Reality, An Overshare (Part 1)

Before I begin, a disclaimer: This blog post is going to be uncomfortably honest and vulnerable. I’m going to do that “horrible” thing of way oversharing on the internet. If you don’t like that, or respect me less for being so self-aware, go away now. Any comment I don’t like will be summarily deleted. This is my personal blog.

I realized something this morning. Well, it’s been more than fifteen years in development, but everything crystallized / precipitated out of the murk today, and I am so enlightened and liberated by realizing this invisible dragon which has chased me around my entire life.

When I’m in a conversation with a cis-male, and he says, “I disagree,” I hear something entirely different. I hear I do not accept that reality and I do not permit that information to be inputted into the record of reality that is our shared conversation. If he is polite and says “I respect that, but I disagree,” I hear That is not reality, but I’ll permit you to hold your silly little internal opinion, but we both know that is inferior and not really binding on anyone.

Let me be clear, I don’t think that MOST men in my world consciously / explicitly believe that they get to be the gate keepers of reality.

But my paternal grandfather did. With all due respect and explicit mention of his immense intelligence, generosity, the awesome provider he was, and the unfathomable depths of his love for his family, Granddad was also an asshole. He was tragically racist, truly believing that white people were leader materials, Asians brilliant technologists, and African-types only good for manual labor. He was a pontificator /lecturer who would sit down his kids or grand-kids for HOURS to tell us how the world was regardless of if we were interested. For a time, he was a borderline-holocaust-denier (I think reconciling his proud German/Bavarian heritage and his piloting a plane for the US to participate in bombings of the motherland was too hard without this kind of internal chaos). He was sexist, valorizing the wife-at-home, care-for-all-around model of femininity that he saw perfectly epitomized in the “Gibson Girls” of the 20s. A woman could have a career if she wished, but never at the cost of family.

Now, that matters because now you know where my DAD came from. And, my dad is NOT AN ASSHOLE. He is, to quote my mother, “the nicest guy [she] ever met.” And my mom married a man who had been raised in a family where Dad got to determine what was accepted as shared understanding of reality. I know there were things that Nana would have strongly disagreed with him about, and I’m sure there were times that she told him he was wrong. But in my experience, those were few, and she was subtle, quiet, and discreet, never calling him out in public. One could (and would be right) to interpret her behavior as helping him save face, ensuring he never doubted that she was on his side, or one could interpret that as her acquiescence to his role as gatekeeper of reality. Truth is probably some combination of the two.

And mom, she is one of the smartest, strongest people I’ve ever met, but she has been fighting for decades to convince herself that her voice is authoritative, and because of that sometimes she is kind of, well, harsh. It’s the intensity of a cornered mouse, a kind, gentle loving one who just cannot be pushed any further. But she was raised to and then married to a cultural reality that implied she is not the final arbiter of her perceptions, something outside of her is. And for a very long time, that something was Dad.  She let him have that power, he took it, and neither of them recognized how f#$%ed up that was until they’d been married for more than 25 years.

But my family-of-origin is only a part of how I got to this place.  However, at I’m 33, after living independently for 15 years, I moved in with my parents to ensure my mom doesn’t live alone Monday – to – Friday (Dad is here on weekends), and that has given me some really powerful insight into my own self by watching and reflecting upon the people who raised me.

Also, this:

In the mid-twentieth century,. feminist consciousness raising groups included discussions that validated women’s experiences of feeling diminished or disrespected by those around them, including their most beloved family members, and yes even their husbands. Emerging from this experience is an entire field of feminist/perspectival epistemology in which we examine how hard it is for women to be trusted, seen as experts, or even simply heard in conversations. Some of the more egregious examples of this are labeled mansplaining: women experience men telling them what is reality even though the woman is a credential expert in a field, where a man has fewer stated and unstated qualifications. Mansplaining is a controversial topic because on its surface, it vilifies men who are simply trying to have interesting conversations. I honestly struggle not to become a know-it-all myself, and I have long wrestled with the idea of mansplaining.  I thought, can mansplaining really exist when I too know the enthusiasm, joy, and even a little bit of pride in having a tidbit of information to share in a conversation? 

Yes. My enthusiasm does NOT negate the all-too-common experience of women being told their expertise is conditional, not existing until and only to the extent that it is accepted by the men in the room. And this attitude doesn’t come only (often not PRIMARILY) from the men in the room. In fact, it is my experience that the individual men in any given room are more than ready to accept my personal expertise on a given subject when I present it with conviction and clarity.

