A necessary conversation

A yearlong campus dialogue on gender issues culminated with a presentation by anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz last week.

Katz urged male students to recognize sexism and gender violence as a universal problem, rather than simply view them as women’s issues. And while his words drew approval from many, some students’ reactions have caused us to reflect.

We applaud the administration for responding to students’ call for action in a year that has included school-wide discussion on issues ranging from sexual assault to the treatment of female athletes. As long as we have been at the Upper School, we cannot recall a speaker who has sparked such widespread and meaningful debate. Regardless of stance, discourse was unavoidable, both with teachers in the classroom and peers on the quad. It was heartening to see such an important issue get the attention it deserves from the administration as well as the student body.

However, not all conversation was productive. Behaviors Katz specifically condemned, such as calling advocates for women’s rights “feminazis,” soon appeared on the anonymous poll app What’s Goodly and in conversations on the quad. But this was only an extreme version of a sentiment felt by many. Plenty of students—particularly boys—believed that Katz’s presentation was overblown and accusatory. After all, most men aren’t rapists. According to a Chronicle poll of 458 students, 24 percent did not like Katz’s presentation. And while a portion of these responses may have been based on innocuous reasons like speaking style, it’s safe to assume that the majority probably based their dislike on the actual content.

In this day and age, and particularly in a well-educated community like Harvard-Westlake, few people are outright bigots. This leaves prejudice to manifest in subtler and more insidious ways that are as harmful as they are difficult to address. It’s moments that are so small, you’re not sure they’re worth mentioning: when someone says a boy is playing “like a girl,” or makes a rape joke or decides a girl is “bossy” instead of “a leader.” But strung together, these individual instances form a mindset that holds women (and by extension, the rest of society) back, and is ultimately reflected in statistics measuring gaps in everything from wages to presence in government to abuse.

It can be challenging to acknowledge privilege, no matter its form: racial, socioeconomic, heteronormative and, yes, gender. Rather than becoming automatically defensive and defaulting to the “Not All Men” mentality, students need to enter discussions with a more open mind and work together so that we can make progress as a community.

Even in a relatively accepting environment like Harvard-Westlake, we still have a long way to go when it comes to treating the topic of gender inequality appropriately.

 

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