The apparent innocence is key. He is an older white man, closer to my father’s age than mine, approaching my wife and I in the power tools aisle of Menards yesterday afternoon. My wife was examining a gas powered tool when he inserted himself and offered, “Would you like some unsolicited advice?”
Her response was monosyllabic. “No.”
His face went from congenial to apoplectic in 2 seconds flat.
Equally important to note was my distress. My wife had broken a code, she had been impolite, woe to us. And I noticed that it was fear that I felt as I reached out to the wounded animal with my eyes, giving permission for his unsolicited (and unwanted) advice. His face softened.
“In my experience, these battery powered options…” was all he got a chance to say.
“Yeah… no.” The voice of my wife was firm as she returned her attention to the gas powered tool she was holding.
The fury returned to his face and I realized that I felt fear for my physical safety. He sputtered finally, turned around, and left.
While there was much humor as we later dissected the scene, I found myself spending the rest of the day sorting through a most illuminating pile of patriarchy and (more importantly) my role in it.
One important piece for me was tending the sense of fear that had filled my being when my wife broke script and offered the initial no. Why fear? What would cause me to feel dread? What I could articulate was that her no was rude, but even that is somewhat confusing. He asked a yes or no question, and in responding her tone was pleasant and her words (or word as it were) within the offered parameters. What then was rude? Sitting with the dissonance, I realize that the refusal of the hand extended was the offense; that part of what I understand to be polite (read: my role in patriarchy) is acceptance of a deferential position in need of (male) support. As women standing in the power tools aisle, looking at gas powered ones no less, we were clearly (in patriarchal terms) outside of our knowledge zone. The man’s duty (again, in patriarchal terms) was to offer assistance. He was playing his part. But my dear one, not so much.
Enter the fear.
At stake was not one older white man in the aisle of Menards. I did not rationally think he was going to do physical damage (though his face did suggest the possibility). My instinctive awareness was that my wife’s behavior was clearly outside of the patriarchal schema and that I was in a position to chose. And quickly.
The system of privileges dispensed and denied according to compliance with patriarchy is immense. While walking away from hetero marriage was my big FU to the patriarchy, the truth is that I play along daily in big and small ways. I’m keenly aware of my deference when white men are working in our home, I feel it all the more acutely because it is no longer my daily reality in this safe space. But I know that the quality of the work will be directly related to my willingness to play, and I do so without the slightest consciousness. This is simply the water in which I swim.
Standing in the aisle, I realize how tangled my continued involvement and (more importantly) why. Fundamentally this is an identity issue, identity at the level of security in the wider social order. Simply put, it is knowing (or no longer knowing) my place in the order of things.
And at what cost. The apparently innocent man was asserting his superiority AND trying to guide us to the less powerful (battery operated) version of the tool. When we find our protection in systems that demand our power in trade, we are never going to be safe much less free.
Drinking my second cup of coffee (or is it third?) on this 4th morning of this trek around the sun, I do so in a home filled with women. It’s really a delicious life, and so different on an organic level. Admittedly I was thrown by my wife’s steadiness in her self knowledge yesterday, but even more I am grateful for both her witness and for the life we have together created that is full and complete… without the patriarchy.
Bottom line: we have choices which grow as we find the courage to explore them.