Feminism Friday – Feminism 101: “Sexism is a Matter of Opinion”

By Melissa McEwan (Crossposted from Shakesville, where it is part of Liss’s ongoing Feminism 101 series)

There’s a very common misperception that sexism is subjective—that any given incident identified by one person as sexist could be identified by another as not sexist, and either both of them are right, because the whole thing is just a matter of opinion anyway, or the latter is right, because if it’s not equally obvious to everyone, it can’t be sexist. It’s this conventional wisdom about the subjectivity of sexism that underlies the ubiquitous “I don’t see it” rejoinder, particularly recurrent in discussions of expressed sexism against women, on which this post will be focused.*

Sexism is, in fact, not subjective. What’s subjective are individual reactions to sexism, but sexism itself can be objectively determined. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.) Individual reactions to sexism will, naturally, be as vast and varied as the individuals who react—but because there are men, or women, who aren’t offended by something, or don’t find it sexist, doesn’t mean it isn’t. One can always find someone who refuses to be offended by something: That Michelle Malkin wrote In Defense of Internment doesn’t American government-built concentration camps any less objectively offensive or wrong.

So: Toss out the idea that there must be unanimous consent, or even majority agreement, that something is sexist for it to be determined as such. In fact, toss out the idea that sexism is determined by subjective opinion altogether.

First, though, let’s quickly dispatch with the fallacy that there are such things as subjective observers and objective observers. There are two general ways in which this frustratingly pernicious myth is conveyed:

  • 1. Feminists (female and/or male) are always look for sexism, so they will always find it, the inaccuracy of which I previously addressed here.
  • 2. Those most targeted by expressed misogyny (women) are critically biased against being able to correctly identify it.

The implicit suggestion, of course, is that men are unbiased—which conveniently ignores that they have the most to benefit from expressed misogyny, giving them every bit as much, if not more, reason to be biased toward denying its existence as women are biased toward exposing it.

No one is, by virtue of their genitals, more intrinsically disposed to be more objective—which exposes as the bullshit it is the whole idea that one must be an objective observer of sexism to correctly identify it (or that such a person can even exist).

We’re all biased—either because we are the potential targets or potential beneficiaries of sexism, whether we want to be or not. A woman who rejects the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to be oppressed by it than a woman who spends her days documenting it. A man who acknowledges and fights the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to passively benefit from other people privileging men over women than a man who actively marginalizes women. That’s the reality of institutionalized sexism; it compromises us all.

So: Toss out the idea that women/men are more subjective/objective observers of sexism.

But, hey—didn’t you say that sexism can be objectively determined? How is that possible if no one’s objective?

Institutionalized misogyny, like any endemic prejudice (racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, sizism, etc.) should be viewed as a system, with rules and laws governing its existence—although, by virtue of cultural indoctrination, they generally aren’t obvious unless one makes an effort to see them.

The patriarchy is very like the Matrix, in that it is a false construct laid over the top of a reality, that makes things look very different. Viewing the same thing while fully and uncritically socialized into the patriarchy and while cognizant of its falsity creates two very different pictures.

I look hotter in the patriarchy.

Like the Matrix, which Morpheus described as “everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room… It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” the systemic sexism known as the patriarchy is so comprehensive and profound that “seeing it” actually takes some effort, some willingness to see it. And, like those who find themselves awakening from the Matrix, people who find themselves awakening from the patriarchy learn to identify its patterns, upon which it is dependent for the transmission of its ideals and its continual self-generation.

Pattern-finding is one of the main reasons I do ongoing series about rape jokes, or “odd news,” or disembodied things, or the imposition of impossible beauty standards. In addition to illustrating via critical mass the existence of patterns and subverting the ability to dismiss them as unimportant under the pretense any one incident is an anomaly, identifying and revealing the patterns provides the framework in which the existence of sexism can be objectively measured.

Whether something is sexist (be it a word, a consumable item, a practice, or anything else) is neither dependent on how it is intended nor how it is received, but on whether it serves to convey sexism, which itself is determined by its alignment with existent patterns. When 2+2 has equaled 4 since time began, anyone claiming 2+2 suddenly equals 5 would be regarded, quite rightly, with suspicion. It is vanishingly unusual for someone to say/do something that fits perfectly with an ancient pattern of sexism yet is somehow not an expression of sexism.

Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express sexism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how women have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed sexism even if the speaker’s intent was not to oppress women. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of sexism, intentionally or not.

So: Toss out the idea that intent determines sexism. And the idea that any of us, or any of the things we say or do, can exist in a void.

What we’re then left with is the idea that if something fits into a historical pattern of sexism, unavoidably invokes such a pattern, and/or can be overtly quantified as marginalizing women, it is an expression of sexism.

All of these things can be objectively evaluated by anyone who learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women’s oppression.

Women are generally better at identifying the patterns of misogyny by virtue of having been subjected to them for a lifetime. For example: By a very young age (usually around puberty), most girls intuitively understand the concept of women’s bodies being treated as community property, even if they can’t articulate it. But in addition to the expertise conferred by personal experience, there is such a thing as patriarchy-smashing book-learnin’.

There are people—like your blogmistress—who have spent egregious amounts of time and effort acquainting themselves with the ability to navigate the Matrix the language, imagery, rituals, and cultural cues, both subtle and overt, that are used to promulgate the patriarchy.

Becoming intimately, actively involved with the methods by which sexism are conveyed is not unlike becoming fluent in another language. And just like how people who speak Arabic are better translators of Arabic than people who don’t, people who have immersed themselves in the critical theories of gender are better translators of what is and is not sexism.

Identifying and defining sexism is not, as “sexism is a matter of opinion” suggests, a speculative chore. There is an existing framework for recognizing and characterizing expressed sexism—and those who have made it their business to become fluent in it are the closest thing to objective experts as exist in any discipline.

If you find yourself inclined to react to the identification of something as expressed sexism with “I don’t see it,” consider that your “blindness” has been carefully cultivated by the very system that is dependent on your (and everyone else’s) not seeing it.

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.—Morpheus

The red pill’s on offer, if you want it.

* My focus is on the denial of expressed sexism against women not because I find sexism against men unimportant, but because I have not generally seen significant disagreements here over expressed sexism against men. When I have blogged about, for example, sitcoms or adverts that cast men as mindless dopes, or rape apologia that casts all men as potential rapists, I have not been met with resistance on those premises either by men or women. We are, it seems, collectively better able to identify, grok, and agree to condemn expressed sexism against men.

34 comments on “Feminism Friday – Feminism 101: “Sexism is a Matter of Opinion”

  1. But if sexism is institutionalised and systemic, why do we focus so much on individual acts of sexism rather than on overthrowing the system?

  2. Surely a system is merely an accumulation of individual acts?

  3. hysperia, I am *all for* overthrowing the system, but the only place that I can find to start is by pointing out individual acts of sexism so that others can finally see the system, and hope they do the same with others. How else can we approach it?

  4. Well, no, I don’t think a system is, by any definition, a bunch of individual acts. Interaction and power is involved. Economics and politics. A bunch of individual acts isn’t particularly political. And a bunch of individual acts doesn’t make political action. The way it seems to be understood here, and correct me if I’m wrong, you would expect to get results from educating people and correcting their attitudes. You just need to get to enough of them. I’m not saying that’s no an important agenda, but hell, it’s going to take too long and it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. If MLK had relied on that strategy to drive the civil rights movement, we’d still be where we were back then. I think there are sufficient numbers of “racists” left to keep the civil rights laws off the books. Women’s inequality doesn’t result from my next-door-neighbour’s sexism, or even the fact that he doesn’t pay his female employees as much as his male employees. It results from the gender inequities embedded in capitalism. Capital doesn’t give a damn what anybody “thinks”. That’s all I’m sayin’. I don’t like sexism and misogyny any more than the next feminist. I just don’t see how transforming men, one man at a time, is going to add up to much. Not in the next several centuries anyway.
    Love y’all though!

  5. hysperia, you make a good point. I was not being sarcastic when I asked, “How else can we approach it?” If you have a suggestion, please share!

  6. Great piece, well written. Regarding the two myths, I find the same things happening during conversations with “haters” when I express any liberal values.

