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Racism v. Sexism Redux

January 7th, 2011 · 12 Comments

In the comments to my recent post about differences between how we deal with charges of “racism” and “sexism,” several commenters suggested that the greater nuance I argue we show in dealing with the range of ways the latter manifests simply reflects the more persistent social acceptability of casual sexism. I think there’s probably something to that—though we should make a distinction between the social facts that generate a particular frame around a type of discourse and the utility of that frame for the purposes of making progress going forward. It’s at least possible that a frame that exists for bad reasons will turn out to be the more constructive one for some purposes.

That said, I was mulling reasons for the difference, and one obvious possibility is that sexism is likely to be more thoroughly culturally embedded, and to at least some extent domesticated as a result. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, coexistence of men and women is a permanent feature of every culture, so the norms and beliefs and institutions that bear on gender are going to be tightly bound up with the norms, beliefs, and institutions broader culture, often going back many centuries. That means, to the extent that those norms are sexist, that they’ll be deeply entrenched and difficult to change rapidly. But in contrast to racist norms that are more likely to be relatively peripheral, applying to interfaces between cultures, they’re also likely to be constrained to some extent by the demands of long-term coexistence. However repressive or violence-enabling some elements of a culture’s gender norms are, it’s fairly difficult and unpleasant to mediate cooperation for stuff like childrearing and household management exclusively by means of violence and repression, so there are likely to be elements that at least appear to offer enough benefit to women that many are at least somewhat willing participants. And that’s much less necessary when you’re talking about interactions with the society next door, or an insular and segregated minority within that society—the cultural “bargain” can be rather harder.

The big obvious example here is codes of chivalry, which are so effective at perpetuating a larger ideology that infantilizes and subordinates women precisely because they operate by providing a series of minor but real benefits—”ladies first” or what have you. Gender theorists talk about the “patriarchal bargain” offered to women who fit a culture’s ideal of beauty: Become complicit in your own objectification and win fabulous prizes! The superstructure is bad for women as a whole, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of it that offer some genuine reward to particular women—and, indeed, it’s precisely by doing so that a generally subordinating social order stabilizes itself. It is very hard to think of racist ideologies that function in a similar way.

None of this—I emphasize because I think I was unclear on this last time—is meant to imply a judgment that “sexism” is, on net, “less bad” than “racism,” as I doubt comparisons at that level are possible or useful. You might as well ask: “Which is better, fiction or music?” It just means that gender norms are likely to be far more organically bound up in a whole complex of other norms that are more culturally central, some of which at least appear to provide some kind of compensating benefits.

I think this shows up in how we often react to, in particular, older males who express sexist attitudes, at least up to a point. “Oh, well, he’s just an old-fashioned Spanish man, what can you do?” we might say with an eye-roll, maybe even finding it a little charming, because at the very least old-fashioned Spanish culture is not an unmixed horror, and it’s hard to pry apart the objectionably sexist elements from the larger complex. The gender norms are part of the cultural kernel, whereas the norms touching on race are more likely to be a kind of patch or peripheral. From a memetic perspective, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that sexism seems tougher to eradicate in some ways, because it’s had a long time to develop adaptive survival strategies and defense mechanisms. To the extent we’re gentler or more nuanced about critiquing sexism, it may be because we’re trying to avoid triggering the formidable immune systems of those larger cultural complexes with which the sexist norms exist in a kind of symbiosis.

Tags: Sociology


       

 

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 nolo // Jan 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    I’m not buying it –at least not the idea that racism can’t be as integral to a culture’s fiber as sexism. American institutional racism of the antebellum and Jim Crow eras, after all, wasn’t simply about mediating the interface between two cultures; it was more about defining castes within a culture and mediating their interactions and roles within that culture. The interactions, in turn, were often incredibly intimate. Moreover, as with sexism, one’s status as either white or black (as opposed to male or female) defined one’s status in that culture.

    On the other hand, I am very intrigued by your last sentence. It’s the impetus, I think, for things like the infamous introductory phrase, “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” I also think, though, that there’s something similar behind our collective tendency to see racism as (pardon the pun) monochromatically bad, as opposed to nuanced and pervasive. White people in particular would very much like it if racism could be defined as a very bad thing that happened years ago and was somehow magically made to go away somewhere around 1964, largely because there are still a lot of perks we get from the “larger cultural complexes” in which a casual small “r” racism continues to work in our favor — except it’s our defensiveness about it all that operates as the “formidable immune system” defending the status quo.

  • 2 Matt D // Jan 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Don’t have much time to articulate, but I think as a culture we really scraped the bottom of the barrel in terms of racism in a way that we haven’t with sexism. Reflecting on slavery, it’s relatively easy to conclude that racism is evil (likewise, in reflecting on the holocaust we understand the evil of anti-semitism, etc). I’m not sure there’s really a corresponding ‘defining moment’ of horror for sexism, and consequently it bears less on our thoughts.

