Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Woman in the Mirror

Mr. Snarky and I had a planned two night getaway last weekend, without the kids. I saw the initial news about the murders near Santa Barbara before we left, but I made a conscious decision not read more. I mostly avoided the news and tried to enjoy our weekend together. I still haven't read everything about the murders, but I have read enough to understand that they represent so much of what is wrong in our society: misogyny, racism and racial hatred, classism, problems with mental health care, and guns- always, in this country, guns.

I am so angry about all of it. I am so angry that people keep dying because we cannot bring ourselves to face these problems. I do not think I have anything profound and new to say. I fervently wish our country could have reasonable conversations about these problems, but I expect to once again be disappointed on that front. We have had so many opportunities in the past, and always, we find a way not to face the problems, to forget and "move on."

I started this blog post thinking I would write about the killer's fetishization of blondeness, and how it reminded me of how I've been reduced to my hair color and bra size more times than I can count. I thought I'd write about how it feels to realize the man you are dating thinks of you more as an ambulatory status symbol than an actual person. I was surprised how much this aspect of the larger story hit home. I thought that writing about it would make me feel less unsettled by it.

But I find that my writing skills are not up to the task of this topic. I did not like what I wrote, and I do not want to imply that way our culture views blondes is more of a problem than sexism and racism- it is more a symptom of those things than anything else, I think.

Therefore, I am going to abandon my initial intent and talk a bit about something a little more hopeful. I often see people wondering what they can do about the problems of racism and sexism. I don't really know how to solve those problems, but I think part of the solution has to be that we all learn to recognize our internal biases, so that we can actively work to overcome them- and maybe even help our children avoid learning them.

I also think that part of the solution is for our pop culture to stop reinforcing those biases by wallowing in stereotypes and other toxic messages. But that is beyond my direct power to change. 

Whether I act on my subconscious biases or actively work to change them is something that is in my power to change, so I've decided to start there. One thing that I have found very helpful is to pause anytime I find myself forming a judgment about someone, and to ask myself if I would form that same judgment if the person were a different person. If I think something about a woman, I ask myself: would I think that about a man? (And vice versa- it is quite a shock to realize that you've thought a positive thing about a man doing something that you would have judged negatively when done by a woman.) If I think something about a black person, I ask myself if I'd have thought that about a white person. If I think something about a gay person, I ask myself if I'd have thought that about a straight person. And so on.

This took a lot of conscious thought at first, but I've been doing it for awhile, and it is becoming almost reflexive. It has been a very illuminating exercise. I do not think it is the ultimate answer to the problem, but I think that it can help me form less biased opinions of people, and that has to be a good thing. I recommend this little exercise as a concrete thing you can do if you want to work against bias and discrimination, particularly if you are in a position to hire people or make other decisions that impact people's careers.

Another thing I have decided to do is to always try to say yes when asked for mentoring help, and if I do need to say no, to keep track of who I say no to, so that I can watch for bias. I was really struck by the recent study that showed that emails requesting help that come from women and people of color are less likely to get a positive reply than similar emails from white men- even when those emails are directed at women and people of color.

I am in no way implying that these small things will, by themselves, solve the large, complex problems of bias and injustice in our culture. But sometimes those problems seem so large and complex as to be overwhelming. I cannot fix our society, but I can try to improve myself, and maybe if enough of us do that, our society will get a little better, too.


  1. I've been working on that thought exercise too lately. We judge men and women so can be scary sometimes.

    On the topic of racism, I just got back from Italy. I was staying in Milan and noticed that almost all the black folks I saw were either begging or selling trinkets illegally (in one case being escorted off a bus for not having a proper fare card) and realized that if your entire exposure to people of a different skin colour is this negative that you can't avoid a certain amount of prejudice. Now I'm back in my wonderfully multi-racial city and really appreciating just how many different skin tones I see everywhere I look. Except science of course...still mostly white, although except for the very top level the gender balance is definitely shifting.

  2. What a great thought exercise. I need to start doing this, too. I noticed your silence on the topic, but it really does feel like beating your head against a wall over and over and over. I am exhausted by my own outrage and I'm terrified it'll turn to apathy.

  3. Try actively talking to people.

    For instance, watch supermarket checkers and observe how often they talk to white children shopping with their parents. Then watch how many talk to black children.

    I make a point of talking to black children in casual encounters. I ask them what they like. What their favorite subject is in school. What they want to be when they grow up.

    My Nigerian roommate taught me about a concept of "I see you." It means that I see you, I see your humanity. It's one of the most important ideas I learned at Berkeley.


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