One night last week, when I should have been sleeping, I was awake ruminating about my partner’s stepfather – more precisely, his blatant racism and misogyny.
Evaluating personal relationships has been a central, and difficult, part of my journey to better align my life with my feminist values. Figuring out how to respond to the misogyny that creeps into almost every social interaction is painful and exhausting, especially as, through trial and error, I try to balance asserting myself and challenging misogyny with maintaining valued personal relationships.
Once I began noticing that men often interrupted and infantilized me, that they invalidated and dismissed my opinions, that my male friends often made shockingly sexist comments and that my female friends often spoke progressive speak one minute, and then objectified themselves or badmouthed other women’s appearances the next there was, simply, no going back. I couldn’t un-see or un-hear these things, and relationships that used to bring me comfort immediately brought feelings of isolation and disappointment.
Many women, I think, resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships. – Andrea Dworkin
In many cases, figuring out how to address the misogyny in my relationships was easy. I ended more than a handful of relationships with men and women who consistently demonstrated misogynistic behaviour, especially those who weren’t willing to acknowledge and examine their attitudes.
In other cases, particularly my relationship with my male partner, I decided to invest time and energy asserting myself, educating and explaining. Although the process hasn’t always been smooth, it has been worth it, and we’ve grown closer while we support each other’s growth and, together, recognize and deconstruct the problematic aspects of our socialization.
Other relationships have been more difficult to navigate, particularly my relationship with my partner’s stepfather John. A 70 year old white man who speaks proudly about using pornography and calls women “chicks” and “dames”, he has, one more than one occasion, used racist and sexist slurs in front of me, a woman of colour. In almost any other circumstance, I would cut him out of my life without much thought. Since my partner and I both love my partner’s mother (John’s wife) that isn’t an option, so I’ve had to find other ways to cope, and so far at least, I haven’t had much success.
During one visit, John brashly proclaimed that all women turn into “old bags” once they reach 40. I felt compelled to say something, especially after noticing his wife and stepdaughters’ pained, downcast expressions, but I couldn’t figure out what to say. Instead, upset and confused, I walked away.
Later, while I unpacked his comment’s many problematic aspects and thought back to the obvious pain inflicted on the women he was talking with, I felt ashamed for retreating instead of putting my feminism into action. I would have loved to ask him what about adult women he found so repulsive, and why he didn’t feel creepy perving over women half his age. But I didn’t. I froze, fled, and later berated myself for not standing up.
Since that incident, I spend time before each visit anticipating the racist or sexist things John might say, planning how to respond, and resenting the entire exercise.
It wasn’t long before I got another opportunity. Soon after, John used a racial slur and then loudly dismissed my objections. His angry, domineering reaction set off a storm of emotions, doubts and incredulous thoughts that was too overwhelming for me to set aside and figure out how to proceed. Instead, I left the room with my partner and cried my eyes out. I knew John had dinosaur opinions, but to be so soundly put in my place after objecting to his racist behaviour left me feeling alone, angry and immediately mistrustful.
Later, my partner told John not to make racist or misogynist comments around me, and to listen if I have something to say in response. John settled down for a long time after that discussion, and even though my partner’s support was comforting, I felt conflicted since, yet again, I didn’t seize an opportunity to stand up for myself.
Recently, John told me that, while at a grocery store, he saw a border guard he recognized from his frequent crossings into and out of Canada. Apparently this woman, who appeared to be in her 20’s, and whom John had only previously met in her professional capacity, didn’t appreciate John referring to her there in the grocery store as a “little girl”. After a familiar moment of anxiety and swirling doubt I told him that I understand why she was offended, that as women we’re tired of being treated like children.
Listen, I understand this was no groundbreaking display of feminist activism. But it was a significant step forward for me in this relationship, a step towards me being brave enough to express my opinion and point out John’s problematic behaviour. This is a man who has bought into society’s version of masculinity his whole life. Someone who thinks he’s always right, and people – especially women – especially women of colour – who suggest otherwise must be proven wrong at all costs.
Thinking back on my tiny first step I feel proud and confident that, next time, I’ll be able to take one step further. And then another one. And then, hopefully, I’ll be confident enough to live my feminism as universally and consistently as possible – and maybe even sleep better at night.