I recently came across Alice Bell's rather wonderful piece, “How to tell a white person they are being racist.” Despite being written, as she states clearly, “by a white person, largely aimed at white people”, I found a lot of the points mentioned very pertinent. But in practice (for me at least) calling out racism and prejudice in general is pretty tricky, and as I realised recently, one main reason is that I'm very rarely 100% certain what particular prejudice the person is displaying at the time.
Admittedly, some displays of bigotry are pretty simple to diagnose; the employee at an airport who helpfully directed me away from the EU/UK citizen queue towards the queue for foreign nationals, for example – bingo, racial profiling.
But, say, the lawyer who upon meeting me, put a 20 euro note in my hand instead of shaking it and told me to get him a coffee and an avocado sandwich “pronto”; what was it about me that made him think it was okay to do that? Was it my gender, skin colour, age, perceived inexperience, or did I happen to evoke some other type of prejudice in him?
Because if I take the decision to call out behaviour like that when it happens to me, the main trait I don't want to display is insecurity; I want to be entirely sure that what I'm saying is correct, and I want to say it with the most confidence and self-assurance I can conjure up. That alone can be difficult; so as you can imagine, a response along the lines of:
“No, I won't get you a sandwich; your behaviour is completely unsuitable, and you're being racist...or, sexist. Or maybe ageist? You're being prejudiced, in some way...”
doesn't quite have the desired kick to it. So, I don't say anything.
Being able to name exactly what it is that I find offensive about the behaviour in question also feels like it helps my case; it makes it harder to deny or to dodge, and as I've mentioned before, for me, putting a label on a type of behaviour makes it somewhat easier to discuss. Perhaps naively, I also imagine that being more specific also helps the culprit to identify the precise point within their thinking process that led to that incorrect and ignorant assumption being made.
For me, being able to suggest a concrete way that they can prevent repeats of this behaviour in the future lends a direction to the conversation, or at least my intervention: “Don't judge people by their skin colour” for example. It's a a concrete takeaway, and it's something that, ideally, they can remember upon meeting people of colour in the future.
But “don't be prejudiced”...? What good can come out of such a general accusation, apart from a similarly general denial? And, as it's normally coming at a time when I'm struggling to be taken seriously by them, I really, really want to sound as eloquent as I possibly can be in order to debunk their assumption.
And, worst of it all, within all this comes the conscious annoyance at myself that I'm even worrying about this; as Bell points out in her article, the responsibility of calling out prejudice shouldn't ever lie upon the marginalised group in question, and as she quotes battymamzelle:
“it's incredibly inappropriate to demand that a marginalized group restructure a conversation to make things more “comfortable”; for the very people they are mobilizing against. That is the very definition of flexing one's privilege.”
And yet here I am, worrying far more than I should, about how exactly that conversation could or should or might go. So maybe I should just simply call it out irrespective of my being able to identify what exactly the prejudice being displayed actually is (actually, it might even be a mixture of multiple prejudices- lucky me!) – and just say how unsuitable and offensive I find their behaviour, and walk away. And leave them to deal with how to interpret that information, and what to do about it.
Quite simply; it’s not my problem.
But you, dear reader; it very well could be yours. Sure, the victim identifying and calling out prejudice is a good first step; but those next steps of helping the culprit through working out how and why they have that prejudice, and what to do about it, is definitely not the victim's problem.
This is where Bell's article of advice to white people on how to tell a white person they are being racist (or prejudiced, or anything like that) comes into play. Simply being conscious and self-aware that you, yourself, are not committing those same ignorant acts is not enough – for this prejudice to stop happening, you need to play an active part in the solution.
The fact that you can ignore prejudice being displayed around you is a huge part of your privilege. Consider yourselves incredibly lucky that you can do so, and if you have any desire to use that privilege to help marginalised groups around you, step up and work with those groups to identify and educate prejudiced people around you.
Summary: I'm on the hunt for examples of feminism and gender equality from the majority world, AKA low-income countries. I'm collecting them in this custom timeline, and tagging the stories with #mwfem. Join me!
