This post was inspired by a comment I received on my “What if you were Obama? What Cabinet would you build?” post.
In that post, I purposefully did not point out that my cabinet choices were all female, nor that they were racially and otherwise diverse, as I wanted to see how readers would react to this. As expected, one reader commented “wow such a racist and sexist post!! where are the men!?!??!?!?!”
Now, if someone had suggested an ALL MALE, ALL WHITE cabinet, would readers such as these react in a similar manner? NO WAY!!!!
All white male cabinets and supreme courts and juries and school boards and city councils and committees and etc, etc were the name of the game (without much dissent) until quite recently. Yet, when suggestions are made to make things all female, or all POC, people start screaming about racism and sexism. And, typically, it’s the same people who thought letting white males run the world was A-OK who cry “sexism!” or “racism!” when those in power begin to reflect the diversity of the world’s populace.
I have a real problem with these “reverse” ideas of -isms (such as reverse racism) as they discount the power dynamics and the institutionalized nature of socially sanctioned inequalities. In fact, I am of the camp that believes you cannot be “racist” against whites. You can be prejudice or discriminatory, but not racist. As explained so well in the following excerpt from Revealing Histories, racism is equal to prejudice plus power:
“An important alternative view is that, while anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be racist if it comes from the ‘race’ which over the years has been placed as superior and use their power to strengthen and enforce their prejudices. Many have argued that racism, then, equals racial prejudice plus power. According to this definition, while a Black person might be prejudiced against a White person on the basis of race, perhaps violently and unjustly, but this may not strictly be racism because the Black person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them. This idea of racism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support racism, and these support what was declared to be the ‘superior’ race.”
Now, one of the most common counter arguments to this argument tends to run like this:
“Well, what about Jesse Jackson. He has power as a black man. Why can’t he be a racist?” (For a post that argues that ALL people can be racist with this analogy, see here.)
Obviously, individual members of oppressed groups can have power – in fact this works to keep the system in place. By granting a FEW blacks power, a FEW woman powers, a FEW Latinos power, etc, people are able to point to a black woman in power and claim “See, our society really is post-racist and post-sexist! Look at Condi! Look at Oprah!” Yet, even though there are individuals in power who are not white or male, the SYSTEM of white male privilege is still in place – and racism and sexism are about this system, not about individuals.
Eric Zorn distinguishes between such differences in his article “Prejudice, bigotry and racism: Is there a difference.” He defines prejudice as thought based, bigotry as action based, and racism as systematic and institutionalized:
“I think of racial prejudice as a private thought — a personal response to an individual or situation that is based, fairly or unfairly, on experience and observation. It’s usually but not always a negative response; an invidious pre-judgment.
I think of bigotry as an act that is motivated by a negative prejudice – those thoughts turned into deeds.
And I think of racism as a systemic application of bigotry and prejudice — the use of such sentiments to deprive group members of opportunity, dignity, safety and certain other rights based on their membership in that group and an inner belief that this group is inferior.
- It’s prejudice when Mr. Smith feels unhappy when Mr. Johnson moves in next door because he doesn’t like Mr. Johnson’s skin color or ethnic identity.
- It’s bigotry when Mr. Smith refuses to invite Mr. Johnson into his home or offer him friendly waves of greeting.
- It’s racism when Mr. Smith uses threats and intimidation to attempt to drive Mr. Johnson and his family out of the neighborhood.”
Using these definitions, Zorn elucidates why one can be prejudice against whites, or carry out bigoted acts against us, but CANNOT be racist against us:
“Politically, institutionally, culturally and historically, bigoted acts motivated by prejudice against white people have not been and are not significant roadblocks to the advancement, dignity and quality of life of white people.”
Zorn further points out that “any discussion of the problem of how to alleviate the problem of racism gets off on the wrong foot when it tries to start from the trivializing premise that we’re all guilty of it.” I agree with this sentiment – in fact, only white people can be racist according to this argument. POC can be sexist, bigoted, discriminatory, and prejudiced, but NOT racist.
Analogously, women can be prejudiced, bigoted, discriminatory towards men (or other women), but they cannot be sexist. To be sexist, one must be a male. Sexism, just like racism, is prejudice plus power. In order to elucidate, I will alter the paragraph cited above from Revealing Histories in order to make it specific to sex/gender rather than to race:
While anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be sexist if it comes from the ‘sex‘ which over the years has been placed as superior and uses their power to strengthen and enforce their prejudices…While a female person might be prejudiced against a male person on the basis of sex/gender, perhaps violently and unjustly, this may not strictly be sexism because the female person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them. This idea of sexism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support sexism, and these support what was declared to be the ‘superior’ sex/gender.
And, you can accuse me of splitting hairs, but I believe the difference between terms such as prejudice, racism, sexism, and bigotry is important. When we act as if ANYONE can be racist or sexist, we deny the systematic, institutionalized arrangement of our society and act as if these attitudes and inequalities are coming out of a vacuum. In sum, anyone can be a bigot, or prejudiced, but racism and sexism are the PRIVILEGES (and, yes, they are privileges, although very horrible, insidious, damaging ones) of the white and the male.