On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism »« Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

“It’s not about gender.”

The underside of a loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: Upendra Kanda

Sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea) are found in all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic. They spend the majority of their lives in the sea, but females return to shore to lay eggs. All seven surviving species of sea turtle are on the endangered species list. Like many marine animals, they are threatened by oil spills, pollution, and fishing (they are often accidentally caught in nets). They are also in danger of poaching, as their meat, shells, and even their flippers are sold in some countries.

Sea turtles are also threatened by climate change. Because they use shorelines as nesting areas, rising sea levels may destroy those habitats, and the extreme weather brought by climate change may decimate their nests and eggs. Further, as global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of the sand in which sea turtle eggs are laid. Studies suggest that higher sand temperatures can have devastating effects on eggs and hatchlings, causing more female offspring, more deformities, more deaths of eggs and hatchlings.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans colonized the continent, there were probably over 10,000 of them. By 1938, that number was down to 15 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to a sustained and expensive conservation effort, the population has now recovered to about 382. However, during the past two years, five Whooping Cranes have been illegally shot.

Imagine you’re a biologist specializing in sea turtles and the effects of global warming on them. You’re well aware that there are many species adversely affected by global warming, and even more species adversely affected by human activity in general. For instance, many species of birds are threatened by power lines, skyscrapers, and other things that they can accidentally fly into and die. This obviously isn’t an issue for sea turtles. But sea turtles and global warming is what interests you and what you’ve decided to study.

Now imagine that every single time you write a paper or give a talk or submit a grant proposal about sea turtles and global warming, someone–probably a climate change denialist–shows up to be like “Yeah well it’s not a climate change thing! Many other species are affected by human activity! Why don’t you focus on those? Why don’t you talk about manatees? Why don’t you talk about Whooping Cranes?”

You probably know where I’m going with this, right?

Men and women (and those who identify as neither) are all harmed by the patriarchal society we have created. Nobody–or very few lucky individuals, perhaps–wins this game. Everyone is screwed by gender roles. Everyone faces denial and victim-blaming if they report sexual harassment or assault. Everyone is threatened by bullying and exclusion if they step outside of their roles.

But men and women are not always harmed in the exact same ways or by the exact same facets of the system.

When I wrote about street harassment a few weeks back, a bunch of people showed up to inform me that this is “not about gender.” Men get harassed on the street too. Anyone can be harassed. Anyone can be subject to unwanted, creepy, objectifying, humiliating sexual attention. This is true.

But the dynamics play out in different ways. Because it happens more to women than to men, the cumulative effects–the fear and self-objectification and distrust–are different. Because so many women are socialized believing that their looks are all that matters, it’s different. Because so many men are socialized believing that they must want sex all of the time, it’s different. Because women are so much more likely to be sexually assaulted, it’s different. Because men are more likely to have learned how to fight back and defend themselves, it’s different.

It’s different.

Gender is undeniably a way in which we organize our social world. So it makes sense that gender could also be an important lens through which to analyze society and social interactions. Most things, in fact, are gendered in some way. Yesterday in my psychology of gender class, the professor noted that housework is a gendered phenomenon, unlike, say, walking into a bookstore. When most people picture housework, they probably picture a woman doing it–or, at least, they picture men and women doing different types of housework (cooking/laundry/dishes versus yardwork/plumbing/painting). Walking into a bookstore, on the other hand, is something you can easily picture either a man or a woman doing.

But what about after they walk in? Which sections of the bookstore do they go to? Which books do they buy? Do they read those books alone in the armchair or on the subway, or do they read them in a book club?

Gender is a useful and fascinating lens to use, but it is only one of many. You could also use race, or class, or nationality, or any number of other social distinctions. Many social phenomena are racialized or…classified? There has to be a word for that.

Even with these, of course, people will show up bloviating about how “we’re all human” and “seeing race makes you the racist” and “everyone has problems” and “it’s not about gender.”

If you take these claims in good faith, you might assume that people who say this just don’t care very much about examining social divisions and inequalities and would prefer to look at problems facing everyone. Even then, however, the problems that face everyone don’t face everyone equally.

However, no matter how well-intentioned these people are, what they’re doing (purposefully or otherwise) is supporting the status quo, in which these distinctions are kept invisible and treated as irrelevant–a practice that only serves those in power.

