I read this interesting article from the Seattle Stranger, and it got me thinking once again about privilege. Give it a read and mull it over.
As the article points out, we are none of us free of racism. You can’t grow up in a racist society and not have some serious baggage. (And yes, this is a racist society. For all values of “this”. No non-racist society has yet been observed.) All people carry around a bunch of assumptions and stereotypes that we (mostly) bury deep inside ourselves and tell ourselves over and over we don’t carry… but given the chance, we resegregate our schools and just pretend we didn’t. Let’s not lie, progress has been made; we are now a society where people feel compelled to say “I’m not racist, but…” On the other hand, we’re a society where some people say that shit all the time, and we all know how the second half of that sentence always goes.
The same applies to sexism. We are all part of a sexist system, whether we like it or not. And gender stereotypes run even deeper than racial ones, and get coded harder and weirder in our brains. What’s more, as we’ve so often seen on this blog, they’re always interwoven with each other, ugly ideas about men tied in with ugly ideas about women, both feeding off some crude subconscious assumptions about race and class.
Part of the problem is that we have completely wrong ideas about what “a racist” or “a sexist” look like. For the former, we picture someone burning a cross on someone’s lawn, and for the latter, we picture some guy either growling “You ask me, broads oughtta stay in the kitchen” or actually advocating replacing women with sexbots. And we figure as long as we’re steering clear of those cartoon characters, we’re not “a racist” or “a sexist”.
Thing is, racism and sexism aren’t something you are. They’re something you do.
Sexism is every time you assume that a woman’s going to be more interested in her family than her career, and that a man will feel the opposite. Racism is every time you’re momentarily surprised that a Latino person speaks perfectly good English. I cite these two examples not because I want to wag a finger disapprovingly, but because they’re traps I’ve fallen into myself. I could cite a million more, some I’ve been guilty of, some I haven’t. It’s just so easy to absorb these ugly cultural assumptions, so easy to start thinking “Oh, everyone knows that” or “That’s basically how it is.” Some people even start patting themselves on the back for their intellectual courage in standing up to “the PC police” (still a baffling phrase to me) and believing proudly in ugly, wrong stereotypes. We can do our best to work past them, to unlearn these wrong facts, but nobody ever fully succeeds. We all carry around some weird baggage.
So whenever I see someone going “Well, I never got all that gender programming” or “I’ve just learned to see past people’s sex” or “I don’t ever stereotype people” then my bullshit detector starts pinging. Those all sound exactly like “I’m not racist but” to me. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of social justice. All we can do is either give people points for trying, or subtract points for sitting there going “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m just fine how I am.”
Those awkward white folks in the Stranger article are trying, and they’re trying in a really thankless and difficult way, and I give them a lot of points. They may not entirely succeed, but as a white guy who could never bring himself to dance in front of his black girlfriend for fear of being laughed at, I am in no position to judge anyone else for not fully overcoming racial baggage.