“She’s surprisingly good with numbers.”
“She’s actually very well-spoken.”
“She’s new, but we can teach her.”
These are just some of the seemingly harmless but incredibly undermining phrases that I have heard throughout my life — always about women, and always with that one word that flips a seemingly harmless statement on its head to make it incredibly damaging.
I have thick skin, and while I often am quick to form an opinion, I love to be challenged, questioned, and pushed to think through an issue from a different perspective. I appreciate when others are able to have an honest debate on a sticky issue and either agree to disagree, or change my mind, or change theirs. I am heartened when I see brilliant minds and passionate souls debating a subject on social media, challenging the very core of each other’s assumptions, yet never stooping to name-calling or dismissal of each other.
Many people have written about the decline of this kind of honest debate in recent times, but I am most troubled by a different phenomenon — the subversive ways in which some people attempt to seed doubt about another person’s intelligence or integrity, while never actually addressing the issue at hand.
Each of the statements I described above are examples of how a simple sentence can serve to undermine the person in question — while not really saying much at all. I wonder how many times I have heard someone say something like this and filled in the blanks on my own to the subject’s detriment like a perfectly choreographed MadLibs story. Probably more than I want to admit.
After a recent letter I wrote about the Englewood budget, I started hearing the same trope coming from a select few about me. “She doesn’t understand budgets,” they said. Or, even better was “she’s just not understanding the numbers behind this.” This was particularly comical coming from men who have never managed a multimillion-dollar organization or spent more than a few minutes studying a municipal budget. However, even if these men had been experienced financial professionals, the message was clear — they lacked the sophistication to address or challenge the issues at hand, so instead they stooped to the level of seeding doubt in my abilities while avoiding having to engage meaningfully with the issue at all.
Underscoring the words is the subtle but present belief that, of course, women can’t really understand numbers as well as men — that’s just how we are made!
Most of us have little time to pick apart seemingly innocent statements about others to evaluate bias, but when the narrative is purposeful and targeted at you, it’s obviously crystal clear. I have decided that I want no part in discrediting anyone else based on my own rhetoric and bias — and we all have biases, whether we know it or not — because it’s cheap and unsophisticated and doesn’t ever actually solve the issues at hand.
On the eve of Passover, I am thinking about the idea of doing things differently, and not just for a night or a week — but forever. I am learning about my own biases, and trying hard to catch myself before I use them to discredit someone else unintentionally.
In the world of politics, when people have lived in and loved in a city for 40, 50, or 60-plus years, they inevitably have attached an unbelievable amount of baggage to issues, to people (and peoples), and even to places. If we want to move forward, sometimes we need to check that baggage at the door while we sort out solutions that bring people together.
Sure, the suitcase will be unpacked eventually, with all of the painful and charged accessories to which we are sometimes too attached, but if we cling too tightly to our comfort zone right from the start of a conversation, we can never think freely to better the world for our children.