When I was much younger, still a university student entering the real world, I worked with a woman (now one of my best friends) who had this very odd habit. When someone would start to tell a joke, she would listen quietly and then, depending on how it started, say, “Is this joke racist or sexist? Because if it is, I don’t want to hear it.” And she meant it. She would either shut the person down or walk away. It was powerful and, at the time, odd. Nobody did that at the time – we all just stood there listening to racist and sexist jokes, feeling uncomfortable and cringing at the huge guffaws.
But within a very short while, I became that odd and powerful person too. I learned from her and saw how right she was not to tolerate open displays of sexism and racism, even couched in supposed humour. Because that’s the thing, right? It’s funny. Hahahaha. Yup, real funny. Or not.
Today, women are more likely to be killed by a man they have loved than by a stranger. Women in the gaming industry are subjected to rape and death threats so regularly, they worry about not only their own safety but the safety of their children – all because they work in an industry dominated by men.
A report on the toxic culture of sexual harassment in the Canadian military found that women are often the target of “vulgar name-calling, sexual innuendos and jokes, harassment and assault….(and) that military brass condones or ignores the offensive behaviour” (Toronto Star, June 17, 2015). The Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson, in speaking about the findings of this report, felt biology may be at the root of it for some male soldiers. Biology! Boys will be boys I guess, right? For the love of all that is holy, have we not moved beyond this crude understanding of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Two days ago, a white man opened fire in an historic Black church in South Carolina and killed 9 of its members, all Black. He openly wore patches from apartheid-era South Africa and white-rule Rhodesia. Openly. I guess he wasn’t worried someone would take offence to it, because he knew if they did, they probably wouldn’t call him out on it. Or perhaps the only ones who would take offence and call him out would be Black and so…who cares, right? Someone who knew him said he often made racist jokes: “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”
My friend’s son goes to high school in Florida, and each day had to walk past a truck in the parking lot that was flying the Confederate flag. My friend’s son is half African-American. What must he have felt each day when he went to school, to see such an openly displayed symbol of a time when people fought to keep slavery alive and well. Slavery. Seriously. In 2015. Some streets in South Carolina are still named after Confederate generals and the state itself still flies a Confederate flag. Southern pride I guess, right?
The thing is, and it’s difficult to hear this but…we are all accomplices to toxic cultures and hatred when we say nothing.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Those were the clear and decisive words of David Morrison, Australia’s Chief of Army Lieutenant General, discussing sexual assault and sexual harassment within the Australian armed forces.
Seth Godin poignantly tells us today:
“The most powerful thing we can do to earn respect from those around us, though, is to call out one of our own when he crosses the line (emphasis mine). ‘People like us, we don’t do things like that.’ This is when real change starts to happen, and when others start to believe that we really care about something more than scoring points.”
In the face of unrelenting and unspeakable tragedy, we often feel helpless, like there is nothing we can do.
THERE IS MUCH WE CAN DO.
It starts with “calling out the jerks among us,” as Seth so wisely put it.
It starts with not tolerating these so-called jokes, with not walking past someone who is being an asshole.
It starts with, at the very very least, not making it comfortable for someone to be racist or sexist or homophobic.