Changing the Conversation

By | Wednesday, June 24, 2020 1 comment
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When I was growing up, I got the same basic education most American kids got when it came to slavery, emancipation, the Civil Rights movement, etc. -- we were taught slavery was an ancillary issue at most when it came to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was a pillar of moral fortitude and would have done much more for Blacks if he hadn't been assassinated, and then everything was fine until 1955 when a tired, old woman named Rosa Parks was too exhausted to get up from her seat on a bus. That was the conversation others had when it came to those topics and, since that was all I heard, I didn't know to believe any different.

But I got lucky. I happened to get a copy of a comic book biography of Frederick Douglass that contradicted was we were taught. I've told this story before. But, in effect, I stumbled onto the same conversation, but one being held by a different group of people. These weren't older white men dictating what should/shouldn't be taught in public schools, these were Black people who had heard the same stories but had a very different lived experience. It was only in stumbling into that conversation, almost accidentally, that I started to think about what was considered "normal.

Now, I was stupid kid at the time, and it would take several years before I started to really understand the entirety of the context there, and how/why there were different conversations happening in the first place. And one the elements that took me longer to start to internalize is that everything is subject to our perception of normal, based on the conversations we've been a part of.

tw: rape

When I was in college, maybe 19 or 20 years old, there were a group of about eight or ten of us hanging out. General laughter and nonsense you might expect from a group of college kids. At some point, I made a rape "joke." It was largely received as I had expected, and most of the others laughed or chuckled along. But one woman immediately shot me a death glare like I'd never seen. She didn't say anything and the group conversation continued on with the general laughter and nonsense from before, but her stare stuck with me. A few weeks, maybe a month later, I learned that she had in fact been date raped about a year earlier. That death glare made complete sense, and I'm sure the only reason she let me off that lightly was because we were friends.

We were actually close enough that she told me about the rape herself, without any incentive or prodding from me. I immediately apologized for my comment weeks earlier, of course, and she dismissed it with a "you couldn't have known" remark. True enough that I couldn't have known she had been raped, but I could have known -- should have known better than to try to make light of something so awful and traumatic.

But that's the problem. I was never a part of that conversation before. Up until that point for me, rape was only something that only existed in a kind of vague theory. While I was part of the conversations that said "rape is bad" that was about the extent of them. There was nothing about how bad it was, or what kind of trauma that inflicts, or how police and judges and the system in general dismisses women's rape claims as a rule and assigns a stigma to rape victims. The very concept of date rape didn't really even show up in public discourse until I was in college.

We're hearing more and more about the harassment and assault women are subjected to in the comics industry. That these events happen, sadly, isn't new. People have rightly been complaining that, "We've been telling you about this for years and you haven't been listening!" That's in part because many of the people who have the largest say in the overall conversation decide that they don't want any of this to be part of the conversation. They'll dismiss the accusations or maybe smooth things over with a pat apology and a promise it won't happen again. But they don't change the conversation at all. So the next person who walks in doesn't hear the message that "we won't tolerate that kind of behavior." In fact, they often witness first-hand that that kind of behavior is acceptable. Normal.

Which means the conversation needs to change. And we -- all of us -- need to change it. I didn't get that message in college -- I didn't have that conversation -- until I hurt somebody I cared about. Odds are that you already know someone who's been hurt. One in four women in the US have been raped or had someone try to rape them. That's just rape! Sexual harassment and assault is even more common. How many women do you know in comics? I know more than four, certainly! I've had dinners where, statistically, two of the comic creators at the table I was eating at had been raped. I've had dinners where I know conclusively that multiple people at the table were rape victims.

Start having that conversation now, if you haven't already! Anyone tries making jokes about that, cut them off! You see someone harassing a woman at the after party, cut them off! Tell them that isn't alright. Tell them that isn't how we're doing things any more. Tell them you're changing the conversation.
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Matt K said...

1) I remember what a realization it was some years ago when a friend mentioned being raped in college. She mentioned it so matter-of-factly that beyond continuing to listen intently to her, I didn't make a big thing. But afterward it really began to bring home, for me, how horribly common this is.

2) I am on the board of a local organization, and last year in a group text message, the two other men shared some joking at the expense of a couple of women. It was relatively mild, but, I feel like it's exactly the kind of thing that people advise only "dudes call other dudes out on this garbage." I didn't, "for the good of the order," and fwiw in our factional dispute I'm basically on my own against the two dudes and two women. But.

3) "Sex and race have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior, and inferior, groups." >:-(