At the end of last year, I wrote about how, to my annoyance, most of the end of year 'feminist roundups' covered only achievements happening in the US, or in Europe. To counter this, I did my own round up of examples of feminism that happened in the 'majority world' in 2013- a term referring to what's also known as the developing world, or low-income countries, which also serves as a good reminder that the majority of people in the world live in these conditions.
While I was doing this research, I found it harder than I had thought to come across these events. This is an excuse often used by, for example, men organising conferences with a poor showing of women speakers - “I looked, but I couldn't find any!”; - and I hate that excuse. You're looking in the wrong places, or looking in the wrong way. So instead of searching for (clearly geographically focused) hashtags related to feminism campaigns that I had come across (#fem2, #twitterfeminism, for example) - I looked for activities related to gender equality, or 'strong women', or other ways of describing what I was looking for, and in different languages, too.
This was a lot more fruitful, but still, unsurprisingly, difficult. While the majority of the world is living in conditions of poverty, the majority of the internet is clearly not.
So, since the beginning of 2014, I've been keeping a 'custom Twitter timeline' of Majority World feminism: tweets that I've come across that relate to brilliant activities on gender equality in the majority world. I'm entirely sure that I've missed so many great activities (and all this in the certain knowledge that the majority of shows of strength and inspiration by women across the world don't make it on to the internet) but that said, there's some interesting stuff in there.
I've also made a conscious effort to try focus my online habits to material that is written by people who have different perspectives in life to me, from the majority world (ie. outside of the US + Europe). In practice, this has meant looking up international news stories in the local or national news outlets of the countries where this is happening to read (in theory) the perspective of someone who knows the culture and the country, and following people on Twitter who are based in other countries, living in different situations to me, with very different priorities and interests.
While, of course, this is nowhere near as good as being able to spend time, or visit, these countries, cultures and people, I'm learning a lot. It's one of my favourite things about Twitter; while it's a good way of keeping up to speed with topics I work on or I'm interested in, from experts in the field, it's also an incredible way of getting insights from people who have been left out of 'mainstream' media, or who are experiencing things that I don't come across in my everyday life.
Finding out what is important to people from a wide range of backgrounds is, for me, a great way of getting perspective on what's important to me, in literally real time. Curating the examples that I come across online of women doing amazing things under the most difficult of circumstances into this custom timeline is another way of getting that perspective.
It surprised me how much I've had to think about my habits in doing this, and how clearly geographically, and topically, focused I've been in my choices. I realised I had been focusing on material from institutions or outlets based in the UK, the US, or most likely somewhere in Europe; articles written by well-renowned experts or people with established online profiles; links tweeted by people I'd met, or whose work I'd come across (through one of the above sources, most likely), or people who had been recommended to me (eg. I'd seen online interactions between) - others I already knew. These methods were excluding so many perspectives from 'my' internet.
Now, I'm learning an incredible amount from people I've never met, about things I've never heard of, and coming across all sorts of interesting, and important, perspectives. I have a long way to go in changing my habits, (and suggestion of how to do this more are so welcome) and a whole lot more to learn, but it's been so much fun; thank you, internet!
“I'm not racist but...”
began a conversation between myself and a German man last Sunday, while at an afternoon brunch party with a mixture of people I knew and people I didn't, all of them white.
He was of the opinion that people of colour couldn't be “British” or “English”, and that this was an title reserved only for white people. I was of the opinion that he was being bigoted and racist, and I proceeded to tell him so, getting more and more worked up as he revealed increasingly racist views.
After 10 minutes of our 'discussion', during which I had asked him to define racism, used this to explain why his views were racist, and realised that he actually genuinely thought of me as having fewer rights than himself and his white friends based purely on my skin colour, nobody else at the party had joined our conversation.
