On visceral reactions, “Beckyism,” and defensive deafness.
Firstly, let me state my doctorate is in Palaeopathology and not Feminism, Queer Studies, or African-American studies, so this is not likely to be the most academic of works. With that said, I’ve noted a lot of failures in white people addressing racism and in men addressing feminism and sexism. If you are white or male or if you hit the trifecta of privilege that is being a white hetero male I need to let you in on a secret: men do not experience sexism, white people don’t experience racism, and straight people don’t experience homophobia.
Racism and sexism are institutional. So sure, every now and then you’re going to hear a woman say, “men are the worst,” or a black person say, “wow, the caucasity of that woman!” These are not racist or sexist statements. These are expressions of frustration with a biased and unequal system which permeates every aspect of life. And calling these statements of frustration racist or sexist is inherently racist or sexist. It’s tone policing. Which is a form of white supremacy.
Now, I need to also rip the band-aid off. You’re racist and sexist. If you’re white you’re definitely racist and if you’re male you’re definitely sexist. If you’re a woman you’re probably still a little sexist towards other women and if you’re not white you’re probably racist towards other non-white groups. I’m not being mean or combative and I do include myself in this. The point is not that you rid yourself of all prejudice and bias, the point is that you are cognizant of your own short-comings and willing to take criticism. Here, read this if you’re mad. She does a better job of explaining it than I really can.
If you are in a debate and a person of color calls you racist there are times when they’re just trying to shut things down, but most of the time it’s because you’ve actually done or said something racist. Likewise, if a woman tells you you’re being sexist then you are probably being sexist. Sexism doesn’t yet carry the same stigma that racism does so if you as a man get that critique it’s even more likely you’ve said or done something remarkably discriminatory.
I’m going to share a few comments friends or acquaintances or random online commentators have made to me that were racist or sexist but subtle enough that they required a discussion. These will be shared anonymously and I’m not quoting so much as paraphrasing.
- In high school an acquaintance of mine was frustrated that she didn’t have the top score in the math class so she said, “Asian kids should be graded on a harder curve.”
- When BLM was just rising to prominence one of my friends was a bit ill-informed and said, “Well if [victim] wasn’t stealing he wouldn’t have been killed.”
- A friend online who is black is constantly warned by white men, “I just can’t take you seriously when you’re so angry. Can’t you find a nice way to say it?”
- While I was leading a raid in an mmorpg one of the players saw fit to state multiple times, “wow, I’m just not used to taking orders from a woman.”
- Recently I wrote a feminist piece and one of the responses I got was “stop with the conspiracy theories,” in regards to things I personally experienced and which are pretty widely accepted as fact in academic circles.
Again I need to stress these are not examples of overt racism or sexism. The last one is from a comment that was mostly overt sexism and I had to kind of go through it to find something that was subtle. Likewise if you are attentive you will see overt sexism and racism everywhere and every day. But right now, I want to talk about the subtle stuff and why it’s insidious.
If you go through these “subtle” comments and compare them to the racism pyramid I’ve included above you’ll note that most of these comment rise to about the level of “veiled racism.” That’s REALLY bad. Note that the people who say things like this don’t consider themselves racist or sexist. The guy who made the last comment …. well … he called me “Ms.” with the likely knowledge that it’s “Dr.” thankyouveddymuch, but he also tried to preface some incredibly sexist statements and an entire comment which could have been excerpted from the book Men Explain Things to Me, with the statement “I’m on your side.” And I do actually believe that he thinks he is.
When we make these racist or sexist statements the intent may be good. But, again, refer to that pyramid above under “Minimization.” And actually, also refer to my essay on populism found here. No form of political ideology nor even level of real or imagined ally-ship shields or inoculates you from bias and prejudiced behavior. This is not Machiavellian. The ends do not justify the means.
Intent doesn’t matter if the impact is harmful.
Let’s go back to all those “subtle,” comments above. They’re all harmful. Every last one of them. Some are paternalistic, some are discriminatory, some are victim blaming, and they all downplay white supremacy. (And yeah, sexism is racism’s beau. Prof. Brittney Cooper explains it brilliantly in this clip.) But I chose specifically these out of a massive cornucopia of hate, because although they are all either racist or sexist statements, the people who spoke or wrote them did not intend for them to be racist or sexist statements. These people who said these things do not consider themselves racist or sexist. But that does not negate the harmful impact of what they said.
So how do we deal with this? Well, frankly the biggest harm which comes from all of these statements is they require women or people of color to go through the emotional work of carefully and tactfully explaining to the fragile wannabe “ally” who made the statement why that statement is bigoted. I’ve done this probably hundreds of times myself and I’ve got black friends who are so fed up with it they’ll just walk off social media for a week when this happens. I can’t blame them. It’s exhausting and time consuming and frankly, this is really easy stuff. The BEST way for you as a man or you as a white person to help out with this sort of thing is to educate yourself enough that you know how to not make one of those subtly biased statements at all.
But “to err is human.” You’re going to make mistakes. We learn from mistakes. We grow and improve. If someone calls you out on racism even if you suspect they’re just using it to shut you down the best response you can have is to listen. Do not freak out. Do not be condescending. Honestly evaluate what you said, and what they’re saying to you. In the unlikely event that they were just trying to shut you down, genuinely taking the criticism and trying to improve yourself will cause that attack to backfire. And in the much more likely event that you did say or do something to reinforce patriarchy and/or white supremacy you now have the opportunity to learn. In fact, one of the statements I quoted above is from a very dear friend of mine. She can be quite the fighter, but she’s not stupid, so after a very long conversation on the subject and some time to contemplate she’s changed her position.
People of color do not owe you forgiveness or acknowledgement.
