be kind, not nice: how niceness marginalizes oppressed people and protects oppressors

This weekend, I had an experience with a dude that reminded me how much women are expected to be nice to strange men who give us no particular reason to be nice. On a hot night at a rooftop bar in Minneapolis that serves $3 vodka rail drinks (uh oh), I am sitting with four women friends when a stranger comes up to our table and starts making conversation. It is pretty clear that he is there to flirt with literally any one of us who will take him. Unfortunately, he is not especially interesting. He says nothing of importance. The onus is on us to keep the conversation moving along, and so we tease him about being boring. He calls us mean as a joke. I’m sure you can imagine how stupid the conversation is. One of my friends, who happens to be sitting across the table from the man and thus is ill-positioned to hear him in a loud bar, starts looking at her phone and talking to our friend who is sitting next to her. The man seemingly can’t take this, even though three other women are humoring his attempts at conversation politely. He says she’s being mean. He says she could just be nice. I tell him, as gently as I can, that what he’s saying is sexist and that she owes him nothing: not time, not attention, not laughter, and not conversation. He tells me I’m crazy, that he’s being nice and he just thinks someone should be nice, and that’s sexist?! In a perfect moment, another friend happens to arrive at the bar right as he’s saying this. She asks, don’t you have friends you can hang out with? He says yes. She says, then go hang out with them. The high of watching him angrily leave because he has been told to go is almost worth the low of having to listen to him talk for half an hour.

I know many other women have experienced nearly identical scenarios, perhaps with less happy endings. I also know that the expectation of niceness is put on other marginalized groups too: people of color and people with disabilities, especially. And it’s definitely required that marginalized people are nice when talking about their own oppression; being anything but nice is, in and of itself, grounds for complete and total disregard.  Continue reading be kind, not nice: how niceness marginalizes oppressed people and protects oppressors

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