Gender is an analytic framework that interests me, so I use it. As a woman, I use this framework from a woman’s perspective; it’s not my place to speak about men’s experiences. (Plenty of writers, by the way, use this framework from a man’s perspective, such as Ally Fogg and Figleaf.)

The point of the opening analogy, by the way, was not to compare men or women to animals or to suggest that women are like sea turtles or men are like Whooping Cranes or even that human threats to animals are like patriarchy (although perhaps you could view it that way)*. It was only to show that sometimes, it’s useful to look at an issue through a particular lens–for instance, examining threats to sea turtles by looking at climate change. Both sea turtles and Whooping Cranes are harmed by human activity, such as poaching and habitat destruction. But if we had to pretend for the sake of argument that climate change does not exist and that all animals are equally in danger and that humans screw over all animals, we would miss a vital point about sea turtle eggs and warmer temperatures.

And, by the way, nobody would accuse a sea turtle expert of not caring about Whooping Cranes or of actively hating Whooping Cranes simply because they happen to be more interested in studying sea turtles. Nobody would accuse a biologist who studies climate change of not caring about poaching simply because they’re more interested in how animals are harmed by climate change.

So no, I don’t have to talk about men every time I talk about women. I don’t have to pretend that there are no differences in how men and women are affected by things. As far as I’m concerned, it is about gender–and about race, and about class, and about everything else–and feel-good platitudes about how “we’re all the same species” only have the effect of hiding these important phenomena.

~~~

*Analogies Are Imperfect™, so please don’t derail the comments with discussions of the weaknesses of this particular analogy.

Comments

  1. CaitieCat says

    Well said, Miri.

    I’m often struck by how many men insist that gender is irrelevant when it doesn’t hurt them, and yet it is terribly important when it comes to explaining (usually at rather than to us, at length) Why Women Don’t//Mustn’t/Must $ACTIVITY_VERB.

    I don’t think this is conscious hypocrisy; I think it’s the social effect of markedness and confirmation bias in building heuristics.

      • CaitieCat says

        Aww…I’m flattered. :)

        But yeah, markedness and confirmation bias, I think, work together in a way detrimental to anyone who isn’t “default human”, which in our context tends to be viewed as white, cis male, strictly and loudly hetero, super-able*, and quietly theistic leaning towards Christianity (i.e., belief in soul and possibly miracles, religious funeral trappings, religious wedding trappings, et c.).

        I was watching something the other night, some cop show or something, and noted that several witnesses gave the description of the suspect as “well, just…normal, y’know?” – meaning the default human listed above.

        Do you ever find it’s kind of uncomfortable to exist in the world of current popular media once you start seeing the social justice aspects of things? For me, this came late enough in my development (when I joined the Free Nelson Mandela/End Apartheid movement in high school) that it still tends to be jarring, thirty years later.

        Sorry, that’s kind of off-topic, just wandering there a bit.

        * And yet strangely is often seen as a maverick in the popular culture. Which is a hell of a mental contortion when you think about it for a minute.

  2. mythbri says

    There was a TED talk going around a couple of weeks ago in which the speaker clarified the immediate associate with certain words, particularly in discussions of social justice and inequalities:

    When you say “gender”, you think “female” or “woman.”

    When you say “race”, you think “black” or “African-American.”

    When you say “sexual orientation”, you think “gay” or “lesbian.”

    Now, he was talking about this because it’s a way that people dismiss the majority’s role in the problems that center on discussions like this. It erases “men” from the discussions that affect women – not in a “Men have problems, too” or PHMT, but in a cause/effect way.

    You don’t have to talk about problems that face men when you talk about problems that face women. That doesn’t mean that talking about problems that face women means that you don’t talk about men at all. Indeed, if there are ways that men in general perpetuate the problems that face women, talking about them is crucial to a solid argument. And there are problems that face men that contribute to them being complicit in or perpetuating the problems that face women – but that doesn’t mean you have to give those problems equal time or weight.

    • CaitieCat says

      Crap, I had a nice reply all written, and it disappeared on me. Sigh.

      In short: yes! Complaining that the blogger isn’t writing about what the complainer wants is an obnoxious silencing technique, and should be challenged wherever encountered. The Internetz exist; blogging services are available in many places and all sorts of languages. The complainers should take the chance to give the world their inimitable opinions in a more direct route, by starting their own bloody blogs.

