How do you respond to someone who tells you that you are completely going against your one core value?
My experience at the most recent conference I attended was incredibly inspiring and utterly exhausting. I worked a total of 53 hours in 5 days (I was employed by the organization hosting the conference—a total of 5 staff people for a 1,600-person conference), and got to meet some of the most notable feminist thinkers of our time. I had expected this to happen during my time in California—the long work hours, the exhaustion, my star-struck gaze at Angela Davis. What I did not expect, however, was that someone would tell me that I was not being a feminist.
Feminism, you could say, is my core value. It’s the one identity I base my entire existence around. So when I was in the middle of my 12-hour shift running the registration booth, and asked someone “Can I help you?” I really had no idea what was coming.
“It’s none of your business…” the woman said with a shocked expression, while looking at my nametag that clearly says “INTERN” on it. “…but I’m looking for [my supervisor’s name].”
“Alright…she’s not here right now but—”
“That’s all you need to say.” And she storms off.
“Uh….” was all I could think as I was wondering what I did in those five seconds to make someone so angry at me.
Did I look at her funny? No, that was only after she spazzed out at me. Do I smell bad? *sniff* Nope. Did I do something bad to her in a past life?
Two hours later the same woman comes back over and asks to talk to me. Though I really, really did not want to talk to her at that moment (or ever again), I was itching to find out what the heck I did to make to her so mad. We stepped to the side of the registration booth.
She then proceeded to explain to me how my “Can I help you?” comment was anti-feminist. She explained the power relations that go on in employee/customer relations, and that she felt I was being secretarial—the “dragon at the gate” is what I believe she called me. She felt that I was not being feminist because I seized power from her when I “had no right to.” I should have just told her where my supervisor was instead of making her go through me to reach her.
You may be thinking, “What the heck is she talking about? You were doing your job; she is taking this way out of proportion.” And, you may be right. I was doing my job. I was trained to literally do exactly what I did. Months later, I still don’t know what I could have done otherwise.
Though I profoundly disagree with the way she decided to go about this problem, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t understand her reasoning. It’s hard dealing with an organization—even when it claims to be feminist—and feel like you have any authority as a human being. I think that she was really having a hard time feeling like her voice was valued in an organization that she wants to be a part of. She felt like she was having to jump through hoops just to reach the person she wanted to talk to. She was having a bad day.
I may or may not agree with her, but that’s not what matters in the end. What matters is that our conversation made me reconsider the various ways that I claim power in my own personal life, even when there is no need for me to do so. It also made me think about what, exactly, a feminist organization is—what are its values? How does it function in congruence with those values, and still strive to be seen as “legitimate” in a world full of organizations and companies who thrive off of power and the subordination of others?
To put it out there, I don’t think I was being anti-feminist. If I was, then I would not have heard her out—I would have probably brushed her off, fought back, and told her she was being rude and that I didn’t want to listen to her. The fact that I did decide to hear her explanation—to engage in controversy with civility—means that I was doing exactly what is congruent with my own personal values. And I learned a lot from it. I learned that feminists are each different from one another, and sometimes disagree. I learned that I can never assume what another person is thinking or feeling—the only way to truly find out is to ask and listen. And hopefully at the end of it all, I am able to learn something from my experience and better my own self. Because in the end, that’s all that really matters.
Mercedes Katis is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati and also serves the role of WILL Graduate Assistant at the UC Women’s Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.