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May 05 2012

When the environment makes gender salient

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, p xxvi:

When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination.

There is a large body of research that demonstrates this. It’s not some fuzzy thing that we just guess at.

This is why it’s so maddening that sexist sneering and “joking” and one-upping and epitheting is still, after all this time, considered normal and ok in a way that the racist or ethnic equivalent just is not.

Want to test that? Just imagine Tom Harris, Labour MP, tweeting “What a hero! Fearless protester chucks an egg at EdM and runs away. Like a Jew. Throws like a Jew too.”

SeewotImean? He’d never say that. It would be career suicide. But girl? Oh well that’s completely different.

No it isn’t. No it isn’t, you brainless heartless bastard. You just added another mite to the huge pile of stereotypical inferiority that girls are subjected to from birth. You just made gender salient, and you reminded the gender in question that it’s sneaky and cowardly and weak. And you wouldn’t do it to people of other races, or nationalities, or immigration status – but you’re happy to do it to girls.

What a hero.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Seymour

    Tom Harris, if he is talking about the same egging of EdM I saw recently, didn’t get the facts correct.
    The egg wasn’t thrown and the person who slapped it on EdM’s shoulder didn’t run away. Then again there may have been another recent egging of EdM I didn’t hear about.

    Not sure if using Jew instead of girls would be political suicide in today’s UK labour party. Your point would be better made replacing girl with cripple.

  2. 2
    slc1

    Like a Jew. Throws like a Jew too.

    I don’t know about that. Sandy Koufax threw better then almost all major league pitchers in the history of baseball.

  3. 3
    slc1

    Steve Stone wasn’t too shabby either.

  4. 4
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    This post is misguided.

    While it’s true that saying the same thing about someone of color might be instantly recognized as idiotic and racist, it does not follow that public figures don’t get away with saying ignorant, racist things.

    Obama is surprisingly eloquent – surprising how, exactly, for a Harvard Law grad and Harvard Law Review Editor. Do you think it’s common for the HLR to employ editors that are semi-literate or have trouble with verbal communication?

    Think about how much of the terrorism rhetoric is infused with racism. What if he’d said that the person was engaging in surprise attacks, just like a Paki(stani)? And he talks like a Paki(stani), too?

    You think that that would be suicide politically?

    “Oh, I’m not saying every person of Pakistani descent ambushes innocents, but there is a type of attack in which people from that part of the world have engaged and I’m just referencing that. Plus, you really think that immigrants are automatically as facile with the Queen’s English as native Brits? C’mon, I’m laughing at the idiot, not at the Pakistani people!”

    You think no one would issue a follow up tone- and content-similar to this?

    What the guy said was wrong. It’s messed up. But this post has the effect of minimizing racism by pretending that we all recognize and punish racism when we see it, but not sexism.

    Tom is getting heck for what he said. Not enough, and he’s not resigning over it, but there have been plenty of racist statements that are as bad as any “throw like a girl” comment that haven’t been punished by loss of job. IN the UK. In Ireland. In Canada. In the US. In New Zealand. For damn sure in South Africa.

    If you think minimizing racism is a good way to end sexism, you aren’t doing the quest for justice any favors.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    You think that that would be suicide politically?

    Are you kidding? Of course I do.

    Tom is getting hell for what he said? Is he? Where? All I’ve seen is a few tweets, now forgotten.

    I’m not saying “we all” condemn racism, but I am saying racism is taboo in a way that sexism isn’t. Of course there are people who indulge in racism, but my point is that way too many people who would never dream of indulging in racism are perfectly happy to indulge in sexism.

    But surely it’s obvious that my point is not that I wish there were more racism; it’s that I wish sexism were just as taboo.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    To expand on that a little -

    Think about how much of the terrorism rhetoric is infused with racism. What if he’d said that the person was engaging in surprise attacks, just like a Paki(stani)? And he talks like a Paki(stani), too?

    You think that that would be suicide politically?

    Yes, and also that it wouldn’t happen. A Labour MP wouldn’t say that in a million years – nor would a Tory or LibDem. That’s BNP territory.

    They don’t talk about “Pakistanis” at all (much less Pakis). Haven’t you noticed? It’s “members of the Muslim community” now, or just “the Muslim community.”

    Would a Labour MP tweet ““What a hero! Fearless protester chucks an egg at EdM and runs away. Like a Muslim. Throws like a Muslim too”?

    Of course not.

  7. 7
    stevebowen

    Sex and race have different, and I think, not equivalent tensions which makes such comparisons open to interpretation. That the physical attributes of women, on average, are different from men is true. The whole sporting world is built on the premise. This of course says nothing about the differences in other attributes, where sexual differences are either irrelevent or reversed.
    The problem with the “throws like a girl” comment is that it is not addressing the throwing, it is addressing the message via the throwing. The trope is ” can’t throw, can’t think, can’t comment” which is bollocks obviously. It’s sexist, very, but not in the same way as “throws like a Jew” would be racist.
    This may have something to do with the reason sexism persists more obviously than racism? But I haven’t thought this through for myself yet.

