One of the interesting things about the technological world is that new, precise terminology develops really quickly. This can be confusing and a barrier to understanding things, but when it bleeds over into culture surrounding technology (e.g. newsgroups back in the day and social networking sites now), there’s great jargon that really captures cultural phenomenon.  Today, I learned the term “mansplain” through meta-comments about a blog post.  Urban Dictionary defines “mainsplain” as:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this.  The example that weighs heavily in my memory happened on a trip back home during my freshman year of college.  I had just participated in reading Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” as part of a university-wide reading program.  It was really an eye-opening book for me because it described cultural pressures and beauty standards that, as a man, I really didn’t have to think about or deal with.  I was excited by my new-found consciousness and filled with moral outrage about the injustice of gendered beauty standards.  On my trip back, I went with my family to one of my brother’s quiz bowl competitions.  In talking with one of his female teammates, the subject shifted to gender and appearance.  I began to describe “The Beauty Myth” and how culture and mass media oppressed women and suggested that she read the book.  My brother’s teammate cut me off.  “I don’t read that dykey stuff,” she replied shortly.

Until recently, this story sat in my mind as an example of how ideas that restrict someone can be internalized, but now I see it as a possible response to my mansplaining.  Surely, a young woman participating in an intellectual competition, thick with geeky connotations, where women were definitely in the minority didn’t need to have gendered double standards explained to her.  This kind of mansplaining seems particularly problematic because it’s pedantically clobbering someone about issues of gender.  This is easy for me, and likely other men, to do because part of male privilege and the expectations and behaviors that perpetuate it is that men aren’t supposed to think about how our lives are mediataed by gender.  So, it’s a lot easier to try to front with presumed expertise when we learn about how gender works in our society from books or descriptions of other people’s experience than to describe and analyze our own experiences with gender.

What is the remedy?  It seems so difficult when I feel conditioned to mansplained. The familiar elementary school report is just one example of how our culture values singular expertise on a subject and assumes that the non-expert doesn’t have anything to contribute to the teaching or learning process.  I feel like I get most of my validation from the things that I do that are perceived as having the most exclusive knowledge.  Do I get validation because I enjoy writing computer programs or do I write computer programs because it’s something that is culturally perceived as challenging and talent-requiring?  What can individuals do with skills or knowledge other than demonstrate their expertise?

I can answer the last question at least.  We can do stuff.  And one thing that is incredibly helpful to me is to do things where I am most definitely and perpetually not expert.  It forces me to appreciate the abilities or knowledge of others and learn from them.  Playing music is one of those things and playing soccer is another.  When I think about gender, it’s hard not to think about soccer because playing it, for me, has always involved playing with women, but the institution has also seemed so male dominated.  It’s easy for me to fetishize women who play on otherwise all-boys high school teams, or who are the sole lady at the pick-up game, and it’s compelling to say, “I know what you’re facing, I can see how the pressures and expectations of gender are playing themselves out on this field.”  But, really, we know these things because we live them, on one side of the gender divide or the other, and we can do our best to make these spaces in our lives more gender equal.  Finally, I rely on soccer as an example of personal changes in gendered interactions because it’s so obvious that what, beyond “teaching” someone skills or pointing out their minority status in the game, what will really benefit women playing in mostly-male soccer games benefits most men too.  It doesn’t elevate the game when any player makes assumptions about the skills of their teammates.  It’s not fun for everyone when two dudes start yelling at each other over some foul.  And it doesn’t make anyone more skillful when a handful of skilled players hog the ball and are oblivious to their teammates.  It’s pretty clear in this example, but generally true, I think.  While gendered expectations benefit men in a lot of ways, they also restrict us.

Masculinity and Sexual Assault Awareness Month

This is a first draft of an op-ed for a group called ManUp! that I’m working with in Bloomington.  I’d appreciate any comments or feedback:

April, sexual assault awareness month makes me tired.  I am tired of seeing women that I respect and care about exhausted as they do the challenging, important, but also extremely difficult work of supporting survivors of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence and working to raise consciousness which might prevent future violence.  Many of these remarkable friends have experienced violence in their lives and started doing the work that they do because of the lack of support that they experienced.  Their efforts are remarkable and brave yet ultimately they shoulder the weight of their pasts as well as the weight of the survivors that they support and the confused, indifferent, or even hostile voices they encounter doing prevention work.