    As soon as you mention anything that doesn’t support the Kill em All stance, your position just gets dismissed as “goddam lib’rals”, and the actual content of the message goes unheard as soon as that tag has been applied.

  7. Hi JadeWolf. No, I didn’t think you were being sarcastic – I took your question seriously. I don’t mean to diss the notion of calling sexism when we see it. But I guess I am frustrated at the amount of time we (and I do mean “we”) spend doing it. Collective action, I think, is the only thing that can talk effectively to power. I’m a bit of a dinosaur feminist, or perhaps crone is a better word, and I long for the days when the identification of a problem led to talk, organizing and action. I know women are doing that now, to some extent, but I also think that resistance people are fractured by all sorts of things and I wish we could get our act(s) together and DO something. I can’t say that I know exactly what that is – the action has to come organically from the organizers. I miss it. And I guess I can’t see how anything else is truly going to work.
    Nice meeting up with you!

  8. I didn’t intend that winkie thing to be there – typo!

  9. Excellent post. I can really relate to the Matrix analogy. Yes, it is cumbersome to continually identify individual acts of sexism but I continue to do so for the benefit of my boyfriend,who is generally clueless but teachable. Some people, I don’t bother, it’s a waste of my time. For whatever reason, there are some truly hopeless people out there who will never be ready to be ‘unplugged’.

    I’m reminded of Marilyn French when she stated in Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals, when she said that it took thousands of years to build partriachy and it will most likely take thousands of years to tear it down. It seems that any gains that women garner from sexual revolution (particularly during the 19th century) there is a counterrevolution determined to destory those gains and push us even further back. Kate Willett wrote in Sexual Politics that the revolution starts with the destruction of those things the patriarchy cherishes, namely the nuclear family, marriage, heterosexuality, etc.

  10. Wendy, where does that leave us heterosexual, married, family-based feminists then? Cut out of the feminist kindgom unless we commit to destroy everything we value (and we DO value them, and in many cases have spent many year working within those parameters for equality and recognition)?

    In any case, I highly doubt that doing away with them brings about utopia any more than doing away with private property stops people trying to exploit each other.

  11. Ruth, it can seem like Wendy’s solution cuts out married women or women with kids, but it doesn’t. I’m married to a man and planning to stick with it. Where feminism comes in is refusing to put his needs above my own and sacrifice myself for him. He’s a grown man. I’ll certainly be a partner, but I won’t cater to his every whim, I’ll save that energy for educating other women. And if you have kids, bonus, you get to teach the next generation that gender roles are made up, that women are people, and that they don’t need to grow up and get married and have kids if that is not what they want to do. (I want to acknowledge that a lot of this was pointed out to me by Jezebella and susanw, posters on another feminist site).

  12. Let me see if my tags work…quoting Kate Millet if they don’t.
    [blockquote]Kate Millett wrote in Sexual Politics that the revolution starts with the destruction [of] heterosexuality…[/blockquote]

    WTF? The destruction of something that is literally built into us? What is this an example of, except pure lunacy? I’m expecting some serious clarification on what she means by “heterosexuality”.

  13. May I suggest that jumping straight to WTF? territory based on a single sentence pull-quote from a dense theoretical work is not a constructive approach?

    What is heterosexuality, exactly, marcus? Is there a rigid binary between heterosexual and homosexual desires and expressions of physical attraction? Or is human sexuality more complex, and what does that mean for traditional social institutions based on a rigid concept of how human sexuality functions?

  14. First, I wasn’t the one who pulled the quote out to stand on its own, wendy was. The quote was off-the field, which is why I really wanted to get the authors explanation on it. As it stands in its original quotations, is similar to suggesting that we should all go through genital manipulation in order to overcome “patriarchy”. Excuse my non-dense reaction.

    I understand that the sexual relationship is not binary, but neither are they interchangeable. There is ample evidence that denying people’s innate sexual orientation is very damaging to that individual. That I have sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex is not complex. It’s very simple and reflects why we as species have existed even prior to the very first formulations of patriarchy.

    Does the author really expect me to start having sex with men? Or even stop having sex with women?

    In all the reading of feminist literature (which I admit likely wouldn’t fill a single semester in college), the greatest disconnect I have with the movement boils down to the non-realistic description of male heterosexuality.