The funny thing was, though, that I know that a lot of the people at that party would consider themselves politically engaged, liberal and open minded people. I would even wager that if there were a politician voicing the same views as the man at the party, or a policy about to be passed along the lines of what he was saying, they would do what they could to stand up against this prejudice, be that by signing a petition, voting, or attending a protest.
But in this case – when the social pressures of being at a party were apparently first and foremost at play – they were simply embarrassed at the perceived tense attitude that had been created, and unwilling to challenge him. They were feeling uncomfortable at the situation, and tried to steer the conversation into less polemic ground.
When I left the party soon after with a couple of friends, I discovered that they too had been shocked by the opinions voiced. The difference was, though, that they felt like it hadn't been their place to say anything, that they didn't want to make the other guests or the host feel uncomfortable, and that they didn't really know what to say. This lack of willingness to challenge something they knew to be wrong shocked and hurt me.
I sometimes use the metaphor that someone being overtly and offensively racist to me feels a bit like I've experienced physical violence; when someone treats me like a lesser human being than my white counterparts, it really does feel like being punched in the face. I'm shaking afterwards, often almost unable to speak, and feel overwhelmingly exhausted.
What I tried to explain to them is: you shouldn't have to be the one being punched in the face to do something about it.
They, as white people living in Germany, had never been on the wrong side of racism, and consequently had never experienced that biting, intensely personal rage that I feel when someone treats me, or other people of colour, in a discriminatory way. As far as I'm concerned, never having experienced it personally makes no difference to whether you can challenge discrimination or not; consider yourself incredibly lucky that you haven't been put in that position, and use your voice to stand up for those who are, at every occasion that you can. As a woman of colour, it is not my responsibility to shoulder the burden of challenging sexism and racism and xenophobia and god knows what other kinds of discrimination I might face, on my own.
Prejudice manifests itself in all sorts of ways, through offensive policies affecting the lives of millions, through exclusion or discrimination on an institutional level, and, in this case, through one man, voicing his bigoted views at a party. All of these examples are dangerous and discriminatory, and all of these people need to be held to account.
Just because you happen to be a white person, or cis-gender, or a man, or any kind of arbitrary categorisation that bafflingly means you might not face a certain type of prejudice yourself does not mean you can switch your 'good citizen' or 'social responsibility' buttons on and off dependent upon the social situation you find yourself in. I've faced prejudice in all kinds of situations and, believe it or not, the environment in which it happens doesn't make it hurt any less.
I don't get to choose where I come across these offensive and bigoted people; why should you get to choose where you challenge it?
I recently started learning how to code, and increasingly, I've been noticing the similarities and differences in the skills I'm developing now and those I developed at university, while studying languages.
“I'm not coding, I'm just copying and pasting” is the answer that came up when someone asked me how good my technical skills were last week. At the time I believed it, too: I was simply looking for what I wanted to make, finding the code behind it, and copying it and pasting it into the appropriate place. I wasn't creating anything new myself, but rather using the building blocks that others had already created.
But isn't that exactly what happens with spoken languages? With first language acquisition, children learn by repetition; they hear things being said around them, and repeat them. In a way, this is the oral version of 'copying and pasting'; and when children do this, we consider it to be 'speaking.'
One aspect I found difficult when starting my foray into coding was (and, this might sound incredibly obvious to those of you who can code!) not being able to recognise what language it was purely from looking at my screen. To me, it all looked the same; black screen, coloured text, incomprehensible words and symbols. Without checking what file I was in from the name or the file type, I didn't know what I was looking at, and of course the rules and the language used differs dependent upon this. I've often tried to insert a line I've seen elsewhere into a file type that doesn't recognise that language, before realising I'm 'speaking' the wrong one. This mistake reminds me of my 3 year old niece and nephew who are learning both French and English and sometimes mix up the languages within the same sentence or phrase.
