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Defining racism, sexism, and other forms of unfair discrimination

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.


I'd thought what counts as sexism or racism was fairly clear, but with the competing campaigns for the Democratic party presidential nomination in 2008 of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, and accusations of racism and sexism abounding, there are plenty of unclear or marginal cases.   Let's try to identify all the different components, and what's objectionable about them.  

Here's what I've got so far; you are very welcome to suggest modifications or additions in the threaded discussion this week. 

(Of course, just because one is a woman doesn't mean one can't be sexist towards other women, or towards oneself, too. 

And just because one is a member of another ethnicity doesn't mean one isn't a racist towards other members of one's own race, or towards oneself, or towards other races. 

In 19th and 20th century Europe, the humiliating caricatures of Jewish people were so endemic and so effective, and so internalized in some tragic cases, that the phrase "self-hating Jew" was coined.)

1. The traditional definition of unfair discrimination such as racism or sexism is simply:

Discrimination (between people) on the basis of irrelevant differences,

rather than on the basis of relevant differences. 

(E.g. promoting someone over a colleague on the basis of race, sex, etc.. rather than on the basis of greater merit, which would be a relevant difference.  Sometimes people use synonyms such as "distinguishing" or "differentiating" for the relevant differences, since "discrimination" has come to have a nasty connotation.  That connotation is recent, though, and technically, "discriminating" is just another synonym.)

This is nicely consistent with Aristotle's definition of justice as equity, as "treating likes alike."   (Equity allows for greater nuance than straight equality, which is sometimes not possible or practical.   We speak of "equality under the law" as a vital right in most democracies, e.g. a right not to be murdered or tortured, a right not to be imprisoned for no reason, equal access to attorneys in given situations, equal right to vote for non-felons age 18 and over, and so on.  But even here, it's equity, not equality, for the rights that apply only to adults, or only to people who haven't been sentenced as felons.)

Of course, there's the big question of what counts as "relevant" in a given circumstance!  That's where much debate occurs.   And of course if you're casting for a film, apparent ethnicity and/or sex may be legitimately relevant, depending on the film, the part, the make-up department, and so on.

2.There's another component to unfair discrimination such as racism or sexism, though.

Consider the city of Philadelphia, around the turn of the 20th century, refusing to hire highly qualified descendents of slaves, and hiring people of European ancestry over them, even when these "whites" scored far below them on the official exams.   (This was a particularly devastating injustice, since it led many people to despair; the promises of social advancement by hard work and education, which were paying off for many immigrants, were simply broken for the descendants of slaves.)  Or, during the same period, U.S. medical schools and other programs refusing to accept women whose exceptional qualifications would have otherwise guaranteed them entrance.  Or the stellar wit Groucho Marx being denied membership to a private club on the grounds that he was Jewish.  (His reply, paraphrased: "Well, I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me in it.")

What makes these cases so appalling?   In these cases, it's not just a once-off injustice.  It's the latest in a long pattern of more or less continuous mistreatment of pretty clearly demarcated groups (membership of which is not voluntarily chosen – and here supporters of GLBT rights note the similarity of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-gendered people with other vulnerable groups), which have been oppressed, sometimes brutally, and which have been often treated with a kind of repugnance, solidified by humiliating or depersonalizing stereotypes and caricatures. (Even the deeply admired Maya Angelou has spoken of being leaned away from in public spaces by "white" strangers.)  In other words, racism and sexism both have a component of a more powerful group mistreating a relatively powerless group.  (Which is why sexism can target women, though women are strictly speaking the majority of humans on the planet, not the minority – due to their slightly greater average longevity than men.)

Because of the history of abuse, each injustice here carries forward some of the horrible past with it, implicitly, as background.  (Remember the Gestalt?  Conscious figure against an implied background?) 

(It is this second component that explains why "reverse discrimination" is not fully equivalent to plain discrimination.  It may or may not be fair, just, or legal.  But it doesn't really count as racism or sexism in any full-fledged sense.)