  15. First, I wasn’t the one who pulled the quote out to stand on its own, wendy was

    So? You are the one who is reacting to Wendy’s contextual paraphrase of Kate Millet’s work in isolation, and now you’re playing the “she started it” card as well?

    As to the rest of your response, by shrinking down the concept of “heterosexuality” to just the biological mechanics of who pokes whom, you are doing exactly what Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics argues against – biological reductionism applied to the social institutions built around the politicisation of sexuality. Start thinking about heterosexuality as a cultural edifice built on top of biological function and see where you end up.

    That I have sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex is not complex.

    If you truly believe that’s just a simple truth, then perhaps you need to read some Kinsey before you get started on Millet.

  16. Well when we talk about “the destruction of heterosexuality” if that was really what was said, I don’t think we’re talking about trying to kill the desire which some women have to relate sexually to some men and vice versa. I THINK we’re talking about destroying the compulsive nature of heterosexuality, the way the ideology of heterosexuality and the laws and cultural norms that support and compel it, have a repressive and oppressive effect on members of society, benefitting some and oppressing others. Seems “heterosexuality” is as much a social construct as many other repressive notions. The day that we are free to be sexual beings whose many and diverse predilictions with respect to how we express our sexuality, even within individuals, and that expression does not lead to discrimination and oppression is the day that “heterosexuality” will have died.

  17. I am stoned at the moment so forgive grammer and spelling.

    “Fools’ on a fool’s errand” … the system(s) is based upon demand not prediliction; demand is first awareness i.e. what i have not got, you never need it before you knew it existed. It is not a system. They blind you by systems. Womens Lib was exciting, vibrant and scarey as shit but it had force and direction. Now Fems are fractured and diversive. The old whie men still know how to control; they force you in to the minutia (or is that mutant?)

  18. tigtog, hysperia, agreed. marcus, I’d like to point out that ‘hetero’ means different, so heterosexuality ought to mean having sex with anyone or anything different than yourself – doorknobs, llamas, Dalai Lamas. ‘Homo’ means same, and since the only thing really the same as you is you, homosexuality properly describes only masturbation.

    The difference in het difference could, in principle, mean anything. It could mean Protestants having sex with Catholics, Confucians with libertarians, left-handed people with right-handed people (there are ways that works out nicely).

    Your nerve endings don’t know the difference. They just want to be rubbed a certain way. Your head does all the rest.

    The survival of the species does not depend on a narrow definition of heterosexuality. There’s zero evolutionary reason for that to be wired into anyone’s head, as masturbation makes clear enough. It depends on penises connecting with vaginas some among the various things they might connect with. The question then is why we think we need to narrow our definition of sexual desire to only penises and vaginas (or only other orifices and appendages belonging to the ‘proper’ sort of others, irrelevantly).

    For all your talk of sexual freedom, it seems to me you’ve given yourself very little.

  19. Good resource for you, Marcus: Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” essay. It’s not short and she’s mostly focusing on female sexuality, but if you’re truly interested in an analysis of how the social construction of heterosexuality operates on top of (and sometimes, in opposition to) biological impulses and emotional bonds, this is a distinguished work on that topic.

  20. That’s an interesting perspective, Carl.
    Another way I like to give an example of the constructed nature of heterosexuality is to point out all the rules that have been historically made about who can have sex with whom, and when. For example, these days couples generally embrace oral sex and occasionally anal sex as part of heterosexual practice. But both of these acts were condemned as sodomy in America not all that long ago – some states still have laws against them on the books, although they are not persecuted. Or, the “laws” of attraction – if you’re biologically determined to desire women, are you also biologically determined to desire women of your own race? Of a certain height? Where do fetishes come in? There are too many variations and questions about human desire to reduce it to biological, and once you accept that, it’s easier to think about the ways desire is influenced or constructed by culture.*
    *Not to suggest that we’re programmed robots, either. That’s social reductionism, and equally limited.

  21. Nicely done Carl and tenglethis.

    Good discussion.

    Thanks tigtog.

  22. i enjoyed how she pointed out that sexism compromises us all. that whether we fight it, or we ignore it, sexism still exists… that men and women are both perpetrators.

