Note: I wrote this story almost three years ago, and I read it again and decided I wanted to share it with you. I updated some of the references, included additional notes, edited some of the confusing sentences, and included screenshots of the emails I received, which I omitted last time because I was afraid.
I took a road trip recently and my friend and co-traveller asked me why the rhetoric of gender and racial politics is so hostile. Very “light” car talk. “If people are trying to make a point and convince people that they’re right,” he said, “shouldn’t they adopt a more conciliatory tone?”
People in tough situations are often asked to be conciliatory, even when their identity and ability to excel are stifled by a hostile and unwelcoming culture. I have made sure in no uncertain terms that people know I stand for equity and fairness. This means writing about it, reading about it, and making sure that when I’m in my café I present myself and my space as a zone for people to feel safe and to feel that, as baristas, they can stand up for themselves. And sometimes that means calling people out. This is not always well received.
Recently, I commented privately to the hosts of a popular podcast regarding a question they posed about women in the industry. I felt, along with the question they posed and the tone they presented the problem, they were perhaps being a little too light about the issue, and to me, the answer to the question they posed seemed very obvious. So I wrote them a long email.
Update—I didn’t include the question at the time (because I was afraid), but I will now since I’ve decided to include screenshots of the interaction. They asked, “Why don’t women want to work for us?” At one point they said, “We’re super married, so we won’t hit on you.”
It wasn’t very nice and it wasn’t very forgiving. And I meant it to be scathing. Because this was an issue about women, I didn’t want to adopt the conciliatory tone I feel most women often feel they have to use when they try to defend themselves and make a point. In my tone, I meant to convey an argument as well.
Left - an except from the email I sent. Right - an except from the email he sent back.
Of course I was nervous — I barely looked at the computer when I pressed “send” because my first thought was that someone would read this and think I was a bitch because I was confident, clear, and didn’t hold back. But I sent it. I decided that the fear that my aggressive tone would be interpreted as bitchy would be the cross I’d have to bear.
Another reason I felt the need to be harsh was because we are harsh all the time—just not about things that actually matter. Remember that article about how Aperol Spritzes are a bad drink? We all went to town attacking the author and attacking each other, each hot take stirring up more folks to throw in their two cents.
This example is topical, but at any point in time we can find arguments like this, where folks decide to go all in on seemingly unimportant things, but step back when the subject actually matters. It’s ok to get riled up about drink choices, but when the topic actually affects people and outcomes, suddenly tone and tact come under scrutiny.
So I hit send on my less-than-forgiving email. The response I got was… confusing. While able to recognize some of my arguments, the author seemed to conflate gender discrimination with romance and sexual relationships between men and women. It seemed as if he missed the point. And I told him so in my follow-up email.
I try to be careful with my words, and to not invalidate people’s emotions — it’s too easy to tell someone that they’re overreacting or getting bent out of shape without addressing the cause of their reactions. So in my follow up email, I attempted to offer solutions while still being very clear: while I appreciate your stories and ideas, you haven’t addressed the argument. We still haven’t answered the question.
Above—my response after the first email. In this email, I tried to be a lot nicer.
The response that I got from him was curt and defensive. So then I had to figure out what to do next.
I’m being vague. I know, and I’m doing it on purpose. Why? Because people told me to. After this person shut me down (and called me unprofessional, which was cool) I sent the emails to a few people I know, asking them to weigh in and see what they thought.
The responses I got from my colleagues varied, but basically amounted to, “yes, you’re right, but is it worth it?” I was told I’d come off as a bully if I named names or leaked the emails. I was told that I had achieved enough by calling them out privately, even though they had missed the brunt of my argument. I was told it wouldn’t be worth it to publicly shame them. I was told that overall, they’re actually very nice guys. I was asked what my motivations were, questioned about what I was really going for.
Did anyone ask those questions to people going back and forth over Aperol Spritzes? What were their motivations, really?
Above—his response after the second email. Eventually, he apologized for his tone. I then followed up, saying we still haven’t solved or addressed the underlying problem. I proposed a number of solutions, like coming on their show to discuss this or opening up a forum for more women to chime in. They never responded.
This seems to be the underlying rhetoric of most power dynamics. We allow people in powerful groups (mostly members of the white, male, cishet class) to say and do certain things, but when we call them out we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead of questioning the person who committed a harmful act by being discriminatory, we instead question the person who was bold enough to call bullshit on their action.
That argument seems silly to me because calling people out sucks—no one does it because they like to make people feel bad. Saying things like, “hey! you’re being racist/sexist/classist!” is very uncomfortable for the person doing the call out. And in a way, it’s a huge show of faith in the person committing the wrongdoing. It’s saying, "You’ve been harmful, but I believe you can be better.”
I tried to convey to them that I didn’t think they were proactively doing anything intentional, but by being public figures, they were culpable for certain outcomes. Again, this is vague. And that’s the problem with wanting to give people the benefit of the doubt — usually, most people who are guilty of propagating gendered or racist norms and trends don’t consciously mean to do so.
However, intention doesn’t change outcomes. It does change how easily you can make an argument, though. Because harm might not intentional, it’s difficult to make an argument about systemic, unconscious, and underlying discriminatory modes of thinking without making someone feel bad. To accuse someone of doing something they don’t mean to do is hard. But it’s much, much worse when we use that as a scapegoat for not pushing for open discussions and demanding equity for all.
This argument took me back to that car ride, where my friend attempted to advocate for conciliatory modes of debate from oppressed groups. When I pushed him on this, he said, “I feel bad when I hear these arguments, and feeling bad isn’t going to motivate me to solve a problem.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and in a way, this situation with these guys is very similar. I made them feel bad. I probably hurt their feelings. I probably made them question things they thought were totally fine. When they posed their question, they probably expected any number of innocuous replies, but not something like what I came at them with. Do you remember that saying, “you attract more bees with honey than vinegar?” Perhaps that advice could have served me well in this situation.
But why should I be nice? As a woman, terrible shit happens to me every day—and the shit I go through pales in comparison to the things folks from other marginalized groups deal with.
If you feel bad because sometimes you get called out for being part of the problem, imagine feeling bad about yourself everyday. Imagine questioning every wardrobe choice because someone will have something to say. Imagine being asked to smile on your walk to work. Imagine being behind the counter and a customer not asking you a question in favor of your male coworker. Imagine reading a newspaper headline that questions whether the world is ready for your gender to assume the highest political office, or to hear that you can feel safe around a man because he’s married and won’t hit on you as if that’s your only protection.
And that’s all the overt stuff. Imagine all the shit that happens behind the scenes — all the bro outings you’re not invited to, all the jobs you’re passed over for because your boss is buddies with the men on your team, all the money you probably aren’t making but your coworker is. It’s awful. It’s not nice. It feels bad all the time.
Being afraid of making people feel bad isn’t going to make any of those things better, and likewise shutting down because you feel bad doesn’t help. From this debate to much larger issues, like calling out sexual predators or suing an employer for racist hiring practices, we can’t stop calling people out because they’ll feel bad or they didn’t mean to or they didn’t know any better. Because not only is it unproductive, but it’s just not how we act in other situations where the stakes are much, much lower.
For some things, there is no excuse. For some things, the only response is to stand up. I’m still fearful to do that, completely and honestly. I hope one day to find resolution, to the stories I shared above and to the litany of other instances where I’ve bitten my tongue to not make a man feel bad.
Footnote—I think I’d now call what I did “calling in” since I didn’t publicly say anything to these folks or blast them on social media. This is not meant to be a distinction based on judgement or value, just clarifying my own understanding of what I did three years ago.