It’s a problem, because the actions and statements we end up describing are sexist, racist, and so on – but they are not deliberate. That’s a concept that is very hard to get one’s mind around – I still have problems with it – but it’s true.
Sometimes it’s societal structure – the playing monopoly concept – and sometimes it’s just habit.
I critiqued a sci-fi story where a male soldier was talking to his female commanding officer. The male character said: “I don’t know why he doesn’t just take it like a man.” (Emphasis mine.)
The author (a white male like me) was very chagrined when I pointed out how sexist that statement was. He didn’t mean for it to be sexist – he was trying to communicate the bad guy’s cowardice. And then he realized what that implied he was saying about men & women as well. I think he ended up cutting the line entirely.
Too often when we point out this kind of “-ist” behavior, it’s taken as a personal attack. Rather than a realization like the author I mention above, the other person shuts down and withdraws from the discussion. And those of us who know this have a responsibility to manage our language appropriately.
Aside from a spat among Facebook friends, there’s a specific reason I’m blasting this post out right now: The Mustard Seed Foundation.
It seems like a well-meaning organization that looks to help teen mothers. That’s good. Every picture of “teen mothers” on their site has women of color. (For contrast, a Google Image search for “teen mother”.)
There’s a disparity, yes (page seven of this PDF document), but surely there’s room for some diversity. Otherwise, it’s subtly (and almost certainly unintentionally) reinforcing the idea that teen pregnancy is a problem exclusively for women of color.
I could fire off some nasty e-mails pointing out how racist that is – and be right. But I would not accomplish a damn thing.
This isn’t a “pass” for everyone else. Sooner or later (preferably sooner), we all have to be confronted when we’re sexist, racist, heterosexist, and so on. All of us have to face not only the intentional discrimination but the unintentional discrimination that exists.
And when we try to help others confront that unintentional discrimination, we have to do so in a way that actually accomplishes our goal.