It's interesting to me that the mistakes I'm making in learning to code are largely similar to first language (L1) acquisition (what babies/children do) as opposed to second language (L2) acquisition as an adult. With L2 acquisition, the mistakes can often come from, for example, falling back on L1 rules to supplement missing knowledge in the new, second language. With coding, this (for me!) is not possible. It makes sense, though, as I am learning my first coding language – although in linguistics, we learn that due to varying social, cultural and physiological developments between children and adults, the mistakes you make as a child will not be replicated as an adult. Me learning how to code seems to be proving this wrong!
Recognising patterns amongst what you're seeing, or hearing, is another common thread; realising that you can break them up into smaller blocks to perform another function is incredibly liberating, on both the coding and the speaking front. Anyone who studied spoken languages at school or university will undoubtedly remember being given a list of set phrases to use in essays, and inevitably these phrases, originally learned by rote, were broken up and used in different ways when it came to exams. So, when I was shown this Global CSS settings list for Bootstrap, it felt wonderfully familiar as the coding equivalent of this list of set phrases.
While there are other similarities between the various learning techniques, there are also some key differences. I've learned spoken languages in a variety of ways; intensive 8 hours a week of grammar for 2 years (bringing me to a basic level of Arabic); French, in small chunks since the age of 11, in France and at university; Spanish, intensively throughout 3 years and a stint in Spain, and German, exclusively by speaking and listening. The outputs of these methods have been varying in terms of the skills they've given me, but in all cases I've happily ended up with the desired skills, through what I believe to be the quickest route there.
Because of this experience, the main piece of advice I give to people wanting to learn languages is to first understand your motivation, and then choose your learning technique from there.
For example, wanting to speak German and be able to take part in conversations, but not being concerned about having good grammar, meant that speaking and listening to people and podcasts was a good technique, while wanting to learn how to read and write formal Arabic lent itself to intensive grammar lessons. So, what are my motivations with learning how to code?
I want to understand the world better.
I know that I don't yet fully understand what is possible with programming, and I see on a daily basis exciting projects and examples of programming being used to create things that astonish me. I love the idea of being able to communicate complex ideas to people in a way that they can really easily understand, or being able to help people who haven't (yet) been able to get their voices heard by decision-makers to have a say in how their world works.
So, my motivations in learning to code are complicated, and mixed, and, actually, fairly political. Clearly, this is where my stellar advice falls flat on its face; there's no learning technique here that will help me reach my goal quicker than any other.
There is a key difference between learning a programming language, and learning a spoken language. A desire for communication seems to be the major driving force in learning any language. Whether you want to be on the receiving end of new types of communication (read books in a different language, or watch films), or whether you want to share your knowledge with others (speaking to new people, or writing for a new audience).
The crucial difference here though, is that with spoken languages, you can only communicate with someone who also knows that language. With programming languages, you can communicate with anybody. They can interact with the product of your coding without needing any understanding of how it was made; even if offline or away from a traditional computer, you can create or build things that can change people's perceptions and understandings of the world.
And this is what I find wonderful, and beautiful, and slightly mystical, about coding.
Over the past couple of years I've heard and read numerous media items about the internet and its effect on linking our previously disconnected societies, on networks and their effect on our relationships, and on cyberpolitics and culture. Sadly, many of them have left me incredibly frustrated, and here's why.
I've noticed what I think might be a pattern and here is my (obviously, generalised) hypothesis: when the speaker or author is from the US or Europe, they present information as though what they're saying is applicable throughout the whole world, while actually only talking about the issue with regards to 'Western' countries. They use examples primarily from the US or Europe itself, occasionally mentioning massive events in passing like the Arab Spring, but overwhelmingly considering only points that have affected people in high-income countries such as their own.
This has been annoying me greatly in other spheres too; as I've written about before, using public platforms to discuss issues under such a narrow lens, while presenting them as though they are they are true everywhere in the world is incredibly reductive and offensive, not to mention purely factually incorrect on many levels. It was frustrating me so much that at the last talk I attended where I noticed this phenomenon, I asked the speakers whether they truly considered the issues they were discussing to be 'global' as they kept mentioning, and if so, if they could come up with some examples from outside the US and Europe, as they had all been thus far in the presentation.
