Learning to Listen

Have you seen Aziz Ansari’s show on Netflix? It’s called Master of None, and it is… certainly very different from what you usually get on TV. First off, the lead character, played by Aziz of course, is Indian American. He has a Taiwanese American best friend, and a lesbian black friend is one of the main cast members. This is important because the show has an actually diverse cast, without delving into stereotypes.

The show not only stands out for its casting, but also for the insightful commentary it provides. One episode is about the way the media loves to portray minorities as stereotypes, and how they continue this weird mentality where anything that isn’t starred by white people becomes ‘not normal’. There’s another episode called “Ladies and Gentlemen“, which I was watching last night.

Now, this episode was all about sexism. Like I said, the show is interesting and unique in how directly it handles stuff that you would normally never see on TV, save maybe as a way to ridicule ‘feminists’ or make them a butt of a joke. Anyways, the show took a chance to share a tiny slice of the shit women have to go through. Creepy men who masturbate in public, crazy dudes who follow you home, and some of the super subtle sexism that makes you feel a bit like a second-class citizen.

This is a look that says “I am about to slap you” and it is a moment that, I assure you, every single woman who has tried to explain her experiences to a man has lived.

What I loved was the moment pictured above, where Aziz’s character, Dev, is getting all defensive and pretty much denying an experience Rachel, pictured on the right, is sharing, where she felt disrespected simply for being a woman. It’s a very common situation, definitely, and I am 100% sure it’s a situation you have been in if you: one, are a woman; and two, have tried sharing an experience with sexism to men before.

About five months ago, I was in training for a job at a call centre. The instructor asked us to pair up, and do some assignments on the computer. The only friend I’d really made so far was paired to someone else, so I ended up with this random dude we’ll call Steve.

Now, Steve was a nice enough guy. He was a little awkward, but he seemed kinda sweet. Anyways, I sit next to Steve and decide to get started… when the computer gives us an error. It’s a pretty meaningless one, and I move to close it, when Steve stops me and takes over. He then explains what had happened, and proceeds to explain the whole assignment to me.

Now, I know a lot about computers. Maybe not enough as someone who does it professionally, but enough to know I knew more than good old Steve did. I was also perfectly clear on what the assignment was, as it was fairly simple, and I’m not five years old. I tried to communicate this, but he still talked down to me, and simplified everything as if I was an actual child. At some point I just gave up, and let him talk to me as if I was an idiot.

That had, of course, never ever ever happened to me when people saw me as a man.

About two months ago, I went out to lunch with a friend. He asked me what I was going to eat, I mentioned what I was thinking of getting, and when the server asked him (not me of course, he asked the man…) what we were planning on eating, my friend ordered for me.

He didn’t even realise he’d done it.

We’ve been friends for 6 years, and nothing like that has ever happened before. Now, that was relatively harmless, and I kind of liked that he subconsciously thought of me as a woman, but I couldn’t help but feel a little insulted that the server had not even thought of asking me anything, and that my friend at some level felt it was natural to not allow a woman to state her own lunch preference.

I honestly felt about as important as a soda bottle, with how little attention the server paid me...

I honestly felt about as important as a soda bottle, with how little attention the server paid me…

About a month ago, I was sitting in the break room at work, trying to sleep. There were two guys in the room and they were chatting about James Rodriguez, a football player and demigod to the Colombian people. Eventually they got to chatting about his, and other football player’s wives, but the way they were talking about them really made these women sound like they were worth as little as a car, or a nice suit. It was completely dehumanising, and it made me want to go to the bathroom and cry (which I promptly did).

That was the first time I experienced what it was like to be objectified, even if I wasn’t objectified directly. It was awful.

So here’s the thing:
None of those experiences are unique, I’d imagined going through stuff like that before. I share them because they were absolutely nothing like what I imagined they’d feel like, back when I presented male.

For a good few years now I’ve considered myself a feminist, and I’ve strongly identified female for the last 2-3 years. Even so, no matter how intently I listened to other women share their experiences, and how much I tried to empathise completely with them, actually living it, going through it, felt completely different to anything I’d ever imagined.

Here’s a question:
If someone, who identified as a woman, tried with all their heart and all their soul and might to feel like one, to empathise as much as possible with other women, and put herself in their shoes, but later realised she had no idea what it was like until she actually lived through that stuff… how much of a chance do you think a regular man has of understanding what it’s like to be a woman, or having any idea how experiencing misogyny at any level feels?

My point here is… dudes, trust women. As much as you might think you get it, you don’t. Unless you are a transgender man, or for some other reason have presented and been treated as a woman, you do not understand. You cannot understand. That’s okay.
Just make sure you remember that the people living through these things feel them in a way you never will, and don’t try to invalidate their experiences or tell them they’re wrong. You have no place to stand on to do that.

This isn’t just something I’m here to tell others. It’s also something I try to remind myself of. I didn’t understand what being a woman was like until living as a woman became my reality. However, there are other realities that will never be mine. I will never be a black person in the US. I will never be an Islamic woman judged for my religious or clothing choice. I will never know what it is like to be a gay man. Etc, ec.

Sometimes I’ll hear something about #blacklivesmatter or someone of a religious minority sharing their experience, and I’ll feel a urge to disagree, talk down to them, explain my “better” understanding of the situation. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember the difference in how I perceived sexism and how it really felt, and I’ll stop myself from talking over them.

We all have our blind spots. None of us can live the lives of everyone else. The best we can do is listen, understand we will never really understand other people’s experiences, and trust that what they share is true.

That’s what my experience so far has shown me, anyways.


6 thoughts on “Learning to Listen

  1. Tish Wolfsong says:

    See what I meant about your “style”? This is a great way to blog. 🙂
    I wish you’d given Steve “the look”, my Danny even knows when he’s getting it in text chat in Second Life. It’s a powerful tool. 😉


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