As most people by now know, Patricia Arquette won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and made a statement for wage equality. Because I’m a class act, here’s what I immediately tweeted.
I thought some of the wording in her speech was awkward but I quickly got past that because Wage Equality! It was easy for me to explain away: she’s nervous, she’s under pressure, she’s not a writer, I’m drinking, and of course I know what she really means.
But the next day I learned that, in fact, not every woman did want to go down on Patty Arquette. At issue was some of what she said, what I had dismissed as awkward. (And for a much more articulate explanation than I could hope to provide of what these specific issues were, please read here.) Once again, my first response when I saw the essays and comments on Facebook and Twitter was to explain it away.
Two things stopped me. And I’m glad they did. Because I would have missed out if they hadn’t.
The first thing that stopped me was what my friend had said a few weeks earlier: I don’t want to change the way you feel. While it was never my intention to tell anybody who felt marginalized by Patricia Arquette’s comments they were wrong to feel that way, chiming in with the way I interpreted it amounted to the same thing. We both heard the same speech. Telling them the way I heard it wasn’t going to change the way they heard it. If anything, it really only illustrated the problem that white middle-class feminists are out of touch with the issues of women of color and the LGBT community.
The second thing that stopped me was my own experiences with sexism. We are no longer fighting Mad Men era misogyny in the workplace and at home. It is no longer this obvious bogeyman in a men’s only club drawling over bourbon that ladies are delicate bird brains because of their periods. Sexism is now taking the form of guys who LOVE women, their moms were single women, why their wives work! They just don’t realize they just commended a guy for having the same idea a woman had ten minutes ago because they don’t remember that the woman said it. That they look at men who are under stress at work as being “important” and women who are under stress at work as “not being able to handle it.” Or they don’t realize why it’s such a problem that they call watching their own kids “babysitting” when they do it, and nothing when their wife does. And these are guys we like! We know they have good intentions. They don’t mean to perpetuate the patriarchy. But just because they don’t see it happening doesn’t mean it’s not.
I am a straight, white, middle-class woman who experiences sexism. I don’t mean to perpetuate racism. I don’t mean to perpetuate homophobia. But just because I don’t see it happening, doesn’t mean it’s not. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not part of the problem.
I can’t know the experience of a person of color or LGBT because I am not one. And the more I thought about it and the more I thought about my experiences as a woman that I struggle to explain to the well-intentioned men in my life, the more I recognized that it’s not for me to explain away Patricia Arquette’s words.
Instead, I wrote a friend, a woman of color who I knew had strong feelings about the speech. I initially expressed my sadness that this had become divisive. Like many well-intentioned people, I believe that we can better achieve our goals if we all stand together. But whose goals? If I don’t want to listen to your issues with what I’m standing for, then doesn’t that really mean that I want you to support my goals, but I have no interest in helping you support yours? Instead of bemoaning divisiveness, I have the ability to help get rid of it. I can listen. I can try to understand. I can find out why my goals fail your goals instead of assuming they are the same. And telling you that they should be.
I know there are dozens of times in my life when I would not have been able to have this conversation; I wouldn’t have even tried. But I was in a place where I was not out to change anyone’s feelings and I was open to the actuality that we’re not all having the same experience. And I knew how fucking soul-crushingly awful it felt to not be heard. I didn’t want to explain it away. I wanted to understand. And while having friends who have different opinions than you can be hard, it can also be an opportunity. If I like this person, then it’s harder to discount what they think so maybe I should find out a little bit more why they think it. It could be revolutionary if we all try to understand each other a little bit more. To not try to change the way someone feels, but to listen. And to recognize that just because you have good intentions, just because you don’t see it happening, doesn’t mean it’s not.
I’m very grateful that my friend was very patient with me in explaining her perspective. I’m sure she’s tired of it just like that meme that says, “I can’t believe I have to still fight for this shit.” I’m also grateful for my original friend – who in the interest of full disclosure was a man, and a straight one – who said, “I don’t want to change the way you feel.” And I’m really grateful for all the men, all the “good guys” who still don’t get it. Their sexism has made me a better feminist.