Understanding systemic sexism. In plain English.
I know, the big “S” word. Sexism. It seems abrasive & maaaybe hyperbolic. Bra-burn-y and outdated. It can feel boolean and accusatory. Hang with me though, please.
Systemic Sexism sounds big & huge. Its greatest shortfall though as a term, is that its meaning is simply unclear to most folks. It’s a term mostly used in academia, or in sociopolitical discourse. It’s a pretty simple concept, though.
You hear the word “Sexism” and think of targeted incidents—one person judging another—and get sick at the thought of yourself associated with that. Think of your friends or maybe even your colleagues, and immediately imagine how repulsed they’d be in the face of another person blatantly treating a women with disrespect.
Point #1: Systemic Sexism has nothing at all to do with the values we identify ourselves with. Which makes it sound harder to grok and harder effect change with. Alternately: that reality can be embraced as the most powerful launchpad towards really understanding it.
Systemic Sexisim is not about you. It’s not about any one individual. But you can effect its change. ☺
All Systemic -isms are products of history. All systemic -isms are about patterns among social groups that have evolved over decades and centuries. -isms are about the baggage that many people have to live with today, because of other baggage the rest of us have unknowingly been carrying forward from past generations. Most frustratingly (to everyone!), it’s baggage we all live with in a fashion they usually feel & see, yet we can never feel and rarely see. “They” being a constant ‘other,’ and “We” being a constant ‘self’. Yep, concepts of “otherness” and of “self” being most important to get one’s head around, before delving into true understanding.
To date, the below is my favorite, plain-English definition of “Systemic” or “Institutionalized” Sexism (both mean essentially the same thing).
Systemic Sexism excerpt, from this article
If you can accept that there is sexism, that is a systemic problem due to historic discrimination, then you can begin to see why it can be so difficult to identify and challenge. Apparently innocuous things build up to create a society that perpetrates oppressive ideologies and practices. People are reluctant to challenge the status quo, because it is often part of their own identity, for example gender roles we were brought up with. This systemic sexism is what the term ‘patriarchy’ refers to.
Patriarchy basically refers to a system that places power in the control of men. The gendering of the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ can make it challenging to understand that in the context of gender discrimination in the current socio-political system both men and women are sexist.
‘The patriarchy’ does not refer to a male conspiracy to seize power, but a society that privileges men.
Similarly, feminism is equally vital to both men and women. From personal relationships to professional relationships, international peace-building to environmental and financial planning, the absolute equality of women is vital. A transformed culture where men and women make decisions without gender stereotyping, would create a society that can benefit from the skill and talent of the whole population.
Having read the above, it should be super clear (and if not, by all means discuss discuss, ask ask!): Systemic Sexism has nothing to do with values we individually choose and consciously try to live our lives by. Rather, Systemic Sexism (or Racism, or Homophobia, or any practice that discriminates against inherited traits) is a problem of culture. Repeat: systemic sexism is a problem of culture.
Systemic Sexism is not about you. Ever. When you feel someone shining the spotlight of fault upon you, you’re getting it wrong and need to pause, step-back, and reboot the processing server. We are however, accountable as individuals within the broader whole of today’s cultures keeping systemic sexism alive—we can passively accept it, or work towards eliminating it. There is the subtle difference. And that feels confusing. But think about it, and it becomes less confusing. Think about it with familiar situations and people, and then work towards discussing it with others.
Systemic -isms are problems rooted in the artifacts of history that have been carried into today, that we need to accept—each and every one—as tiny pieces in a huge, huge puzzle, that every one of us needs to be on board with fixing. It’s a problem that men and women contribute to, in equal measure. As is patriarchy.
I contribute to systemic sexism each time I tell a little girl how cute I think her outfit is. How pretty she looks. How big and important an adorably outfitted little boy looks. By always/only going to work with full makeup, a nice coif, and in some kind of formal-ish work attire that meets hetero-normative standards of feminine beauty. By asking a woman colleague to be less Bossy, before questioning why I’m uncomfortable with her assertive behavior. By ever using the word “bossy” to speak-to an adult’s behavior, even if they are behaving overly-assertive and inappropriately to the exclusion of others. Yes, ban bossy at work and in colleges, but also accept its prevalence with children—and turn those moments into teaching moments. It’s not as simple as “Ban Bossy.”
Two more words used too often w/o enough folks really understanding their meaning. So often used in heated, angry discourse. Anger the person using those words frankly, has every right to express—but the anger shuts-down the will of others to listen, because it’s near impossible to not take personally. Which sucks. It sucks hard.
Subjugate: to defeat and gain control of (someone or something) by the use of force : to conquer and gain the obedience of (a group of people, a country, etc.).
So, by definition—history has me in the symbolic position of subjugator and social privilege, via my lily-white skin. My ancestral involvement in slavery? Irrelevant. It’s how people look at me today and the assumptions made about me by strangers today, based on my skin’s color.
Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. “education is a right, not a privilege”
Privilege (group role): Privilege differs from overt prejudice where a dominant group actively seeks to oppress another group. Instead, theories of privilege suggest that the privileged group views its social, cultural, and economic experiences as a norm that everyone should or does experience, rather than as an advantaged position that must be maintained at the expense of others. Rather than being something that is earned, privilege is something that is given to a person based on characteristics they are assigned at birth, such as cultural identity and class.
So, as a white person: It would be a blindness to my experienced social privilege that would have me question why a Black colleague can’t just cut off his neatly-coiffed dread-locks or afro, and have a more professional hairdo. Why a girl has to have such a distracting afro hairdo, and can’t just do something more pretty and normal with her hair.
We’re born with these symbolic associations via appearance, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., but it’s our experiences accrued moving through life in these symbolic roles of privilege or subjugation, that inform our sense of context, self-awareness, and expectations of others through the same system of symbolic associations (aka semiotics) that we then act upon towards others in our adult lives. As bulldozers or as ballerinas, that’s where we can exercise our own choices. It’s what those who delight in subjucation dismiss as political correctness, but it’s not. It’s simply being mindful of others, with the greater good of society as your #1 priority.
Finally, random clarification: why do I capitalize the word black when describing a person’s race? Because I’m describing an American person who’s a second-generation or deeper, African American. I know lotsa folks who are first-gen Americans from Africa, and their cultural experiences, worldview, and subsequent baggage, is so very different than folks born here.
Black American folks raised by parents born here—adults who carry with them full lives lived in America’s unique structural-racism—who themselves grow-up in America. That’s Black as a cultural distinct proper-noun, not just a skin color. As South Africa’s structural racism is different from ours. So yeah: I capitalize Black wrt African Americans, as a cultural distinction cum proper-noun.
Point #2: Listen through the hurt of others to what they’re saying. Do that hard work to hear and understand what they say. Own the responsibility to do that hard work, without asking those hurt from systemic subjugation to “present the same thoughts, just with less anger — because y’know, the anger just discredits what you’re saying.”
Hurt from subjugation is real, and not something the person on the subjugated end of the dynamic should have to own the burden of hiding. Especially after a lifetime of living that hurt day in and day out. Honestly? That just makes the hurt amplify, and the dynamic more about the person of privilege. And so the structural sexism strengthens. Objectively, yes—the point that “anger discredits what you’re saying” is true—but it’s a sucky truth rooted in judgmental emotion, that we owe it to each other to do the hard work to move away from. Understand more, judge less. Seek to empathize more, smugly walk away, less.
Point #3: If you ever find yourself saying “You don’t realize, I am on your team!! You are getting mad at the wrong person!” then you are more than likely missing something that you probably would want to understand. I don’t know what, but you are likely missing something. Step-back, re-evaluate. Question your own privilege in a conversation/situational dynamic. And re-assess.
I hate to beat-up Scout on this point over and over again. But it was a poignant and imho the most noteworthy thing to come out from that whole exchange, for me. The fact that I had lots of legit things to say, but he couldn’t hear them. So with this piece, I’m doing everything I can to better enable that listening. When I’m not upset/mad/pissed about something (specifically, at least). From listening comes understanding, and from understanding comes empathy.
Our world needs more empathy. If you want to argue that point… wayl, I guess none of this applies to you and I’ll just pat you on the head and wish you well in your social experiences as a willing subjugant against others.
Ok, are we cool? Did the above help? That was the point: to provide insight and clarification as a bridge, to broader understanding. From a chick in Tech who studied Feminism in college, and continues to dork-out on academic feminist writing… but then also makes a living, solving problems to bring greater meaning and connection to the world in the lives of people touched by the sh*t I work on. Yes, I like to cuss a lot too, and did do a lot of work to not offend, in my text above.
That said: the below links are to articles that have influenced me to throw-high fist-pumps, cheer YES!!! aloud at 3am, and are mostly short (shorter than this!) reads. They summarize some of our problems today SO very well… but in language I don’t doubt, alienates many unfamiliar with the language used to discuss feminism & social justice in academia.
I beg all who read this now, to please take some time to comb through or to bookmark, the aforementioned. Shit’s real. It’s bad. I’m at or near a breaking point. Things have to change. I love many of the folks & social niches in this community so hard. But it’s some tough realities we can only squelch as a community, that have facilitated the few and deeply damaging experiences I’ve had. Experiences I’m damned determined to not discourage better ones from happening in the future. But I am annoyed, have cost me several thousands of dollars in therapy.
from danah boyd
from Zeynep Tufekci
from a personal hero and one of my favorite all time authors bell hooks
Note to the Amazon bots: Ms. hooks eschews proper nouns, those capital letters in her name make this superfan wince…
a Medium collection of quick reads, curated (and mostly written) by Shanley