Wednesday, December 02, 2009

White "Racism vs. Sexism" Comparisons Still Fail

You know, I am pretty sick of this idea that people find racism less acceptable than sexism. I don't know a single woman of color in the USA who didn't get sick of hearing white women make this claim during the last Presidential race. If you weren't keeping up with what goes on in the country, feel free to take a glance at any PUMA forum and you'll see what I'm talking about. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who noticed.

When sites like Huffington Post give racists like Amy Suskind space to spew their bile and the New York Times allows bigots like Gloria Steinem to deny the womanhood of women of color, it's quite easy for people of color to see why the idea (that racism is less acceptable than sexism) is so bogus. When sources like CNN are acknowledging the prevalence of racism in the media, it's kind of hard to deny that this is occurring.

So why are there still white women making statements like this?

Obviously, racism still exists, and there’s still work to do in that area. But, people are now much more afraid to publicly express their racism then ever before, which has in effect, led to less racism. Because expression of racism is so frowned upon, acting racist now carries consequences, it’s not socially acceptable amongst most people, and people risk losing their jobs and relationships for expressing racist views. Due to the consequences, it’s less frequent, and people are not only changing their behavior, they are changing their minds about the equality of black people.
Uh, no. People are still just as free to express their racism as ever before. Furthermore, I would love to hear how this particular white woman came to believe that she knows whether racism has decreased or not. As a matter of fact, the idea that whites can be an authority on the experiences of black people is itself racist. As a woman of color, I experience both racism and sexism every day of my life. Over the years, neither of these kinds of oppression have decreased. Of course, if a white woman actually asked those who are recipients of racism about this before making assumptions, then she probably wouldn't make such erroneous claims.

I commented on the thread where the blogger made these remarks, but for some reason it didn't go through, so I sent her a message on Twitter (where she originally advertised her post). I said, "Only white people believe that displays of racism are viewed as less acceptable than sexism–only white people." She responded with the following:

I wanted to address this response that I recieved to the above Post via Twitter. The reason I write this blog is because I want to open up dialogue about and bring attention to important issues, so that we can learn from one another. Avoidance of controversy will not achieve that affect. The only relationships I am making about racism and sexism are those that I have expressly addressed in my blog. I am referring only to the words and behavior of mainstream media and what is considered socially acceptable behavior amongst otherwise resepectable people, and ONLY the obvious, outward displays of racism and sexism only.

I am a white person and I fully acknowledge that despite my desire to be empathetic, compassionate, and sensitive regarding racial issues, I cannot experience the world the exact same way a black person does. Because I’m a white women, I also fully acknowledge that I am more completely in tune with issues of sexism then racism. As a result, I am open to the possiblity that I am incorrect. Regardless, I would like to engage in intelligent conversation about this subject matter, and would like those who disagree to take this as an opportunity to share their views with others, allowing us to learn from you. Again, the only statements I am making about racism are those I have expressly stated in my Post, and ask you not to imply more. All inequality is damaging and I am not comparing the damage caused by different types of discrimination. I’m only comparing what I’ve experiences as the general public reaction to the specific froms of sexism and racism I’ve given specific examples of.

The primary point of my post is that overt acts/words of racism, even with the best of intentions, gets people fired up, and this reaction supports that statement. Regardless of whether certain types of inequality are more or less damaging, inequality is damaging. For those who find my Post offensive, it would be helpfule if you refer to the two specific examples I gave regarding the sexist treatment of Sarah Palin, and point out any flaws in my assessments of them. Also give examples of overt words or portrayals of racism against blacks in the mainstream media, in the past few years, that you consider equivalent, in their nature and the public reaction they recieved. Thank you.
Because she told me that she never saw the first comment that I left on her post, I am putting my response here on my blog, so that I don't have to rewrite it if it happens again.

I am willing to believe that you may be interested in the idea of dialogue. However, your post isn't really conducive to bringing that about. When you start by claiming to know what people of color are experiencing despite not being one yourself, you aren't opening up lines of communication. You're actually closing them.

See, what if I was a man and I told you that women are actually experiencing less sexism than they used to? Would you believe that I was the real arbiter on the frequency of that particular form of oppression? Do you think a man can ever know exactly how much sexism a woman faces? I'm doubting that you'd think a man making claims like that was really trying to open up lines of communication.

If a man was really interested in knowing whether sexism was increasing or decreasing, his only real option would be to find out what women have to say on the matter, not make assumptions and then wait to see if anyone contested them. Can you see what I'm trying to say? You started out with an assumption about racism and because that assumption wasn't based on facts, it made your entire argument invalid. If you want to "engage in intelligent conversation about this subject matter", you'll have to refrain from doing this, because it will never lead you to a logical, valid conclusion.

Next, you're moving the goalposts. In your original post, you made claims about racism that go far beyond what happens on your blog. Your comments were about racism in the media, not just racism on your site. Now you're making a different claim. Perhaps you don't truly believe that racism in the media is decreasing, but that doesn't change what your post actually said.

The idea that you are only referring to "otherwise respectable people" is a common technique that people use to exclude any evidence that would disprove their claim. For example, what if a man said to you, "Well, sexism has decreased over years. Oh, and by the way, the only examples of sexism that count are those that come from people that I think are reasonable folks."? Wouldn't that be mighty convenient? If you tried to present the man with any examples of the prevalence of sexism, he could simply say that those examples don't count because nobody takes those folks seriously any way. Well, the same is true with racism. Coming back and saying you were only talking about "otherwise respectable people" provides a perfect means of avoiding the existing evidence that you were and are quite wrong about the way the world treats racism. Perhaps you aren't doing this purposely, but that's still the results of trying to re-frame your arguments that way.

