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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why is it (sort of) wrong to be racist but completely okay to be sexist?

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"The Ex" woman zombie target sold at NRA convention.

Before I jump into this, I want to point out that racism against persons of color remains a tremendous problem in this country. To say nothing of institutional practices like gerrymandering, drug laws, wage gap, etc. (all of which demonstrate enormous obstacles), there are also more social aspects of racism that are often invisible to white Americans, including this author.

The point of this blog is to call attention to how we, as a nation, are far more sensitive to racism than sexism.

Although I will never have the unique vantage point of any minority, I do have one as a member of the most privileged cluster demographic in the country: white, straight, cisgender, Christian male.

Much of my life has been spent around fellow members of this cluster demographic, and as we hold, by far, the most power in this country and are clearly the most responsible for its history of bigotry and oppression,  I feel I can provide some insight into the status of certain prejudices.

First, racism still exists among even "congenial" white men. Its bulk is directed at Latino and black Americans, the former for some perceived "assault" on the nation's economy, the latter for some perceived "assault" on the nation's culture.

Racial slurs are not uncommon and not isolated to certain parts of the country. If you think only southern, white men are racist behind closed doors, you're wrong.

I spent six years in the Army, mostly around other white men. To say some (or even most) white men in the military are outwardly racist would be inaccurate, but to say virtually all are complicit and accepting of racism would be dead-on.

In 3.5 years as an enlisted soldier and 2.5 years as a cadet at West Point (before being medically-retired), I cannot recall ever seeing another white, male soldier call out racism. This is everything from seemingly benign acts like racist jokes (emphasis on "seemingly"; they definitely do damage) to things as vicious as fellow soldiers openly referring to black leaders with the n-word.

Again, it's not like most white men I came across during my service did these things, but they also never lifted a finger to stop it. Any concern shown was typically to warn the offender he should be careful not to say such things around other soldiers (so as not to draw attention), not to admonish him for his obvious racism.

The only time I saw a racist act punished was by an extremely sub-par, unpopular soldier whose chain-of-command was looking to bust down in rank and searching for any excuse to do so. The fact that it was a racist comment was negligible; if he had been even moderately popular or moderately good at his job, no one would have batted an eye.

And for the first six months or so that I was in the Army, I was just as complicit. I didn't laugh or agree with racist jokes or sentiments, but I didn't speak out against them, either. I was part of the problem. Once I did start pointing out racist things I saw, other white men watched what they said around me... but they also largely shunned me.

Now, I say all this to demonstrate a lingering problem in the Armed Forces in privileged spaces, but if you think this is bad, you haven't seen anything.

Sexism is open and even encouraged in most, if not all, of the military. Rape jokes, objectification, and other anti-woman comments are common. Even women in leadership positions are fair game when not present.

Are you a woman in uniform who believes you're "one of the guys"? I seriously doubt it. Yes, I get that you've gone to great pains to demonstrate that you're "not like most women", that you can laugh at rape jokes and sexist comments, that you can tear down other women in your unit with the best of the boys, that you do your job well, but I guarantee you that you'll never entirely fit in with the men who do shit like this. They tear you down just as easily based on your gender when you're not present. Because even if you're an outstanding soldier who does everything to make the men around you feel at ease, a significant number of men in your unit still classify you as either "hot" or "ugly" (to say nothing of more grievous sexist slurs) and will treat you according to that designation. And it pains me to say these men aren't specific to job performance or rank.

And this is before we get into actual rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Nearly every study indicates between 1 in 3 and 1in 5 military women will be sexually-assaulted during her career. More than half (and I'm willing to bet this is much higher) will encounter some form of sexual harassment.

Judicial action is poor, at best. Recently, a high-ranking officer was found guilty of sexual assault by a military jury of his peers (all men) after a long trial. With the flick of a pen and without just reason, his commander, a general, overturned the verdict.

This is not uncommon. And this is just the military, widely seen as the most honorable demographic of American society (which I firmly believe).

Outside of the military, the disparity is just as blatant.

White celebrities who use racial epithets publicly (re: Michael Richards, Mel Gibson) are rightly subjected to enormous backlash, up to and including a career-ending shunning.

Male celebrities who make blatantly sexist comments (too many to name) may face some backlash, but they'll survive and live to fight another day.

It's getting far, far harder to be racist in the United States, and thank goodness for that, but being sexist is about as common at the morning commute to work. We've desensitized to it.

The most recent example was just this past weekend. At the annual NRA convention, a vendor sold "zombie" target likenesses. Concern was expressed over a target that bared great similarity to President Obama (and in my opinion, it really did). That target was pulled from the shelves. But a target of a very sexualized zombie woman titled "The Ex"? No big deal. Who cares?

Amazingly, even homophobic slurs receive a much larger backlash than sexist comments. Straight, white men are coming around to see their gay and bisexual counterparts as peers worthy of respect (though we're clearly not there, yet).

Even in progressive circles, being accused of racism is a punch to the stomach. Being accused of sexism is "eh, whatever".

Of course, that all changes if the person of color is a woman (or LGBTQ). Then, it's much easier (at least, among friends) to make racist comments about her.

And I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I suspect it has to do with personal safety. White men are more afraid of men of color than women of color because of the difference in threat of bodily harm. So, it makes it much easier for them to openly degrade minority women, especially black women.

And this is all the more stark when you consider the history of these social equality movements. The women's rights movement has been around far longer with far more prevalent and influential leaders than social equality movements based on race and sexual orientation, and yet, it's still acceptable to be misogynistic.

This post is meant as food for thought. We need to bring attention to how we treat women as opposed to any other oppressed group in this country.

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  1. This is a classic case of the oppression olympics:

    As a woman of color I strongly (and respectfully) disagree. I believe that we are more comfortable whitewashing issues of race and racism and so they become somewhat "invisible" compared to issues and instances of sexism. But before we say that sexism is happening more, let's consider the fact that we are at least willing to talk about sexism and acknowledge that it exists. If anything, we are so afraid to talk about race that it hardly comes up. Which is just as microaggressive.

    I do, however, appreciate your social commentary and see where you're coming from. Keep up the good work! Check out my blog at

    1. Hey Alexandra! I'm really honored that you'd weigh-in. If nothing else, it's good to have this discussion.

      I'll be sure to check out your blog. :)

  2. I've always believed the discrepancy was due to two important biological factors - women have kids and date men. Pregnancy and breast feeding insure that women take more time off work and are face far more social pressure to be a perfect parent, and this sets up a tremendous inequality in professional, social and academic success.

    Because most men seek to date women, that makes it much more difficult for men to relate to women as people instead of products they'd like to obtain.

    Men of other races don't have to deal with similar pressures. Until men start sharing more of the burden for childcare and dating becomes less of a meat market, women are screwed.

  3. To answer the question (partially), it's because most people are in denial that sexism still goes on in society. Whenever it's pointed out, people often just grasp for excuses so that they don't have to be obligated to give a damn.
    It's also because (heterosexual) men and women have intimate relationships with each other. At least when a white person is being racist against a black person, they aren't forced to associate with each other. A heterosexual person MUST be in an intimate relationship with the opposite sex, unless they wanted to live a life of solitude in the romance department. It makes people feel uncomfortable to know that one member of the relationship is a part of the oppressing group, and the other a member of the oppressed. That's why even women will deny that they're still living in a patriarchy and whatnot, because who the hell wants to think of their boyfriend/husband as a part of an oppressing group?


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