You Just Don’t Understand

The Alienation of Mutual Allies in Conversations about Equality


Last night’s conversation about equality started like any other. A group of female friends and I were sharing our perspectives of the particular corners gender roles have assigned us in society.

And for what felt like the millionth time, I felt like I understood as much as I could without being a woman. It was painful, hearing about trauma from a group of close friends that you have no ability to truly fix or change the circumstances of so it never happens again.

I’ve tried to live a just life, a fair one that treats people for who they are. I haven’t always succeeded, of course—I’m human. But I was raised by a strong woman, one who commanded respect for her sheer talent in her field. Hate her or love her, you respected what she could do. And woe to miserable soul who underestimated her abilities because of her gender.

I like to think that influence in my life has given me a solid foundation, and I’m proud that my mom gave it to me.

I’m proud of my mother the same way I’m proud of my friends, the way I’m proud of my girlfriend. Badasses, the lot of em. So when they speak, I try to listen, even if it isn’t easy.

It’s almost never without some difficulty, conversation about gender differences, and I’m OK with that. I suppose it isn’t suppose to be totally fluid—the unease is a side effect of addressing a power imbalance. And so this night, like so many other nights, I felt a bit uncomfortable.

But as the conversation went on, the seas got choppy. Inexplicably, we arrived at the same point so many other nights had ended in: the dismal signpost that marks the traditional boundary between enlightening and infuriating discussion; that wretched phrase that is equal parts accusation and indictment, the bitter, terminal end of a conversation worth continuing: you just don’t understand.

I knew what it meant: As an unintentional, but ultimately unequivocal co-conspirator of male patriarchy, it was simply impossible for me to grasp the pain women felt. After all, despite my best intentions, I helped propagate it just by existing within the bias framework of today’s modern world.

And that’s pretty much where we left it. On the way home, I was reminded of a particularly poignant and heartbreaking passage from the Autobiography of Malcom X:

I never will forget one little blonde co-ed after I had spoken at her New England college. She must have caught the next plane behind that one I took to New York. She found the Muslim restaurant in Harlem. I just happened to be there when she came in. Her clothes, her carriage, her accent, all showed Deep South white breeding and money…I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss-not their words.””What can I do?” she exclaimed. I told her, “Nothing.” She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.

Brutal.

The next morning to figure out where our conversation went wrong.

Let’s just put the obvious shit out there: I’ll never be woman. I know it, you know. No construction worker will ever whistle at me as I walk by. No one will ever overaggressively hound me while while I’m out trying to run an errand. I won’t ever feel like a sex object, reduced to the scope of someone else’s desire, my personality and brains irrelevant.

I can never be those things like you are to so many every fucking day of the week. I can only try to grapple with them. Those word cut deep because the work I’ve done in my life to change my small corner of the world, the lengths I’ve gone to understand and be better ultimately don’t add up to much, even to the people closest to me.

So what can I do, really? Where do we go from here? Are we doomed to live in agony, acutely that there’s a problem and powerless to fix it?

No. Because this isn’t one group’s fight, it’s everyone’s. Because the gendered problems of our day are not the burden or boon of one group alone. Gender roles impact us all, and the fight to change them is all of ours.

I can’t feel your exact pain, but I can relate, even as a man. I have a different set of data to work from, but I see myself in your frustration. I too have an assigned gender role that makes me uncomfortable, that I hate.

As a man, I can’t feel. I’m not allowed to express emotion, least of all sadness. I can’t open up about trauma, or loss, about confusion or hurt, unless it’s in very, very specific and controlled circumstances. And crying? Fuck off (unless your mom dies, then it’s OK).

I can’t admit to pain. Not really. Oh sure, I can say the words, but usually not without a serious cost to my credibility. My fellow dudes don’t want to hear that shit. Man up, motherfucker. My coworkers will almost certainly respect me less, male and female. Stop whining. Who the fuck am I going to complain to? Just deal with it bro.

I’m suppose to provide. If I go on a date, it’s not unusual (in fact, it’s pretty regular, even in San Francisco) that I’m kind of expected to pay for that. Sure, a lot of women will tell you that it’s not necessary, but a lot of girls I know will quietly admit that when the check comes at the end of the most recent OK Cupid date, they’ll hesitate, just a second longer than the man. And while they won’t insist he pays for it, they probably won’t go on a second date if he doesn’t offer. And these are progressive, proud, feminist women. That’s real shit, yo.

