Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sexism Is Worse Than Racism

Despite the fact that there is no such thing as a good form of oppression some people cannot stop themselves from engaging in oppression Olympics.  The desire to rank one social stigmatization as worse than another is a denial of privilege.  It was with much disgust that I came across, "Lesson of the 2008 Election Is That Sexism Is Still More Pervasive Than Racism", by Bonnie Erbe in U.S. News & World Report. 

It is easy for a white woman who has never been subject to racism to announce that sexism is socially more pervasive.  She does not know what it is like to be told, you don't sound black simply because you know words that have more than two syllables.  She has never been directed to cheaper items in a store because it is assumed that blacks are too poor to afford luxury items.  I wonder if she has even been asked to leave a room so that someone could tell a black joke?

Blackness exists with a monolithic identity and therefore being asked to speak as a representative of my race is a common occurrence and yet I have never been asked to speak on behalf of all women.  This has happened in the most liberal of environments because despite the tolerance mantra, for some people not only do we all look alike, we think alike. 

A white woman is capable of asserting that sexism is more acceptable simply because she has never been subjected to racism.  To exist as a body of colour in a world that is predicated on maintaining white hegemony is to daily be marginalized, and 'othered'.

Erbe takes great care to point out that Obama has been the subject of racism but her desire to compare this with the sexism faced by both Palin and Clinton is yet another example of white privilege.  It is telling that her examples of sexist attacks are limited to white women, thus effectively erasing the experiences of women of colour.  When Michelle Obama was called a "baby's momma", by Fox news that was a specifically genderized attack based in race and yet it did not qualify as a legitimately misogynistic to be referenced.  Where is her outrage that an educated, intelligent woman like Michelle Obama is routinely reduced to a bitter, enraged ABW (angry black woman) by the likes of Limbaugh and O'Reilly? 

For women like Erbe sexism can only trump race because they ignore the experiences of women of colour.   Womanhood is routinely represented by white women and therefore the idea that they consist of a class of people that are uniquely marginalized is not only an exercise in white privilege, it is patently racist and othering.

While stating that, "white men still feel more comfortable sharing power with men of color than they do with white women or women of color", she ignores the role that white women have played in concert with men  in the overvaluation of whiteness.  Simply pointing out one clearly racist statement by Stanton does not erase the racism employed by white women in their bid to elect Hillary Clinton, nor does it eliminate the degree to which white women still profit from racism.  The largest benefactors of affirmative action have been white women and this is not at all accidental.  WOC despite occupying two areas of social marginalization have yet to make the same strides towards having our humanity actualized and valued and yet we are still female.  Daily our cry is still ain't I a woman and it has been generations since Sojourner Truth made that famous speech.

One does not validate oppression by forcefully participating and encouraging the oppression of others.  To truly seek a society based on mutuality and equality all forms of othering need to be eradicated.  Had Erbe wanted to make a true analysis of race and gender she would have listened to the voices of WOC because who are better prepared to speak to this issue than those whose bodies are literally an intersection of both?

No matter how accomplished Barack Obama is, it is a racist supposition to normalize his experience as typical of all people of colour.  If he is elected on Tuesday the racism that POC face will not diminish.  The idea that his election can be used as a litmus test by white people to prove their anti-racist credentials is only proof of the ways in which color is still very much an issue in our society.

Articles like this are going to continue to be written as long as white people refuse to recognize the racism that their bodies operate with.  Continually speaking as though their experience is the norm while ignoring the lived experience of WOC, is not only a direct act in maintenance of privilege, it is offensive to those of whose voices are silenced.

Sexism and racism are terrible scourges upon society; however they cannot be compared to each other in isolation of the ways in which they work in concert to effect the lives of WOC.  Erbe cannot speak to this experience because she has never lived it, but her refusal to even acknowledge that one small fact informs me as a reader, that those of us who understand intersectionality must labour on to ensure that no one is created is invisible.


space said...

Actually, if I were to play the oppression Olympics, I'd be tempted to declare myself the loser and claim that racism is worse than sexism, because I don't really feel that I'm much oppressed (although I probably would feel more oppressed if they outlawed birth control and abortion). Then again, that's probably because I have every privilege except for male privilege. All those other privileges really add up, and allow me to be more or less "accepted" as a "regular person."

