At a youth media literacy conference I organized recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the performance of an extremely gifted youth band whose co-lead singer is an Asian American female guitarist. At one point during the concert she tentatively introduced a song she had written about sexism by saying that it “kind of does still exist today.” I was struck by her qualified intro to the song. She is one of the few young women of color musicians fronting a rock band in a hyper-masculine industry in which rampant sexual harassment, gender-based wage discrimination and racism ensure that women of color are only visible as sex objects, hangers-on and so-called video hos. Nonetheless, she was uneasy about embracing the term sexism.
Women’s reluctance to name their experiences is symptomatic of the insidiousness of post-feminism, which has been normalized and relentlessly propagandized by mainstream media. It fits neatly into the exceptionalist narrative that the U.S. and the West are bastions of equal opportunity and enlightenment. Because people of color and white women have seemingly unlimited access to public space and public institutions the U.S. has evolved far beyond the “dark age” of the pre-civil rights era. Because women and girls now have the “option” to be just as video ho “nasty as they wanna be” the West is the universal standard for gender equity. This kind of totalizing thinking underscores a lack of critical consciousness about how institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism—as the basis for individual acts of prejudice and discrimination—actually work. It is especially acute when it comes to the selective “West and the rest of us” mentality that some in the New Atheist movement exhibit about sexism, imperialism and women’s rights.
An example of this was recently on display in the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins blogosphere throw down. Watson is the founder of the popular blog Skepchick, and frequently writes about gender politics. As has been widely discussed, Dawkins blasted Watson after she criticized a clueless slobbery male for propositioning her at 4 a.m. when she was alone in an elevator after a conference talk on sexism. Dismissing Watson as a whiny American feminist, Dawkins trotted out the victim Olympics plight of an oppressed Muslim female genital mutilation recipient from central casting. After a firestorm of criticism from feminist bloggers like Jen McCreight, Dawkins attempted to revise his position. Still, the phenomenon of white Westerners trotting out the cultural other as the ultimate barometer of oppression is a standard rite of passage. When powerful Western white men opportunistically evoke the lived experiences of Muslim women as a space of projection for what they deem to be “authentic” sexist oppression, they deflect from their own privilege and entitlement. It’s akin to white elites descending on Africa in search of the most hardcore safari experience. The exoticism and abject primitivism of the Other ultimately confirms the rationalism and universal subject status of “me” and “my” culture. Small wonder then that it is often far easier for a celebrated intellectual of the rationalist first world to see the authoritarian misogyny of Islam than the institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism that he and other privileged males have benefited from at every step of the way; in the academy, in the publishing world, in the Western media, and in garden variety elevators. Predictably, Dawkins did not say that Middle Eastern and African Muslim women have an abysmally low standard of living because of the imperialist invasions and geopolitical exploitation of “secular” Western powers like Britain and the U.S., or that they are more likely to be dispossessed from their homes due to these incursions or to be sexually assaulted by occupying armies. These realities are far too inconvenient when it comes to parsing the global complexities of institutional sexism in the predominantly Muslim, Western-occupied nations of the Middle East.
This episode is more than just an example of individual prejudice/ignorance. First, it highlights the arrogance of Western paternalism, disguised as liberal humanism. Second, it speaks to the delusion of pretending atheist discourse automatically translates into a liberatory politics. Lacking a social justice compass steeped in the legacies of global liberation struggle (both within and outside the West), atheism or a Eurocentric humanism are a political dead-end for radical freethought communities. As I’ve argued many times before, the New Atheist focus on science and separation of church and state, without insight into the racial and gendered histories of these traditions, is especially bankrupt for people of color. For those unclear about the concept of institutional sexism here are a few guidelines:
I. What Sexism Does:
a. Gives visibility and worth to maleness and “male issues” as the invisible universal norm
b. Devalues the lives of women and normalizes or naturalizes violence against women
c. Constructs all women and girls as objects, property and territory for male control
d. Sexualizes women and girls
e. Dehumanizes women of color
f. Reinforces a hierarchy of men and women based on white supremacy, racism and heterosexism
II. How and Where is Sexism Manifested?
• Social, Political, Cultural, Economic and Religious Institutions
• Everyday Life