I am tired of feeling trapped in the same tired discussion in the rare cases that men’s violence and men’s violence against women comes to the surface, whether it is in the lives of celebrities such as Chris Brown or the lives of men in my social circles.  I can try to excuse the violence, weakly dismissing it as stress or substance abuse or as an isolated incident.  Or, I can pat myself on the back, satisfied that at least I am not one of “those men” who chooses to be violent, to harass and intimidate those passing by on the street, who touches someone’s body without their permission, who pressures someone to consume too much alcohol or drugs in the hope of getting lucky, or who seeks to belittle and control intimate partners. In either case, I can’t find the imagination to think of a world where perpetrating and experiencing violence is not a part of manhood – mine, my friends, or Chris Brown’s.

I am tired of a man’s strength being defined by his ability to suppress painful experiences and to downplay the experiences of others rather than crying out and reaching out and working in the hopes that others might be spared those painful experiences.   I am tired of the gentleman’s agreement that we will not speak of our fear of violence from other men or the fear of the violence we have committed or might commit.

Finally, I am tired of the myth that violence against women doesn’t matter to men and that it is not men’s work to end this violence.  It is a myth that I have found comfort in because it excuses my own inaction.  If this myth rings true to me or other men, I fear it is only because we have spent so much energy convincing ourselves that it is true.   When I think of all the effort spent changing the subject to avoid seeming vulnerable, laughing along or remaining silent when a friend tells a cruel, demeaning joke, or convincing myself that it’s not my place to say or do something when I witness or hear about violence it seems like such a waste.  All that energy could have gone into dealing with the violence that men have witnessed or experienced in our lives to make sure that we don’t repeat it.  It could go to defining manhood by our best, most noble qualities instead of the worst of our choices.  It could go towards working earnestly as allies with women to prevent violence that hurts us all.  Sexual assault awareness month is not just a chance to be aware that violence is terrible, that it happens too frequently, or even that it hurts both women and men.  It is also an opportunity to be aware that we can make a different, less violent world.

Sports, Race, and Imagination

I came across this article in the New York Times, A Country Feels a Hurdler’s Pain, and was at first surprised that there would be such a reaction to one runner being unable to compete.  It made more sense when I read further in the article and read this quote by the runner, China’s Liu Xiang:

“It is kind of a miracle,” Liu said. “It is unbelievable — a Chinese, an Asian, has won this event. It is a proud moment not only for China but for Asia and all people who share the same yellow skin color.”

“Please pay attention to Chinese track and field,” he said. “I think we Chinese can unleash a yellow tornado on the world.”

and the accompanying commentary:

Please note these are not the ravings of a Western journalist. These are the words of Liu — reasonable enough, since he had just become the first Chinese male ever to win a gold medal in Olympic track and field.

This was not some foolish boast of racial superiority, just an assertion of standing tall against the world. Liu was suggesting that a Chinese man could reach the level of Rafael Nadal of tennis or Kobe Bryant of basketball or Ronaldinho of football or Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who sprang from other continents.

I can see why the prospect of a Champion Chinese sprinter would be a big deal.  I loved sports as a kid, but of all of the heroes of Ohio Sports at the time Bernie Kosar, Mark Price, and countless baseball players whose names now escape me – none of them were Asian, looked like me, or my father, or my paternal relatives.  I think it’s hard with institutions, like pro sports, that seem so important, to feel like you don’t really have a place in this world.  This is connected to ideas of masculinity too and a global event like the Olympics and the things that people invest in it make me think about the possibility of a  globalized masculine ideal.  To be sure there are many talented, respected, championed Asian athletes.  However, none come to mind that rise to the top in the contests that seem to define a certain ideal of manhood – absolute strength and speed.

For a long time I’ve wanted to interview my friends who are Asian about their experience, because it’s something that doesn’t seem to have much space to be discussed otherwise.  I’ve only gotten to interview one friend so far, and the thing that surprised me the most when he spoke about his experience of being Asian in a small Indiana town was that what defined his sense of difference was size.  He was just smaller than most of his other male peers.  In retrospect, this was important to me too.  One way of being a boy, one centered around strength and power and physical presence just felt closed to me.  This is probably for the best, and I should feel glad that I managed to find things that gave me attention, that garnered respect, that made me feel like an expert, chances to lead or make decisions, all the subconscious expectations that are important to many people, but that I have always felt were tied to maleness.  I can still remember that sinking feeling though, of surveying the territory and hearing the hum of voices insisting, “this is not for you.”