I was 8 or 9 I think, when I first consciously saw sexism, though I had no idea what was going on at the time. I think my Mom was taking me home from Little League practice or something and stopped to get gas. I played first base. I was a head taller than every other kid and had arms like a windmill so I made a pretty fair-sized target for my team-tots to throw at. Oh how I long for the days when tall equaled competent…
Back then gas pumps were mechanical affairs, with a big metal arm you had to swing down or up after removing the nozzle, which weighed about 20 pounds. You had to pay inside first and they’d enable your pump. It was still a fairly simple operation, without many moving parts.
Our pump was broken. So my Mom pushed the little red intercom button by the pump and told the guy. He told her to swing the big metal arm down. She told him she had. He said sometimes it doesn’t go down all the way. She told him it was down all the way. He sighed heavily and said he’d be out in a minute.
So this guy comes out and starts telling my mother how to operate a gas pump. In my memory he looked like Otto Man from the Simpsons — just a dweeby-greasy teenish dude pompously instructing my mother.
I remember thinking — “I don’t get this guy — my Mother is CLEARLY smarter than you. Any idiot could see that! She’s really REALLY smart. And you are… are… really NOT… so… what gives?”
After taking the handle from her to ‘show her how to do it’ he fiddled with the thing for a bit and then said, as if discovering the fact for himself “Hey! This pump is BROKEN!”
Later I would understand that was sexism. That is not, however, sexism done right.
I’m a big white guy, so I don’t have any real experience of sexism or most other ‘isms’ being pointed at me. The unfortunate fact of the matter is it is people who look like me that are doing most of the pointing and most of the damage around here.
There was this one time though… I was just out of college and living in West L.A., sharing an apartment with two queer women. One was bi and she wanted to be an actress, the other was gay and she was a radical animal rights activist. And by radical I mean breaking in to a variety of facilities to free the prisoners. Talk about having the courage of your convictions…
She had a pet — a Yorkshire Terrier that she rescued that had been beaten by some tall guy who wore jeans. Ooh, that dog hated me. When I came home he would start barking at me and, as I tried to make nice, run BACKWARDS while still barking at me. I’ve never seen another dog do this. He would back all the way into her room, into her closet and stay there in the far corner, barking at me, as long as I was anywhere in the house, if she wasn’t home. A true anti-pet. A constant source of unconditional resentment.
They had a big party in the house one day that filled it to the brim with lesbians. There was a contingent in the kitchen that were particularly rough and I remember being in that room and being completely disregarded — to the point of non-existence. I had nothing any of them wanted and was just in the way — in every way possible. Like a troublesome dust bunny that won’t quite get under the rug. I don’t think anyone said a word to me.
Not quite your usual sexism, but that’s as close as I’ve gotten I think.
Years earlier though I had a very special encounter with sexism. I was 20 or so and working in a cabinet shop in Santa Cruz. Occasionally the owner would hire one or two extra people when we had a lot of sanding to do. One of these was Susan, who was and still is a yoga teacher there.
Most of us were having lunch one day when Susan came out complaining of a weird problem. Often when you’re sanding you’ll have two sanders set up — one with coarse grit paper and the other with fine grit. Susan was saying that when she was using one sander and reached for the other, the one that was NOT on, shocked her.
I thought that was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. How can a sander that is not on shock you?
So I jumped up and took the one sander and turned it on and then reached for the second sander.
If you haven’t seen it yet, this is where I found the sexism — in myself. I don’t know what I would have done had it been a guy with that complaint — but it would have been something else.
Much later I would learn that the grounding wire in the first sander had broken loose and was grounding to its handle.
When I put my hand on the handle of the second sander, all that juice coursing comfortably around found a new way to get to ground — up my left arm, through my lungs, heart and chest and down my right arm into the correctly grounded second sander.
Being electrocuted is an interesting thing. I mean I have only my own experience, and others might dispute me on this, but it was interesting to me. Electricity is how your muscles know they should contract. It is an electrical signal from the brain that says to your hand “Hey! Hold on to that sander for dear life!” So the muscles in my hands, perhaps confused by the source of the message, but absolutely convinced of its urgency, immediately clamped on to both sanders with a death-grip and I began an involuntary dance, kind of jumping up and down, screaming uncontrollably at the top of my lungs.
I couldn’t control any muscle in my body, couldn’t release the sanders, couldn’t stop screaming and I remember thinking so clearly. “Oh my god, I’m going to die and this is SO EMBARRASSING!!”
It WAS embarrassing. Particularly because the other guys thought I was joking and let me keep going, until my boss figured it out and ran for the cords to unplug them.
Afterward I felt like I had run a marathon, absolutely exhausting. The guy’s regaled me with tales of other bad bouts with electricity they’d had or had seen. This is one of the ways that guys comfort one another. “Hey you think that was bad? There was this guy in Santa Fe working on a 220 panel…”
It’s sweet. Trying to normalize the pain and humiliation, take attention off the trauma, move back into connection. Guy-love is a different kind of medicine, where a slap on the back and getting laughed at and with is both a healing and a badge of honor.
But I never really owned what caused the whole thing or apologized to Susan. Susan, I’m sorry I discounted you — I was being a sexist prick and I got what I deserved.
THAT is sexism done right. It should be excruciating, embarrassing, life-threatening, public, and very, very memorable.
Eric, my boss, took that sander apart… then gave it to me. Said it was my lucky sander. I still have it and it works great. Hardcore professional tools are awesome, and I like what this one reminds me of.
I don’t pretend that that event shocked all the sexism out of me. I still have to be on guard for it. These arrogances and assumptions sneak up on us when the limits of our experience, wisdom and imagination meet some circumstance we have not yet learned from. It’s wise to assume you might be thinking about this, whatever this may be, parochially.
Also it’s tough, particularly as someone who has not had this stuff pointed at me all my life, to understand what kinds of things, that might seem innocent on one end, land as a disregarding ‘ism’ on the other.
I have found it helpful to ask about that, however. It’s a really wonderful question to ask the people you are closest to: “What are the things people do (including me) that are unintentionally insulting and diminishing to you?” Even if you’re the one more often on the receiving end of these things, asking this question and being interested in the answer will start a dialogue where you get to share your side too.
Usually it’s very appreciated. It’s a great conversation and will bring you closer together. Works good for staff too.
Unfortunately, most sexism is not done right. Otherwise I think we would all be seeing people riding the lightning all over the place. So we’re stuck with having to ask one another, and volunteer our experiences courageously.
So I’d like to ask you, for the benefit of all of us, what are the things people do, that are unintentionally insulting and diminishing to you?