Their answer: that they did consider it to be as global as they were describing, but then couldn't come up with any examples. One said it was in part due to not wanting to misappropriate others experiences, but then admitted that she didn't have experience in other cultures outside the US and Europe. This combination of answers felt unsatisfactory, to say the least. I felt like asking – but didn't – then, why use phrases like “across the world” or “globally” etc, when what you really mean is “In high-income countries like the US....”. Either way, I hope my comments made them think, if even just a little.
But then, came a book which has, happily, has restored a lot of my faith in privileged researchers and internet commentators, and makes me throw that hypothesis out of the window – “Now I know who my comrades are”, by Emily Parker. The book, which is subtitled Voices from the Internet Underground, takes a deep dive into online and offline politics and activism in three very different countries; Cuba, China and Russia. I came across it originally through an article by Mario Vargas Llosa ([en], [es]) which was already high praise, as he is one of my favourite authors.
In the book, Parker looks at how the internet has helped activists in the three different countries organise themselves and build movements, despite facing huge offline political barriers, with some only becoming activists almost by coincidence due to their online activities. What impressed me the most about the book is the author's clear and extensive experience with the three cultures in question. She didn't just parachute in there for a couple of months each to write a chapter on some activists – she lived in each of the countries (some, multiple times over), speaks the languages and really built up relationships with people there, over a period of multiple years. It's also impossible to imagine how she could have carried out such research without being caught out by the authorities without a deep understanding of how each of the cultures work.
This is, I feel, what has been missing in the work by many other internet commentators: a genuine understanding of the offline culture in the countries they're talking about, and an appreciation for how the offline society and politics affects the way people use the internet. Even on a practical level, Parker talks of “the Russian internet”, or “the Chinese internet”, making it clear that these “internets” are very different to those in other countries. Primarily, of course, due to censorship – but also in terms of most popular sites, ways that people share information, and ways that they access the internet.
I really wish that other prominent internet commentators would make the time and effort that Emily Parker has done to actually visit and learn about other cultures before making sweeping statements; yes, the internet can connect us across offline borders, but in order to really understand online behaviour, it is crucial to recognise the importance of diverse cultures and societies on people's behaviour.
The overwhelming message from the book is that the internet has allowed previously separate or disconnected people to know that there are others out there – to find out who their comrades are. The actions that people have taken as next steps (both online and offline), however, has been vastly different depending on their cultural background and their political situation. I thoroughly appreciated Parker's emphasis on the contrasts between the activists' online actions; finally, proof, research and a well-written book to back up my frustrations of 'the internet' being overwhelmingly talked about as a holistic, homogenous entity!
* If there are other books out there really analysing how diverse societies and cultures have affected online behaviour, I'd love to have recommendations of what to read next!
A good friend of mine recently asked me for some motivational help on getting started blogging. With the best of intentions, I kicked things off by giving her a deadline for her first blog post, coupled with the ultimatum of having to pay a few euros each time she didn't meet her deadlines. This, I realise in retrospect, perhaps wasn't the most encouraging thing to do; clearly she knew that the task in hand involved writing a first post, and really, imposing ultimatums is anything but supportive in the first instance.
So, I've been thinking of other ways to encourage her into blogging. I personally use writing as a way to get things off my chest, and in all honesty, I'm torn between embarrassment and incredulity when someone tells me they read (or, shock horror, enjoyed!) something I've written on my personal blog. In a way, telling myself that actually nobody (apart from maybe my mum- hi mum!) will read it is almost a motivation for me in publishing. Funnily enough, however, writing without publishing doesn't have the same cathartic effect for me – perhaps it's simply a narcissistic flaw, or the loosely held hope that perhaps sharing my experiences will in some way have a positive effect on others.
I did a quick search to see what other resources might be already out there on this topic, but unfortunately most of them seemed concentrated purely on building up a public profile through your blogging – this is definitely not what I'm talking about! In this case, I'm thinking only about writing because you want to write, for whatever reason – writing for you, not writing to make money, or to build up an audience, or for anybody else.
