Critical Conditioning.

“Yeah! I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning.  The man has programmed my conditioning.  Even my conditioning has been conditioned.”

  • Chameleon Street, a film by Wendell Harris, 1989


I was on my way to a friend’s house on public transportation the other day, when I was sexually harassed. Nothing hard-core, just unwanted attention. Basically, after ignoring an obviously very interested older gentleman, with my earbuds in, and sitting in the tightest possible seat I could find (on a half-empty bus), he squeezed his big-ass into the seat next to me and started talking to me. Even though I still had my ear buds in, made eye contact with him once and otherwise stared at my phone like I was receiving texts from God, he still continually talked to me, eventually persuading me to take his phone number while he watched and immediately text him so he’d have mine. I went a stop past my destination because he didn’t get off until my planned stop, and blocked his number as soon as I got off the bus. The experience left me feeling icky, and weak and disempowered.

At this point, I’m sure questions arise for you, like why? Why didn’t I just say no, why didn’t I ask him to get up, stop harassing me, leave me alone; why did I take his number if I didn’t want it, why did I text him mine? Interestingly, a friend of mine posted on facebook a conversation she had with a middle-school boy she knows: he told her how he’d asked his crush to be his girlfriend and she said no. She started to tell him what she thought, and he interrupted, “I know, I know – just keep trying.” To which her response was, “No, don’t keep trying – she gave you her answer.” She said he looked at her incredulously, as if no one had ever told him that before.

Conditioning is a hard thing to overcome. Women, up until recently, have been conditioned all our lives and by society to be compliant and agreeable and “nice”. Men have been conditioned to be assertive and forceful, to never give up, to “go for what you want”. Women have been trained to eventually give in to men; men have been trained to keep pushing a woman until she gives in. This dynamic worked for a long time in our society. My grandmother didn’t even like my grandfather at first, but he pursued her relentlessly and she finally gave in. In popular culture, in movies and TV, we see recurrent examples of a man pursuing (harassing?) a woman doggedly, even going as far as crashing her wedding or stalking her, until the woman finally realizes that she has loved the (creepy? dangerous?) man the whole time, thus she surrenders and they live happily ever after.

No wonder a lot of men have trouble hearing or recognizing the word “no”. No wonder a lot of women find themselves questioning whether or not they actually wanted it or if they were sexually assaulted, sometimes for days before they actually make an outcry or a report. No wonder a lot of women don’t even acknowledge sexual assault or harassment – we have been conditioned to accept it, to expect it, to inevitably give into it. Boys will be boys, right?

I consider myself a strong, self-empowered, independent chick. No one but my employer(s) tells me what to do, I don’t take shit from anyone, I set good boundaries. Except that day on the bus – I reverted to my South Carolina-trained, good-girl self, afraid to make the “man” mad, or cause what would assuredly be a scene, or seem “unladylike”. Except in my relationships, where I allow my boundaries to be violated, and I defer (often involuntarily) to my man’s will, and I let him control the situation. That is my conditioning. Oh, almost forgot – and when things go wrong or bad, of course it’s my fault. I must’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time wearing the wrong thing; I must not have been “taking care of my man”; I must not have been a good enough “girl”, otherwise why else would he have cheated/verbally abused me/left? Let’s examine that: the man is supposed to be in control, but the woman is to blame if it doesn’t work out, regardless of the man’s actions or behavior.

Sounds a bit like Black people’s relationship with the police, doesn’t it? The police have been conditioned to see Black people (especially Black men) as potential criminals and generally approach them as such; Black people have been conditioned that the police are out to get them regardless of if they’ve done anything wrong. So the situation perpetuates itself: the police get to harass anyone they see for any reason; if the Black person stands up for their rights, then they are resisting, so whatever negative experience they have (harassment, assault, death) is their fault. If the Black person complies, they may suffer the consequences anyway, but it’s cool because that’s another potential criminal off the street. I think you’re out to get me, so I’m gonna run. You think I’m running ‘cause I’m a criminal, so you “get” me. Either way, the consequences are my fault – I must have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, or not “taken care of myself”; I must not be a good “citizen”, otherwise why else would the police have harassed/arrested/killed me?

Sure, #notallcops, #notallmen, #notallwhitepeople. No one has or is able to do a unanimous count of all misogynists or racists or bad cops. Not that half of people tell the truth in polls, not that polls represent even half the people in this country. Congratulations, you are a man who never disrespects or domineers women, even unconsciously; kudos to you, Good Cop! Just because you defy expectations doesn’t mean your hashtag is trending. You know what a trend is? Something that’s popular. If something stays popular for long enough it becomes normal and gets integrated into conditioning. Like, for example, integration. It was rare, and in some cases, illegal. Then it became legal all over the country. Took a while, but it then became popular, then normal. Now, in places where a variety of different people live, we are conditioned to integrate with one another. The White people I know, especially from coastal cities, are weirded out in all-white places. We have become conditioned to diversity.

If children who were once conditioned to be racist can (and have) grow up to be parents who condition their children to accept and celebrate diversity, then perhaps that is the answer. We can condition our boys to respect female bodies and boundaries, and condition our girls to set and respect our own boundaries. Teach boys to go with that first “no”; teach girls to say no (or yes) and mean it, period. If enough of us do it, and enough children “trend” it then we can change our conditioning. Make mutual respect, and boundaries, and asking consent normal.

Maybe we can teach cops to not assess situations based solely on race and class. We could train them in non-violent de-escalation, make them more able to recognize mental illness. How about put more of them in neighborhoods they actually live in, so that they could more easily identify actual threats, on a case-by-case basis? Perhaps friendly, helpful police officers will help to start a trend among Black citizens of not being on the defensive whenever we see or have to deal with cops. Which could only be positive for both sides, and help create a better community for us all.

#respectforeveryone. Trend that.

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