Subtle Sexism

Monday afternoon marked three times in one week, and the first time in eons I’ve encountered such nonsense. I actually began to doubt myself, even to feel a bit badly, as if I were doing something wrong, or was a bit defective after all.

That sort of oppression that comes with a laugh, the face of camaraderie, and a drop of poison veiled, but still capable of doing harm.

I admitted to it being my first time pulling our travel trailer into a campground space, that my husband normally does this but was currently at work and could he spot me. The park manager was happy to help, and got us parked in what he said was a good place.

Unfortunately I didn’t think to make sure the sewer opening on our camper was lined up with the sewer hole enough for the hose to be secured to both before I unhitched and got us all set up. I spent at least half an hour in the afternoon heat putting down landing gear, and hooking up the utilities. I dislike the sewer so it was naturally avoided until the last step. The manager hadn’t looked carefully when helping us, so here we were, nearly done, hot, tired, hungry, and having to hitch up all over again in order to move the camper one foot. This involved lining the truck up to the hitch (no small feat), lifting the leveling jacks manually, and unhooking the water hose and outside electric connection. Then putting it all beck together a second time.

An hour after we arrived, having now duplicated our efforts due to an oversight and me being too trusting of a stranger’s abilities to navigate, here comes the manager to check on us.

“Is that all the farther you’ve got?”

“Yeah, you had us pull forward too far and the sewer hose wouldn’t reach so we had to do everything twice.” I said this as a no big deal kind of thing.

“You’ve been here a while. Surprising it’s taken so long to get set up.” He walked away smiling, shaking his head just the slightest bit.

Because he hadn’t apologized, or even (so it seemed) heard me explain that it was his error that caused us the extra set up time, not to mention work, and because he was actually (unbelievably) laughing at me, I began to doubt myself, to feel bad about myself in a hazy, sickly kind of way that defied what I knew to be true: I was being insulted for something I didn’t do by the person who had made the mistake.

I eventually shook it off and stopped feeling anything at all about the interaction.

Later, signing papers, paying, getting the lowdown on our new temporary neighborhood, I talked fast, made many jokes, didn’t mention his oversight or mistaken thinking, and nonchalantly said something like, “We’re all set up, now I just need to…” and he cuts in with a condescending “Relax?”

I corrected him before I realized this was fueling the problem.

“That’s Chicago you’re hearing. We talk fast and like to joke around.”

“You should really relax.”

I was a slow learner due to my inability to comprehend that this man could be so blind, rude… and then it dawned on me, sexist. I was not dealing with a person being rational, but a person confined by the chains of a prejudice that made him feel falsely superior.

My husband let me pick apart the experience on macro and micro levels for a good hour that evening. This was actually the second encounter of its kind in less than a week. I was hoping we weren’t seeing a new pattern of character building experiences.

Then it happened a third time.

The boys and I were in Target. I asked an employee, an older white male (same as the other two), for the location of a certain product. My older son cut in asking if the man would like to see a magic trick. I told my son it would have to wait a moment. The child, who is currently having a challenge with interrupting, pressed on, asking again. The man turned to him and said, “Yes, you can show me a trick.”

I turned to my son and said,”D, you’ll have to wait, please don’t interrupt again.”

The man completely ignored me then turned to my son and said, “Go ahead, show me your trick.”

Well now, this time I was wide awake. I looked at my child and said, “D, I told you to wait. I know this man gave you permission to go ahead and interrupt, but I’m your mother, and I told you to wait. You will have a turn to speak in a minute.”

Neither the man nor my son pressed the issue. In fact, D got to show the trick, the man asked if there was anything else he could help us find, D got to show him another trick, and the whole time we all joked and laughed.

The Target clerk may not have realized he was telling my son to ignore me or that he was also ignoring me, but his manner was similar (though not as unpleasant) to the first two men who were plainly disrespectful (a quality I can’t quite describe). I find it interesting that when I finally stopped trying to make the other person understand the reality of the situation in a friendly way, everything changed.

Will it always work to name reality boldly as I did in Target? Probably not, and it isn’t always the right way to deal with this kind of situation. But I know one thing: I hope that if I have any more such encounters, if I develop ill feeling for the other person during the conversation, I will not put on a happy face and press on. That is a kind of deception. If in my heart, I do not feel kindly, I will no longer act as if I do. I now see this is a form of lying that makes me feel small and encourages societal dysfunction to continue.




More thoughts: The reason the campground manager incident strikes me as particularly gender related is that I was doing a “man’s” job, and doing it well. I’ve encountered plenty of people simply being unpleasant, and that’s much easier to deal with. Usually a little humor goes a long way and I find most people easily change their tune in the face of kindness. But not this man. The most baffling was that he seemed to have selective hearing to keep his “superior” footing. The other two incidents may not have been gender related, especially the man in Target, but the cluster of disrespect got me thinking about how often men do talk down to women to keep everyone in their place.

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