There is no opposite to racism or sexism. When I see a woman I don’t see a sexless thing. I see a person who is female, a person who is not my sex, a person who is fundamentally different to me on an obvious level. But this doesn’t make me sexist.
Walking last week I passed between two very tall black students stood chatting calmly on the path ahead of me. The gap between them was more than big enough for me to walk through. They didn’t look at me. But I didn’t see colourless ‘persons’, I saw two people who were black. This doesn’t make me racist.
A person who is black is black. A person who is white is white. A person who is tall is tall. To be someone who resists, who rejects and who stands against racism or sexism or any prejudice isn’t to be someone who doesn’t see these truths. It’s to be someone who sees that all of these people are people first.
One of the things that struck me while my wife and I visited a naturist resort last year was how naturists are just people. Being a naturist doesn’t mean they have this view or that view. Being a naturist is an expression of the views that they have as a person.
But on that visit I couldn’t shake the pre-conceived idea I’d had of naturists. I viewed the whole visit with a cynical eye, looking for the dark cracks in the ordinary surface. Looking at something I didn’t understand and expecting the worst.
Honestly, when I approached these two black men I became self-consciously non-racist, like an idiot. I went over every thought I usually have in this situation: Is it racist to look? Is it racist not to look? Is it racist to walk slower or faster? Is it racist to smile or not to smile? And how do I make peace with the fact that I feel intimidated? Is that racist?
Put me in a dark night at 3am after all the pubs have kicked out and see me walking towards two young tall men of any description who are taking up my path onwards, forcing me to pass between them, and I would feel at least this same discomfort.
I don’t know who they are, I can’t judge their temperament and I feel vulnerable because to go on I have to submit to being surrounded. But this is in the depths of night. Why do I feel this way in the middle of the day? The only answer can be because they are black.
It hurts me that I feel indimidated by black men, because I loathe the swallowed-racism I’ve somehow internalised without evidence. But my bewilderment at these feelings surely can’t begin to match the confusion and frustration that would be felt by the two students if I told them how I felt. And why shouldn’t they be confused? Offended, even.
When the morons who created UniLad’s ‘banter’-inspired content found themselves hauled up as an example of how men normalise rape it struck me that even in the places that men are attempting to talk about how men normalise rape, there’s still a fervent defensive streak fuelled by men failing to understand that they know what it’s like to be a woman.
The majority of men who would even have such a conversation would be white, western and middle-class (to be judgemental, but see GoodMenProject for examples of this neverending circular discussion). And I believe that a good deal of them would have experienced what I’ve experienced, and would feel exactly the same self-conflict.
The fact is that this discomfort, this self-conflict and self-conscious attempt to be both invisible and visibly not making yourself invisible, is experienced by women all the time whether they’re walking alone or not. Men intimidate women. The attempt to justify the normalisation of rape as ‘banter’ or a joke does nothing to solve this.
Plenty of men I have read online are aghast, offended, upset or even furious that a woman would class them as a potential rapist. I’ve been among this number. Because it feels idiotic, doesn’t it? It feels unjust. Exactly how those two tall black students would have felt if they’d known what I was thinking. Probably, they did know what I was thinking.
White, western, middle-class men have a lot of priviledges, but being able to have our cake and eat it is one that in the modern world has to mark us out as all sorts of -ists. Racists, sexists… they all have two things in common. They’re people who see the detail before the person and who will defend their right to do so.
I know what it feels like to be uncomfortable, to hate myself for prejudging someone, but to also know that I’m doing so because I want to protect myself and avoid finding myself in a situation I’m not prepared for. Is that wrong? Only if I ignore everything else but the detail, only if I don’t see the person first.
I don’t think it’s right for women to see every man as a potential rapist, but then I don’t think it’s right for any man to be a rapist and there’s plenty of debate about that too. Rape is bad. Women want to protect themselves, rightly, from it happening to them. Who am I to blame them if their methods make me sad?
It’s men who believe that their rights are under attack who we should be arguing with, not the women who just want to avoid being brutalised. Because we all know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to be uncomfortable. Would you appreciate being made to feel guilty for feeling that way, too?