I’m a white man. I don’t mind telling you. That’s because in America, being a pale, English-speaking man like me is about as close as an American can come to being treated like royalty. So what do I know about hurtful prejudice?

Not much. Sure, I’ve faced challenges. I’ve been picked last for kickball. But it was a sort of a dignified last. I knew as well as anyone else that, the previous gym class, I’d missed the ball too many times. At least before they saw me miss the ball, there was a chance they would think I might be good. I had a fair shot to prove myself. They may have even expected me to be good. And expectations are powerful, yet desperately undervalued.

You might say that I’m like apple pie. No one will doubt me; they’ll just assume I’m delicious. I will never be asked for my papers on an Arizona sidewalk. No one will ever ask how much I spent on a “pant-suit.” And, were it not for my wimpiness, few people would think twice if I told them I wanted to be a firefighter.

As a result of my perspective, I thought sexism, like other forms of prejudice, was a non-issue nowadays. I knew there were some wackos in Utah with 17 teenage wives, but they were the outliers. Sexism, I thought, for all practical purposes, was dead — killed decades ago in a rage of feminism, estrogen and overzealous political correctness.

But then my older sister announced she wanted to be a firefighter. I’ve since come to realize that I have no authority to call any form of prejudice dead, or any political correctness overzealous. Royal status breeds a dangerous ignorance that I only noticed while watching my sister struggle to enter an intensely male-dominated trade.

At the time of her announcement two years ago, my sister was an undergraduate at Boston University. Her declaration was a private one, reserved only for members of her close family. Her battle to become a firefighter, she had determined, was one she preferred to fight by herself. I think she felt that society expected something different of her. I doubt that, as a man, I would have felt the same pressure to keep things quiet.

After many months of balancing her college studies with a busy workout schedule, my five-foot, one-inch sister passed the rigorous physical exam required by the Boston Fire Department. But, like most departments across the country, the BFD had few openings, so upon her graduation from BU, she moved home, where she began work as a substitute teacher and was hired by a local volunteer fire department that would pay for her training.

If it’s not obvious, I’m proud of her. Grotesque sexism is tough to overcome. While working as a substitute teacher, my sister told a little girl in her class that she was a firefighter. “No you’re not,” the girl said. “Girls can’t be firefighters.” In middle school, she was already convinced that her gender was an obstacle. But the teacher she was working with didn’t believe my sister either. “You really shouldn’t tell them things like that,” the teacher said. “They can tell when you’re lying.” Sexism, it turns out, is still alive and kicking.

More stinging than the blatant, old-school sexism, though, is its more subtle cousin: the cruel expectations that make gender divisions seem normal. Family friends would laugh a little too much when my dad would say my sister’s a firefighter. They might say things like, “But don’t you want a family?” as though a woman had to choose but a man didn’t. They meant well, but without noticing it, they were revealing a sexism so deeply ingrained in our culture that well-meaning adults can fail to see it. It was no wonder my sister had qualms about sharing her ambitions.

Two weeks ago, I headed home to watch my sister graduate first in her class from firefighter training. I’d seen some of the obstacles she’d overcome to reach that point, but I’ll never know or understand them all.

The “Fireman’s Prayer” on the back of the ceremony’s program read, “Please bless with Your protecting hand my children and my wife.” I’m sure it was well-intentioned, even if it was yet another reminder that firefighters are expected to be men. Defying what people expect — what they deem natural — is hard. My sister has grown accustomed to being unexpected. Seeing that prayer made me even more proud of what she’s accomplished. Men still wear crowns. We still oppress. But I’ve also seen that our sisters, one step at a time, are overcoming.

Nicholas Clift can be reached at nclift@umich.edu.

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