I recently accompanied my children to a Nets game at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY. Because of some ticket juggling I ended up waiting outside while my sister took the kids to watch the game. Apparently Brooklyn goes to bed early and so after being thrown out of both Starbucks and McDonald’s by 10 pm, I found myself hanging out in the rather desolate waiting area of the Long Island Railroad station. Eventually a man walked in and seated himself two seats away from me despite the waiting area having dozens of available seats. As time went by I became more and more uncomfortable with his behavior because he made a point of moving closer inch by inch as he removed articles of his outer clothing one by one and continuously looked at me in a way that made me feel threatened. It was silent all around, late at night, and as far as I could tell there was no else in the terminal. My first instinct was to leave and find a more populated place to wait. However, I continued to sit there feeling uncomfortable and mildly afraid. The conversation in my head went something like this: “this is a black man who has probably had a lifetime of being perceived as a threat because of his race, and I don’t want to be one more person who does that to him. I am scared but he hasn’t done anything to me…yet.” And so I sat there, trying to look at ease, waiting long enough so that it might seem to him, the man who was behaving in a clearly suspicious way, that I left because it was time for me to go and not because of him. As I processed my own actions later I realized that this is what one of my clients once referred to as “radical hospitality” and it is something most women have been raised to participate in.
Through millennia of socialization women have internalized a duty to worry about how we make others feel before we ever consider how they make us feel. This is so strongly ingrained in us that we do it even in situations like the one I was in. I allowed myself to be trespassed against by someone who was at best amusing himself by scaring me, and at worst, an actual threat. It can be seen in the age-old directive to “smile more,” and in the appalling “it’s okay if you’ve developed early, boys like big boobs,” that was delivered in health class. It is taught to every young wife who is told to “meet him halfway” no matter what the issue. We are raised to be radical hosts, through our speech, our actions, our expressions, and our bodies. We are enjoined to never be the source of someone else’s discomfort, even if that means accepting our own discomfort. And we are asked to be the container for the experiences and feelings of others in ways that we would never be allowed to impose our own. In fact, the most revered female role, motherhood, represents the most radical of hospitality. We literally play host to another being, often with great physical and emotional discomfort. And those of us who make it look easy and glamorous are rewarded while those who acknowledge how painful, uncomfortable and draining it is are often ridiculed or made to feel guilty for not being selfless enough. In effect, not only do we have to be the ultimate hosts, we cannot speak openly about how much such hosting duties take from us.
We are told to make it easier for others to accept responsibility by setting the example and accepting it first, nevermind that it isn’t ours to claim. In my work with women I have stumbled upon a revolutionary question, one that is always received with such disbelief that it would be comical if it wasn’t so incredibly telling. I ask my female clients if they have ever been in a confrontation where they simply refused to accept any responsibility, where they were able to unapologetically know, and more importantly say, that they are completely blameless and have nothing to make amends for. Each client who has been asked this question has been struck silent momentarily as they tried to imagine how such a scenario would even be possible. Asked to describe situations where they in fact held no blame, they were able to provide myriad examples and yet the idea of owning this fact, of not finding ways to soften the blow for the other person at their own expense is brand new to most of my female clients.
The transformation that happens as clients are able to confront and reject the radical hospitality that has been foisted upon them throughout their lives is one of the most rewarding results of being a therapist. The therapeutic work required to undo the lifelong conditioning that makes women feel they have to participate in such radical hospitality is difficult and frequently full of revelation for both the client and myself. It is not easy to get comfortable with the fact that rejecting radical hospitality is more than just refusing to be trespassed against. It also means that at times, we have to be comfortable doing the trespassing.