by Jake Birdwell (’20)
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving an Espacio to all of you about the incredible history that we have as a school. A beautiful part of that history has been the role of strong women in shaping the mission and creation of our education. One would think, coming from a tradition of courageous women, that our Sacred Heart community would be a champion of gender equality. However, after talking to some girls at SHP recently, it has become clear to me that we still have a strong tendency to treat men differently than women in damaging ways. It’s time that we talk about the work that we still have to do on the topic of gender treatment at our school.
Despite the fact that we have made great progress in addressing explicit sexism within our community, we still have yet to adequately curb the effects of implicit sexism. These implicit attitudes are often actions or remarks that do not have the intended effect of being sexist, but are still harmful to those around us. Now that we have created a culture that condemns explicit attitudes, it’s time we turn our attention to the implicit biases. In order to better elucidate what implicit harm actually looks like, I’d like to explain a time when I screwed up.
There was one instance a few weeks ago when I asked a girl if she was feeling tired because I thought she looked a little down that day. She responded that she was fine, but sounded somewhat annoyed at my question. Later that week, I had a conversation with another girl in my class, who explained to me that, while asking a girl if she is tired may be well intentioned, it can actually be harmful to self-esteem. Reflecting on the instance, I realized that I had only asked the girl if she was tired because she looked different than normal, and this difference was nothing more than her not wearing makeup. At the time, I didn’t even realize that she wasn’t wearing makeup, but that had no effect on her perception of my comment. The female classmate I talked to about this further helped me understand, saying that this ultimately makes girls feel as though the no-makeup version of themselves is not enough. Comments like these prevent makeup from being about self expression. Wearing makeup should not be about fitting the status quo; rather, it should be a free choice.
The double standards at our school need to be looked at critically, because they can take a serious toll on the people they affect. The aforementioned example, of me asking the girl without make-up if she was tired, is a perfect case of a double standard between girls and guys on our campus. If a female student doesn’t wear make-up, others immediately question why she looks different than her “normal self.” Then, as a result of the reaction of those around her, the girl might proceed to try to match unfair beauty standards. This phenomena happens much less often for the boys at our school, indicating that the focus of this specific issue should be the treatment of women.
Often, these gender related problems are perpetuated by the fact that those who are not affected are unaware that the problem even exists. For me, understanding the standards that girls face when presenting themselves at school was a blind spot. In the process of writing this article, I have learned that I know very little about the pressure that girls at SHP face. Spending time with female students every day, I initially presumed that I had a pretty good understanding of their experience. However, I was wrong. Everything in this article regarding the societal pressures on young women had to be explained to me at least once by friends of mine who are female, proving the extent of my ignorance on this topic. It was my blindness to implicit sexism that allowed me to play a part in it at our school, and it is all of our blind spots to one another that prevent us from broader progress in how we treat each other.
So, what is the best step forward? Simply put, we need to listen to one another and enter into conversation with those who have different experiences than us so we can begin to understand what they go through. We need to accept that our understanding of another’s experience will never be as deep as theirs but also that learning from them can help us to treat them and people like them better. Most importantly, we need to enter into these conversations with humility. I will never be able to fully understand all of the challenges that a hispanic woman faces, or the reality of an African American man, because I do not live that reality. But, by listening from a place of humility, we all are given the opportunity to reflect on and change our own behaviors so that others feel more accepted in our community.
I have a simple challenge for anyone who read this far into this article. Go find a friend who is a different gender or race than you, and ask them about the ways in which identity affects their everyday life. It isn’t the place of guys at SHP to take control of fixing issues of sexism, just as it isn’t the place of white people to fix issues of racism. However, it is our collective responsibility to critically look at our blind spots, and rethink our behaviors. If affected groups can share their stories with a responsive audience, then we have a real chance at social progress at SHP. This work of confronting our own lack of understanding will be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is what we need as a school, country, and world to move forward.