  23. Hey folks. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and having a couple of issues with this article. Essentially, it sounds suspiciously like it’s trying to make a simple answer to a complex problem.
    If sexism is part of a historical system, surely that makes it *very much* a matter of opinion? What qualifies as sexist will depend heavily on your analysis of history, your understanding of how society operates, and how you think society *should* be run? After all, there are plenty of disagreements over these things even among those who have dedicated their time to studying feminism, whereas this article seems to be claiming there is one clear and absolute truth.
    Of course it’s good politics to have a clear, simple, and absolute message – “there is sexism, we know what it is and you shouldn’t do [sexist action]” – but isn’t the truth a bit more messy – “there *is* sexism, but it’s hard to pin down, and we can give you a whole bunch of theories to take into account when deciding if you want to do [sexist action] or not”?

    (and hmm, there’s a rule about not having a list of points, isn’t there? So I’ll leave it at that for now)


  24. First off, I want to say that I agree with the crux of this argument. Patriarchy is a meme, a social construct that uses us all to propagate. I get quite annoyed every time someone says don’t blame the victim, when I point out the way a woman is propagating a sexist culture. Sometimes that sentiment is more relevant than others. For instance, a woman who chooses to participate in a beauty pageant – where the winners are determined in part on the basis of physical appearance – is helping to propagate the idea that physical appearance is a valid way to judge a woman’s worth. Not all women who enter these competitions are naive of the consequences for other women, but they choose what they perceive to be short term gain by entering. Should I not be mad at them? And saying that if you don’t enter then someone else will is worse than ‘I was just following orders’ because there are no immediate negative consequences for you if you don’t participate.

    I was also pleased with the way the article dealt with why women are more easily able to recognise sexism. If you are not subject to a form of discrimination it will take you longer to recognise it, and the more you are discriminated against the quicker you will be at recognising it. I think this is an important concept to grasp if we hope to educate the whole population. To this end I think asking male feminists how they became aware of the problem is valuable.

    I have some other points I want to discuss but it’s a lot so I’m splitting the post.

    • Hmm, I haven’t heard anyone make an argument like that about beauty pageants, and from the feminists I’ve come across I’d suspect they would see this kind of argument as “denying agency” to the pageant contestant, as treating her as foolish and naive and incapable of making decisions for herself, and that this is quite different from “victim blaming” scenarios? I’m wondering if there might be some straw-feministing going on here?

      Man, I’m just full of jargon today.

      • Hugh, would you mind elaborating a little. I’m not sure I have your meaning correct.

        My intention isn’t to suggest that the contestant is incapable of making the right choice. The opposite in fact. This won’t be true of all contestants for sure, but I think there comes a point where you are no longer just working within a regime but actively trying to exploit it for your advantage, without regard for the whether or not this will propagate the regime to the detriment of others.

        Maybe the ‘blaming the victim paradigm’ isn’t the correct one here but I did here it used recently as a retort. The instance involved the current Miss California, a woman who reportedly used pageant funds to get breast implants, pulled the religion card to deny gay and lesbian marriage rights; before falling foul of social commentators for trespassing other religious values.

        So, I’m just a little concerned that someone who can choose to propagate sexist stereotypes in a public forum for their own advantage (or their judgement of) could be considered more a victim than a complicit party. Sure, there is a grey area, but c’mon…

      • Ah sorry, I phrased that a little ambiguously. What I mean to say is the “don’t blame the victim” argument you’re talking about other people taking – I suspect most feminists would agree with you. There’s a concept of “agency”, which means something like the ability to make choices for yourself, and that if you look at every ‘bad’ choice a woman makes and blame it entirely on social conditioning then you’re “denying agency”, treating women as infants who aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.
        I don’t understand this concept very well, and I’ve seen it mostly in the context of sex workers. But I think it’s similar to what you’re saying, and I think you would enjoy reading about it.