The fact that I responded to your statement calmly and still get accused of being "fired up" is also evidence of why you are not a good judge of how racism works nor what it looks like. Are you really that unfamiliar with the Sapphire trope? It certainly seems so. Are you really unfamiliar with the history behind white women scolding women of color about our "tone"? It appears that way. Have you never encountered an explanation for why expecting people of color to prove that racism is occurring is actually racist?

I've never spoken to you about this stuff, so I'm going to go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt because I really do like to believe the best about people. Because of that, I'm going to suggest that you take the time to read about the intersectionality of oppressions before you consider making this classic, white-privileged assertion again. Hopefully, if you begin to see how this argument makes you a part of the problem that you claim to want to fight, you'll stop contributing to the oppression of women of color in the way that your post did.

Is it sexualized racism or racialized sexism? The "Head O State" dildo shows why creating "sexism versus racism" comparisons are bound to fail. People of color don't always experience one or the other. Instead, we often have to deal with both.

More evidence that Mel's assertion (that racism is less tolerated than sexism) just isn't based on the facts.


Anonymous said...

What you're saying here has little relationship to what I wrote in my blog. I think you've missed the point.

Mordant Espier said...

Yes, yes, and yes.

The assumption that because most "reasonable" white people agree (abstractly) that racism is bad and don't wear white hoods therefore means that there is less racism today (and/or that now racism is not okay but sexism is) is an omnipresent trope in white people's narrative about race.

They also think that "reasonable" white people can't be racist unless they INTENDED to be racist, and since good, reasonable white people know racism is bad, therefore they couldn't possibly have done anything racist.

As a white person, I was socialized to think that way. But it's totally a view of the world distorted by privilege.

It's sad that feminists who are so good at understanding sex-based oppression can be so bad at understanding other forms of oppression, but it's also not surprising, since that's how power/privilege/oppression works.

It's hard to engage with white people on this problem unless they simply grok the problem and their place within it. People who are tone deaf about racism trying to compare it to sexism are going to fail big time. But they don't even know they are tone deaf, and when you tell them, they don't hear it right.

Anyway, since you brought up Steinem, one of the best moments of the election season was Melissa Harris-Lacewell devestating Gloria Steinem on Democracy Now.

Maegan la Mala said...

You are way more patient than me mujer. I am in no mood to teach people or give examples.

Cocoa Goddess said...

Anonymous, her point is a white person saying racism has gotten better is the equivalent of a male saying sexism has gotten better. Basically the person who has the least experience with both is the severity of these experiences. Sure you people have their own point of view, but shouldn't the measure of the betterment of either "ism" judged by those who are the most oppressed by them?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you, and in fact I would guess that subtle, institutionalized racism is just as oppressive as blatant racism.

It took me a long time to understand the difference between white feminism and black feminism. Personally once I learned about black feminism it made a lot more sense, because it does (as you mention) focus on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. Although I do agree that women should be able to "break the glass ceiling" and such, real equality (for ALL women) looks much different than that.

libhom said...

I didn't know the PUMA forums were still around. I strongly suspect that Ms. Clinton would like them to close up shop.

There certainly is sexism in many of the reactions to Sarah Palin, but the author either doesn't remember or is too young to remember Dan Quayle and the reaction to him. Both Quayle and Palin are religious extremists, are inarticulate, and are boastful ignoramuses. Both were also chosen as VP based on the fact that their looks were more appealing (or really less unappealing) than those of other politicians. Neither of them was capable of serving as President, and both were subject to intense ridicule.

I remember hearing that, after the Civil War, the Republican Party decided that either black men or white women would get the vote. This was a cynical way to pit both groups against each other and to put women of color in a really terrible bind. That dynamic is still playing out today.

Tiffany said...

I agree with much of what you say, and agree that white women can't understand the racism facing black women. However, I think the bigger issue is that it was a little childish and naive of the original poster to engage a comparison of which was more acceptable: racism or sexism. It's about as pointless as trying to decide which race is oppressed more, or who has had it the worst over the years.
The only other thing I would say is that your assertion that only a white woman would assume that racism is more acceptable than sexism is a little bit of a racist statement. While it is less likely that any other race would make that statement, stereotyping any race as the harsh, unfeeling overlords is a little cruel and has negative repercussions. I'd rather point out where people are wrong on an individual basis, than blame it on their race. Also, participating in that kind of name calling tends to shut down communication. But I could be wrong.

Plain(s)feminist said...

You rock. My desk has a big dent from where I've been banging my face into it after reading her response. I'm impressed that you were able to respond so calmly (and, of course, brilliantly).

DaisyDeadhead said...

See, I think racism is actually much worse since Obama was elected, its like it all just suddenly BUBBLED OVER (I am a veteran of one of those wacky-assed TOWN MEETINGS, after all!) ... certain whites just went berserk over a black man as president. Their latent racism had been carefully controlled and kept under wraps, as long as black people stayed "in their place"... but then, one became president ... and BOOM.

So I don't even know what planet this person is on.

Chris said...

She wanted to open up a dialogue, that she did!
"In no mood to teach people or give examples"? In that one sentence I was taught acceptance.
I want to be educated, I want to be shown examples. Had she not written this blog, I would not have found your response. Educated a bit more, I thank you for your words.


Anonymous said...

I tend to think there's more racism around than there is sexism but: I also tend to think that that is because I am so acculturated to sexism that I don't see it as well as I do racism.

It's such a sterile debate though, racism vs. sexism, and it's more than sort of the wrong question.