It looked to me like RI Future’s Bob Plain confronted a fork in the road last week. The road began with the RI Future headline, “When the NRA jerks her chain, Doreen Costa barks.” I share the disdain for elected officials who are beholden to the NRA, but it wasn’t those politics that caught my attention. It was the sexism of portraying a woman in office as a dog on a leash. A couple of us commented on the post, objecting to the headline. And that was where the fork in the road developed.
It would have been easy, and familiar, for the post author and editor to dismiss the objections as feminist hypersensitivity. We’ve heard that one before, fellas, about a million times. (Play along with a bingo card.) In fact, “lighten up” is a time-honored defense – or really, more of a derail. If you shoot the messenger, you’re also announcing your complete dismissal of the message.
At this fork, the other path to take is to consider – not automatically embrace, but truly consider – the message you’re getting. I’m really pleased that RI Future took this path (which included inviting me to write this post), because this fork in the road has consequences.
Before I discuss those consequences, I must also mention the muddy middle path that people often try to take. People get in this mud when they respond, “it was not my intention to cause offense, and I apologize to anyone who was offended.” We call that a fauxpology or a nonpology, because it’s just a slightly nicer way of dismissing the received objection and absolving the actor. A real apology acknowledges: “I messed up.”
So, what’s so important about these forks in the road? They are little decision points that affect the climate of an organization, a space or a virtual space. As a sociologist, I’ve spent a lot of time studying how privileged people hold on to their privileges, or sometimes share them. And yes, managing a space is a privilege, often accompanied by other (race/class/gender/ability/etc) privileges. Whether the “space” is a group blog, a workplace, a country club, or an occupation, there are some parallels in how they might be protected or shared.
The easiest, and least generous, way to share is to accept different other people as long as they make no issue of their difference. I interviewed a country club member who quipped about their admission of African-Americans, “okay, I’ll be the well-behaved WASP with dark skin.”
The more genuine way to share is to consider how your space, and your own routines, might need some adjustment in order to become truly welcoming. Part of privilege means that you typically don’t have to do that reflection.
Once, a group of us were talking to a professional baseball scout. A woman who loved baseball asked if any women did his job. He said no. A little later he was trying to describe the process of evaluating minor league players. He said it was like when people evaluate women: anybody might be able to say “she’s an eight,” but the scout is able to articulate the specific elements that combine to yield that evaluation.
Gosh, I said, I wonder why no women are in this occupation. Some people don’t want to reflect on the ways their spaces are welcoming/unwelcoming to different sorts of people. As I said, you don’t have to. But if you would like to attract more different other people, do it! I have no sympathy for those who only do the former stingy version of space-sharing, and then bemoan the fact that “diverse others” are not filing in. I’ve heard that repeatedly. But whether it’s a strategic derail or oblivious ignorance, I will object. Impact matters more than stated intentions.
Thank you, Bob, for listening, considering the impact, and staying off the low road. That road only leads to the same good old boys’ club, and not to fairness and justice.