Sleepless in Patriarchy

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.

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4 Comments

  1. What an awful man. Sorry to say that even though he’s your partners father. So he is celebrating his perceived supremacy over everyone society told him is “lower” than him, at the expense of the closest people around him. They/you are the one walking on eggshells, considering how to approach the topic (if at all), how to handle it, having to deal with the feeling his utterings give you…

    Every step you take to give him awareness (or better: the possibiliy to gain awareness) is precious. But you are doing hard work and at the same time you have to deal with the violence this is. You have the right to cut the contact if you want to protect yourself. Your feelings, your self is precious. In my opinion power abusers – and this, how much instilled by society it may be, is power abuse – get energy from the power abuse. So pulling oneself out of their reach means taking them this kind of energy and saving it for oneself. It is your energy. No power abuser deserves your energy.

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    1. I agree, he seems to get a kick out of his behaviour, and that IS awful. Thankfully a balance that works for me is becoming more clear. I’m all for consciousness raising. At the same time it’s not my job to educate a man who can’t even consider I may know something about race and sex that he doesn’t, and who feels the need to put me in my place for daring to disagree. Happy to report my partner and I have adjusted our holiday plans to reduce exposure, complete with a quick getaway if needed.

      Thanks for your support!

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      1. You’re very welcome :)! Reading this really upset me. I’m happy you reduce contact and found a way to deal with his behaviour. The bit of contact maybe even gives some opportunities: you can solidarize with the mother and stepdaughter and maybe even instigate them :).

        I can very well imagine that he is getting a kick out of it. Power abusers are missing contact to their true self, and instead of searching and finding or developping it, they resort to the simple method of stepping on others to elevate themselves. They need to feel “bigger-than” to agree with themselves. No wonder he gets angry if you take this away from him. What helps me if I have to deal with someone like that is to remember that they are cowards under the surface. In my experience they make a big fuss when you start to stand up for yourself, and that can be frightening and disappointing, especially if the injustice is so obvious. But their making fuss is just another method to try holding others down and if that doesn’t work, they become pretty often quite defensive.

        I wish you good luck!

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      2. I so agree with you here. The most important thing is behaving in a way that you can live with, that lets you sleep at night. John may or may not be a lost cause (it kind of sounds like he is, but then, you never know). Because you probably will never say something that he will respond to by smacking his forehead and exclaiming, “What an assh*le I have been!” and then becoming a champion for the rights of the marginalized — the best possible outcome is you feeling like you didn’t just let the unjust, bigoted, hurtful comment pass, and you stood up for what is right and provided support for others who were listening and may have felt as you did. Then, when you are going over it in your mind later, you can tell yourself you did your best (and maybe enjoy tweaking and rehearsing what you will say next time) — the rest is up to him.

        Navigating relationships is one of the hardest parts of trying to live your politics and I congratulate you for being willing to take it on. You are definitely not alone in encountering these struggles.

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