Chatting outside of class at the end of the semester, a student asked me if I’d post an example answer for the exam to help him study. I told him I was really busy, but I’d see. He responded that instead of gossiping in the night, I could make the time to do it. Gossiping? I get home at 7pm, feed my child and breastfeed. I fold clothes and answer emails for major research projects, I take notes from books I’m reading. I wash dishes, pack lunch, write my diary and plan for my child’s future.
Obviously, he was joking and I knew that, but we not bredren, we doh lime and we wasn’t throwing block talk on no corner. Women are being tested when forced to confront sexism. Unapologetic feminists, like myself, are always being watched in these moments: Can we, above all, take a joke whatever its message? Do we quickly resort to anger, fulfilling nothing but the most predictable idea of who we are? Are we articulate enough to explain what our problem is, to not become emotional, to adopt a cool pose in the face of such violence?
This student’s comment was not only his small way of rebalancing the scales between us, it was also a moment to test my truth in the face of a male privilege he could draw on without trying. In the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to learn that students will tell you the most unexpectedly sexist or homophobic things, things that make you wonder if you’ve been in the same course with them, even at the end of twelve weeks in a gender studies class. That’s not ideal, but it’s life. Learning is a process, consciousness-raising takes time, everyone is walking their own path, and each of us has to choose our solidarities for ourselves. I just took a breath and let it slide.
This second year, Jamaican student was bright, critically-minded and I liked him. Like many of the men I teach in Gender Studies, especially in Men and Masculinities classes, he’s working through discomfort with the material and with me, a woman, as his teacher. Some students prefer that men less qualified than me teach what I do. I’m guessing because they think men will be less biased, which is based on the assumption that women are completely biased when it comes to men and not vice versa as well as the idea that women best understand women, but men can understand everybody. It’s also based on the fact that men are seen as being authority figures in a way women are not, even if they know less about a field of study. Go figure.
Still, I’ve had male students come back years later and say that, though they were uncomfortable with feminist critiques of patriarchy in class, later on when starting their football group they refused to agree to female cheerleaders. Either women were equal sports-players or they weren’t, but they were not going to support the men from the side. And, usually, by the end of a course students have a more nuanced understanding of how ideas about women and men work unnoticeably, and they are questioning assumptions they came in with about the course material, about feminism, about gender,and about me.
Yet, there are always surprises. This young man’s comment was one. Another student waiting to speak to me was so offended, she insisted he apologise. I watched the scene between them play out and listened to his apology, delivered with a laugh like he was still joking. Why don’t you go over to the male Head of the Math Department, I suggested, and make the same joke with him and come back and tell me if he finds it funny. He said he had made a joke with a male lecturer before about all the time he spent in the gym. Well, that’s not what he said to me. He said I was home ‘gossiping’. This was something he would never dream of saying to a male lecturer as a joke. He’d know it wouldn’t be considered funny, it would be risky, and it would seem like disrespect. He acknowledged this as we stood there. So, why feel he could do it with me?
There’s an important lesson here for all the women struggling to advance in education and employment. It doesn’t matter how much schooling you have. It doesn’t matter how much institutional power you bring. It doesn’t matter what kind of position of power you occupy. We live in a patriarchal world where students such as this one can draw on the rich historical authority of stereotypes and prejudices to trivialise and belittle you, simply because you are not a man. We live in a world where women face comments and views men never will, on the streets, in our homes, at our jobs despite our education, job titles or institutional position. There is nothing we can do to individually earn this respect, this freedom, which comes to men without them trying. It can only come from creating a world where those demeaning preconceptions are not available. Where they are available, they must carry no sense of right to define how women can be spoken to and spoken about.
There’s an important lesson here too for all those folks who think that women have won, that women and men are treated equally all the time everywhere, that women have everything they could want and that sexism is a thing of the past. It’s not. It’s present, it’s powerful, it comes in skin teeth and straight talk, it comes behind your back and to your face. As little difference as I clearly make in twelve weeks, my work in this world is to ensure that one day, for some young woman, mother or worker like me, it does not come at all.