True story: Sometimes people make mistakes because they actually don’t know any better.
True story: Sometimes people are sexist towards women and don’t even know it, because they’ve never learned what constitutes treating women with respect as a person (vs. treating women with the “respect due to them as ladies” or somesuch), and sometimes that sexist behavior causes a whole host of problems with real consequences, as in actual damage done to women in the long or short term.
Women often call out this behavior when it happens, in hopes of averting those negative effects, or at least in hopes of averting them in the future. And often, when women call out this behavior and go so far as to say that the behavior needs to stop, people (usually men) swarm out of the woodwork to explain and defend the people who committed the sexist act.
Not because the sexist act is defensible, no–of course not! And not because they personally would ever commit such an act–how dare you suggest that they are sexist! Outrageous! No. They come out of the woodwork to help the women understand why they’ve been victimized by sexism, so women can learn what unfortunate social environments or upbringings cause men to behave in sexist ways and so women can be more sympathetic to those poor sexists who don’t know any better, or because these guys feel sorry for these other guys, and want to give a brother a break and because these women are making it hard for them to do that. There are all kinds of things about sexism that men come out of the woodwork to explain, and all of it adds up to one stinking pile of Excuses.
Interesting though these stories and explanations may be (to you), they don’t look much like solutions. (I explain why here: #25 Not every perspective on sexism is helpful.) They look like men refusing to take sexism seriously. They look like men acting as advocates for the people who are causing harm and not for the people who have been harmed. (They also look like mansplainers, and with that link I’ve hit my two-meta-hit maximum per post.) And honestly? I really don’t think the men (and the smaller amount of women) who make all these excuses for the other men (and the smaller amount of women) realize they aren’t helping. In fact, you might go so far as to say that they were ignorant of what they can do that is more helpful than excusing ignorance.
Here’s a handy list of things that you can do instead of excusing ignorance:
- Ask the women what would have made the situation better, and implement their solution.
- Explain to the men whose point of view you think you understand well enough to explain to the women how what they are doing is hurting the women. Share your insight with the people who can directly benefit from it. Remove their ignorance.
- Call out repeat offenders. Assume that they were capable of understanding your insight and capable of remembering that you had the conversation. Realize that once you’ve had this conversation with people, they have lost the excuse of ignorance.
- Say nothing. If you have nothing to offer but excuses, you’ll do more good by not participating in the conversation. There is nothing wrong with sitting out a conversation you cannot or don’t want to contribute constructively to. Nobody will be mad.
For the record, pointing out ignorance is not a condemnation of ignorance. People aren’t born knowing everything and they learn at different times, in different places, particularly about aspects of social justice. And getting defensive and sputtery when a gap in your knowledge has been pointed out is understandable. It’s what happens next time that matters. Once you know it’s been explained (to you, or to another person) why a certain behavior or attitude is sexist, you can never again cop the ignorance excuse. At that point you are condoning willful ignorance, and there’s no excuse for siding with sexism if you are also making like you are trying to help women thrive in your community.