Conditioned Silence

I would consider myself to be a feminist. I believe in equality for all. I believe in fairness. I believe in everyone’s right to autonomy and privacy.
And yet, over the weekend I had the weirdest experience that went a long way in illustrating just how pervasive and insidious oppressive social norms can be. It’s the ones we are so used to, that were so ingrained in us as children we hardly even see them. And I will also name that as a white woman I have a fair amount of privilege, which equally goes unseen by my own eyes.  A lesson in itself.

I was at a party and I was introduced to an older man. I instinctively extended my hand to shake his.  As he took my hand in his, I felt that he was slowly but somewhat forcefully turning my hand so that my palm was now facing down and he kissed the top of my hand. In an instant a terrible stuck feeling exploded as two powerful forces within me met in conflict. I wanted so desperately to pull my hand away because I was NOT OK with this. But the equal and opposing force that kept me standing there without flinching was the conditioning that women get as girls: be nice, be polite, don’t be rude and worst of of all, don’t be a bitch.

And in that moment I betrayed myself in order to keep peace. I sacrificed what I wanted in order to not offend him. I was polite so as not to make a scene because was it really “that big of a deal?”

It wasn’t until the next day when I relayed the story to my husband that I heard myself say what was really deep down the issue: I actually made him comfortable while he made me painfully uncomfortable. I was somehow a party to my own oppression.

Ugh. It felt so bad when I realized what I had done and what was at play. I learned so well what it means to be a good girl that I couldn’t even voice that his contact with me was unwelcome. It doesn’t matter in that instance what his “intent” was, I was uncomfortable. I was feeling disempowered in that situation and that’s what oppressive social norms do. They cause us to lose our voice; worse yet we don’t feel like we have one to begin with. They can be so overpowering that even our most conscious awareness has trouble fighting them in the moment.

What I wanted to say, in hindsight, was “Excuse me, I extended my hand in greeting to shake your hand. I am not OK or comfortable with this interaction. Stop.” In fact, when I first started to type this, I wrote, “please stop.” But the truth is I am fully empowered to ask someone to stop without saying “please.” I do not need to plead, beg or ask someone to get out of my comfort zone. I am fully in my right to demand it. And so are you, man or woman.

This is how we box each other in — with extremes.
We make them:
Good or bad
Kind or bitchy
Worthy or not
Difficult or not

This is a simple example and while not traumatic it is symptomatic of how one group, in this case gender, can have an excessive feeling of rights in an interaction and the opposite gender feels inadequate access to rights. And that’s how scales of power tip unevenly and swiftly.

When we don’t speak up and stand up, we are also not educating those around us on how we will tolerate being treated. My silence implied agreement and yet I was not. We must stand up, speak up because we deserve it but it’s the only way those who are overstepping, even if unwittingly, will know. We all have to do better. We have to educate and simultaneously learn because when we know better, we do better.

Sunshine & Sarcasm,
Lowi & G

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