  25. There are a couple of points I’m not in total agreement with though.

    Firstly: “A woman who rejects the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to be oppressed by it than a woman who spends her days documenting it.” and “A man who acknowledges and fights the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to passively benefit from other people privileging men over women than a man who actively marginalizes women.” I don’t think this is true. By being aware of the existence of sexism we can act against it. If you don’t recognise sexism then you will do nothing about it. Women who recognise that they have been the victim of sexism can often challenge the perpetrator, and this can result in the reversal of the discrimination or the avoidance of a repeat. Also, I remember watching a discrimination exercise on Oprah called ‘Blue Eyed,’ in this exercise there was an excellent demonstration of how a person who sides with an oppressed group becomes discriminated against by association.

    Also the author says “It is vanishingly unusual for someone to say/do something that fits perfectly with an ancient pattern of sexism yet is somehow not an expression of sexism.” Vanishingly unusual is not zero. And here is the relevance to Hugh’s post. We don’t all have the same ‘historical pattern.’ An example: as an Australian up until very recently, I had no idea of the racist symbolism attached to watermelons in the USA. What’s more I didn’t attach any association to people of colour liking watermelons. It never occurred to me that any one group of people might like them more than others, nor had I ever observed any trend in this regard, consciously or unconsciously. This symbolism is culturally specific. Now, if I had innocently asked a person of colour if they would like a watermelon that would not have propagated a racist stereotype in Australia but it would have in the USA. Or would it have? If the audience to whom I’d offered the watermelon to in the USA knew I was Australian and that this stereotype had no meaning there, no offence would have been taken. Would this still have propagated the stereotype (that people of colour like watermelon too much)? Now imagine if I’d made the same offer in Australia to an American friend. If none of the audience is aware of the stereotype how could my offering possibly propagate racism?

    My point is that if an audience recognises that a perpetrator of an apparently racist/sexist remark is aware that person has no predilection to make that remark in a racist/sexist way, then no racism/sexism is perpetrated. In this as above the education of the individuals involved has an affect.

    • I’d add a small caveat to what you say about watermelons. One of the things I think this article *does* do very well, is explain that it’s the total effect of a pattern of behaviour, taken across all of society, which makes an action sexist or not-sexist, not the intent of the person doing the action, or even if they are aware that it’s damaging (I’m thinking particularly of the opening-doors-for-women thing). Categoric imperative, and all that.
      If you go to the US and go round offering watermelon to black folk, you’re not intending anything racist, and you don’t realise what you’re doing is harmful, but this doesn’t mean it *won’t* do harm.

      So… I think I’m saying that I’d agree this is culturally specific and will vary from place to place and from group to group, but it’s not intent, or awareness of the impacts, which are the deciding factors, it’s the impact of the pattern of behaviour it propogates.

      • Ah, yes I agree with you. The article does do an excellent job of pointing out the importance of pattern of behaviour. I just don’t think it is true that every individual act that has the appearance of a stereotype contributes to the pattern.

        My query comes in the form of seeking to determine the root cause of the pattern of behaviour. If a person has no grounding in the historical context of a stereotype then I don’t think they can propagate it. What they do is add random noise to the pattern. What I mean by this is that a large number of these types of acts will not favour one perception.

        As someone unaware of and (importantly) from a culture unexposed to the watermelon stereotype I would be just as likely to offer a white person a watermelon as a person of colour. If I asked 20 people at a party this would be clear.

        If an asexual alien arrived on Earth and a male and a female world leader petitioned to see them could we draw any conclusion from whom they chose to see first? I would argue no, that their decision would almost certainly be based on other factors, having no concept of gender themselves.Thus I think bias can only occur if this person has been exposed to the stereotype.

        Of course this is different to someone biasing one sex or the other subconsciously. This, like the article says only become obvious over a large number of events. Yet it may be discernible in a single event if the causes of that event can be thoroughly examined.

        Yet the important question then is, what other situations can produce random noise? If I want to try and judge if a coin is biased to heads, I can’t say “a-ha there it is!” every time a head comes up. This is somewhat analogous to sexism in promotions. To determine whether someone is sexist we cannot simply say ‘they chose a man over a woman.’ Instead we need to break down the criteria they used to determine the ability of each candidate and determine whether the criteria were biased. If the criteria are unbiased it is random noise. One way to determine if the criteria are biased is to repeat the procedure with many trials but it is not the only way. Just as accurately weighting a coin and determining its weight distribution can tell you if it is biased, so can in depth analysis of promotion criteria.

