How to get out of the way

This isn’t a “why I am a feminist” post.

I am going to talk a bit about myself, but I don’t like the idea of framing this post as “why this is important to me,” because one of the things I’ve learned early on is that in the pursuit of bettering myself and my understanding of the world around me, I need to get out of the way.

So the first time I ever considered myself a feminist was grade 12, I think, where my English Lit teacher did a unit on female authors and feminism. My “conversion” was actually pretty straight-forward, since when the teacher gave the definition of feminism as “the pursuit of equality for women in social, political, artistic, economic, and personal avenues” or something to that effect.

Basically: women have equal value with men and should finally be treated as such. And that made perfect sense and I realized the only reason I hadn’t considered myself a feminist up until that point was all the negative portrayals I had seen of them. I had imagined feminists to be demanding either better footing than men (the so called “man-haters”) or decrying issues that weren’t really affecting anyone (the “straw feminist”). And when I learned that neither of these things were true—that while many feminists were, rightfully so, pissed off at a lot of men, and that no, actually, these issues were seriously important since there is so much damage being done to women and men from a patriarchal system—it made perfect sense to join up and become a feminist.

I mean, I don’t need to go over why this is the case, right? Much more intelligent people than myself have proven over and over again the damage that is done to women and to men because of backwards belief in giving power to one over the other. I don’t need to go in to how this affects women not just in the most blatantly obvious ways but also in the most minute aspects of their daily lives.

And so for many years I called myself a feminist and would totally agree when someone would bring up issues around things that were happening far away from my own life and “yes, absolutely, that’s a real tragedy” whenever I read about unequal treatment in other countries or schools. It was safe. It was easy.

In fact, I once had a professor at university who once said something to the effect that “all Christians are feminists.” The idea behind this was that since Christians follow Christ who is about loving everyone that therefore Christians are automatically feminists because they must love everyone equally.

Now this is a very dangerous thought. Not that Christians shouldn’t be feminists. In fact, they absolutely should be. But assuming you already are a feminist because it seems to make sense with what you already believe and it doesn’t take any additional effort to add that extra label to your profile—that’s where the trouble starts.

See, I don’t really have a “moment” where I realized I was just playing it safe with pursuing equality. For a long time, it was easy to say and didn’t cost me anything. But doing so did have the benefit of opening up avenues of discussion with people that I know for a fact I would have never pursued without having “converted” to feminism. And each and every one of those discussions with women and men challenged me to go further, to unpack the ways in which I had become safe and was still part of a process that was damaging myself and so, so many people around.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned was one of the simplest: no matter how much I’ve learned or how much I think I understand, I shouldn’t have the last word.

You may have hear that a theatre chain in the States is doing an all-female viewing of the new Wonder Woman movie. This isn’t the only screening of the film they’re doing, and it’s a major blockbuster, so it will be playing in theatres across the world for weeks. But there’re men still freaking out that they’re not included in something.

Or you may have heard of the groups of men who wanted to protest Mad Max: Fury Road or the latest Star Wars movies because they prominently featured women and POC in the cast. Or the group of white writers who wanted to make an award for the cultural appropriation of Native stories and symbols.

There’s this idea that white men not only have to be present in all things, but dominant as well. The second a work of art, or a social event, or any sort of public display either doesn’t feature white men or has white men present but not at the forefront, we flip out. We not only have to be in everything, but we have to be front and centre at all times.

There’s a perfect metaphor here, hang on, let me see if I can find it.

And look, the examples I’ve used here are easy for the average white person to brush off, because they’re all pretty extreme. I’m not angrily commenting on social media about this stuff, I’m not organizing boycotts whenever I feel left out of something, and I’m not some kind of perpetually petty president who is so insecure I’m willing to brag about sexual assault or give away national secrets just to make myself feel in control.

But we still feel this all the time. I know because whenever I see these dumb MRA movements or pissy, petulant comments, I still recognize where they are coming from. I’m so used to seeing myself in movies and TV shows and video games and politics and money and statues and everywhere. It takes a real concerted effort to work myself of assuming myself as the neutral person because everywhere I turn, that assumption is validated.

I am working against this mentality that has been put upon me but I am equally guilty of fostering in myself. I am still learning things listening to the voices of people who are not white, cis-hetero men on a daily basis. Things that are so obvious in retrospect, but I never knew or bothered to think about because they never affected me or even came into my line of vision before.

But I have been challenged over and over and over again to look past all the advantages I have been given to see what people of different gender, race, orientation, social background, class status, and religious belief deal with that I have never encountered. I am so, so thankful for each and every one of these people who have taken the time to explain these issues in writing and speeches and videos so that I can get off my high horse and be challenged again.

The bottom line is this isn’t about me. I know I’ve talked about myself for a lot of this post, but I need to get out of the way. I truly do believe that Christianity and feminism are not just good pairings, but essential ones. Christians should never find themselves too comfortable in the world around them, or see these inequalities and just keep waiting for Heaven to come down and Jesus to sort it all out. Loving your neighbour means truly loving them, which means understanding them, which means the kind of love Jesus demonstrated. It’s a sacrificial love, which means sacrificing your own comfort and power to better understand and listen to and support those around you, even if, or especially if, that means taking a backseat in the conversation in order to face uncomfortable truths

So yeah, I call myself a feminist, but it’s constantly a work in progress. I have to keep challenging myself to understand things beyond my purview and the issues I’ve been too blinded to notice. And I should be gaining no benefit from this, other than better understanding and an empathy that can and must continue to grow every single day.

I’m not even writing this to show what a good, good boy I’m being. In truth, I’m doing that absolute minimum and I don’t think any of it should be treated as special. I truly believe that the act of listening to voices not your own, to extending empathy outside your own comfort zone, and intentionally fighting against the ingrained ways in which women, and women of colour, and LGBTQ+ women, and women of all faiths and beliefs are continually subjugated and dehumanized—that should all be requirements for every human being, especially Christians like myself. I want to continue to do better because so many people like me need to do better.

And because of this, I really shouldn’t have the last word. I won’t give it to myself, but I will sign off by saying that there’s a lot to work against, and you and I certainly aren’t alone. None of us are, which is what you begin to understand the more you listen to the other voices around you.

“I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistances to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.”

-Roxane Gay

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