Most of the time when I think about my graduate school experience, I take note of the many things that I’m learning. (And the plethora of things I’ve yet to learn!) But, there are also attitudes, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that need unlearning. I think these are probably the hardest lessons for all of us, the lessons of unlearning. It came to my attention this week that one of the areas we struggle with most in this respect is our web of beliefs about gender. This isn’t just a problem that the men have either; my experiences this week have made me realize how often I also enable sexist systems and beliefs in my own communities.
Let me share a little bit about my experiences this week. I started a similar post earlier, but my description of these events was angry and demonizing (and very funny, which is how I justified it to myself). But that’s not really helpful, other than being an outlet for my own frustration. Both instances involve sexist jokes in the context of a Christian setting. Sunday night, an elder at our church was praying a blessing over a couple who are expecting a child, and he made a sexist joke in the middle of the prayer. Muffled chuckles were heard throughout the room; they were loud enough to drown out my shocked gasp. I left church that night thinking, “Why am I even a member of this church? Of this denomination?” The other incident happened in a seminary classroom. A peer of mine made a crack about women being excessively emotional. When he realized I was in the room (the only female present), he said a quick, insincere, “I was just kidding. No offense.” I gave him a tight-lipped smile, muttered that it was fine (a huge lie), and shoved my books into my bag a little too forcefully. The other boys in the room either smiled sheepishly or didn’t respond at all (either because they didn’t hear the joke or because they wished they hadn’t). I left school wondering if that’s how our male peers talk about us when we’re not in the room.
A quick word about jokes: my mother used to tell me that there’s a little bit of truth to every joke. Before, I’ve doubted that this broad generalization is always true, but in this case, I think it’s dead on. Jokes make a truth claim. This claim is what makes them funny. If a person makes a joke about how women are overly emotional, that person is assuming that the person receiving the joke agrees that women are too emotional. In the seemingly innocuous form of a joke, a sexist stereotype is reinforced. Furthermore, it’s bad form to be mad about a joke. In the statement, “I’m just joking,” the speaker makes a power play. Now if someone gets offended and confronts the other person, he or she is a jerk. “Can’t she take a joke?”
There are several things for us to unlearn as we strive to get along with one another. In our Christian communities, these kinds of sexist jokes have been considered acceptable. Whole generations of people have been brought up to believe that there’s nothing wrong with this. And so, the men, who are the only ones with a public voice, continue to make hurtful statements. And the women continue to take it. Like me, passive-aggressively slamming my books around while saying it’s not a big deal, women have remained silent. Some are genuinely not offended. “Boys will be boys,” they say as they shrug it off. Others seethe on the inside, but rarely say anything about the hurt such comments cause. When they do speak up, their complaints are often disregarded. Or, perhaps they are received cordially, and forgotten over the ensuing weeks. Men aren’t the only ones who make sexist comments; women are also guilty, and that is just as unacceptable.
We all have learned behaviors and attitudes to unlearn here; there are more lessons to draw from this than I intend to include here. But I will highlight one area that I think is crucial. In both cases, the Christian community failed to use speech wisely. We, as a community, need to practice spiritual disciplines that help us learn to manage and reform our thought and speech. (This is why I scrapped my earlier, vindictive post!) Thought comes first; it is out of the overflow of our hearts that our mouths speak. If we are going to speak hospitably and justly to one another, we must learn to think hospitably and justly about one another. In addition to guarding our speech, we need to know when to speak up. Sometimes we remain silent to keep the peace, but our silence often simply enables injustice. This clearly is a communal discipline: we have to practice it together as a people bound by love in Jesus Christ. We are going to make mistakes on this journey, but the solution is not to justify them as acceptable or to sweep them under the rug. (Or to break fellowship and start over.) We must learn to speak honestly and charitably to one another as we grow up together in Christ.