Thursday, June 11, 2015

Step Up, Step Back

I admit I didn’t hear the phrase “step up, step back” until I was twenty-four years old. It was used in the context of the Anti-Oppression/Anti-Racism training of a group of young people of which I was a member. Put simply, it is a knowledge that men and women ought to have equal weight in group discussions. This is not usually the case. Most of the time, white men speak first and speak most often.

Like many systems of oppression, it is entirely unconscious and not meant to be offensive. But it is a sharp reminder in our society that men and women are socialized very differently. At the time, all those years ago, speaking from the privilege of my race and my gender, I took it at as an affront when I was told to take a step back. But in my defense, neither did I really understand the concept. Like many white men, I saw the behavior as somehow removing my ability to speak my mind and depriving me of my God-given right to be heard.

Eleven years later, I understand better. At the Quaker conference from which I have just returned, a man, much to his credit, stated firmly that men were talking too frequently during a particular workshop and not leaving space for the voices, thoughts, and ideas of women. Also to their own great credit, the men sitting around a circle did not take offense to this remark. In response to a woman's remarks, agreeing with the progression of these events, a series of women deliberately spoke one after another, making the space more equal. Perhaps six or seven women in sequence raised their voices on the pertinent issue we were discussing. Yet if the problem were this easily fixed, it would not take more than one reminder.

White men, myself included, are taught to believe that we ought to be assertive in our own opinions and proud of their soundness. In fact, I am not too proud to say it was one of my remarks that led to the perceived need of the community that other men should be silent for the health of the gathering. My response was not one of anger or as some slight, but I admit I did feel quite embarrassed. I simply hadn't recognized how regularly men had shared before me and did want to give women their own right to be heard.

Even so, the same patterns reinforced themselves over time. During the next workshop, held a mere two hours later, I made a silent count of the gender of those people who shared. Much as before, mostly men, and mostly white men spoke first and more frequently. Yet, this phenomenon is not that simply defined, either. A minority of women have no problem speaking frequently in what can be male-dominated spaces. The question then becomes if other women should emulate their example, and if so, whether these women warriors would nevertheless speak even more in female-only spaces.

The women who shared in the earlier example were clearly uncomfortable somewhat with speaking up. One only had to observe their body language. They spoke because they felt they needed to speak, not that they were empowered to do so. But even more perplexing was an even different activity, later in the proceedings, where the first six people who spoke were women. Clearly step-up, step-back is more complicated than gender parity. A discussion on childbirth and child-rearing, for example, would probably been dominated mostly by women.

When we discuss step up, stand-back we need to take the topic itself into account. Systems of oppression and discussion about this topic and those like it bound to be mostly dominated by men. Men are socialized to care passionately about issues like these, beginning at young ages, yes, but also during their education. I’m not saying there is no need for female contribution in these heady debates, but what must change first is the willingness of women to emulate their own idols, should they even have these idols, who can speak with the boys and undo their own programming to be seen and not heard.

Even when respectful space is granted to women, they must take the next step up of their own initiative. And without additional feedback, it is difficult to know why women do not talk in certain group discussions. Do they feel they have nothing worthwhile to say? Do they feel that, even on a subconscious level, no one would want to hear them? Perhaps they see topics like these as the domain of men and wish to register no strong complaints. It could be all of these, and neither.

What I will say is that I saw enough strongly-opinionated women present there to make me appreciative of their presence. One of the many ironies of this conference is that they led many of the activities. And another irony of this conference is that most participants were women. I’d say probably 65% of those registered were women and the remaining 35% were men. And yet, even with this high a female participation rate, there were still issues with a male minority sometimes dominating group talks.

This shows us the power of oppressive systems, including that of the oft-decried Patriarchy. Such topics were discussed in great detail. Highly educated liberals, highly educated participants had a command of terminology in many fields, gender studies being only one. This included men, which impressed me. The question remaining for us is to know how beyond theory to establish gender equity. One school would have us encourage women to fight in the trenches with the men, in the hopes that eventually some of that crusading spirit might rub off on a few of them. Another school would have us raise our children very differently, to place a priority on being outspoken and with no fear of censure or that women’s voices somehow matter less.

Yet, if we are to be true with each other, step up and step back has some flaws. It engages women who are rightfully indignant for a time, in an instant, but not forever. I’ve chosen not to speak about its impact upon men because the same basic issues are present here, too. It requires men to monitor the gender balance upon a room and make a judgment call. But if we do not impress upon men the need for someone to take this role, to call out other men, then little to nothing will change.

This conference was almost exclusively loving and compassionate. I witnessed few, if any incidents of drama or raised voices. Everyone knew their terminology and had read Howard Zinn. It is not for the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers that I worry. It is, instead, as T.S. Eliot put it, a thousand tedious arguments of insidious intent leading us to an overwhelming question. It is the fear and resentment of whites who believe they are losing something in giving up their majority or any number of perceived privileges in which they think they are losing their power. It is spaces like these which are neither calm, nor rational, and certainly do not self-govern well when they are necessary.

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