Funny thing, prejudice and the –isms it spawns. I do not believe I am a racist, nor a sexist,
because I reject these things.
I fight against them when I see them. I oppose prejudice
at every opportunity. But
removing one’s own blinders, fighting the unseen prejudicial demons
within, this may be impossible. Perhaps one only escapes those dangerous –isms
if one is raised in a world without them. But, as loathsome as they appear to me when I see them, these things
are most often invisible.
Let’s start with sexism.
I am a woman, and I know I am smarter and more capable
than most men (mostly thanks to my upbringing and education). I appreciate and acknowledge that men and women are different, both
because they are driven by different suites of hormones and biological
imperatives, and because they are raised to be different in our
culture (and every other human culture of which I am aware). These differences can be delicious, and they can be destructive.
But, in my opinion, there is no real reason why men should
lead women. The particular
skills and proclivities of men and women, averaged over large
populations, may show differences, but any individual may not
fit the “average” pattern. I
suspect that the reason men have come to dominate women in many
cultures, but that situations in which women dominate men are
rare, is that dominance itself in humans is a bit of an aberration,
and that men are biologically more inclined toward this aberration.
Until hierarchies appeared (in only about the last 5% of
the time that our species has been around), human societies were
basically egalitarian, with the differences between men and women
having little to do with status.
Only with hierarchy, settlement, wealth accumulation and
warfare were men able to subjugate women.
Now, I have just given you my conscious, intellectual
understanding of the situation.
Yet the answer to the above riddle, that the surgeon is
the boy’s mother, did not occur to me when I first heard it.
Why not? I have probably been treated by female physicians
more often than male ones. I
have taken classes with med school students, and noted that the
gender ratio was nearly equal.
Why wasn’t this imaginary surgeon a woman to me, when that
could have so simply solved the puzzle?
Instead, I mentally traversed all kinds of bizarre possibilities
for parenthood: the boy was adopted, had a stepfather, was a product
of artificial insemination.
Here’s another example of the sexist demon that
sits invisible on my shoulder.
Watch the video for “Smack my Bitch Up” by Prodigy (http://vival.boom.ru/video/video.html
-- yeah, I was offended when I caught the name too, but I liked
the music of the song). Looking
out, you see a drugged and drunken binge through someone’s eyes. You grope women, pick fights, get thrown out of bars, steal a car
and take a stripper home to your bed.
When I first watched this, I thought the protagonist a
thoroughly disreputable character.
That is, until we looked in the mirror at the end of the
video. Then, laughing, I was this character’s biggest fan. “Yeah! Way
to go!” Only much later
did my reactions begin to trouble me.
What made all that behavior so appalling when I saw it
at first, and so appealing when my mistake was revealed?
Shouldn’t I have been offended regardless?
Why had I been mistaken in the first place?
Now, the racist demon that keeps the sexist one
company. Full disclosure, I'm
pretty pale, so I am what people who believe in race consider
white. As an anthropologists who understands biology and genetics,
I know that human "race" is a pretty dodgy concept,
and I know that all "Americans" are African if you go
back far enough. But it is important in our culture for nefarious
historical reasons that have warped our current cultural milieu.
I don’t watch TV, I don’t get daily newspapers
or weekly news magazines. I
get most of my news from radio, listening to NPR Morning Edition,
which I supplement with Internet commentary.
So in late October when I heard coverage of the arrest
of the “Sniper” shooting suspects, I was left to form my own mental
image of them. There were descriptions on NPR of their car,
the settings in which the victims were shot.
Their names were given, their weapons and misdeeds cataloged. For background, I got that the elder suspect
had been in the Gulf War, and had at sometime converted to Islam. I admit, I didn’t follow this story too closely.
I was unwilling to give in to the usual morbid curiosity
and mob fear that surrounds such things. I also didn’t want to give more fodder to my
paranoid suspicions about the CIA or the current administration
being involved in it, staging killings to incite a media frenzy
that would distract people even more from the real issues and
the upcoming elections. So I formed, quite unwittingly, a mental image
of the shooters. My image
was of a redneck gun-nut hillbilly type gone wacko, some guy who
had needed meaning so desperately, he changed his religion to
that of his former enemies, then took his skills and government
training in killing and used them to try to clean up the population
of his home country by gunning down the over-privileged of the
So imagine my surprise last night, when I was
over at a friend’s house and saw the picture of the suspects on
the cover of a news magazine. Oh.
or so I would guess from the picture. Well, it made the Islam part of the picture
a little easier to understand -- there is an established community
of black Muslims in the US, and that might have been his first
place to turn for support. Perhaps the racism of our country helped foster the rage and desperation
that would have driven someone to do something like that. Now
I wonder about the race of the victims, as my mind’s eye had given
them pale complexions as well. And then it occurred to me that there was another
convert to Islam that had been making the news in months past:
the “American Taliban.” I
realized I didn’t know what John Walker Lindh looked like either. Well, I found a photo of him (http://www.rte.ie/news/2002/0124/afghanistan.html)
and he looks closer to what I’d pictured.
I guess I’d painted all these characters with the brush
of Timothy McVeigh (I’d seen pictures of him somewhere), because
to me it seemed the same kind of motivation.
So, am I more or less of a racist because it
never occurred to me that the “Sniper” would be black?
Or, because I so earnestly want NOT to be a racist, am
I not a racist at all (as I fervently hope is the case)?
I won’t pretend to answer this. Instead, I’ll recommend one more way to have your sensibilities
about this shaken up a bit. Douglas
R. Hofstadter wrote an essay called “A Person Paper on Purity
in Language” for Scientific American, which I read in his
collection Metamagical Themas. In this satire, he exists in an alternate universe
in which the linguistic distinctions that English speakers make
between genders are instead made between races. Hence, the third person singular is he or ble (for a white or black
person, respectively). Most
of us, those who are not rabidly racist, are appalled by the very
idea that something like that could be done.
How chilling it is to hear the way that these distinctions
are defended, exactly as the distinctions between men and women
are defended by stodgy adherents to proper English.
Think about that the next time you refer to an imaginary
authority figure as “he” (say a surgeon, perhaps).
Yet in this parody world, the people who use this racially-biased
language do not think of themselves as racist.
The errors they make are made unconsciously, as part of
the cultural training that they received from birth.
They appall us because racism is not as deeply ingrained
in our culture as sexism (after all, European men knew about women
centuries before they knew about Africans).
What are we to do about these invisible demons,
whispering in our subconscious ear?
Perhaps they cannot be exorcised.
But at least, if we do our best to subvert their machinations,
if we examine our own biases carefully every time they catch our
eye, perhaps our descendants will never hear their lies.