It has come to my attention that some people seem to view being called sexist as worse than the damage done by being sexist. (It has also come to my attention that many people don’t know what sexism is.) This is all highly unfortunate, to say the least, but I think I can help. Without further ado, here is my short and dirty primer on what to do if someone calls you (or something you said or did) sexist.
Do not respond to accusations of sexism with outrage or denial. Doing so suggests that you care more about not being told you are contributing to the problem than you do about helping solve said problem. This is a serious case of misplaced priorities! Someone telling you that you said or did something sexist is not an attempt at character assassination. We live in a sexist society and that means everyone is sexist at least part of the time. Even me! If I, a feminist blogger, sometimes say sexist things, you probably do too.
Please understand that while being told that you are being sexist (or that some specific thing you said or did is sexist) may feel personal, it’s not. It is not an attack on you. Sexism does not require malice. It can mean something as simple as reinforcing gender stereotypes. When someone tells you are being sexist, view it as a call for you to better yourself by becoming less sexist. That is a good thing—and it’s something you should want too! Try to be introspective rather than defensive.
The next step is to listen. But what if you’re pretty confident the thing you said or did wasn’t sexist? Do you still have to listen? Yes. Listen, stop being defensive, and try to understand what the other person is saying. Ask questions to clarify, but always with the goal of understanding. Don’t be defensive. I know it may be uncomfortable sometimes, but if something you said was sexist you should want to know, and even if you still disagree, you should at least want to hear why someone felt what you said was sexist.
If you are a non-transgender man, please understand that you have no experience living life as a woman. Yes, you may have a wife, a mother, sisters, daughters, or female friends, but you still have no experience going through life as a woman. This means you should listen especially carefully when a woman says you are being sexist. They have real life experience that you don’t have, and that means you may miss things—or be unaware of how something you said or did comes across. Try to learn something about the experience of being a woman rather than simply putting up your guard.
Too often, when people are told they are being sexist they go into debate mode when what is needed is a conversation. Don’t look at your interaction as a debate that one of you must win and the other lose. That confrontational approach won’t help you learn anything, and it transforms an interaction that could be congenial and cooperative into one that is confrontational and antagonistic. Remember that while sexism may be theoretical to you, it is something women have to live with every day. Put aside your desire to prove that you’re right and to win arguments and make your goal understanding instead.
There may be times you are actually and truly trying to understand what the other person is saying but they become frustrated and angry. Ask yourself if you are following the steps laid out here—stop, listen, learn—and try to remember that the other person may have had this conversation many, many times before. In fact, as uncomfortable as you may find this conversation, please understand that it is likely only more uncomfortable for your conversation partner. If they lash out and end your conversation, please do not use that as an excuse to pat yourself on the back and assume you are right. Think about what she (or he) said and do some research on your own, once again with the goal of understanding.
Am I saying you need to accept someone else’s judgement on whether a statement or action was sexist whether what they say makes sense or not? No. I identify as a feminist, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with everything each feminist says. That’s as it should be—to quote blogger Tavi Gevison, I see feminism as “not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.” Sometimes it is helpful to move the frame away from “you should want to know why what you said was sexist” to “you should want to hear why someone views what you said as sexist.” With this framing, even if we ultimately disagree over whether something is sexist or not, we have still learned something.
Finally, if someone is willing to explain to you why they found something you said or did sexist, they are telling you that they believe you can handle the conversation and that they care enough about you to invest the time and energy. Even on the internet, if someone takes the time to explain why they think something you said was sexist, they are banking on you being able to handle it—otherwise they wouldn’t waste their breath.