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.