May 25, 2017

The importance of being uncomfortable

Earlier this month, I participated in A Day Without a Woman—a peaceful demonstration designed to highlight the value of women in society and the workplace. I stayed home from work and I wore red to show solidarity. But being away from the office allowed me time to spend on the internet and I found it especially littered with bad takes. One smiling male avatar after another offered his two cents on topics where no one asked for it. To them, the wage gap, sexism, and rape culture are fake news. It was frustrating to not only feel like some men weren’t listening, but also that they decided women were lying.

Determined to not be a version of the “well, actually” men to others, I recently went to see the movie Get Out. As I left the theater, my head was so full. When Chris, the main character, said having another black person at the party made him feel more comfortable, I thought about how I’m more at ease with female doctors and bosses. I feel safe from inappropriate comments with my own gender. When Chris confessed that he gets scared when too many white people are around, I remembered the time a group of white teenage boys followed me for more than a mile in broad daylight.

I also bristled at the way the Armitage family directed microaggressions at Chris and noted how the film had to make them so over the top that white audiences couldn’t accidentally dismiss it as normal chatter.

What stuck with me most was how every time they did it, Chris insisted that it was ok. It was something he’d probably heard many times before and had gotten used to it. Maybe it was easier not to make it a big deal.

But it’s not ok.

It’s not ok when a woman reports a sexual assault and people ask what she was wearing or what she had to drink. It’s not ok that 82 percent of transgender children feel unsafe at school. It’s not ok when someone uses a slur and their friends sit in silence.

These awful things will continue to happen unless we get used to being uncomfortable. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of yourself as a good or nice person when faced with the fact that you and those around you have treated others poorly. So people get defensive. We say the problems of marginalized groups don’t exist. We say they’re playing the victim.

When someone shares their experiences as a marginalized member of society, they aren’t saying no straight, white man has ever had a problem. White men can have failing health, family issues, and they can certainly struggle financially. They can battle addiction and mental illness. But a white man’s challenges in life do not mean they don’t also benefit from privilege.

I am a straight, white woman. Misogyny angers me to my core, but I am still privileged. White women earn more on average than women of color. I’ve never been pulled over, detained, or questioned for no reason. I’ve never had to worry about which bathroom I would be allowed to use. So it is my responsibility to learn about what happens to others and consider what actions I can take to help them.

Empathy is like a muscle—if you don’t use it, it shrinks. If all you do is feed yourself stories about how these people are lazy or those people are terrorists, entire groups become dehumanized and it’s next to impossible to imagine how they feel. What if we challenged ourselves to listen to their stories and sit with our thoughts for a minute? We can consider if we ever contributed to their hardship and how we can avoid doing that again. None of us will be perfect, but if we can treat the struggles of those different from us with the same validation we give those who are like us, we will be better equipped to address those problems.

The sooner we stop denying that things like racism and homophobia exist, the better. The sooner we stop apologizing for others and start calling them out, the better. The sooner we embrace the discomfort of realizing we hurt others, the sooner we can stop. Because it’s not ok.

Nicole Gustafson 14 Articles
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Nicole was born in Chicago and raised in Des Moines. She took her talents to The Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism. You can find Nicole cheering on her favorite sports teams, hanging out with her dog, or finishing a Netflix marathon. Nicole is a big fan of #pitcherswhorake, fat guy TD's, and carbs. She's not a fan of mornings, winter, or vegetables and will complain to anyone who will listen.

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