Here are some initial activities; perhaps aiming to do one of these weekly or fortnightly until you've exhausted the list might be a good place to start:
Note: this is assuming that you've got yourself a blog already set up. If not, head over to Wordpress or Tumblr, or if you're not sure which is for you, check out this post from Lifehacker on choosing the blogging platform for you.
Write 1-2 sentence descriptions of why you like them, and post this list on your site under, for example, 'Recommended Reads' or 'Stuff I like'. (This would be a static page, rather than a post)
Have a look through these blogs and see if they have any recommended blogs themselves, or if they refer to particular writers – keep an eye out for any names that keep cropping up, and be sure to add them to your RSS feed and your posted list.
Spend the first 5 minutes of your day for an entire week, looking around for things you find interesting on the internet – whether this be via social media, through asking friends, anything. Make a list of particularly interesting articles and posts that you find.
After a week of doing this, think about whether you could write a 'roundup' post listing these articles you've found interesting. Sound good? Just a couple of sentences summing them up, or on why you found them interesting is great.
Make a list of topics you've been thinking about writing about – they can be anything. From specific issues to broad topics that have been on your mind – just put them down in writing, with as much detail as you feel like at the time. Keep it somewhere easy to access so that when topics come up you can drop them in straight away.
Your blog posts don't have to be long, or even in words! What about a picture, cartoon, animation, GIF, or photo that has inspired you? Post it on your blog with a short caption of why it caught your eye.
Pick one of the topics on your list of things you've been writing about, and bring it up in conversation with a friend; if you want to dive deep into a topic, then maybe someone who already knows about that topic, and if you want a new perspective on it, pick someone who might never have heard about it. Okay, so it might be a little artificial bringing up a specified topic in conversation, but your friend will understand, I promise!
Did that conversation spark further issues around the topic in your mind? If you feel like you have enough material to write about it, then go for it! Aim for something short – 100 or 200 words, with an accompanying picture, for example. You can always expand on the topic later.
If you feel like you want to do more research around that topic before writing, then spend an hour looking up more on it. Create a specified RSS feed, for example, and look at what other people are saying on it. The aim: gathering food for thought for yourself.
Get into a rhythm; whether this be a Sunday night activity before you let yourself go to sleep, or an activity you do with friends (for example, as part of an Iron Blogger group)
Rinse and repeat; see what comes up in your head as potentially interesting topics; write the topic down as soon as it does; see what others are thinking about it; read around the topic; and aim to post something (anything – a picture, a quote, a cartoon) on a regular basis.
Is there anything else you would add to this list? How did you get started blogging, or how do you keep yourself motivated to carry on?
The worst kind of creep is he who thinks of himself as a Good Man.
He who has dedicated his life to making the world a better place, but not in a self-righteous way; merely in a pragmatic, no-regrets, taking moral responsibility kind of way.
He who is highly renowned within his field, who has done brilliant work, and had some innovative and great ideas, which have had a positive effect on the lives of many.
He who has built up a professional and personal reputation as being tolerant and respectful of others.
He who has long-established relationships with other key members of the community; supportive, positive relationships, where he's proven his loyalty on numerous occasions, and always been there for them.
He who comes across, upon first, second or third meetings, as a fascinating man, with lots of valuable experience and a willingness to share this with others, for mutual benefit.
He who listens and sympathises with others relating tales of discrimination, harassment, or creepy people.
He who, if cases of his creepy tendencies were to come out, would plead misunderstanding, and publicly apologise profusely, all while remaining convinced that his actions were misinterpreted through zero fault of his own.
He who genuinely can't fathom the idea of himself being a creep.
He who does it again, and again, and again.
As I've been learning more about coding, a number of unusual terms and phrases have come up, and I've been having fun finding out more and discovering their etymology. I'm documenting these findings in this glossary I've started, and I've set it up on Github to make it as easy as possible for others to contribute.
