in Musings

Not every awkward interaction is sexist

Maybe I’m a bad liberal, but this caught my eye. A friend re-posted this Facebook post from a woman who describes an encounter she had with a male at the airport. It was shared publicly on Facebook so I am including it here:

Hilary Jerome Scarsella
22 September at 18:51

Story time. I’m at the airport, working on my laptop, sitting near a guy I just met at a conference this weekend. He and I were both invited speakers, and he was waiting for his flight home too. Another guy comes and sits across from us. He starts talking. He is talking a lot. He finds out we were speakers at a conference about trauma, theology, sexual abuse, and the church. He thinks this is really interesting. He’s into theology and trauma. He asks what my degrees are in. He launches into explaining his belief that everything happens for a reason, that the universe is filled with forces that even out all wrongdoing, that everyone is where they are supposed to be at all times, that something good comes from each thing that is bad, and so on. I listen and ask him questions and let him know kindly that I disagree. Did slavery happen for a reason? Has the Native American genocide been evened out? Was that woman really supposed to be in the room where she was raped? We argue. He works hard to show me that he is right. I look at my laptop. My work is not getting done. I say “I understand your perspective and I disagree.” He reiterates his points and then says, “It was great talking to you, I’m gonna go catch my flight!”

Then this brilliant thing happened. My new friend leaned forward as airport guy was about to walk away, and he said, “Dude, you missed an opportunity. You had an expert in theology and trauma sitting in front of you. You say you’re interested in these things but you didn’t ask her a single question. You didn’t try to learn anything at all from her. You know she has advanced degrees and is published but you just tried to show her that you know more about her work than she does. You missed out. Big fail, man.”

I’m sure I didn’t remember that verbatim, but I think the quote is pretty close.

The guy got uncomfortable and tried to defend himself, but my new friend and I smiled and shook our heads. Nope, we weren’t having it. Then, the guy sat back down and asked me to “teach him” for 5 minutes before he went to board his plane. He was trying to make it right. I smiled and said no thank you, I didn’t want to be put on the spot or responsible for him missing his flight (which had been boarding for 15 minutes). My new friend added, “No, man, you gotta live with the consequences of your mistake. Time’s up.”

We each said a pleasant goodbye, waved, and the guy went off to his gate.

This was (for me, in this particular situation) an awesome experience of a man (my new friend) using his male privilege to call bs on another man’s (airport guy) entitlement and sexism in a way that redirected power and dignity, and honestly, needed emotional energy back to me. When he spoke up, my body relaxed. My new friend wasn’t the least bit concerned about hurting airport guy’s feelings or making him uncomfortable. He was concerned about interrupting men’s patterns of lowkey dominating women. I found his priorities startling and refreshing. They made the physical space I was in change. It went from hostile space to safe(er) space in the time it took to speak a sentence. The ease with which my new friend expressed his priorities signaled a long term, practiced commitment to not only holding them in his mind but to embodying them as well. I wish I encountered this more often. My new friend shouldn’t get accolades. I’m not writing this to praise him or put him in some kind of weird male savior position. His priorities should be normal and interrupting sexism should be mundane. But they’re not, so. Here we are.

Menfolk, will you please make this happen more often? I could get by on half the energy it currently takes me to exist in the world if y’all would each take on one or two airport guys a month.

In earnest, though. I hope this might be a helpful example for those looking to build habits of supporting women and challenging sexism. This isn’t the only way to do it but it’s one way that worked today.

So a mutual friend weighed in on this post and made the point that this is presented as a case of “mansplaining” and yet it’s not really clear that this was sexist behavior. My friend was roundly rebuked by women for expressing his doubt. Foolishly, perhaps, for my own peace I supported my friend.

And I still do.

I don’t deny that some men are sexist and unjustifiably challenge women, so let’s just get this straight right off the bat. In this case, these two were arguing over a question of philosophy. Both points of view can be valid! If the man was arguing over questions of hard science or provable facts then I might accept the possibility he was being condescending. Didn’t happen here.

Secondly, we don’t really know how this woman’s fellow speaker was treated because aside from his last comment to the airport guy, she doesn’t mention him at all. We have no proof that airport guy treated the male speaker any differently than the female one.

Finally, this was an innocent, small talk airport conversation! This wasn’t a fellow colleague questioning another’s skills or aptitude! Did he interrupt her? No. Did he talk over her? No. It was a discussion designed to kill time. I see NOTHING here that show he was being sexist.

I don’t doubt that some women get incensed when a man appears to dismiss a woman’s expertise simply because she’s a woman. They have a right to be incensed. Even so, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything as a slight when it might not be.