I had an experience recently that struck me. One that I think is important as we traverse a world where we are more alive to issues of violence, a lack of equity and equality, and others.
I was sitting outside the local community college with a female coworker. We were there to acknowledge Sexual Assault Awareness Month and to tell folks about an event that evening--speaking with young men about sex and consent in romantic relationships.
An older student (I say older just because he clearly wasn’t college age--closer to 30) came up to me at one point and started talking. We chatted for a few minutes before he left, at which point my coworker said, "what did you think about that"?
I blathered something about not totally agreeing with what he was saying when she said, “but did you see what he did? He totally ignored me until until the end of your conversation”.
I had not even sort of noticed it in the moment. I was totally oblivious to her experience of feeling small and unacknowledged.
We chatted for a long time that day and I learned an important lesson in power and privilege. I also found myself pushing back as to why this man had engaged the two of us in such different ways.
Not because I didn’t believe her or respect her experience, but because I sensed something else was going on. I sensed this wasn’t just about a social construct (like misogyny, paternalism, etc.), that this person had an individual story that played a part in his actions that day.
What I was attempting to express is we can’t look at each man and narrow down his experience to one of privilege. We’re all far too unique for that. This man, for example, revealed later that evening that he gets really nervous around women. He’s worked in largely male dominated fields--the military, hot shots--and acknowledged there was some reason he’d been drawn that direction.
My guess is there’s something in his story that reveals pain or trauma that involved a woman.
That’s not an excuse. While we’re not responsible or to blame for our trauma, we are the only ones who can do the important work of healing. That evening as I heard more of this man’s story, I came to believe he is willing to push deeper into the pain he experienced.
And that made me smile.
In order to change the culture which allows violence to remain prevalent in our society, we can’t ignore the larger cultural issues or the stories we each hold. We have to be willing to speak up and fight misogyny at every turn while also showing kindness to the individual stories and pain which have led us to this point.
We must be kind both to the stories that led my coworker to feel ignored AND the stories that led this man to feel scared and nervous around my coworker.
Without kindness for our stories there can be no cultural healing for us, and healing is the point, isn’t it?