I’m sorry if I’m ranting. You’re probably getting a bit annoyed with me just reading this. I’ll bet a lot of you out there feel like I’m undeservedly complaining about how hard my life is without enough perspective to really understand the struggles of others.

Did you catch that? That’s my gender role in action right there.

That’s where the conversation turns in on itself, a vicious loop of misunderstanding that causes an unbridgeable gender divide. I’ll never fully grasp your pain (you’ll never understand), but I also can’t legitimize my own to relate. The harder we push on this fault line, the further apart we get. It’s a catch-22, the place where the sidewalk ends: during our conversation about the harm of gender roles, yours gets exposed for the sham it is, but mine seems to inadvertently get reinforced.

It’s not like we meant to do this. I don’t blame the many women I’ve spoken with for it. Hell, I only just realized this after years—it is some complicated shit. That same ragged list of societal rules and regulations you despise says I can’t express discomfort or weakness. Men are strong, Men are rocks. You’re right: I will never understand your pain. What pain, right?

There’s an additional recurrent emotional theme undercutting a large aspect of the gender comparative conversation: your male problems are so small in comparison to my female ones, that for you as a man to even acknowledge yours exists belittles our female struggle (since they’re not all all relatable), and furthermore implicates you as part of the problem that we’re discussing in the first place.

This idea is probably compounded by the fact that a lot of men don’t even want to talk about their issues, so there’s very little admission of them as a legitimate problems.

This is paralyzing. Not only am I less of a man for speaking about my troubles, my admission of them seems to delegitimize yours. I’m pigheaded for even bringing it up. So why would I?

Thus, our common denominator, the one thing that unites us, is rendered taboo. I’m trapped behind glass, looking in at your pain and our mutual fight, powerless. How would that make you feel?

The words “I feel marginalized” are not an appropriate phrase to be uttered from male lips. As a man, society at large does not care if you “feel” attacked. Were you attacked or weren’t you? The words “feel marginalized” sound weak just looking at them as I write this. Why is that? After all, it’s an emotion, how can it be wrong? It’s weak because it’s antithetical to the requirements of being a traditional man — what you and I perceive my role to be.

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that I fully understand that this is a mere echo of the whole reason this conversation started in the first place. Women have had less of a voice, less rights and less legitimacy in society forever, so I get it if someone out there rates a man’s problems during the overall conversation about equality less highly on the priority list.

And you’re right that I should put my burdens in the proper context of other’s struggles. Word up. Hell, for all my problems, my life is pretty fucking great. But that doesn’t delegitimize how I feel about the conversation right now. And to have this conversation at all, I need to be a part of it. Maybe I feel uncomfortable. We should address that.

It’s not like my discomfort is the be all end all. I’m not saying that’s the end of the line here. I just shouldn’t be shamed, belittled or admonished for expressing how I relate emotionally to struggles of my own, whatever larger context they’re in. And so often, when it comes to conversation about equality and gender (I’m just going to come out and say it), men are, I am.

An example for flavor: I was having dinner with a large group of female friends and one girl who I had just started dating. I was the only man at a table of 7 or so ladies. It was fun, a great dinner party, until the girls started swapping stories about awful encounters and dates they had been on with sketchy guys in the past.

I knew all these girls well (except the girl I had just started dating, who I liked an awful lot but was just getting to know), and my female friends knew me. Clearly, I wasn’t one of the type of guys they were talking about.

Intellectually, I knew that being present for this type of discussion was probably high flattery. They felt comfortable enough around me to discuss it openly. But emotionally, I felt quite the opposite. Here I was, courting this girl while the women around me jawed about embarrassingly lame courtship attempts. Um, hello? How could I not feel alienated and awkward about it?

At the very least, it was like hearing a group of old college buddies you met later in life talk about the parties they used to have, or speaking unnecessarily in a language that not everybody understands—I couldn’t engage or relate at all. At worst, they were giving me a pretty not-subtle nudge that I sucked at dating (I don’t believe this was the case, but as a man who’s not very forward with women and doesn’t go out a lot you better believe the thought crossed my mind more than once). The kicker: despite the fact that I was surrounded by friends, I couldn’t express how I felt.