It's in very early stages yet - I'd like to add examples of each term, and make sure it's explained in a way that non-coders can understand, too. I've tried to distill some technical explanations down into easy-to-understand definitions, so if I've made any mistakes in my understanding, please let me know!
If you have any other terms to add, corrections to make or definitions to expand upon, please feel free to submit a pull request directly!
I've been talking about 'mansplaining' a lot this week; first, to some female friends who hadn't previously heard the term but immediately understood the concept, and then a few days later, to explain to other friends why I particularly disliked certain people at an event I was at; they had spent the afternoon 'mansplaining' at me.
For those who might not have come across the term, it's a mix between 'man' and 'explaining', used to describe the “act of a man speaking to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed”, purely because she is a woman. I have every faith that women reading this will know exactly what that means, and most likely men reading this will have either been in the presence of mansplaining, or (hopefully not) have mansplained themselves.
My friends who hadn't heard of it before found it a funny term, and sadly we all had stories of being mansplained to. We laughed a lot while trading stories; many of them were hilarious, if only in the tragi-comic sense. For me, being able to put a label on a thing, in this case a social act, often makes it a lot easier to discuss, because you realise that other people share that experience. It's for this reason that I was particularly happy to come across the term 'flirty racism' – finally, a label for one of my most hated things, and with that, the knowledge that other people had experienced it too.
I had thought that being conscious of the label “mansplaining” would also make it a lot easier to recognise when it was actually occurring. It turns out that I was wrong – yesterday, while I was at an event, I had the misfortune of being mansplained to for hours and hours, and it took me about half of those hours to even realise what was happening.
And when I did, I just didn't know what to do. I re-explained gently (probably too gently) that there was no need for the condescending explanations being fired at me, and yet they kept coming. Ideas I came up with were shot down, suggestions for how to get round all the blockers that they brought up were flat out refused, and it made the whole conversation incredibly difficult. Being in a group situation also made it more difficult to be direct, and (this is my own fault entirely) I was too taken aback by the whole thing to call it out in front of the group, for fear of making things even more awkward than they already were.
Long story short; I left the conversation and the group, and ranted to friends at the same event about how annoying the situation had been. But while doing that, I didn't know what I was hoping to achieve either; they didn't find the men in question as terrible as I did as obviously they had never personally had that experience, but they were sympathetic to my rants. I didn't confront the men in question myself because I didn't want to create a scene, and I ended up incredibly frustrated at how I'd been talked down to – or rather, how I'd let myself be talked to like that for much longer than necessary.
And today, I'm left wondering – what would have been the best response in that kind of situation? Taking them aside privately and asking them to reconsider their attitude? Calling it out in front of the group, to save having to repeat the exercise separately? Announcing some basic 'social courtesy' guidelines in front of the group, repeated regularly depending on whether they had internalised what I was saying? (And yes, a small part of me was thinking – should I just punch them in the face, and be done with it? See number 5 in this list)
It was clear that they respected much more anything being said by men, but I definitely didn't want to resort to asking male friends to have a word with them on my behalf. I also wasn't entirely sure what was happening until someone else highlighted it to me – I genuinely thought I was just communicating unusually badly, and this reaction annoys me greatly.
I've actually no idea what the answer is to this question – how does one actually deal with mansplaining, in the most socially acceptable, least awkward, and “best” way?
Answers on a postcard. Or to @zararah.
PS. for male readers who might be worrying if they're mansplaining, here are some tips to make sure you don't become that guy.
Over the past couple of months, I've had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh, Canada, Spain and Switzerland, and oddly, I found that all four had an unexpected quality in common; the way in which different languages within the country influenced and affected everyday life and politics.
In bilingual Montreal, anything that was government-run (including a couple of days of the conference that I attended) had to be conducted in both French and English. Wonderfully, this meant government officials would switch languages halfway through speeches and sometimes even halfway through sentences. In between feeling sorry for the interpreters, I thoroughly enjoyed this blend of languages.