  8. 8
    Yessenia

    The whole sporting world is built on the premise.

    Well, that settles it then.

  9. 9
    stevebowen

    Oh dear, and so it begins…

  10. 10
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Well, Steve, perhaps you should have “thought this through for [your]self” before posting it if you didn’t want a snarky reply. I’m as tired as Yessenia probably is of dudes just “thinking out loud to themselves” about how sexism can be justified. And, yes, you were justifying it.

  11. 11
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    But surely it’s obvious that my point is not that I wish there were more racism; it’s that I wish sexism were just as taboo.

    Yes. It is exactly that to which I am responding. You are assuming that racism is taboo in a different way than sexism is taboo.

    Sexism is okay so long as it takes certain forms, but the forms must be respected. Women have no place outside the kitchen – easily ID’d as wrong. Throws like a girl – tolerated.

    Likewise, racism is okay so long as it takes certain forms, but the forms must be respected.

    By assuming that racism is taboo no matter the expression, you ignore the many ways that racism spills out in all political parties which I’ve witnessed. I have very little experience with UK politics, much more with Canadian and US politics, but the left wing is constantly saying racist things about, as you say, “the muslim community,” with little to no repercussions at all. Justifications for doing nothing about Darfur in the last decade and Rwanda in the one before were replete with racist assumptions of the inevitability of violence in Africa and the small importance of saving lives there. Yes, from Blair’s government as well. I don’t know a lot about UK politics, but I remember that.

    It’s easy to say that, “throws like a Jew” would be met with shock, but I can’t help but notice the anti-semitism in statements that have been made in the US and Canada of the form, “If we want to get past our economic crises we need to invest in education the way Jewish families do, and pinch pennies like them, too.”

    I can’t personally attest that such statements have been made by public figures in the UK, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t get made and even more surprised if they caused real scandal – because it’s a compliment, duh!

    I get your point.

    Your point relies on the assumption that racism is punished more harshly than sexism. I’m saying that racism is punished **differently** than sexism – that different things are in bounds and out of bounds, but it’s a hard case to make (and I don’t see you even trying, just assuming) that racism is punished so completely as to make racism “taboo”.

    Certain racist statements are taboo, just like certain sexist statements are taboo. Not all racist statements are such, just like not all sexist statements are such.

    That makes the assertion, “racism is taboo” as if all racism is taboo false. Of course, you could make an argument that all racism is taboo. You could argue that Sam Harris’ recent racism on airline security could never ever be made by a UK politician without said politician losing his career and even any chance at any high profile job in the corporate world.

    But you’d have to bring a lot of evidence along with you, because I’ve seen tons of unpunished racism.

    And *if* “racism is taboo” is false and the best one can truly say is that certain forms of racism are taboo just as certain forms of sexism are taboo, then making the blanket assertion that racism is taboo promotes a false belief about the world. In fact, if all racism really were taboo, there would be no more anti-racism work to do. While racism might happen in isolated incidents, this would be from individual jerks and competently handled by mechanisms of accountability built into institutions and into society at large.

    So I say, prove your assertion that racism is *generally* taboo or admit that you’re promoting a false belief about the world that encourages a dangerous complacency about racism and therefore encourages inaction that will ultimately increase racist harm.

    I got your point. I just don’t think you’ve made your case *and* I think that your case relies on dangerous and harmful assumptions.

    That’s my point.

  12. 12
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    We have a long way to go when apologists swarm around at even the notion of treating sexism with as much derision and social sanction as civil society does racism.

  13. 13
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @stevebowen -#7

    This may have something to do with the reason sexism persists more obviously than racism?

    More obviously to you is not the same as “more obviously”.

    This is my complaint with the OP as well: Benson seems to see instances of racism being punished and assumes that racism is generally taboo, while she happens to notice lots of sexism and a large amount of that occurring without consequence (or at least serious consequence). Ta da! Racism is solved and sexism is a huge problem.

    If she were a black man in Washington D.C. or a Sikh in Toronto would she have the same assumptions about which oppression is universally taboo and which goes too often unpunished?

    I rather think not.

    It appears that you have the same problem. Availability and confirmation biases likely play a role. You said you haven’t thought about these things. If you are seeking to create a just world, you should.

  14. 14
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Ibis3: What the Freud?

    Are you including me in that?

    I’m saying condemnation isn’t universal or even default for all forms of racism. I’m not saying sexism shouldn’t be taboo or shouldn’t be condemned as strongly as we condemn racism.

