“I’m Not Like That”: Why It Offends, Where It Makes Sense

A few months ago, an article on feminist masculinity on the Women in Theology blog sparked a difficult, testy, extraordinary conversation on a friend’s Facebook page. It also happened to strike repeatedly on one of my rawest nerves.

The article is so tightly written that a quick scan—with a word or sentence taken out of context—can lead to a serious misunderstanding. That is exactly where I went at the fifth paragraph. The minute I saw “Men, you have really got to learn to educate yourselves…,” I could feel my fight-or-flight response rear up in horror. “Stop trying to make everything revolve around you” didn’t help, either.

Some background is in order. As a white American man, I have found only one context in which I am part of a historically marginalized group, and that involves gender identity. One result of my gender eccentricity is that I loathe—loathe—being lumped together in generalizations about men. Something deep within me wants to shout, “Hey! I’m not like that!”

I expressed that thought early in the conversation. I received a good deal of flak. And that turned out to be a good thing: from the exchange that followed, I learned that, in a dialogue that touches in any way on systems of oppression, people can hear “I’m not like that” in at least two ways.

There is, first, the dismissive, defensive “I’m not like that”: the assertion that I do not have to listen, to have this dialogue, because the anger you want to express to my group does not apply to me. From what I gather, people in historically oppressed groups hear this version all the time. I’m not prejudiced, so why are you yelling at me? All my friends are women, so why should I take flak for male domination?

The effect on dialogue is chilling. By responding with this version of “I’m not like that,” I declare the essence of my dialogue partner’s contribution off limits. I have also cut myself off from any opportunity for change, deeper understanding, or empathy on my part. The dialogue becomes a shadow of what it could be.

That is a shame, because there is so much for me to learn. As a white man, I have heard women speak extensively of their experience as women in a man-dominated world. Still, it is impossible for me to fully grasp, to the depths of my soul, what that experience must be like—let alone the myriad ways in which I have enjoyed the privileges of looking like the historically dominant group. So, no matter where I am in my progress toward understanding, there is no end to the listening I must do: listening that is deep, open-hearted, and silent, taking in the experience of the other.

But there is another version of “I’m not like that.” This “I’m not like that” does not seek to avoid the aforementioned dialogue. In fact, perhaps it is best said after the other has spoken, and not in so many words. The intent here is not defensiveness, but the creation of a space in which I can speak and contribute my deepest self to what the other has expressed. It is a space in which I can be heard and add from my own experience to the dialogue. If I cannot contribute that experience (and the questions that arise from it), the dialogue ceases to be a dialogue, just as surely as when “I’m not like that” is used to defend oneself and hence silence the other.

It will take many years, and many conversations, for Americans to seamlessly engage dialogues over systems of oppression. Many of those conversations, in turn, will have to be about getting the language right: choosing our words and phrases and non-verbals so as to honor all people. This one Facebook conversation has helped me get my language one step closer to right—and understand a bit more of what “right” might mean in difficult conversations like this.

About John Backman

As a blogger for Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored "Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart," and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
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