who can’t see.
Would people still laugh these days at ‘Give him a banana’? Maybe they would in working-class Yorkshire. Or would it even be said? more to the point.
Yet, we still laugh at sexist jokes and comments. Because it is still ok to put women down.
Years back, I read a great book about discrimination. The one comment that stayed with me was about how we treat children, or, rather babies/toddlers. Not just the whole colour-coded pink/blue thing, but how we react to and with them.
The example given was of lifting a little boy to the window and showing him the big wide world. For the little girl, she was told to be good and sit in the corner and wait while the world came to her. If it ever did.
But so starts our indoctrination. From childhood about not just our own role in the world, but that of others. Girls do this, boys do that. Or rather boys do this and girls wait nicely to be told what to do.
And it continues though life. We make jokes about ugly women because a woman’s role in life is to look decorative aka sexually attractive.
When we see or hear women reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes then we know we aren’t being sexist, because other women think the same as us, right? Wrong. Women are just as unwittingly sexist as men.
Ever used gender specific language? OK to call a man a chairman because he’s a man? But, maybe think more carefully about a woman? Because, by now, you are aware of the whole language thing. Why not call both a chair? Because every time you call that man a chairman you are reinforcing gender specific assumptions.
It’s not easy is it?
You can support equality from here to Timbuktu and in the next breath, you will come out with one gloriously, funny, hateful sexist comment. Without even realising it.
Before you deny that you are sexist, racist, ableist etcist, stop and listen to what the other person is saying.
I can’t speak for black people, people with disabilities, with diabetes, or even older people (getting there though).
I can, and will speak for women.