The social-media storm created by the #MeToo Twitter hashtag really shocked me last month. The Me Too movement itself isn’t shocking. It’s not new. Tarana Burke started it more than 10 years ago, back in the MySpace days. I also wasn’t shocked by the number of women who were talking about the harassment and abuse they’ve suffered. If you’re paying attention at all, you must have some idea how much harassment and abuse is out there. Perhaps naively, I actually felt a little hopeful knowing so many women and gay people and trans folks felt safe enough to speak out.
I expected the pushback from men, so that didn’t shock me, either. What was so surprising was just how familiar that pushback felt to me. To be clear, I’m not implying that I fully appreciate what it’s like to be harassed and abused as a woman. I do not know that experience, but I am familiar with a certain kind of reaction to it.
On so many threads, I saw man after man saying at least one, if not all, of the following:
a: “It’s not that bad.”
b: “I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that.”
And my favorite …
c: “Harassment happens on both sides.”
All my life, whenever I’ve brought up racism to certain white people, I’ve been told it wasn’t that bad, and that they didn’t mean it like that, and that it happens on both sides. None of those responses have ever been true. Not once, and here’s why:
a: If you are a man/white person, you cannot gauge whether sexism/racism is that bad — whatever that may be. You may think you have a comparable experience. You do not.
b: If you are a man/white person, you don’t know if the sexist/racist “meant it like that,” either, but only someone unaffected by such problems would think intention even mattered. It doesn’t. At all. What matters is what happens, not what doesn’t happen. If you’re trying to save someone’s life but you kill them instead, what you were trying to do may matter to you, but it sure as shit doesn’t matter to the person who just died. “Road to hell…” and all that.
Also, he totally meant it like that.
One other point: I’ve been on 13 flights so far this year, four of them out of Portland, and I was pulled out of line — or “randomly selected” — for additional screening before boarding every single one of them. I don’t know if the people searching me thought of themselves as racists. I’m sure most of them didn’t, but 13 out of 13 means what they think of themselves isn’t worth shit to me or anyone else. There are symptoms and there are diseases.
c: The “both sides” thing. Look, there are two sides here, but they aren’t what you think. When a white person doesn’t like black people because of the color of our skin, an entirely different thing happens than when it’s the other way around. When a white person doesn’t like black people because of the color of our skin, we don’t get hired, or we get fired, or we get followed around a store, or we get arrested, or we get legally murdered by vigilantes and police and average citizens and all manner of other scared white people.
When black people don’t like white people because of the color of their skin, well, you probably won’t hear about it, due to the fear of all the consequences I just mentioned. But on the off chance you do hear about it, I’m sure something happens. I haven’t really heard of anything, though. Probably hurt feelings, I guess. I don’t know.
A female friend once described this dynamic to me from her perspective: “Men call us crazy, but they kill us.” The most recent report I can find ranks Maine the ninth highest among the 50 states based on the rate its women are killed by men.
I often hear people present the answer to these problems as, “We all need to listen to each other more.” That is not true. Women/people of color do not need to listen to men/white people more. We are forced to do so, constantly. No, it is the people with the power who need to listen to the people without the power. Because, more often than not, it is at the expense of the powerless that the powerful are so.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.