Letter to a Young Man About Sexism

Close-up of a vibrant red envelope, its ornate flap slightly raised, photo by Victor Burnside
Dara Burwell, Coffee Shop

Dara Burwell

I wrote the below letter to a teenager who is an important part of my life.  As an anti-oppression trainer I regularly talk about issues of oppression, power, and privilege.  Regardless, I often find that discussing the same issues with the young people in my life is difficult for me.  I recognize that a good portion of this is my own adultism, which gets in my way and muddles my approach.  I have been working to address this in myself, and engage the young people in my life in more meaningful conversations. So far, I’ve found it to primarily be a process of trial and error.

The young person I wrote this letter to loves mainstream rap music, and when we are together, there is a constant stream of it coming from his iPod.  He knows that I don’t like most of what he listens to, and sometimes teases me by playing songs he knows I will hate.  Not long ago we spent several hours working on his homework together.  I kept asking him to turn his music off, which he played on and off in a mostly playful attempt to get under my skin.  I, however, reached my limit toward the end of our homework session, and shut him down.  For me, the deeper issue is not the music.  It is the intense sexism, internalized racism, homophobia, and glorification of violence and dehumanization embodied in it, and what that reflects about our values as a society.  But, I didn’t make that clear.

He and I have had a few conversations about sexism, but I know that he does not understand why all of this matters to me, or matters at all, other than the fact I am an adult, and that adults don’t like much.   I wanted to use the opportunity to deepen the conversation about sexism.

I will continue to work on expanding the conversation beyond a gender binary, keep an eye on my internalized sexism, and incorporate more complexity.  In the meantime, here is one example of engaging a young man on sexism.

Dear __________,

I am on my way to Oakland, a day earlier than I thought I was supposed to leave, and I am thinking about you.

You have been on my mind a lot, and I realize that I won’t see you this week.  I wish that weren’t the case.

I have been wanting to talk to you about the last time we were together.  I got annoyed with you, and I don’t like doing that.  I am sorry for the way I acted.

I really am sensitive to the lyrics of songs and what different rappers/artists are saying.

I feel like I live in a world in which I hear about and see violence against women all the time, as though it’s normal and acceptable.  Women are constantly being attacked, harmed, assaulted, mutilated, talked down to, and made to feel small precisely because of people’s views about women.

The consequences/results of this are terrifying to me.  I think it is horrible when women are not seen as people, but are seen as objects that can be owned, bought, and sold.  When they are only seen as a means to satisfy men sexually, when their only value is in their body and how men think of them.

How can a person be a human being in these conditions?  A woman is judged by how sexy she is or isn’t, and is also vulnerable to attack for the same things she is supposed to be.

Thinking of women in these ways, especially every day messages, supports the violence against them, supports men thinking about women as objects for sex.

And when any person becomes an object rather than a person, then others feel justified in hurting them and not respecting them.  For, objects are objects.  They do not get to have a say in how they are treated.

There is a long history of this for women.  It has been a past and current reality that many women are bought and sold as objects.  Women have typically gotten their rights much, much later than men.  For instance, women got the right to vote many, many years after men in the U.S.  We were not allowed to own property, have our own credit cards or bank accounts, or work most jobs (we were not allowed to be doctors, or lawyers, or accountants, etc.) until recently.  And when we worked jobs outside of the home, we got paid less than men.  We still get paid less.

And because women are so often seen as partial people, as objects for sex, 1/4 of women in the U.S. are abused in their romantic relationships, ¼ girls are sexually abused as children, and 1/3 women are sexually assaulted.  That means that the majority of women in this country are abused.  And it is much worse in many parts of the world, particularly in countries experiencing war.

This happens because as a society, we allow it to happen.  Because we support it by not doing anything about it, we support it in our music, we support it in our TV shows and movies (like the Green Hornet- which is a big part of the reason I didn’t like it), because we support it in the ways we talk and think (when we casually refer to women as bitches- which literally makes them dogs and not people.  As though anything could justify making someone anything other than a person).  We support this kind of violence by the way we live.  Not so much in the big things we do, but in the small things.  It is the small things that lead to the big things.

It is not that I don’t like your music.  I generally like the beats.  And, it’s not about talent or the person’s ability to rap.  They can rap.  It’s not how they look or how they sound.  It’s what they say and do.  It’s what they say about women.  It’s what they say about themselves as Black men.  The way they put themselves in a box where they don’t get to feel anything other than anger, nothing, sexual urges, or disgust.  Where they do not act like women are people, and do not act like they see themselves as people.  Instead, it is all about what they can have- money, sex with as many women as possible, drugs, the fear of others because of the kind of violence they can commit.  What kind of life is that?  And why is that the message, the story, over and over, and over again?

It scares me.  It scares me because I see the results of it in the world.  I see the affects in me, I see the affects on you.  I see them on my mother, _________, _________- every person I know.  I see the affects on television when I watch the news or any show.  I see it everywhere.  And I see how badly people treat one another.

Lil Wayne and Tech N9Ne didn’t come up with these things on their own.  They were taught the same.  And now they are saying and doing all of the things they were taught.  They are spreading it on.  And they do not seem to see the harm it causes their mothers, daughters, sisters, female friends, lovers, sons, fathers, male friends, and even themselves.

My point is not to get annoyed with you.  I love you very much.  And I do not wish to, and do not need to, be short with you.  It’s not good when I do that.

I want you to understand that hearing certain things hurts me.  It causes me physical and emotional pain to hear them talk about women, about violence, about Black people.  Because I know that they are talking about me.  They are talking about every woman I know.  Every woman, period.

And it makes it especially hard when it comes from you because you are my beloved one.

What does it mean that all of those messages are pouring into your head all of the time?  I wonder to myself: “What will he come to think of women?  How will he regard them?  How will he regard his mother?” And I worry.

You are a good person.  To the deepest part of your heart.  And some of that worry has to do with the worry and sadness and anger that I carry around all day every day.  That worry is not your fault, even thought it comes in your direction.  And part of that worry comes because I know that I even carry these messages and beliefs in parts of my heart, and I am working to undo them.

How do you, then, a young man who is taught that this is what it is to be a man, a young man who is told to believe these things, a young man who is told that it’s no big deal, to understand the true impact of these things.

On me.  On you.  On all of the people you encounter.

I do not have the answers to these questions.

I only know that you are very important to me.  I know that I am glad to have you in my life.

And I know that I want you to grow up to be a man who respects women and sees them as people and as the equals that they are.  A man who can recognize how small thing, after small thing, after small thing creates the big things, and decides the groundwork of life.  I want you to see that neither women nor men (meaning you!) have to fit into any box, any role, any way of being.  That no one else gets to take away the worth or value of another human being, and that it is never normal or okay to make another person worth less, even when everyone else supports that.

Next time this comes up, let’s negotiate about the music.  I’m not asking you not to listen to it (even if I think that would be nice).  But, when I reach my limits, I would like you to respect that.  And I would like you to recognize, without me saying anything, that it has an affect on me, and on you.

Thank you for reading this letter.  If you have a response, I would be happy to hear it.

I have faith and trust in you.  Thank you for all of the beauty you bring to my life.  I will work to make sure that my gratitude for you comes through.

Love, Love, and Love,

Dara

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