  3. mikeoxsmall says

    “Black history month? WHAT ABOUT WHITE HISTORY MONTH! Gay pride parade? WHAT ABOUT STRAIGHT PRIDE PARADE! Womens rights? WHAT ABOUT MEN’S RIGHTS!”

    Won’t SOMEONE think of the straight white man? :(

    *Note. Due to Poe’s Law, and the insanity of some of the segments of humanity, the above was purely satirical*

  4. smrnda says

    If someone attempted to subvert a discussion on sea turtles the way you’ve envisioned, the person would be dismissed as an annoying crank who is missing the point. Somehow subverting discussions about gender seems more legitimate to some people, but I think a lot of that is power dynamics. It’s like, despite the obvious nature of sexism, you have to justify talking specifically about women’s issues to the crowd whose first response is to ask why you aren’t talking about men.

    I mean, feminists *do* talk about how patriarchy and sexism affect men, they just don’t do it all the time. I think the issue with the men who do this (or women) is just to avoid talking about how sexism affects women. It’s just trying to hijack discussions in a particularly unproductive way.

  5. says

    Climate change? Bad example. There are huge costs involved with the climate change debate; it’s not solely a matter of ethics or psychology. But asking people to take women’s problems seriously isn’t costly or really all that political.

  6. says

    Last night I was out walking at around 9:30 to go meet some friends at a bar. I ended up on the sidewalk a few blocks from my house behind a woman who was I guess about my age who I didn’t know. I was running a little late so I was walking kind of fast when I suddenly notice her throwing these nervous looks over her shoulder.

    Suddenly I was Schrodinger’s rapist. It’s a concept I understand on an abstract level–it makes sense, but experiencing it in person is a very different feeling. In a second I go from knowing the concept as an abstraction to knowing it experientially (albeit from the male perspective).

    Anyway, since it was a narrow sidewalk, I stepped out into the street for a little bit to give her some space as I walked by, story over.

    Well, it was over for me, anyway, and I could go back to viewing it as an abstraction. But I bet that’s not the case for that woman on the sidewalk, or many other women out for a walk after dark. As as guy out for a walk, I can view the concept of Schrodinger’s rapist as nothing more than an unfortunate thought experiment most of the time. Not so for a woman in the same situation.

    Yeah, it’s about gender.

  7. says

    As far as analogies go, I think you picked a great one. Climate change and patriarchy/kyriarchy are both phenomena that effect all species and genders respectively, but in radically different and importantly different ways that should be studied and analyzed. Both of these systems/trends are furthered by small steps and everyday actions, as well as big landmark events.

    Both phenomena challenge us to perceive patterns on a bigger scale while simultaneously never forgetting the huge importance of little deeds and words. Many of us utterly fail at the challenge, often seeing (as a for-instance) sexism or racism only as a word or an act against a person when it’s really also a whole system.

    Sometimes our perspective-failure is the straw-manning of climate change into this overarching trend that we have no control over and that will kill everything (ZOMG APOCALYPSE), when really it’s a trend pushed by everyday actions and inactions, affecting each species differently, and some more than others.

    IMHO, the fact that my understanding of ecology (narrower fields of biology coming together to make a “big picture”), played parallel to my understanding of privilege/class/race/sexism (kyriarchy) is a testament to the quality of your choice of analogy. None are perfect, as you say, but these issues challenge our perspective in pretty similar ways.

  8. left0ver1under says

    One has to wonder what the MRAs (Maladjusted Reactionary Airheads) define as “harassment”. Religious extremists refer to disagreement as “threats of violence” and criticism as “blasphemy”, so MRA claims are undoubtedly just as specious.

    Regarding the disconnect in the minds of climate change deniers (re: the threat to animals mentioned above), it’s no surprise that these people have mental disconnects on many other topics (re: taxing the rich and deficits, the lack of quality education and poverty).

    • smrnda says

      I run across men who argue, since it’s impossible to give ‘harassment’ a mathematically precise definition, that they can’t be held accountable for harassing women since they haven’t been given a comprehensive and exhausting list of behaviors to refrain from, and that the only other option given them is to never talk to anyone ever again. It’s another type of privileged whining, where, apparently, men can’t be expected to try to figure out how women feel about strange men talking to them, but where women are automatically expected to understand and sympathize with all frustrated male loners who are trying so hard to use only the best pick-up lines.

