I overheard a conversation yesterday in which a friend's daughter said something so reprehensible that I didn't know how to react. She was quoting something she found funny that mentioned both killing people based on their religion and beating women. I left without saying anything - she's not my child, not someone I even know aside from my ancient friendship with her mother. And yet it bothered me all evening and throughout the day today. If I don't say something, who will? If I tolerate these 'jokes' how can I ask others, my sons and my partner most of all, to interrupt them? So this is what I wish I had said. She may never read it, but I don't actually have the right not to say it. And a sincere thank you to Rosie Bitts, who challenged my silence.
Little Sister - is it alright if I call you that just for this instance? I don't mean it to be belittling, it's just that this is a serious conversation, and I want you to know where I'm coming from - this is the kind of conversation I think an older sister should have with her younger sister. It is the kind of conversation I think older women owe younger women. This conversation that is only worthwhile because you matter enough to me for me to take the time. I could just as easily be talking to any of several friends' daughters who I know more, or to my nieces, one of my sons' friends, or a young cousin. I hope you'll hear my words in the spirit in which they are offered.
I don't know you aside from the highest and lowest moments of your life - the things that get shared by people catching up over time and distance. I know how talented you are. I know some of the losses and stress you've survived, and some of the accomplishments you've celebrated. I know that you have the torn allegiances of any child of divorce. I am aware of the assumptions I make about all of that, but I don't claim to know you, really.
It's just that the thing you said yesterday, the thing you and your friends seemed to think was so funny, it's really not okay. I should have said something then, but I didn't want to embarrass you, and I didn't want to come across as yet another humourless feminist and social justice advocate. I assumed you wouldn't listen to what I had to say, and so I didn't say it. That was cowardly of me, and does you no justice as the intelligent and informed young woman I believe you to be underneath all your swagger and bravado.
The thing is, there are women - women you love dearly, who have been in your life in various ways for months or years or always - who have been beaten. The statistics in our country alone will bear out the fact that someone you know and respect has been beaten. They probably never showed you. It takes a kind of grace to hide that pain from the people around you, but most women who are abused hide it well for years. You may never have any idea who they are or what their circumstances were, but when you joke about women being beaten, you demean them. I pray, truly, that you never have to know the determination, the cunning, and the strength it takes to be with a man who says he loves you but controls, belittles, rapes, beats, steals from and cheats on you. I have never had to live through that, but women who matter to me more than I can say have survived that and more. They deserve my speaking up, and they deserve your respect.
I don't know why, when someone dear to my heart was with someone who beat her, she wasn't able to tell me. I didn't know when it was happening, and I wasn't who she turned to when she had the unbelievable courage to leave - to call the police, to make a plan, and to disappear from the life she had known and the dreams she had dreamed. All I know is the shame of not being the kind of friend she could call on to be there - whatever her reasons for protecting me were, I wasn't that person for her. I hope you never have to say that about a friend. I hope you never feel the shame and disappointment in yourself of being someone who couldn't be counted on when your friends needed support just because you said something that was supposed to be a joke.
I couldn't stand up for my friend at the time, so I owe her at least my voice now. I also owe the women I work with, women who every day stand - sometimes literally, but every day spiritually and emotionally - between women and the (mostly) men who claim to love them even while they abuse them. My co-workers help these women keep themselves and their children safe until they are ready to leave, make plans for leaving safely, find shelter during the storm, and begin their lives again. My co-workers and the women they support also deserve your respect. If women can't count on each other to stop treating relationship violence like it's not only acceptable but even funny, what hope have we to encourage men to stand up with us?
As for the issue of religious genocide, I feel I somehow have less ground to stand on. I have the privilege of being white, educated and middle-class in a culture that values being white, educated and middle-class - life is automatically easier for me because I am these things. At your age, I too made racist jokes - not about killing, though not so far removed that I have a high moral ground from which to preach at you. Growing up when I did and where I did left me with certain specific prejudices that I have had to choose to overcome. Our society, because of my privileges, will not force me to give them up. I choose to disrupt my own patterns that say it's okay to be prejudice about this group or that group. That it's okay to be 'a little bit' prejudiced. It is not okay. My prejudice demeans me as much as it does the groups I belittle. Your joke was beneath you, as are your prejudices. Do better, and I will continue to try to do better alongside you.
One great blessing of life when I was your age was that our foibles and weaknesses and attempts at humour that were not at all funny were not broadcast electronically for everyone in our lives to see, 'like,' or comment on. That the conversation I removed myself from yesterday was electronic does not in any way remove its impact on me, but it does have different implications for you. You have youth's folly of indifference - you can pretend you don't care who sees or reads or dislikes what you say. But will that be true when you apply for a design contract with an exciting social justice agency and they love your work, but oh, there was that thing you said online? Will it be true when your little sister tells an offensive joke, and you want to have a conversation with her about it, but here's your history to show her where you really stand?
I only know you through our online connections - it is the only evidence I have to go on when I think about the kind of person you are. And, likewise, it is the only place where you get to see who I am. And so, a day late, this is who I am. I am someone who says "no, stop, I'm not okay with that" when I hear a joke that is offensive. I am someone who cares enough to interject. I am someone who thinks you are better than that joke was, and I am someone who will stand by you as you grow and learn and become the amazing woman you're meant to be.