It seems that the -isms tend to interact in a non-linear way when you're dealing with more than one. Combine 2 or 3 -isms and you get a whole different ball game, with the -isms often reinforcing each other. Poor white ciswomen have a very different experience of sexism from mine. Many of them, in fact, have already had abortion and birth control effectively banned for them. Even the reduction of that one privilege, class privilege, creates a whole different ball game.

Anonymous said...

Three of the more egregious examples of this recently have been some NOW members lining up behind Palin, the Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan fiasco, and the role mainstream, white, upper-class "feminist" organizations have played in using the bodies of Muslim women to justify and encourage and support our imperial adventures in Afghanistan and the Middle East. These people are bankrupt and the reason why there are Oppression Olympics still going on.

I have always felt totally alienated not just by the dominance of white women in the mainstream feminist movement in the US, but by the class-based character of it, as well. Class is a huge factor here, too.

Also, their general antipathy or cowardice towards ever speaking out against oppression of, or showing any solidarity with, Arab, Jewish and trafficked women in Israel, our closest ally and one of the largest recipients of US aid per capita. There are exceptions, but they prove the rule.

There is still a hell of a lot of work to do, and a lot of dirty laundry to still be aired.

colorwheel said...

I can't stand oppression Olympics. This week I got an email from Anthony Romero, head of the ACLU, asking for finicial contribution to stop Prop 8 in California -- a very worthy cause -- but he unfortunately used this sentence:

She knew that treating gay and lesbian people like second class citizens -- people who may be worthy of "tolerance, " as Sarah Palin asserts, but not of equality -- was and still is the last socially-acceptable prejudice.

Here's the bulk of my response:

Many progressive and liberation movements have claimed that the oppression they're fighting is "the last socially-acceptable prejudice." It's never true, and it fosters a false ranking. The current presidential campaign shows that violent racism is socially acceptable within many communities and institutions in our country, and even if that's less true in liberal circles, some forms of racism and white privilege do exist throughout our country. Prejudice against elderly people takes the form of job discrimination and social scorn, in ways that plenty of people (sadly) find perfectly socially acceptable. Moreover, as a person who is both physically disabled and fat, I heartily assure you that disability and fatness are both identities subject to virulent prejudice and oppression. In fact, the fat acceptance movement is so small and has such a huge battle to fight that most people don't even know we exist. And what about bisexual people, and trans people? Discriminating against them is sadly "socially acceptable" almost everywhere.

As Kate Harding wrote on her blog, Shapely Prose:

"Every prejudice is still acceptable in some circles, and many of those deemed 'unacceptable in polite society' are still woven deeply into the institutions of that society."

Please reconsider calling anything "the last socially-acceptable prejudice." We don't need that false ranking to garner support, and it's both divisive and dismissive.

Danyell said...

I don't know why some people feel compelled to "win" at being the "most oppressed". It's counter productive. We need to acknowledge that sexism and racism are both equally alive and well and some people have to deal with both of them at the same time. There should be some kind of compound word that describes being subjected to racism and sexism simultaneously. We should all be for equality, not trying to pick sides. Trying to say that one kind is "worse" just trivializes the other.

AR said...

Even if it were the case that sexism were objectively and forever, for everyone, far worse than any form of racism, what difference would it make? The existence of greater evils does not mitigate lesser ones.

I guess I'm saying that the argument is even worse than being wrong; it's meaningless. If it were right, it wouldn't matter, so it hardly warrants consideration in the first place.

SunlessNick said...

Excellent post. I don't have anything better to say than that, but, well, excellent post.

Becky C. said...

Good post. Sexism crosses racial lines--one of the things that truly does transcend racism.

misswadzi said...

Fantastic post you nailed it. It is this type of attitudes that keeps us stagnant. Trying to outdo the other on who is more discriminated. It is such a worst of time which we do not have. Both prejudices happen lets do something about it instead of wasting time.

Ali said...

Please check out some GREAT gift ideas for those humanists out there. I make jewelry and etch on each piece the name of a woman who never had the right to vote. None of these woman were famous but they were pioneers who built this country. They are from all communities. I'm still building the site - adding our Latina sisters now. Check it out. I also added the name of the first African American man who voted post the end of slavery - Thomas Mundy Peterson for the guys!

Anonymous said...

The winner of the Oppression Olympics would be a nonwhite mixed nonchristian disabled fat transwomen lesbian sex worker divorced single-mother with AIDS in poverty and elderly. We all know that.