      • I would think that not having any historical grounding doesn’t at all stop someone from propogating a stereotype, and in fact we do this all the time.
        Patriarchy, and just about every prejudice not only can work without the person doing them being aware of what they’re doing, they work *best* this way. They are systems, they constantly reinforce themselves through repeated actions and they don’t need any concious guidance from anyone to continue and spread.
        Taking your asexual alien – if it came to visit earth and met a male leader first, as you say, no big deal. But if it came to earth and visited the top fifty male leaders and when asked about this said “well, we’ve been watching your tv and from what we’ve seen we thought this was how humans do politics”, then that is. The alien still has no understanding of how sexism works, it’s just doing what everyone else is. And really this makes it worse – if it *did* understand the historical context of favouring male leaders it could decide to act differently, not understanding means it doesn’t have any chance to make a decision.
        …which, I think, is very much the position we’re all in with sexism, and prejudice generally. We(mostly) don’t set out to hurt or disadvantage one group, we just follow what everyone else is doing.

        And ok, watermelon – I think there’s a distinction to be made between the act of giving watermelon to a black person and the act of giving watermelon only, or mostly, to black people. But maybe in saying that I’m just using statistics to eliminate the ‘noise’?
        I would say though, that I think if you set out one day to give watermelon to everyone you saw, and just happened to meet only black people, then that *would* be supporting the stereotype. It’s not your fault, it’s not your intent, and on another day it might have turned out entirely differently, but the impact is the same. Would be interested to hear what you, and other people, would think in that situation?

      • The distinction I want to make is between being unaware of a stereotype and being unaffected by one. The former is likely to result in further propagation of the stereotype, the latter by necessity would not. Being unconscious of a stereotype is different to growing up in an environment where it doesn’t exist.

        If the alien made their decisions based on immersion in the culture then they would be unaware but not unaffected.

        Your observation about the noise is interesting. As it turns out there are statistical tests that can be applied to binary outcome events to determine the likelihood of a bias. One such test is Student’s t-test. The ability to determine a bias using this test increases with increasing number of trials, as you would expect.

        In the example you gave, the t-test would conclude a bias to a high probability (called a confidence interval). Of course it doesn’t tell us the source of the bias. There could be many reasons. If I had selected an area only populated by people of colour (PoC) to offer watermelons that would account for the discrepancy. To determine whether I had a racist motive we would then need to determine why I chose that area.

        As to whether that act propagates a stereotype is an interesting question. If that was the only attempt I ever made to give away watermelons it might. I think it would depend on the witnesses to that act and what they knew of my motives. If they had no idea, then it probably would, people would probably assume that I’d chosen the area because ‘black people like watermelons so much more.’ If on the other hand they knew me to be an Australian with no prior exposure to the stereotype they would probably just assume I chose the area at random and that nothing was meant by it.

        p.s. Thanks for the suggestion of looking up ‘denying agency.’

  26. Hmm, I think the distinction between being unaffected rather than unaware is probably one of correlation vs. causation.
    I think a lot of the arguments people have about “is this sexist/racist/-ist” are really about blame – Did you mean it to be sexist? Should you have known better? Were you aware that it would be harmful to women? And that means that any claim about discrimination is an accusation and needs some pretty strict evidence to back it up.
    Whereas I think feminism is, and should be, more about getting results (of course, that’s just my observation and could be entirely wrong). So as far as feminism is concerned it doesn’t matter that the person didn’t mean to be sexist, or had no way of knowing, or didn’t think what they were doing was harmful. What matters is how it affects women, not whether there is someone that can be blamed.
    So, coming back to being unaffected vs. unaware by/of stereotypes – in the second case you’re partly to blame because you haven’t taken the time or effort to realise you’re stereotyping, whereas in the first you’re entirely innocent. But that’s just about blame – what really matters is how this affects women (or in this case, black people).

    • I see what you’re saying. I’m just not convinced that it’s still *ist if you were unaffected by the stereotype AND those who might be affected are aware that you are unaffected. If this second condition is true then most reasonable people won’t infer from your actions the *ist stereotype (as in the case of the alien) and there will be no *ist effect (especially over a large enough sample).

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