In a world changing daily, how do you address your own role in complicit behavior? Continue feeling the discomfort of change – this time, in the world YOU need to personally change! Fourth in a series.
When I began my series on finding relevancy in a changing world, I was reflecting on a world impacted by a global pandemic. I do think people wanted to return to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible. But as 2020 has proven to me, I shouldn’t expect to know what is going to happen next.
Since I last approached this topic, national and international protests and uprisings have taken place to reinforce the importance of Black lives. Companies are revisiting their hiring practices and their public images. State and local governments are asking the tough questions about what deliberate inclusion and justice looks like. And people from non-Black backgrounds are talking to friends and family about anti-Black points of view.
Nothing feels normal nowadays. And that’s a good thing.
Why We Need to Feel Uncomfortable
From an anti-racist perspective, most people talking about race and racism can often sound like an intellectual topic that is distant and apart from our everyday lives. In my time as a diversity and social justice educator, my students and I would talk about racism in third-person. It was perpetuated onto others and systems of oppression kept racism alive. We never talked about racists being actual people, but would instead point out racists acts committed by everyday people.
Nowadays, I find those ideas baffling. How can we talk about racism if there are no identifiable racists committing the acts? Who are the people reinforcing the system, if we don’t call out racists? Why should Black people and other ethnic minority people feel like they need to tread carefully around race, in case the white person has a defensive attitude? And why shouldn’t we make racist people feel uncomfortable?
It Is Always Difficult to Admit We Can and Do Bad Things
I think about the times I had to confront my own misogyny. It wasn’t easy to admit that, even as a gay man, I was socialized to speak over women and diminish their contributions to the organization. Even when I know about this personal behavior, I know I have screwed up again and again. I had to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of never getting it right all the time. But I try, I listen and I work to be better.
I believe my discomfort reminds me viscerally that I have more to learn and more to do. And when I think about all the times I had to change, it was the continued discomfort I was feeling that told me I had more work to do. For friends and readers starting their journey to live a more anti-racist life, I encourage you to sit in your discomfort, for a reason.
I am going to identify the steps I had to confront on my own and with others as I addressed my own misogyny and other ways I perpetuate oppressive behaviors.
Four Steps I Had to Adopt to Confront My Own Misogyny
Below are four steps I had to adopt in order to address my contributions to misogyny. While I can’t speak to the actions that white folks should do differently to confront racism and other racists, I do believe these steps may mirror their experiences. Please share with your friends, family and colleagues, and when possible, call people out to help them learn and hold them accountable until their actions change.
Feelings of Shame rather than Guilt
Each time I had someone point out my misogyny, whether by a woman or by a supervisor, I immediately focused on my own shame. I should beat myself up because I felt I should have known better. The shame would make me retreat into myself, acting more cautiously than usual but without purpose.
Feeling shame never really fixed the behavior, though. It just made me stop the indicated behavior – but without connecting it to any type of pattern of behavior. Once I began to understand my impact on others and how I could perpetuate misogyny, I shift my feelings from shame to guilt. Shame was never going to fix the problem. But feeling guilt, like I had done something wrong that could be fixed, certainly would shift my behavior.
I could then ask for forgiveness and move on, doing better. I’ll explore this more below.
Feedback and Comfort from Women
When you try to improve yourself, especially around those you live and work with, it can be seductive to seek feedback and the comfort of those you treated badly. When I have committed misogyny around colleagues, the first instinct is to ask for feedback and understanding. I want to know how I can improve and what I can do to be better.
And that is one of the worst ways to approach this issue.
While I personally have never had a problem giving feedback when my subordinate identities have been attacked or ignored, I know this is not the case for everyone. And while I want to be the person to give the feedback, so the other person doesn’t get the message wrong, that is not a given for everyone who experiences hurtful behavior.
It can be selfish to ask for this feedback, and forgiveness, from those we harm. Whether our intentions are to learn more, or to make sure we’re still on the person’s good side, we still need to work on this alone. If we have people in our lives who can give us feedback, we should seek them out. Or do the personal work alone. I’ve since learned that I do have friends who can help me process out loud, but I always frame the situations as the person who did something wrong rather than some rhetorical situation that happened to a friend.
Dealing with my Intersectionality
I wrote about how I have to deal with my competing identities from an intersectional understanding. Below is an excerpt from the blog entry:
“It was tough for me to take some ownership of these [misogynistic] behaviors because I saw them as being counter to my identities and taking up space in professional environments. Within my own experience, it felt similar to when asked to sit on my hands and not be assertive. As a person with the most experience, or experience that mattered within the context, or simply as the hierarchal leader, I found it hard to assert what I knew to be true without feeling like I was the one who needed to step back and give in.
“I will say that nearly all of the times I had been asked to give space to women to assert themselves was around White, straight women. And that was tough to manage emotionally. Because of the lack of language to describe how these similar experiences happened to me as a Latino and Gay man in higher education, it could be reduced to ‘well, this is just how it is’ explanation.”From Within My Intersectionality, Who Shows Up First?
I try to reconcile how my intersecting identities give me both privilege and opportunity for negative behavior to occur. As a gay man of color, I am not exempt from being marginalized and understand those feelings quite acutely. But I am trying to do better with confronting any accusations that I believe are centered on white privilege and white supremacy.
If I can start to own my own misogyny, I can ask others to own their own privilege and acts of supremacy, too.
Embracing the Discomfort and the Need for Approval
I wrote earlier about asking for forgiveness from those you hurt and moving on. I don’t mean from the bigger issue, but at least moving on from the feeling to constantly seek feedback on how you are improving.
As a person raised as a man and lives as a cis-gender man in the United States, I recognize that misogyny and all that it encompasses has been engrained in me. And I need to feel uncomfortable each time I do something bad, consciously or unconsciously. But I don’t need the approval of women to do this work. I do it because it’s the right thing to do with the power and privilege I have. And I can talk to men in my fraternity about this topic, and how our values demand we treat others with justice and fairness. When I have the ability, I can ‘pass the mic’ to others who have less opportunity to speak up and speak out.
And as it has been reminded to me about racism being an issue that white people created and need to solve, misogyny is something that men need to confront and solve. I am reminded that I need to do this work for me as much as I need to do it for others. While I am not centering the fight for justice and equity around me, I do recognize that by being impacted I am in the fight too. And that means I don’t need anyone’s approval to keep doing what I need to.
Staying Authentic and Transparent
I have spent the better part of the last two years unpacking some pretty personal experiences, both professional and in my home life, in an effort to invite people into my life. I have found that my story, as transparent as I can make it, enables me to showcase how authentic leadership can work. It is risky admiting when I have done something wrong, and I re-write sentences over and over trying to maintain a sense of privacy when possible.
But I know that the more I share with others how I am trying to reflect on my own behavior, the more I can help others embark on their own journey of reflection.
Being authentic and transparent, especially at work, can feel scary. But it also means that you find who you can trust and enables others to trust you. We work daily to prove that we live our values without bias, and when we do show bias, we need to let others know we take it seriously to improve ourselves.
I invite you to start being more transparent and vulnerable with yourself and with others. You will see that it matters more than you believe and will help invite others to do the same.
Want to Explore This Topic Further?
I can only hope you find your relevancy in a changing world. If you want to continue the conversation, reach out to me. I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.
Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.