It became clear also, that there were many more loan words between their particular versions of English and French, because of the switching; hearing people talk (in English) about the 'animator' of a particular company left me a little confused before realising that 'animateur' in French simply means “organiser” - they were talking about the head of the company, not a designer! Similarly, I'd never heard 'bienvenue' (literally, 'welcome' but in France, always used in the context of 'welcome to... (a place)' rather than 'you're welcome) as a response to 'merci'.
I heard also of resentment growing towards English speakers in increasingly Anglophile areas of Montreal, where staunch Francophiles would respond to anyone in French, even if they understood and spoke English, and knew that the speaker wouldn't understand them.
I experienced a similar phenomenon myself in Spain, when I stopped by Barcelona a week later; in cafes, although I was speaking 'castellano' (ie. Spanish understood in Spain) people would only respond to me in Catalan, despite me having made clear that I didn't understand Catalan.
It was the first time I'd experienced something like this personally. For example, in a cafe I apologised for not speaking Catalan and asked for a bottle of water in Castillian; the waiter went to fetch the water but continued speaking Catalan to me, I apologised again, and instead of simply saying how much I owed in a language I understood, he wrote down the figure on a pad of paper and pushed it towards me. He was very, very determined not to speak anything but Catalan!
When I got to my final destination in Spain, Zaragoza (just next door to Catalunya) I was asked a lot about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. People seemed to see lots of comparisons between Catalunya and Scotland, and some were slightly incredulous that the UK had 'allowed' Scotland to hold such a referendum. It was clear that the reluctance of people I met in Barcelona to speak anything but Catalan was part of a much wider battle, one which came up much more frequently in conversation than it had when I was living in Madrid back in 2009.
Politics and language, in this case, were clearly linked, and this was another theme I saw while I was in Switzerland, as, sadly, a vote was passed to impose quotas on immigrants to the country. There were two clear trends in voting for this xenophobic law; firstly, the language split, and secondly the number of immigrants in those areas.
This is a map of the language split in Switzerland; as you can see, the Swiss German population is the largest (63.7% of the population) followed by Swiss French (20.4%), then Italian (6.5%) and Romansh (0.5%).
And this is a map of how people voted in the elections; there's a heavy overlap with the Swiss-German areas, and the areas that voted 'Yes', with the exception of Zurich, up in the north.
[image via @electionista]
Another trend, illustrated by the chart below, shows that regions with fewer immigrants were more likely to vote 'yes' (ie. for the introduction of quotas) whereas those with high percentages of immigrants already living in the regions tended to vote against the quotas. Fear of the unknown was clearly a motivation for those who hadn't experienced much immigration in their areas, and seemingly didn't want to, either.
[image by Martin Grandjean]
I wasn't aware previously of the extent of the majority which the Swiss German population hold here; clearly, with over 60% of the population, they are the most powerful demographic. I also find it interesting how people tended to vote in blocks depending upon their language affiliation; again, clearly language is a lot more than merely a method of communication.
Another example of the crucial importance of language can be seen in Bangladesh, which is, as far as I know, the first country that was born out of a language-related dispute; essentially, the political movement fighting for the right to use Bengali as an official language in everyday life was a catalyst in the move towards national identity, which were precursors to the Bangladeshi Liberation War.
Having seen so clearly in just those four countries the power and importance of languages within society, seeing statements coming out of the UK encouraging people to study languages for economic reasons, or in David Cameron's words "to seal tomorrow's business deals” frustrates me hugely. I find encouraging language learning by way of promoting trade between countries a terribly sad, and reductive, perspective on the many riches that different languages bring to society.
There are many, many other reasons that us lazy native English speakers should learn other languages; understanding cultures, societies and people being just some of them. If we in native-English speaking countries want to have any chance of understanding the politics, societies and cultures of other, language-diverse countries, we have to stop thinking about language-learning as a luxury or as an economic tool, but instead realise that it's a crucial step towards tolerance and understanding of other cultures.