  • 3 Will // Jan 8, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Good essay. My two cents:

    Cent 1: As Simone de Beauvoir says near the beginning of the Second Sex, the conflict that exists between female freedom and male oppression is more problematic than any other conflict, because the two classes involved are dependent upon one another. In most conflicts, one of the parties does not need the other, and so can utilize all available means to win its own freedom: the French bourgeoisie did not need that aristocracy at all, so they could simply dispose of them, while the aristocracy could not do without the services of the peasantry and middle class; the slaves of Haiti had no need for their masters, while their masters could not get by without them. And so on. Women cannot take such a militant stand toward men, and so their leverage for winning full respect is not nearly as great. Their progress toward freedom depends to a greater degree upon persuasion of the men they must live with, and so it will be much slower than most historical liberations.

    Cent 2: Gender is not just a subject of social relations, but also a fundamental category in most languages. The languages we speak developed mostly during a time when women were viewed as inferior to men, and so the language we grow up with contains casual insinuations of female inferiority. Even the most egalitarian man will sometimes fall prey to expression of sexist ideas. Consciously recognizing the sexism of things you say is possible, but it is — again — a slow process.

  • 4 Craig Burley // Jan 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    “The superstructure is bad for women as a whole, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of it that offer some genuine reward to particular women—and, indeed, it’s precisely by doing so that a generally subordinating social order stabilizes itself. It is very hard to think of racist ideologies that function in a similar way.”

    Have you seen the Chris Rock-narrated documentary _Good Hair_? Check it out. It doesn’t press hard on it, but it’s an excellent exploration of exactly such a (petty) subordinating tyranny, with bonus sexism thrown in to boot!

  • 5 Evidence Of Control, Julian Sanchez - Become complicit in your own objectification and win fabulous prizes! // Jan 10, 2011 at 11:49 am

    […] Of Control Julian Sanchez – Become complicit in your own objectification and win fabulous prizes! » Julian’s description of the patriachal bargain sounds an awful lot like a Tullock […]

  • 6 slackeress // Jan 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Julian: I came across these posts about epistemic closure and would love to know what you think about them:

    http://www.ronreplogle.com/2011/01/weekend-rerun-epistemic-closure-and.html

    http://www.ronreplogle.com/2011/01/weekend-rerun-more-on-epistemic-closure.html

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Jan 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Slackeress:
    Well, as I tried to explain in the initial posts, I never meant “epistemic closure” to be just a pretentious-sounding synonym for “closed mindedness,” which is really an individual character trait. I was talking about the emergence of an alternative, avowedly ideological media ecosystem that encourages its readers/viewers to regard contrary information from “mainstream” (their word) sources as inherently suspect. There are, obviously, partisan media on both sides, but I guess I just think it’s pretty self-evident that this is a more pronounced phenomenon on the right at the moment. But anyone who doesn’t find it self-evident is welcome to bracket the comparative claim and just consider the explanatory account on the right side.

  • 8 R. Kevin Hill // Jan 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Half of our entire social order from top to bottom, is female. Is twelve percent of our entire social order from top to bottom African-American? No? Racism’s legacy *is* worse, period.

  • 9 Barry // Jan 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Julian: “…The superstructure is bad for women as a whole, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of it that offer some genuine reward to particular women—and, indeed, it’s precisely by doing so that a generally subordinating social order stabilizes itself. It is very hard to think of racist ideologies that function in a similar way.”

    White trash – a large group of poor, oppressed whites whose only consolation is ‘at least I’m not a n——‘.

    In fact, the most striking thing about the right in the USA for the past 50 years is how well they’ve used race (among other things) to economically screw over the majority of the
    US population.

  • 10 Zo // Jan 20, 2011 at 12:35 am

    Sorry, not enough women here kissing your feet (how’s that for patriarchal language) for what is a really superb post. “… gender norms are likely to be far more organically bound up in a whole complex of other norms” pretty much says it. I mean, sexism is at the bottom of all “isms.” This is not debatable, it is fact. Guys like to debate it, nonetheless. We ignore them, and trudge on.

  • 11 Jeffer // Feb 7, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Very intriguing posts and comments. I just discovered your blog and I like it much.

    Racism smacks of the contempt, fear and potential violence implicit to a history of ethnic/cultural conflict. A racist is someone who hates.

    A sexist, on the other hand, more often than not is merely someone who lacks an enlightened perspective on society. Beyond a tiny margin of genuine gender-haters, sexism belies no loathing of the opposite gender. Most people, including sexists, have friends and family of the opposite gender whom they love and support. The fact that a sexist’s ideas are incorrect or outdated is more easily tolerated, ignored or forgiven whenever their attitudes are seemingly foolish rather than malicious.

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