Inadvertant Sexism – The Fix Starts With Listening

Over the last week, I twice wrote (and tweeted) about Joshua Kim and an essay that I found to be sexist. More importantly, the women he wrote about found it to be sexist, and in the ensuing discussion, Kim spent a lot of time talking about what he thought and he felt, rather than acknowledging the truth of Rab’s and Watters’ lived experience.

Kim initially resisted the message that his tone-policing was sexist, but eventually came around (as he really had to, hence the message of my open letter) and wrote a solid response to the issue. Here’s the best part of his piece.

One of the gifts that this whole week has given me is that I’ve had lots of really good conversations with some of my closest female colleagues. They told me story after story about how they have been made to feel when making arguments… “too political, “too emotional, and entirely out-of-line”. (Again quoting from Watters). Over the years I have extensively linked to the writing of Watters, referencing her as an authority in educational technology. (On 4/9/14 I even said that Watters was one of 3 people I know in edtech who should get a McArthur Genius Award, writing – “…who would better use this money/platform more to change our ideas about higher education?”). Given this background, I had assumed (and I think that this was a bad assumption) that my critique of her and her co-author would be understood as part of an ongoing professional interaction within our IHE community. It was my mistake to think that this history would matter in how my critical comments would be received, and to not fully appreciate the way that I wrote would be heard. It is absolutely true that at the time I would have written a similar response if the authors of the Watters/Goldrick-Rab review of Carey’s book had been men. My blindspot is not that I thought about gender when I wrote my critique of their review, it is that I did not.

He still relies on his intention as a shield, which is understandable. Intention does matter. It’s better to be sexist accidentally than intentionally. On the other hand, he actually cannot know whether he would have written a similar response of the authors of the review had been men, because we are not wholly independent actors, and that to me is what is interesting.

We consume patriarchal (and racist, and classist, and ableist, and homophobic, and …) culture from birth and it can rear up and shape our perceptions, our speech, our actions without warning. This is why it is vital, in these cases, to make the apology, to listen to the aggrieved (not me, but Rab and Watters and those in a similar situation), and then hope for restored community. Because we will all mess up from time to time.

Listening is key, and that’s what I like about the paragraph above. He set out to listen to his female colleagues, heard what they said, and modified his response. Had he listened from the beginning, he would have realized that inadvertently or no, he was operating in sexist ways, and quickly backtracked and tried to make amends.

When we really listen to the voices of others, the voices of people experiencing discrimination and prejudice, then so much else follows.

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