The first time my definition of racism was challenges was when I joined Teach for America in 2015. Say what you will about TFA, but they do their utmost to bring some spit and shine to the racial theory and social justice consciousness of their corp members. Mine certainly got an upgrade, but it wasn’t an entirely easy process.
Sometimes, during discussion circles or trainings, it seemed to me that we were getting overly hung up on terminology. What was it so important that everyone defined racism the exact same way, as a system of race-based oppression? I was accustomed to thinking of racism as an incidence of overt and intentional racism by an individual, for example using the n-word or denying a person of color a job or housing based on their race. Wasn’t sticking with an older definition that most of Americans agreed upon the more rational than fighting a loosing battle over this word. Now I believe that definitions worth fighting for. Much of my hang up centered around the fact that as a white person living in a racist society, I might be implicitly racist!
The change, I hate to say, didn’t come about by me coming to my senses and deciding to be less stubborn. It came when I felt the sting of indignation when a male friend went on a tirade along the lines of, “womyn don’t have it so hard…sexism goes both ways…and don’t even get me started on this bogus idea of “male privilege.” I began to sweat, as if a carpet of mutual trust and respect had suddenly been pulled out from under me. I found myself digging up arguments I had resisted: “racism and sexism don’t go both ways, they are both examples of systemic oppression…” I realized then, that racism and sexism are so much bigger than BELIEFS about superiority or DISCRIMINATION based on those beliefs.
Here are some handy formulas:
racial prejudice + power = racism
Example: A white woman refuses to rent a black man an apartment, exhibiting racial prejudice. By extension, she is perpetuating racism because this same man is statistically less likely to be rented an apartment city-wide due to his perceived race.
sexist prejudice + power = sexism
So let’s dive into some fairly philosophical question that have been swirling around the social media for a few years now: Can a womyn be sexist? Can a person of color be racist?
Many on the internet think they cannot:
And others disagree:
Well, lacking male privilege (power), by definition a womyn by definition CANNOT perpetuate sexism.
When we examine the history of the English “ism,” the suffix denotes “a system of theory or practice, religious, ecclesiastical, philosophical, political, social, etc.,” in the same way as radicalism, conservatism, capitalism, socialism, or fascism. In this way, a womyn could not reinforce sexism against men because it is womyn, not men, that lack power as the non-dominant gender within society.
HOWEVER, a womyn could exhibit sexist prejudice, for example if she believes that womyn are smarter than men. And if a womyn said or did something that exhibits sexist prejudice, would not saying that “she is sexist” be the natural, handy, shorthand way of saying “she exhibits sexist prejudice?” I hate to throw this bone, but I cannot see any way around this, given semantics.
By extension, a POC, lacking white privilege (power), by definition a POC CANNOT perpetuate racism. No prejudice on behalf of a person of color toward the majority group, however grave, contributes to a system that predictably oppresses people of color across society. This is why “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” do not exist.
However, if a person of color exhibits racial prejudice, would it be handy to say they are racist? Redefining who can and cannot be “racist” or “sexist” could help proliferate the understanding that prejudice + power = racism and sexism. However, this may be asking too much of these words.
What do you think? Looking forward to reader feedback on this little mind bender! Those who think we live in a post-racist, post-sexist society need not apply.