      I find that people who complain about the lack of a totally precise definition of ‘harassment’ aren’t typically bothered by using other words which are even vaguer. It’s a type of willful blindspot being dishonestly presented as unintentional confusion.

  9. sezit says

    Even more ridiculous, the human struggle seems analogous to saying that if turtles are being hunted during egg-laying, then that’s not a TURTLE problem. That’s just a female turtle problem, and since the important male turtles are not being hunted… well, I dunno, no biggie? Just today, I heard the head of the Boy Scouts saying that gay kids will not be kicked out, so now all kids will be able to join the scouts. As if girls are somehow not really kids too. This default assumption that females are somehow not quite members has got to be called out every time.

  10. says

    In my experience, men normally only get street harassment if they are riding a bicycle. It’s of a rather different character than what women get.

  11. thenewcomer says

    I witnessed this in grad school only recently: one of my peers gave a presentation about her proposed research about a court-mandated anger management program for men found guilty of domestic violence- she gave a great, detailed, in-depth presentation, and at question time, one of the profs, yes, a sociology PROF (a SOCIOLOGY prof) jumped up and said “I just feel I need to put it out there, that women can also commit domestic violence.” NO! You have GOT to be kidding! And this is relevant to this proposal- how? My jaw dropped AND I felt so angry- also felt like asking her- why? why do you feel you need to put it out there? Why why why? Nobody said anything though.

    My own area of research is migration, and I felt an appropriate analogy would have been- if somebody had given a talk on, say British immigration to Canada, and somebody felt they had to jump up and say “I just have to point out, there is also immigration from China to Canada…” Of course this would never happen. But it was so disappointing to see a prof do this kind of thing, so far I had only seen Angry Men do it.

  12. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I have nothing positive to contribute since I’m totes with Miri on this one, so I will only ask when we will start to hear

    Men are from Gruidae; Women are from Chelonioidea.

  13. gilgamesh says

    Hang on a mo… are the American Scouts still gender segregated as well? Holy crap, I didn’t realize. Here in Canada they’re open to everyone (except Atheists, which is a serious problem and the next great hurdle to overcome, but progress! At least they’re not discriminating against pagans, homosexuals and girls any more. Sigh)

    • CaitieCat says

      Well, of course they don’t let girls in. There could be…dancing. And that leads directly to fornication, hard drugs, atheism, and rock’n’roll.

      Sheesh. You’d think you were talking about some liberal democracy, like Iran, not a good upstanding theocracy like the United States of Jesusland.

    • says

      There’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the US. I have no idea why it was set up that way, but it is.

      As for changing it… the United States is a 21st Century country with an 18th century culture (maybe a 19th century culture, but that may be pushing it). We need to change how the genders are handled in this country in general, with advertising, and scouts, and products (they’re gendered), and… well… everything. You have to go far in this country to find something that isn’t gendered, and it’s usually something considered “taboo” in the mainstream US culture.

      The Scouts is just another victim of this.

      • erinmcc says

        they are separate groups because the boy scouts were formed first and didnt include girls. girl scouts were formed later after the GS founder had met one of the first boy scouting founders and learned about the program.

        also, while being similar programs, they are also very different in their beliefs. GS do not have the historical bias against LGBT that BSA does. back in the 90s, i spent 4 college summers working at a GS camp that had quite a number of lesbians working at it every year. in fact, the council director for the area was a lesbian and had been with GS for decades. GS is very inclusive of LGBT members, and even has admitted at least one transgendered child. they also do not discriminate on religious basis, which is why i, as an atheist, could be an employee and member of the local council with no issues.

        the segregation isnt likely to change any time soon. i dont think either program would be willing to adopt the others policies regarding discrimination.

  14. says

    It’s the use of statistics deserts people when they wish to defend the status quo. You can find an exceptional person overcoming almost any kind of disadvantage, but it’s still true that it’s easier for, say, people from monied backgrounds to attend university. It’s the average, the frequency, the proportion that we must address to give people equal advantages and make all feel welcome.

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