Friday, November 27, 2009

Definitions of sexism & racism (by Suzie)

When the word “racism” gets mentioned, I bet a lot of people think of Klansmen in white hoods. “Sexism,” however, seems to conjure up a smarmy guy telling a bad joke.

Merriam-Webster online defines sexism as
1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex ; especially : discrimination against women
2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
It defines racism as:
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2: racial prejudice or discrimination
Sexism isn’t defined as a belief that gender determines traits and capacities, perhaps because that belief is widely accepted among academics, religious leaders and others. Even if they don’t say men are superior, many assign more highly valued traits to men. Consider this gauge of mainstream thought: The media routinely quote experts explaining why men and women are different, with no rebuttal. They wouldn’t do a similar story on race without quoting someone who disagrees.

Some social scientists describe “hostile sexism,” “ambivalent sexism” and “benevolent sexism.” Hostile sexism is akin to “women are all manipulative sluts.” Tekanji on Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog explains that benevolent sexism involves a “good” stereotype, such as: Women are more virtuous than men. But this can backfire. When a woman doesn’t act virtuous, she may face more criticism than a man would. The example for ambivalent sexism is stereotyping that appears neutral, such as pink for girls and blue for boys. (These terms also apply to racism.)

The Feminism 101 blog says most sexism is unintentional, born out of ignorance. If so, a close second has to be sexist statements made by people who think feminists take ourselves too seriously, want special treatment, are not really oppressed or blame men for everything. (The same can be said about a lot of racist remarks.)

It’s tempting to think hostile and intentional bias is worse than unintentional and benevolent bias. But it depends on the impact. Certainly, a man who kills a bunch of women or a white who kills a bunch of people of color is worse than a poor, elderly, white man who means well but says offensive things from time to time.

On the other hand, a hostile guy who intentionally says rude things doesn’t cause as much damage as a prominent politician who means well but acts in a detrimental way that affects millions.

To complicate the matter further, there are many people, notably academics such as Abby Ferber, who consider all whites racist. She wrote in the HuffPost:
Part of the problem is that we think of racism as an individual quality. We see racists as nasty people who march around with white hoods burning crosses. But this [way of thinking] actually reinforces racism. We need to shift from using "racist" as a noun, to an adjective. The reality is that white folks are racist; how can we grow up in this culture and not internalize racism?
The task that faces us is not to try and identify who is or is not a racist, but to examine the many invisible ways in which racism and white privilege pervade our lives, our views, our assumptions, and our opportunities. The question is not are we racist, but are we anti-racist? What are we doing to recognize and undermine racism and privilege as it shapes our life, day in and day out? We need to strive to make racism more visible, more conscious. Only once it is conscious can we work to undermine it.
I assume that people who believe this also believe that all men are sexist, although I hear that less from academics popular now. It also follows that women internalize sexism and people of color internalize racism.

On a Racialicious thread (not reacting to Ferber), Marge Twain said:
To continue that analogy, all women are sexist too, even though they are not the beneficiaries of sexism. It’s not hard to look around and find women who have internalized the message of their own inferiority, who seek to blame rape-victims or who participate in slut-shaming or believe women and not men are the natural care-takers. Being female doesn’t excuse me from needing to check my own sexist assumptions.
Saying all whites are racist and all men are sexist helps rally the troops, in an us-vs.-them fashion, but does little to guide our actions. I agree with Ferber that actions are what matter.

We need to look at the intention and impact of individual actions, instead of thinking that all acts of bias are equally bad. I’m not saying we should disregard lesser sins and focus only on the most horrific acts. But I tire of name-calling (except when I'm doing it, of course).

We should continue to examine belief systems and structural inequities. We’ve got to stop the media from publicizing, without criticism, theories or beliefs that gender determines traits and capabilities.

What do you think?
Next month I’ll discuss power + privilege and institutionalized bias.