Now let’s get to the “to forgive is divine,” part of that Alexander Pope quote. Women and people of color do not owe you forgiveness or acknowledgement. With my friends and my family if they say something awful I’m going to sit them down and talk to them until they get it. I do not do that with strangers online and even with friends and family there is a limit. I have actually told an older family member that she’s not welcome at my wedding or any future family event I host until she stops posting racist stuff on Facebook. If you recognize your own statements in the racism pyramid and no one is calling you racist or sexist it may simply be that no person of color or woman cares about you enough to help you out. And it’s not anyone’s responsibility to help you particularly if you won’t be helped.
The other thing that may be happening is someone has called you out on it and you exploded into a million pieces. This is called “fragility.” White people and men are often blind to their own privilege. White men especially basically expect to always be right even when they’re clearly wrong. That’s why men are always giving me “friendly advice” on subjects they know nothing about and why so many white people repeat the mantra of, “well if black people were respectful of police …” The fact of the matter is due to these institutional power structures men and white people experience a very different world from women and people of color.
As a white woman I have a lot of issues getting men to realize that, no, having taken a single course in Anthropology and having attending a lecture on stats does not make you qualified to comment on my doctoral thesis, but on the other hand I can also walk into just about any shop or university or even embassy and not risk being tackled by security. My white skin even lets me call the police if I’m in trouble and not expect to be shot or arrested. That’s not even my privilege. That’s the difference between the precautions I have to take as a woman and the precautions my black and latina and some of my Asian friends have to take as women of color.
Fragility is the inability or violent refusal to acknowledge one’s own privilege and place in white supremacy. When someone calls you out on racism or sexism and you have a performative melt-down you are engaging in white supremacy. See the racism pyramid above. When white women use tears as a weapon after being called racist for randomly calling police on black people, they are engaging in multiple acts of white supremacy. There was the initial calling the police because black people are extant, but then the shutting everything down with crying is meant to recast the victims as the aggressors. It’s buying right into white supremacy with performative female weakness. It’s not a nice feeling to be called racist or sexist, but it is no one’s responsibility to educate you on the matter or to put it in a “nice way.” And demanding that anyone does is demanding invisible work and engaging in “tone policing.”
It’s possible that you don’t really care about this or don’t think specifically you have a problem. Well, you do. Especially if you think you’re not part of the problem then you probably are. And if you’ve gone so far as to start blaming it on those pesky women or people of color being just too sensitive then you’re not only engaging in white supremacy, you’re also edging towards populist ideology. I’m not going to delve into this at the moment (although if it interests you I have written on this and similar subjects) but white supremacy is precisely what is currently scuttling our democracy.
Wrap yourself in bubble-wrap for this next one because if you had any difficulty with the rest of this article this one will shatter you. The narrative that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election due to her failure to connect with the white working class or her lack of popularity is not only false but part of white supremacy. It is a popular narrative because it excuses the many rather sexist things said about her and the racist behavior towards her supporters, but it is also a false narrative. Diana Mutz, a professor of Political Science at Stanford spells it out. Hillary Clinton was and remains immensely popular including with the working class. She won both the Democratic primaries and the general election by landslides. These are facts. The 2016 election was not a referendum on the democratic system or Obama or Hillary or anything else. It was a demonstration of the power of institutionalized bigotry and how we and yes, “even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I,” are a part of it.
Your privilege blinds you to your privilege.
When you angrily insist that you are not racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic or Islamophobic you are reinforcing the system. Now, yeah, those of us with white or male privilege do benefit at various levels from this system because it reinforces our hegemony. But it’s also blinding. You may not know your behavior is harmful. I’ve spoken to countless white men who hand on heart believe they’re feminists and believe they’re oppressed who literally just a minute ago called me the c-word, claimed I’m richer than them (I often can’t afford food), and tried to tell me I’m a dumb b**** who needs to be taught a lesson. Now to me it’s pretty obvious they’re being sexist. And I’ve seen these same guys go off and use the n-word on my black girlfriends so it’s pretty clear they’re racist too. But they truly believe that they are progressive forward thinking allies speaking truth to power when in fact they’re just trying to silence smart women showing them inconvenient truths. Your privilege blinds you to your privilege.
This does start to get into the concept of relative deprivation. Privilege doesn’t make you rich and successful, but it does make it easier for you to get there. I’m white and highly educated, I am also currently unemployed. Yeah, I worked super hard for my degrees, and I did experience institutionalized sexism along the way, but my white privilege gave me advantages largely invisible to me that my non-white peers did not have. Probably at some point soon some poor schmuck will hire me and all will be well. And yeah, I deserve that job because I’m awesome. But I don’t deserve that job more than Latina Ari or Black Ari. I’m just more likely to get it because I happen to be White Ari. (BTW if you happen to know Latina or Black Ari we need to be introduced because it would be either amazing or terrible.) And yes, this remains true even with Affirmative Action because AA only helps people once they get to the employment or university level. It doesn’t really address institutional discrimination in housing or K-12 education.
In conclusion, this is on you. And me. And everybody. No excuses. We all have our little biases and prejudices and we are all going to make mistakes. But if we’re going to dismantle an inherently racist and sexist system then white people and men need to get to work. People of color and women have already expended thousands of pages of labor and donated their literal blood, sweat, and tears. Lives have been lost over this and the face of our government and economy is stained by it. Every single white person and every single man needs to acknowledge their role in this system and take responsibility for their own actions. Stop reacting defensively. Stop demanding that you be excepted from a discriminatory system wherein you are given privilege. Stop mansplaining and whitesplaining. Stop claiming discrimination when you get called out. Stop demanding special treatment. Start listening. Start looking. Start reading. Start demanding better from yourself.