So I should start by saying – this morning I woke up in the mood to play devil’s advocate. This was not helped by listening to a podcast (link below) about the male perception of what is masculine (and in my opinion there was at least one female opinion in there as well). Anyway – in the spirit of playing devil’s advocate today, I am going to talk about culture. Warning – there will be sweeping generalizations made in the rest of this post, so if you don’t like those, I have plenty of other blog posts here on my site – you might find one of those more appealing. I don’t actually have a problem with sweeping generalizations (if used appropriately) and in addition – I have found that sweeping generalizations make up the backbone of many of our beliefs, traditions and culture, so don’t dismiss them too easily.
I have recently seen a hashtag floating around my Facebook #whyididntreportit – women speaking up about why they did not report incidents of sexual assault. It has been interesting to see the reasons that people are giving, and I was reminded of these last night when I attended a panel discussion here in Barbados (where I live) about the new sexual discrimination in the workplace legislation that has recently been drafted and rolled out. In speaking about the history of how this act came about, a representative from the labour department stated that they don’t get many complaints of sexual harassment, although they do get a lot of anecdotal “asking for a friend” scenarios that led them to believe there was a problem in the workplace that was not being reported.
One of the panelist presented some very compelling statistics – relating to Barbados and the Caribbean, to show that a high percentage of women occupy predominantly service roles – retail, tourism front line (hotel staff etc) to name a few. He stated that for many women – when it came to reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, they had to seriously weigh up employment vs justice, and for the most part, women tended to come down on the side of employment – and who wouldn’t!! Especially in a small country, reputation can still play a role in people’s discussions, and you don’t want to lose your job, or become unhireable. This same panelist also said something that struck me “For a long time in the Caribbean there has been a culture of inappropriate male behavior”. I am going to put a pin in that one as I intend to return to it later. Other statistics he presented included a study that was done on child welfare, showing that there was a high level of child abuse also present in the Caribbean.
Unsurprisingly, later in the discussion, the topic turned back to culture. Much mention was made of how sexualized our culture is (cue mention of people wukking up at Cropover) and how can we expect to have this law make any impact in a culture where inappropriate male behavior and inappropriate sexual behavior is pretty much baked right in (I am paraphrasing here). And maybe some of the men don’t realize they are being inappropriate, and that is because the women aren’t telling them that they are uncomfortable with what is being done. And so on. It was stated (reported by one woman during a study carried out) that there is so much sexual inappropriateness out there directed towards women, and she had gotten tired of trying to “educate men” on the topic – a phenomenon the panelist described as “living while female”. I will say here, it was indeed also stressed that men can be sexually harassed to. But I am a woman, and that is the perspective I am speaking of. If a man wants to weigh in – I happily take guest blog posts.
Now, I have a serious problem with the mention of “culture” whenever this topic is brought up. One member of the audience expressed a similar opinion – no matter what your cultural background is, women can (more often than not) tell what makes them feel sexually harassed. In my opinion, this needs to be taken even further. Why does culture need to be an excuse for inappropriate behavior – especially in a workplace? For harassment? We are so concerned about “losing our culture” here in the Caribbean, but in my opinion, some of these aspects of culture can happily be tossed out. Because I feel as if there are many aspects of our culture that I perceive to be “good and wholesome” that have been tossed aside for the pursuit of becoming individualistic. Because a culture of inappropriate “male behavior” exists in a number of other countries large and small – this is not the purview of the Caribbean. And because there should never be an excuse for willfully continuing or allowing inappropriate behavior. Remember I mentioned earlier on the research that looked at child abuse in the Caribbean? How ridiculous would it sound if someone presented those statistics and the counter argument was given – child abuse is part of our culture. It only doesn’t sound ridiculous because we are talking about sexual harassment? Is that what we are saying?
I do not necessarily believe that legislation should be the only way in which we tackle this issue. One other audience member suggested that we go into the schools to teach about respectful treatment of one another (both inside and outside the workplace). I suggested training so that we could be proactive more so than reactive (which in reality may not be the role of the legal system and legislation – although I have my own opinions on that as well). One way or the other, I think we in the Caribbean need to take a different look at how we consider “our culture” and what aspects of it we truly want to hold up and others that perhaps we might want to let go. The reality is – if what’s app and facebook can become the new forum for standpipe discussion, and multi story apartments the new “chattel houses” then it is clear that we are capable of change when it suits us, and we need to consider whether it would suit us in this case. Do we really want the last vestiges of “our culture” to remain in place simply so that people can continue to harass and disrespect one another? Do we really want that the statistics on actual sexual harassment remain at almost zero because women and men are afraid to report it? Asking for a friend.
Big love from a small island
PS I took the photo above on my birthday this year - I love a beautiful beach scene!!
PPS the podcast that I was listening to this morning was Hidden Brain by NPR with the Episode “Man Up”. You can read about it here and find a link to listen.