It seems like lately there’s a torrent of revelations about men — specifically white and straight men – behaving badly.
If you think the volume of revelations is staggering, imagine what it must feel like to live day after day, week after week, as the target of this behavior. And take a look at who is being called out — the highest of the high society; the most powerful of the powerful. They’re in the news because their names are newsworthy, but for every one of them, there’s ten thousand other BroDudes who have behaved badly.
I had a conversation this morning with my manager (a woman) and another coworker (a black millennial male) about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and other bad behaviors. In that conversation, I shared that in 1996, when I was 19, I worked in the dotcom industry and was a witness in both a sexual discrimination suit and a racial discrimination suit, in the same year. The experience left me with one huge, important, written in ALL CAPS point: DON’T FUCKING DO THAT. Not at work. Not in private. Not ever. It’s just gross.
But it wasn’t the ramifications that impacted me so deeply. It was the emotional state of the victims. In both cases, the people involved were not maliciously litigating or trying to “milk the system” or any of the bullshit that my white, straight, almost entirely male co-workers would say they were. In fact, in both cases, the victims were pushed by their families and encouraged by those of us who saw it happen to tell their stories.
They were scared. If not for the lawyers and police officers in the room during both depositions, I would have been too — and I didn’t do anything wrong. I was a white straight male with youthful brilliance in an industry that rewarded (with gobs of money at the time) youthful brilliance, and I was terrified to simply tell the people in the room what I saw happen, for fear of losing my job, ruining my own career, and forever being stamped as some sort of “rat” or tattletale.
Mind you, I was not a victim. I was not on the receiving end of any harassment. I was not a woman who clawed and fought her way as far as she had to a position of some stature only to be leered at daily, catcalled in the office, and outright sexually harassed by her manager. I was not a young black man who was held back from a team lead position not once, not twice, but three separate times, despite being the most brilliant advice giver in the group and one of the best teachers I personally ever had in the industry.
And even I was scared to open my mouth and simply say “yeah, that happened. I saw it.”
I didn’t let the fear stop me. “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” is a thing my dad told me years before, and instilled in me from the day he adopted me. But I also have a white armor on my skin that didn’t make me a perpetual target my whole life. I had genitalia and spoke with a gruffness handed down from dude to dude across millennia which kept me in the company of a default safe space for bad behavior to even exist.
So I told the panel what I saw, in both cases. And in both cases, the one overriding thought that sat in my brain: “How the fuck did this even happen?” I was thankful that the harassers wouldn’t be getting away with it, and I was glad that the victims had the opportunity and support to speak their truth.
But what about all the people who don’t have that support? What about the people physically threatened by a larger, or more wild and threatening, harasser? What about the middle manager who is a mother of two supporting her kids, paying rent, getting food, and attempting to merely survive under the management of a man who thinks it’s ok to pinch her ass — or, even talk about pinching her ass — because opening her mouth and saying something would put her kids’ lives in jeopardy?
But it’s not just single mothers with kids that make my eyebrows furrow and fists clench when I hear about it. ANY MAN who thinks its okay to inflict himself on ANYONE ELSE pisses me off at my core. But that doesn’t mean I’m innocent. I’ve raised my voice at people in an attempt to get my point made — albeit, I never MEANT to intimidate them with my size and language, the fact that I am a giant of a human couldn’t help but play a part in that. I have pushed and been unrelenting in my arguments to try to get my way at work and in meetings and on projects. Never once was it with the idea that I could just “scare” someone into doing what I want, but by not being mindful of what I was truly communicating, I have no doubt that I’ve been on the bad side of that equation in my career.
And this is someone who is TRYING. Who is aware of the hurt harassment and threats can cause. I wrote an article in 2012 that completely objectified and diminutized women in the geek culture mainly just to make a point that my culture — a culture I felt that I took beatings for for being a young geek in a culture that didn’t, at the time, celebrate geeks and instead picked on them — was being invaded by “Normies” and the group I chose to point that fact out was “Fake Geek Girls.”