E.g. The heckler who shouted at Senator Clinton (Jan. 7, 2008), to "iron my shirt" wasn't just saying that she should be just a housewife, and not have a career.  He was summoning up old assumptions about the most lowly work being "merely" "women's work," and about women's natural role being that of servants to men, cleaning up in the most intimate, personal ways.   These assumptions are still very widespread in many – probably most – societies, which is what makes them pointed and toxic.  (If the assumptions were really outdated, we wouldn't gape at him or feel angry; we'd consider him merely ridiculous and happily laugh at him as we would a flat-earther.)   And here's the core of the sexism: He is telling Sen. Clinton that because she is a woman, he regards her as nothing more than uppity servant. 

(Incidentally, as people sometimes point out, sexism doesn't seem to have much to do with sex – it's more to do with power.   I've read interviews with lap dancers who say that their customers obviously get the most pleasure from the power of their money to get women to do things that they otherwise wouldn't do, or even feel uncomfortable doing.)

E.g. Similarly, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro's comment (Feb. 27, I believe) that Senator Obama owed his position as Democratic presidential front-runner to being a black man wasn't merely making the claim that his race had helped him.  "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position.  He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."  She is also implicitly discounting anything but "luck," such as hard work, intelligence, and courage, to explain his success. And she is implying that Sen. Obama is the equivalent of an "unqualified affirmative action hire," a stereotype that can trigger immediate, unthinking resentment, anger, and a sense of superiority in many "white" audiences since it was first widely promulgated in the 1980s.   Later, on March 11, Rep. Ferraro responded to the outrage over her remarks. "Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist.  I will not be discriminated against because I'm white."  Unless I've missed some important quotes, it doesn't seem as though Rep. Ferraro has answered her critics at all.  She is just refusing to consider their objections, and claiming (without any reason that I can see) that she is the victim of racism by their objecting to her statement.   I would describe this as riding on the strength of what she is implying, but not stating explicitly, and then refusing to take responsibility for those implications, despite the fact that they are what would have the rhetorical punch.    

So when do we say that we've grown beyond such a history?  

Well, let's take the Irish as an example, since we do seem to have transcended that racism, here in the U.S..  Branded by the English as "savages," and used by the English as their first foray into imperialism, they faced real racism not only in the British Isles, but in the U.S. when they immigrated here in great numbers during and after the Potato Famine in the 1840s.  (Incidentally, the Brits were exporting Irish grains to England and elsewhere at the time, while whole Irish villages were dying of hunger.)  Here in the U.S. were the famous signs saying: "No Irish need apply."  They were treated with much the same repugnance as descendants of slaves, as Asians, etc.. Roman Catholics, be they Irish, Italian, Czechoslovakian, were a prime target of the KKK.  (Cf. Muslim-baiting today.) 

But then the next generation, the children of the immigrants, wouldn't have that obvious Irish accent.  And by the third generation, many Irish Americans had managed by hard work and education to climb to the middle class.  (Typically, it took – or takes -- much longer for people who were more obviously physically different, such as people of Asian or African or Native American/Hispanic ancestry, to win acceptance by the dominant European Americans.)  Now, in the U.S. (not quite yet in the U.K. though) the Irish have assimilated into the rest of the European-ancestry class.  For example, Denver's Jesuit prep school, Regis High School, was until recently an avenue for blue-collar "ethnic" (Irish, Italian, Hispanic, Czech, etc.) Catholic boys to move by dint of outstanding education up to the upper-middle-class.   The sons or grandsons of poor immigrants could prepare for college, and ultimately med school, law school, etc..   Now, Regis High School has moved from the gritty north neighborhoods of Denver to the affluent south, and its students are more typical of that area: already upper-middle-class, and Irish, Italian, etc., with fewer Hispanics.  

