The sexism that our generation has largely faced has not really been the overt, outlandish sexism our mothers and grandmothers protested decades ago. We mostly only see that sexism in films, or read about it or occasionally glimpse it in our older relatives who “don’t know any better.” But we are still surrounded by it—it just hides in subtly, in micro-aggressions, in the subconscious ways that all of us perceive ourselves and each other. If I said that unconscious sexism played a role in how the left behaved this past election cycle, I wouldn’t be the first. I’ve spent more than a decade in universities suffering through mansplaining from well-meaning men who would describe themselves as feminists—and I’m not the only one this happens to.
And there is a corollary to all of this—which is what these messages do to men and the culture of masculinity. When we raise boys (setting aside for a moment the also problematic issues of heteronormativity in these cultural lessons) to treat women with deference, to treat them “like ladies,” we are also teaching them that women are in need of this help and men are required to provide it. We can write sardonic quips of mansplainers mansplaining, but the mansplainer mansplains because he has been socialized to do so. The white knight has been conditioned to see the women around as needing his help and guidance, even when he isn’t conscious that this is what he’s been taught or that this is what he’s actually doing. Good, feminist, woke men still do this—without realizing it. Not with malevolence, but with benevolence. Their well-intentioned behavior cyclically reinforces these mechanisms of harm.
We’ve been dealing with white knights, who—whether they mean to or not—have been fostering complacency and diminishing our power. But all the while, trolls were actually growing in number and becoming emboldened by a frighteningly welcoming media presence.
I was horrified to watch the unthinkable happen on election night. I was with my research assistants and some students from my women’s studies course in a campus conference room, ready to celebrate what we thought would be an historic occasion—and historic it was, but celebratory it was not. In the weeks since I have felt lost and angry—but I have also been witnessing an awakening.