On asking myself ‘what if the opposite were true?’ to remember that we’re all just having a human experience
Gosh, Raj has been mind bogglingly sexist.
A judgment I made within minutes of meeting Raj has gripped me for the decade since we first met.
Raj is a star professor of a class that is always over-subscribed at one of the country’s leading universities. When I met him at a work event he was hosting five years ago, he thoughtfully told me - in a commitment to honesty I cannot fathom - that I was invited to speak at the event because they needed a woman speaker on the panel.
Instantly, my face turned red hot. Feverishly embarrassed and angry, I barely mustered up a response as I averted his gaze. Within seconds, I saw myself dart out of the conversation.
I spent the rest of the morning milling through the crowd, fighting to keep all my shame and a few tears at bay. I tried to regain my composure by getting back in touch with the parts of me that weren’t too belittled to keep going. It didn’t help that I did feel young, scared, and like I did not belong in this all-star community (of mostly men). Or that a voice in me relentlessly reminded me that young women like me should really be out networking, not moping, at an event like this.
Unfortunately, time and tide wait for no woman, no matter how hurt. Before I knew it, it was my turn to speak. So I told myself the only useful thing that occurred to me – without pausing to check if it was true: Raj is sexist.
I pulled myself together and tried to see myself as more than the token woman, in a bid to someday be more than the token woman. I spoke my piece. I spoke about the things I think and write about that make me more than just a woman. I held my own, and I considered it a win.
I’m a judgmental person. Some of my judgments are useful. They help me stay safe, mindful, and agile enough to reject a younger Malavika’s hypothesis that the world is always fair. But not all judgments are truths. So I’ve been playing a game with myself of late. It goes like this.
I ask myself the question: what if the opposite were true?
Raj is a kind, present, thoughtful man who does not hold women in less regard.
I watch myself have conflicting reactions to this alternate possibility.
Well, he hurt me…. but his tone was not hurtful?
He also said <x horrid thing> to the woman who topped his class in 2016, and said <y mean thing> to the woman who leads the student editorial team for the journal… but maybe he doesn’t know that his words are hurtful?
I don’t believe he cares…. yet, he appears to be a present and thoughtful partner and parent?
I feel unworthy around him… perhaps he can’t empathize with the experience of being a young woman?
My judgment softens, and so does my mindbody. More at ease, no longer under siege, I find myself returning to my center, and yet somehow expanding within myself to make space for Raj’s multitudes.
Angie Wang inspired this game with her essay What If This Could Be Awesome!? By asking herself that question, she would invite herself to envision and embed herself in the possibility of having an amazing day. This helped her neutralize any anticipatory dread or distaste she felt for the day ahead of her, and gave her the gift of a Reset button. I didn’t go as far as Angie to let myself experience the alternate possibility viscerally. But turns out, I didn’t need to.
All these years later, I don’t wonder about my place in these all-star events. (Not because I am a star, but because I reject the idea of stars now thanks to the only person I will continue to call a star - my therapist.) My gender has become ancillary to my own self-image at work, even though my gendered experience of the world is central to my way of being at work. Still, the journey here has made me wonder: what is the role of these enduring possible-lies in my life?
Raj may be sexist, but where does that take me, the world, or Raj? Especially if Raj is not sexist and can use his position and role as a professor to help others (whether women, or caste-oppressed or unsure about their English) believe in themselves.
What if Raj was just having a bad day, was preoccupied, had a full plate, was overwhelmed, or was just plain unaware?
What if… Raj is just a human being having a human experience? ✨Radical. ✨
Last week, at this year’s edition of the same event, I encountered Raj again. I had to finish playing my game.
After dinner, I said, “You know, Raj, the women on the event’s student team are struggling with diffidence?” I’d just learned this earlier that day, but it wasn’t difficult to see in their body language.
“Really?” he asked, suddenly training his gaze at me.
A crack had revealed itself in our shared experience of this world - a place to be tender, a place to be ourselves, a place to speak about the chasm across which we both navigate the same world.
“...I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s only the male students who are able to hold forth with you in a conversation,” I went on. I saw him mentally do some quick math to get a sense of the statistics around my claim. “You may be right, I never thought about it that way,” he remarked, pondering.
I also told him how I felt when I was one of the youngest women some years ago at this event, hearing his comment about why I was invited to the event. The more I told him how it is to be constantly undermined even in a well-meaning world - either on account of my gender or for having played some version of the gender card - the more he seemed to see that there was something he wasn’t seeing.
“I don’t blame you, Raj,” I said, “...you couldn’t possibly know what it’s like coming of age as a young woman in this country.”
The next day, as we wrapped up the closing ceremony of the event, Raj walked up to me and said, “You’re right… you’re right. I am seeing it now. It’s everywhere.”
Feedback is the greatest love language. For this piece, I am grateful for the love, thoughts and all-round cheering from Fis, Karena, Kelly, and Nic.
"What if the opposite were true?"
This such a powerful pattern interrupt to keep the assumption making machine in check.
You're so good at sharing ideas like this in the form of real life stories, which allows their value to leap the divide between your experience and the possibility of me actually making use of it in a real life situation of my own.
“You’re right… you’re right. I am seeing it now. It’s everywhere.”
Thank you for sharing this, Malavika. This last sentence said a lot.
Sometimes we overlook very obvious things that are plainly visible just because we can't relate with what other person experiencing.
I'm so glad that you spoke to him and made him realise.