Anonymous said...


Danny said...

In my observation most of the time the people that play Oppression Olympics are the ones that want to silence someone else from speaking about their issues. Kinda like, "Yeah you have issues but we are the REAL victims. So if you really wanted equality you would address OUR issues first."

outcrazyophelia said...

I hate the oppression olympics specifically because in asserting what is "the last socially acceptable prejudice" they are dismissing all the others and I will be dollars to donuts that they've never experienced any of the other oppressions that exist. Yet somehow they feel qualified to speak on them and say that no, their oppression is worse. I've never seen someone subject to multiple oppressions assert that any of them is somehow worse.

Anonymous said...

I would like to state/ ask something. I'm a white female and I always say that if misogyny in our society was truly exposed and challenged, than racism, homophobia and other types of oppression would soon fall. I say that because historically women were the first slaves in every sense of the word. Would anyone like to comment on that? Would you consider that statement to be of white privilege? As someone who is constantly checking myself, I would really like to get others opinions on that.

justicewalks said...

If you're saying that eliminating rich/heterosexual/western/white men's sexism against poor/lesbian/"third-world"/black-or-nonwhite women would get rid of all oppressions at once, then I'd agree with you. But I have a feeling you're only talking about eliminating the sexism between black women and black women, between white women and white men, between Latina women and Latino men, and so on, which doesn't do anything at all about white men's racist sexism against nonwhite women. Which means you wouldn't be getting rid of *all* of the sexism. So, yeah, privilege.

Renee said...


I wrote this particular post in response to an article written by Erbe. It was not meant as anything other than a direct critique of her position. I do believe I made that perfectly clear in the body of the post itself; however as evidenced by this blog I believe in the elimination of all isms that function to create anyone as less than.

justicewalks said...

I'm sorry, Renee. That was in response to Anonymous' post above mine. I should have made that clearer. I meant no disrespect to you.

Anonymous said...

A historical quibble: I support "anonymous" above in that male supremacy as an ideology likely predated "racism", simply because racism (skin-color-ism) wasn't a concept used in antiquity. One was far more likely to state that "Germans are barbarians" because they were not even confederated with Rome, or that (non-Egyptian) North Africans were hicks even though citizens of the Roman Empire. Prejudice was more or less based on proximity to the culture's center of power.

The usual oppression olympics discussions are focused on conditions of the recent past and of the present, not on questions of origins and development.

I disagree that fixing sexism would fix all other forms of discrimination. The human tendency to desire dominance over others is innate (original sin if you will). Unless a person learns and frequently reflects upon an ideology of human worth (civil or religious affirmation of equal rights), that person will have blind spots about prejudices convenient to them. I don't see that fixing sexism would of necessity affect racism, classism, or most other -isms.

Fixing sexism would help fix heterosexist and anti-transgender discrimination, because these all stem from a patriarchal ideology (most religions). However, pro-natalist and hereditarian assumptions must also be challenged. Must everyone produce their own biological children in order to be regarded by society as worthy?

I think that Erbe doesn't do a good job in distinguishing between rhetoric, social acceptability in public and private, frequency and intensity of experiences of discrimination, long-term effects on the victim and the social structure, of American racism vs American sexism. If one is to play the oppression olympics, it behooves one to specify the exact form, situation, frequency, and interaction with existing social structure, of the oppression. Yes, it is considered more acceptable and routine in society for mainstream speakers to publicly humiliate and attack women candidates for being women. The existence of public standards for speech about non-whites merely means that mainstream racist public expression more often uses coded associative language and images ("dog whistles").

Erbe is mistaking campaign rhetoric for the campaign as a whole. Obama really needs his Secret Service escort, as he has had innumerable threats and several attempts on his life. I doubt Palin has faced any death threats. Hillary has faced a few death threats in all likelihood, but Obama's threat count must exceed hers by 10 or 100 fold.


Octogalore said...

"Erbe cannot speak to this experience because she has never lived it" -- sums it up pretty well. Nice work.

Renee said...

@justice offense taken. I am sorry that I misunderstood your commentary.

rachelcervantes said...

Divide and conquer. "She says her situation is worse than yours, now sic her!" Brilliant tactic. Take all the those who suffer discrimination pit the against each other. That way, there will be little left over to fight the oppressors with.

Well, "the man" ain't dumb, is he?