Thursday, July 30, 2009

From Erica: the process of enlightenment

Recently, my partner and I got into an argument over something that's relatively stupid. See, we both play an MMORPG (in lay terms, we're nerds who play World of Warcraft) in which some multiplayer content, which requires 10, 25, or even 40 players to complete, is referred to as "25-man" or "10-man" content. For me, as a female-identified nerd who has a lot of female-identified and gender-bending cosplaying (costume playing) nerd friends, this is extremely frustrating. Why not call it "25-woman" content, I wonder? Of course, the males in the game would be furious. "We're not WOMEN," the cry would go, "we're MEN!" The reverse argument- that I'm not a man, I'm a woman- gets the old "this is how the English language works" treatment: regardless of its relative level of correctness, "man" has come to refer not only to people who identify as men, but to any generic, "gender-neutral" or multi-sexed group of people.

To me, what's frustrating about this- something that seems on the surface to be so miniscule and unimportant- is that the "default" human being in the US is a White, middle-class, man-identifying male. In order to be considered "just" a person, or in order to belong to a "generic" group of people, I have to subsume my gender identity and my sex to conform to the label "man." This goes in stark contrast to the fact that everywhere I go, no matter what I do, those same characteristics are overwhelmingly the first things that people notice about me (and the first things by which they categorize me). To me, being female and being woman-identified aren't invisible and aren't gender-neutral when my entire life means measuring myself by the yardsticks of male- and man-ness. Everything about femaleness screams deviance, from the fact that I get degraded if I fail to shave my legs to the fact that the basic medicines I consume- including such popular selections as Tylenol or Motrin- are tested on and dosed according to male physiology.

I tried to explain this to my partner, and he took up the linguistic defense I mentioned earlier. When I tried to explain to him how much I hated the fact that "neutral" for him was a complete identity shift for me, things deteriorated to the point of tears. He was incredulous of the point I made about drug testing, and had a hard time understanding how the "25-man" stuff could be such a big deal when it was just a word. It was, overall, extremely frustrating for both of us. Finally, I stood up, put on my shoes, and announced my intention to go for a walk. We hugged, and in that moment was when it hit me: he needed the suspension of disbelief.

The suspension of disbelief, in film and books, refers to the ability of the author or director to convince the reader/viewer to accept certain facts about the fictional world that the text represents. The basic idea is that a good suspension of disbelief can get the reader to accept, say, flying cars and telekinesis, but that a bad attempt at suspension of disbelief will make the whole text seem completely unlikely and therefore ludicrous. The way I used it in this argument, it was a repackaging of the old "walk a mile in my shoes" adage. From his point of view, the claims I was making were ridiculous and outlandish. When he stepped into my shoes, or suspended his socialized male disbelief in the insidiousness of sexism, and started to understand my argument in the context of a lifetime spent dealing with sex- and gender-based oppression, I made a whole lot more sense to him than I had before.

This isn't to say that he's always been blind and a sexist pig and a horrible person, nor to say that he suddenly saw the light and magically grew a vagina, as it were (he's cisgendered), and became completely knowledgeable about sexism and anti-oppression. Rather, I saw in him the same sort of painful self-realization that I felt the first time I was confronted with my own racist ignorance: the overwhelming understanding that there's a whole perspective out there that you never realized you were missing. For me, there were a lot of emotions that came with that- denial, shame, anger, sadness, passion to change- and while I thought I saw several of the same in him, I might have been projecting. It was as if, for a moment, he became acutely aware of his genitalia and the privileges they've come with.

I've decided to call these moments the "process of enlightenment," not because people are stupid and uneducated or any number of similar negative terms before they start this process, but because, in the most basic sense, people in positions of social privilege are ignorant. We simply lack knowledge, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that social privileges are fantastic at self-concealment. For me, growing up White in a predominately White area, it's still a shock to look around me at places like the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, see an audience of mostly White folks, and actively realize that there's a race-based social division going on. It took me a long time to understand that that kind of racial environment doesn't just happen; it took me even longer (and, in a sense, it's ongoing) to figure out that my interpretation of the overwhelming overrepresentation of White folk in the media and various public venues (such as the PSO) as "normal" was my White privilege in action. For my partner, the attention I drew to the male-centric language of our MMORPG highlighted the same basic idea: something he considered to be natural, neutral, and generic was really constructed and sexist, and the fact that he hadn't initially identified it as such was the product of the male privilege he was raised with. And to be clear, I don't want to suggest that only males can be blind to male privilege, or White folks be blind to White privilege. The pervasiveness of social privileges makes them easily internalized by anyone, until it's easy for a woman to read this post and think I was overreacting to a simple term.

The challenging thing about this process of enlightenment is that it requires us to do two things almost constantly. The first is that we need to be ready, at any given moment, to step outside ourselves. Being raised in privilege(s) means that we're vulnerable to falling back into old ways of thinking. I know I do it all the time. Think of it as living in a country whose primary language isn't yours- you might be fluent in the day-to-day world, but in your head it's a lot easier to think, count, and daydream in your first language because it comes to you more naturally. Only the stakes here aren't your competence in the new language; it's the entire social system we've got in the US and the world at large that privileges some people at the expense of others.

The second thing we have to do, which is just as hard, is to be prepared to be challenged and to be wrong. For me, this is the hardest thing, not least because I've got an exaggerated sense of pride (and thus shame). I'm your stereotypical liberal baby; I grew up believing that racism, sexism, and ableism were all bad things, but also believing that a person who was racist is a BAD PERSON, or that a person who was sexist was EVIL. The process of unlearning that aspect of my values- learning to see actions and beliefs as habits to be changed, and not necessarily as reflections on the intentions of the individual- has taken me a long time, and has been catalyzed by the occasions when I've been in the wrong. It's painful! It means a lot of self-evaluation and some brutal honesty, and goodness knows that can really bite. But, as my former supervisor used to point out to me, real change takes a lot of work and a lot of time. If it were easy, we wouldn't have counselors or therapists. And the work is always worth it.

1 comment:

  1. A few months ago I got into a similar argument with my sister. My sister believes in gender equality in a very broad sense, but her application of the concept of equality (and her perception of how close we are to it) are at times drastically different from mine. The thing she kept saying in response to everything I said, was "why do you have to blame anyone?"

    After she said that, I realized that everything I said about my concerns as a feminist sounded to her like an indictment of men and conservative people in general, because my sister was thinking in a different paradigm. To her, if someone was doing something wrong then they were a bad person who needed to experience negative consequences. I think it's difficult for a lot of men to hear about sexism because of that same issue - it's hard to accept the fact that they've contributed to sexism by treating maleness as the norm and femaleness as an aberration. They're afraid that if that's true, then others will think they're sexist individuals and bad people. But we're all sexist, racist, and generally unenlightened at times. And that's ok, because as long we're learning there's hope.