Zachary Bell | Step up, step back

Critical Playground | How Occupy deepened my understanding of sexism

· February 13, 2012, 11:37 pm   ·  Updated February 15, 2012, 11:29 pm

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Zachary Bell
Critical Playground

Vagina Monologues. Vagina poetry. Vagina lectures. From University of Michigan professor Susan Douglas’ lecture about the media’s role in perpetuating sexism to the poet Staceyann Chin’s personal accounts of sexism, a key component of Women’s Week was to bring together the structural and the individual manifestations of female oppression.

Douglas, who delivered the keynote address last week on “Enlightened Sexism,” commented on how many think feminism is a dirty word and a stale issue, making callbacks to sexist stereotypes (re: The Man Show) acceptable or comical.

But sexism has not bled out. It’s alive and pulses through our conversations and our body language. While laws have removed some official barriers to equality, new ones have been erected, built from culture and the politics of our daily interactions.

While most people recognize some level of gender inequality, few believe that they perpetuate sexism in their daily interactions. Myself included. And then Occupy happened.

In the last few months, the Occupy Movement has brought the issues of discrimination on a societal and personal level together. This movement provided me with a new platform to create equitable relations, propped up by four sturdy words: “Step Up, Step Back.”

Many liberals (as opposed to leftists) have stayed comfortably asleep on Occupy, hitting their snooze buttons and mumbling something about no agenda and no demands. This is an understandable perception from under the covers, but for those who have roused to a General Assembly or a teach-in, it’s clear that the means are an important part of the ends.

While Occupy has begun tackling specific issues, its agenda is still largely to strive — through dialogue and experimentation — to discover and enact a non-hierarchical, non-oppressive and radically equal society. This of course chiefly takes place in the micro-politics of social interaction and group decision-making.

“Step Up, Step Back,” is a key tenet of Occupy’s code of conduct. If you’ve been speaking a lot — step back. If you haven’t spoken up — step up. If you are white or male or from a group that has been traditionally privileged, defer to lesser-heard voices. If you’re black or female or queer or disabled or from an underrepresented group, speak up.This policy recognizes that it’s more important for privileged ears to hear marginalized voices than the reverse. It also recognizes that society forces individuals to adopt constructed identities that subject them to a hierarchical system.

As a man, I’ve been bred for leadership and domination. I have models of what men become: presidents, CEOs and patriarchs of the family. I’ve been conditioned to believe that I naturally behave as the prototypical man does: playing sports, not doing art, chasing girls.

I’ve been shown the male role in relationships: don’t be too affectionate, have the final say and always foot the bill. I’ve also learned what it means when a woman tries to act like a man — she’s acting like a bitch, she’s stuck-up, Hillary will risk our national security by being too tender or by going on a menopausal rampage.

On the surface, it’s a tired argument but its internal consequences are often ignored. This barrage of messaging from society may make it literally more difficult for a woman to speak up, to take charge and demand equal treatment. Professor Douglas commented that men were four times more likely to negotiate their first salary than women were. Certainly, bosses discriminate against female hires but women may also internalize the oppression by not pushing to negotiate and unconsciously accepting a level of inferiority.

Occupy showed me that it isn’t just about counting the wage discrepancy, I also need to count how many men speak compared to women at a given meeting, how often a man raises his voice to speak over a woman, how often a man answers and a woman asks, how the group looks to a man to facilitate discussions.

Occupiers are deeply critical of Occupy and months of meetings have shown me how unintentionally discriminatory I can be. Now, I try harder. To wait until everyone’s spoken. To look at everyone in the circle when I speak. To look away when the speaker looks only at me. To not take up too much space with my body. To avoid gender-normative language. To recognize that a woman (and other marginalized people) can add things to a discussion that I never could.

I struggle and frequently fail. It’s not simple and it’s not just about voices — I can’t tell a woman to speak up since that would still make me the authority for representation. It’s about power and respect. I need to step back and allow others to step up.

Zachary Bell is a College senior from New Haven, Conn. His email address is zacharyabell@gmail.com. Critical Playground appears every other Tuesday.

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