Imagine me budding in, telling that table full of ladies I felt uncomfortable. Saying something along the lines of “this is making me really uncomfortable” would be suicide. The conversation would turn on me like a pack of wolves, I would become the avatar of misogyny: “I’m actually kind of surprised you said that, since it’s just a fraction of how we feel every day.” So I laughed a bit and pushed my food around my plate, quiet as a mouse.

As the male, I’m suppose to be there and understand—that’s about as far as my role at that table goes.

That doesn’t lead to greater understanding. It’s the untangling of one gender role, and the unintentional reinforcement of the other. Barring an exceptionally dedicated resolve to get through the confusion, it only compounds the problem.

This isn’t an affliction of free-flowing casual conversations either.

Even in structured Sociology or Feminism classes, some discussions are kind of run to make men feel uncomfortable and disempowered on purpose. I’ve been in them. Professors and grad students have patiently explained the reasoning behind this in person to me, and by and large, I understand it.

So many fields, especially in academia, are male dominated that to have a female oriented conversation is a serious break in the status quo, and that break leads to confusion. Many men, including me at first (I studied science), don’t even realize the priority or inherent, unearned legitimacy they’re given in open discussion, and have no knowledge of the disparity until the rules are changed. And by necessity, to make progress via discussion, the rules need to be changed.

But in doing so there’s a side effect—male alienation and disempowerment, and the cocktail of emotions that come with them.

“Who cares if some guy feels disempowered, I feel disempowered every day!” you might say. You’re damn right you do, and it‘s probably an awful, sinking feeling. It’s so awful, and it effects so many, that it’s the reason we’re having this conversation. You are totally right to feel that way.

And it’s important to try to share that experience with others. But it’s never OK to not acknowledge how it makes someone feel.

Emotions aren’t trumps—you can’t say that your emotion matters more than theirs, not when we’re talking about equality. Not when we’re trying to come to a mutual understanding.

In fact, approaching it with a comparative attitude sets everyone up for failure, since it’s pointless to pit the legitimacy of emotions against each other. Everyone has a right to feel the way they do—you just need to acknowledge them and move forward.

If you don’t address those emotions and validate that guy’s feelings, really in the very manner the conversation is suppose to do for women to begin with, you create the same feeling of disenfranchisement that women have and want to abolish, an accidental perpetuation of the cycle. By leaving those volatile new emotions unacknowledged, you ferment confusion, anger, misunderstanding, and (sigh) Men’s Rights groups on Reddit. All horrible outcomes.

There’s a reason those groups have thousands and thousands of followers—and it honestly pains me to say it’s not because they’re all nut cases. The ranting posts that spit vitriol and hate have a community not because the men totally agree with every single point, but because they mutually recognize each other’s feelings. People want to be acknowledged, that’s all.

Thankfully, I think the solution isn’t that hard—we’re just missing a step.

In my ideal equality conversation, a short way in I would ask the men how they feel the conversations been going. This is not an easy question—generally speaking, men do not feel safe discussing how they feel in public. If all you get is “I’m totally with the women in this room,” you’ve haven’t gotten to the point you need to. But, by creating a safe space but in the same way that you do for women, I’m quite positive the men in attendance can paint an accurate picture, and by all odds it will be flavors of negative. “I feel unwelcome” or “I feel marginalized.” That’s OK. No one should be offended by that, it’s just how someone feels at that moment.

A professor, section leader, grad student, or friend, should reaffirm the validity of that emotion. I’m not talking “now you know how women feel every day” type reaffirmation. That compounds the alienation. They should simply state that they understand why the admittedly lopsided conversation would make someone feel that way. That’s it. They should have other people in the group do the same.

After that simple step, you can then move on to re-explaining why the conversation is necessary in the first place. You can move on to explaining where this frustration comes from. You can genuinely deconstruct the power dynamic that fuels it together.

It puts everyone on the same page. The simple act of looking at a fellow human and saying “I see you, I hear you,” allies yourself with them. The feeling of alienation dissipates, confusion and anger become understanding, and the unassailable gender divide recedes.

Then, I don’t just understand the difficulties of being a woman, I truly see myself in them. Your fight becomes my fight. We make real progress together.

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