This leads up to my big revelation. I live every day with a particularly ugly invisible-dragon of internalized sexism, and she is this:

When I’m in a conversation with a cis-male, and he says, “I disagree,” I hear something entirely different. I hear I do not accept that reality and I do not permit that information to be inputted into the record of reality that is our shared conversation. If he is polite and says “I respect that, but I disagree,” I hear That is not reality, but I’ll permit you to hold your silly little internal opinion, but we both know that is inferior and not really binding on anyone.

In my life, this dragon is less operant in professional settings than personal ones. I can play the man in professional settings. I can whip out facts, analysis, information, sources, and thoughtful critiques of a man’s position with alacrity and competence. I can do it gently, kindly, and keenly like a new razor. I can hear someone dismiss my expertise and think “what an asshole” or simply “ugh, sexism, he’s a good guy, why can’t he hear me?” Or also “She seems to prefer hearing new ideas from a male voice, perhaps I can get male-colleague to present this one” I can think “well, he thinks it’s his idea, but I know it was mine, and so long as I get credit when it comes down to review time, I can deal with this.”

But in personal settings, I cannot think “what an asshole.” I choose to spend time with people whom I admire, respect and like. Go back and read my descriptions of Dad and Granddad. I loved granddad. I adore my dad, he’s a great guy, and I simply like him – not just as family, but as a guy I like to chat with adult-to-adult.  Because they are my beloved family, I cannot just dismiss, fight, or externalize their attitudes.

This revelation – that I – strong, intelligent, independent, powerful feminist – internalized a cultural and family teaching that men are the final gatekeepers of shared reality which correlated so perfectly to cultural sexism and thus have (like mom) become a bit strident at times, determined to be heard in the face of what I experienced as supremely dismissive people who were otherwise “great guys” …  This is why I’m both single, and very happy to be single. Because I could not imagine building a life with someone to whom I give the (unstated, unaware) permission to determine my reality. I could not form partnership with a person when this invisible-dragon was scorching the earth with her fire-breath of dismissal and giving so much shared space.

It’s also why I have to reexamine and reconsider what that means.

I need to figure out how to claim my own power to TAKE SPACE in shared conversations with those whom I most adore, or even those with whom I’m struggling to connect but really want to!

This changes everything.

3 thoughts on “Reality, An Overshare (Part 1)

  1. I want to ask this honestly, and I hope it doesn’t come across as sarcastic or snarky or anything else, because I know I can be those things, along with blunt to the point of rudeness. But, I also am aware of how I can, without meaning to, make women feel like I don’t value their opinions or experience.
    How can I disagree without devaluing your experience? I mean that in general. I’m not disagreeing with the sentiments expressed here.

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    • What a great question! Honestly, you might have noticed that I made a clear distinction between what’s going on in my head and what’s actually being said. There will be a follow up post about the supremely respectful cis-straight-man who helped me see this (unknowingly) by ALWAYS acting and listening respectfully, even when he said the words that usually drive me crazy. What HE DID RIGHT was that at least twice he came back to an earlier conversation and said “hey, you said this, and I’ve been thinking about it, and this is why I now think what you said was valuable” (i.e. he was self-aware about when he changed his mind). AND more importantly, he was respectful of my thoughts, opinions, feelings in all other areas as well.

      I think I’m saying, “I disagree” is not a bad phrase to use, but the wider patterns of treating women’s thoughts/words/feelings/experiences as valuable are what make those words GOOD and not dismissive.

      ALSO, the classic reflective techniques, and INTENTIONALLY spending more time engaging with how a person is presenting their thoughts rather than offering your refutation or argument are absolutely vital.

      This will become a follow up post.

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      • I certainly wasn’t taking this as “all men are disrespectful,” though it is certainly our responsibility to make sure we aren’t falling into the trap of taking our own experiences as normative.
        My challenge has always been how to communicate in ways that are experienced as respectful even in the midst of continued disagreement. My default has always been that to tell someone I disagree means that I’m respecting them enough to tell them the truth and engage in debate. And, I don’t always change my mind, which doesn’t mean I don’t respect the opinion of my conversation partner. Respect and agreement have never been synonymous for me.
        But, like I said, my challenge has always been to communicate that in a way that is experienced as respectful instead of dismissive.

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