I was a fucking asshole. And I was the most shocked person in the room when people called me out on it. I couldn’t understand at all what I’d done wrong. “These people are charlatans and trying to cash in on a culture built on passion and love, that we SUFFERED at the hands of the Cool Kids to build! What did I do wrong?”
First, I picked on women. Of all the things I could have picked on, women became the target. Second, I didn’t get the memo that times had changed, and geek culture was cool, so anyone who wanted to do something cool got to be a geek if they wanted to. Third, I attacked instead of discussed. And fourth, I didn’t admit my mistake immediately, because I was ignorant to it.
All of this from a guy who, at 19, had to watch a woman and a black man both fight through hell just to tell people they had been wrong, and swore he would never, ever be a part of that problem.
Well, I was. Not in a sexual assault way, not in a racial discrimination way, but in many many ways typical of toxic masculinity and obliviousness to privilege, I contributed to a culture that can — and very obviously does — produce people whose blunders aren’t just dumb, poorly thought out articles entrenched in a mindset a decade old, that offended people because he’s a bit closed-minded about people who are curious about and want to check out (and hell, even profit from) the cool thing of the time. That attitude is the soil that the crops of harassment, assault, discrimination, and bad behavior grows.
Even when I thought I was the best of the bunch… I was still part of the bunch.
It took half the internet raking me over the coals for me to realize, no matter how great I thought I was for being one of the “good guys,” the mere fact I was unaware of my subconscious behavior from a societal privilege and toxic male bullshit made any attempt to be “a good guy” useless.
To say I couldn’t help it is only fair in the context of pointing out that a realization had to be made. But that was in a time (5 years ago) before “Woke” was a catchphrase and “Toxic Masculinity” was actually part of daily discourse. Thankfully, I had friends and people who, although offended and upset with me, listened when I asked them to teach me and help me understand. Even though it was challenging for them (sometimes, they had to have felt like they were talking to a wall), they did it. And it got me to a point where my eyes opened and I realized just how much a piece of the overall puzzle I am.
The real work took place when I issued a challenge to myself: “Can you change the way you think? And if not, can you at least acknowledge that there’s another way to see things?”
I am going on record that this challenge is harder than any physical, career, sports, monetary or social challenge anyone could ever go through. To climb Mt. Everest, it takes lots of money, lots of training, lots of guidance and practice. But all of those things can be acquired simply by pointing in the direction and getting them. They’re tenacity based.
Changing your own mind? That’s the hardest thing in the world, because it requires one to admit two things: 1) that the mind needs changing (which often times, we just don’t need or want to admit, because why bother? Clearly our mind has worked this wya this long, and it’s only for OTHER PEOPLE that I would need to change… This is a lie, but it’s what your brain would say) and 2) the change is worth making.
In this regard; in a society where we ALL benefit and ALL suffer by the overall direction we all take it, I argue that there must be a change in the minds of every single person in this country — and very esepcially the white and straight males among us. The idea that men are “just men” when they inflict themselves on another person in any way — verbally or physically — is folly. The idea that an alpha male mindset creates victory is folly. The idea that toughness has ANYTHING to do with how much you can beat another person at anything is folly.
Being a man is not about being strong at the expense of anyone else. It’s about being strong enough to be yourself in the face of pressure. Your TRUE self. The self that has feelings. The self that gets hurt. The self that recognizes the beauty in another person and their existence.
It’s the self that secretly feels gross and dark anytime you make a joke at someone’s expense just to get a laugh from your peers, because that makes you the alpha male. Its the self that knows it’s wrong to push a woman into saying yes for anything, merely because you’re bigger and stronger. It’s the self that laughs at jokes about those things. It’s the self that is crying out deep inside you to please, God, just stop fighting this dumb war of perception where you somehow seem stronger than you really are.
I share this now, with you here, not because I think I’m the guy to change anything or fix society or otherwise put his foot down against all these bad actors who have done terrible things.
I share this with you now because I’m doing that for myself. And I hope that you’ll do the same.