Equality Can Feel Like Oppression if You’re Accustomed to Privilege

I started writing this blog several weeks before the most recent news of sexually abusive famous men. And as with many of the subjects I feel compelled to write about, as I  contemplated how to approach this one, I felt completely overwhelmed; because there’s no place to stop. So, since this is a blog, not a book, and while I am a STAUNCH proponent of the rights of women (and men) who have been sexually exploited and assaulted, and of other minority groups who have suffered at the hands of the privileged; this blog is about just one aspect of privilege in our society – the pervasive atmosphere of sexism. I want to focus primarily on the mindset that pervades our world, and how it provokes more and more violence.

Sexism, like other forms of prejudice, is a type of bias about a group of people. Sexism is founded in conceptualizations of one gender as being superior or having higher status than another gender and can lead to discrimination.

Because one of the issues I treat is trauma, I have no shortage of experience with women who have been harassed and assaulted in the workplace, socially and in their homes. I also have personal experience. In several positions I held prior to becoming a therapist, I worked in largely male-dominated industries. I’m old enough to have *understood* that if a man spoke to or treated me inappropriately, I was supposed to laugh it off, or joke with him, so as not to be seen as a troublemaker.

This pervasive mindset started with the fact that straight white men have run our country (and  many other parts of the world) for as long as it’s existed. There are also some religious components to the paradigm that men are the head of the household and women are best left to the tasks of caring for the house and children. Bottom line, even though it’s changed some, women are often invisible and unheard. Recently, this pattern has come out of the shadows and is in our face every day and is giving many permission to boldly express things that used to only be known through whispers. This is not *political correctness,* it’s about showing respect and honor to other human beings with equal rights.

We can’t be what we can’t see. Several weeks ago, TIME magazine published an issue about women who were firsts. I saw an interview with their managing editor (also a first female in that position) who said part of the motivation was to show young girls where they can dream to be.  While being obstructed for years by males in many societies, women have historically been our own worst enemies; because we often feel we have to be 10 times better, smarter – more perfect than our male counterparts to do a job.  (That’s not necessarily irrational.  It’s not uncommon for women to have to work much harder than men in the same positions to be recognized, and still to be paid less. And society has long had memes that tell us men are smarter, stronger, etc). But there are times when women (consciously or unconsciously) decide to not even try for a specific job or career simply because they don’t believe they’re good enough.  Men seldom have that block.  They just jump in and give it a shot.

Majority privilege (white/male/religious/financially elite, etc) has been a hot topic on social media for several years, now. We currently have an administration that conducts itself primarily on the belief in the superior power and intellect of the white, heterosexual male. But it doesn’t always present itself in the negative put-downs we see in many cases.  I also take notice when a congressman is being interviewed about some news of other famous men being caught harassing or assaulting women; and their response is something like, “women are to be revered – or worshiped.” I will not speak for other women here, but as far as I’m concerned, while (like anyone else), I enjoy being pampered occasionally, this feels just as demeaning – like I have to be taken care of. The higher my pedestal, the harder can I fall! I just want to be respected and treated with the dignity I deserve – as an equal.

Many in a more dominant population don’t believe privilege even exists.  There’s a reason for that.  It doesn’t affect them in the same way it does the person against whom the bias exists. They have no experience to help them understand at a deep, intrinsic level how it feels to be seen as “less-than” because of their gender, the color of their skin, or some other physical feature they couldn’t change if they wanted. Less powerful groups always understand those in groups with more power; they have to in order to survive. Blacks and other ethnic minorities understand whites better than the opposite. The same applies to our LGBTQ friends, immigrants and handicapped.  And women understand men better than men do women.

Another aspect of this paradigm is that older women are seen as even less capable than younger women.  During the last presidential election, even though one candidate was older than the other; because the other was a woman, she was seen as “an angry, crotchety old hag,” even by many younger women. Women in congress still only hold 19% of the seats, and there’s a lot of talk about the House Minority Leader (a female) being too old to be relevant, but I don’t recall ever hearing the same being said about the Senate Majority Leader, who is just 2 years younger. (I wanted to include some studies that showed statistics on these issues so you wouldn’t think I’m just blowing this out of proportion; but again, because this is a blog, chose to leave that part out.  Just be aware that there is an abundance of such studies).

I also don’t want this to sound like I hate all men. Quite the opposite; I love men. And the men in my life are very caring, respectful, open and aware of these issues, although even they fall into the traps our societal norms have set up, as do most females occasionally.

Equality can feel like oppression if you’re accustomed to privilege.  It’s not. That feeling is discomfort because we sense a loss of power.  It’s the same discomfort an only child might feel when he first goes to preschool and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys he does. When kids throw a fit in preschool, we teach them to share, and they eventually see that it’s more fun than playing alone.

As adults, we need to work on developing an appreciation of personal power and self worth, rather than power over others. Women might approach a business, government . . . life in a different way  – not a better way, just different. When men can embrace that, rather than being so threatened that they will have to give something up; then we’ll begin to be like that preschooler who realizes it feels better to share this world equally. No one of us is better than any other.  We are each unique, and because of that, none of us are special – and each of us is special.

As we’ve seen with some of the sexual assault cases, we women have to find the courage to stand up for ourselves. But it’s extremely important that men understand that this change NEEDS to happen. Men, allow yourselves to be more conscious of how the world looks and feels to women. Educate yourselves, question those old social norms, and don’t be silent when you see something happen that you know in your heart is not honoring the dignity of women.

All of us need to educate our children – girls AND boys – about giving consent and hearing “no” when it’s said. I bought a book (GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS:100 Stories of Extraordinary Women) that my husband and I both read with our granddaughter.  She loves it, and we’ve all learned a lot about amazing women from as far back as the 1800’s up to 2016). I also hope to share it with our grandson when he’s old enough.

Since my granddaughter has been old enough to understand, we’ve used the phrase “my body, my choice” and “your body, your choice.” I ask her permission to hold her hand, or if she wants to sit beside me, rather than just grabbing her, because I want emphasize that it’s ALWAYS her choice.

And please, when this most recent news dies down about sexual assaults, payoffs and power differentials; don’t let this issue die.  Shame is like mold, it grows in the dark; but it loses it’s power when we expose it to sunlight. Keep the conversation going!