Now, if someone tried to hint that a guy of obvious Irish ancestry (say, red hair, last name "Duffessey" or something, goes to Celtic music festivals and plays the uilleann pipes) shouldn't be hired because he's "one of (tilt head) them, you know," people would just look blank and ask for more information.  We know he's Irish, and he obviously considers that part of his identity, and we automatically don't consider it as relevant when we're choosing, e.g. candidates for promotion.  It would be difficult for us to take it into consideration.  We're not Irish-blind.  It's just that we're comfortable with it. (Though some visiting Britons still might not be entirely comfortable with it.)

Now, other cases:

*Simply not supporting a woman candidate can't be taken as grounds for being a sexist, since there are probably infinite other reasons for not supporting any given woman candidate.

And simply not supporting an ethnic minority candidate can't be taken as grounds for being a racist, for the same reasons.

(Notwithstanding the many current blogs arguing otherwise.)

*What about the recent case in March 2008 of Air America radio host Randi Rhodes calling Geraldine Ferraro and Sen. Clinton "F@#$ing whores" at a fund-raiser?  

For what it's worth, from my perspective – and you may have entirely different insights – the obscenity doesn't bother me.  The term "whore" does.  It seems to be in a transitional phase.  Decades ago, it would have been a term applied mainly to women, or to men in the sense of implying that they were homosexual prostitutes.   Its use then would have almost certainly been sexist (or possibly anti-gay unfair discrimination, depending on context and target).   Recently, it has been used more as a metaphor for a sell-out, in a non-sexual sense.  If it were an insult applied to a clearly heterosexual male, obviously targeting his sell-out characteristics (say, colorful former Irish head of state Bertie Ahern, notorious for minor corruptions and frequently described with irreverent glee as "a cute whoor"), I'd be inclined to say that that's not sexist.  (Possibly offensive, possibly undeserved, but not sexist.  In Ahern's case, I'd bet it's laughably apt.)  Rhodes might have intended it only in this sense of "sell-out."  But since in this case it was applied to women, I find myself cringing.

*What about Bill O'Reilly's Feb. 21, 2008, gaffe?  He responded to a caller who described Michelle Obama as an angry woman who wasn't proud of the U.S. by saying,

"And I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels.  If that's how she really feels — that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever — then that's legit. We'll track it down."

For anyone who isn't familiar with lynching, it is a form of murder occurring in the U.S. South from antebellum days until recently (Jasper, Texas, 1998), of an African American by "white" Americans, sometimes purported to be vigilante justice, sometimes simply acknowledged as a form of entertainment similar to dog- or cock-fighting, or simply slowly killing an animal.   (Yep, some humans apparently find entertainment in such activities.  I don't know if any other species are capable of sadism per se.)  I remember hearing jokes about lynching when I was a child in rural Texas – and I'm not very old.  The background assumption in lynching and in talking approvingly about it seems to be that the targeted person is no more than an animal, and can be treated as such.   A European American using the term "lynching" as a semi-joke, or lightly in passing, when referring to an African American to whom he is passionately opposed – well, that seems to set a new modern standard in racist rhetoric.

*What about accusing women of voting automatically for a women, or blacks voting automatically for a black?  Is that sexist or racist, implying that they're not being very sophisticated?  I'm inclined to say no.   What do you all think?

Other cases?

(Here's a less virulent case that might even be viewed as amusing.  I'm still not certain if I over-reacted or not.  A male acquaintance of mine (European ancestry) is a fervent Obama supporter, and an almost equally fervent critic of both the Clintons.  In talking to me, this guy referred casually, in passing, to one blog for Hillary Clinton supporters as "a center for post-menopausals."   When I gaped, yelped, and threatened to quote him here, he was genuinely surprised (and then chagrined).   (Then again, I make jokes about middle-aged men in red sports cars.)   In this situation, it seemed to be getting a bit nastily personal about Clinton (not that I'm reliably good about avoiding that when it comes to politicians – I do try, but it takes so much self-discipline), though I'm not sure if it should be considered sexist or not.  What do you all think?)

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