    I’m saying we need to condemn sexism a lot harder than we condemn racism, because we don’t condemn racism nearly as hard as people think…and by the way, let’s not pretend that we have gotten to where we need to be in condemning racism, either. Racism needs to be condemned much harder than it is.

    I’m saying that if you understand how much racism goes unpunished, then saying we need to condemn sexism “with as much derision and social sanction” as we do with racism is setting a pretty low bar, thank you very much.

    I’m also saying that if you don’t understand how much racism goes unpunished then you are likely to tolerate a large amount of unjustified (and unjust) racism and thus contribute to a world that delays fixing the problems of racism. That’s a bad result from my perspective. Heck, I would hope that’s a bad result from anyone’s perspective.

  15. 15
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Crip Dyke: Agree completely with your comments.

    White people (of which I am one) are much more likely to claim, in my experience, that they’re opposed to racism than that they’re opposed to sexism. That said, overall they have a very limited idea of what constitutes racism. And being called a racist is an occasion for much greater outrage than are actual racist words or deeds.

  16. 16
    Tony Ryan - Coffee Loving Skeptic

    What’s the answer?

    How do we remove the ease with which people behave in sexist ways?

    What needs to happen to make sexist jokes as challengeable as a racist one?

    Are gender and race comparable in the same historical context?

  17. 17
    mnb0

    If racism is “different” or “punished in a different way” than sexism there still is something seriously wrong.
    Equal rights for everybody, how hard is that? Why does that require such long comments?
    Fyi: I’m white and male.

    “When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind.”
    The reverse is true too. While I’m not really a feminist the argument “if you replace female by male in a statement and the result is absurd ….” has had an important influence on me. Applies to Tom Harris as well.

  18. 18
    stevebowen

    and yes you were justifying it

    And no I wasn’t. Sexism is never justified, I am not an apologist for it and I won’t accept that mantle. Address what I said and not what want you want to read.
    The premise is that that sexism and racism are equivalent. I’m not sure that is true, at least not absolutely, but I’m not sure why I think that, I’m open to suggestions, always always open to suggestions.
    I said ” throws like a girl” is sexist, and I mean it. In some ways, It is more insidiously undermining than “throws like a jew” would be racist. You could make a case, empirically, that on average, male Jews would match male non Jews in a throwing contest, and Female Jews would match female non Jews similarly (Yes I know some women throw better than most men, so does the Olympic committee). But none of that has the slightest bearing on whether throwing an egg at “whoever” is a legitimate political comment, but might be why to say “she threw that like a jew” is more obviously racist than to say he “he threw that like a girl” is obviously sexist.
    The point I’m making is not that either is acceptable, but may explain why sexist language goes under the radar in a way that racism doesn’t.
    @Yessenia and Daisy Cutter, I am a privilaged middle aged , middle class white male with two daughters who I would like to see achieve their own destiny and desires without the impediment of cultural sexism or gender discrimination of any kind. Feminism isn’t a pastime or intellectual pursuit, it means something to me, and being able to explain to other people why apparent norms are in reality sexist is helpful. What is not helpful is when people like me raise debating points just to get shut down by received dogma without any useful input. If you actually care whether society changes lose the “mansplaining” reflex and engage in a debate, we might all learn something.
    Oh and that ” we’re tired of dudes saying blah de blah…” well you know, I blog around atheism a lot, and I get tired of some goddy types working their issues out online, but I don’t ridicule or shut them out; with occasional surprising results.

  19. 19
    stevebowen

    @Crip Dyke #13
    Yes, good point and I agree, very much my privaleged perspective. There may well be a disconnect between what is publicly acceptable To express and what actually happens to real people and we should not lose sight of that.
    Still makes the question about what is acceptable to say and why relevant though

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    You are assuming that racism is taboo in a different way than sexism is taboo.

    No I’m not. It’s what I think; it’s what I’ve observed. I’ve observed it many many many times.

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    But all right; in # 5 I said racism is taboo in a way that sexism isn’t; fair enough, that’s too broad. I put it more narrowly in the post.

    But by the way in your #4 you talk as if I had said “Obama is surprisingly eloquent.” I don’t know who on earth you are quoting there but it certainly isn’t me.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    Racism is solved and sexism is a huge problem.

    Oh fuck off. I take it back about fair enough. That’s not what I’m saying.

  23. 23
    Jadehawk

    But by the way in your #4 you talk as if I had said “Obama is surprisingly eloquent.” I don’t know who on earth you are quoting there but it certainly isn’t me.

    she isn’t quoting anyone, she’s demonstrating a point about the acceptance of racism: every time someone notes that Obama is “surprisingly” eloquent, they’re engaging is seriously blatant and entirely unpunished racism.

    basically, her point is this: the acceptable forms of racism are different than the acceptable forms of sexism, but one cannot go so far as to say that one is more taboo than the other.

  24. 24
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Jadehawk is right. I wasn’t quoting anyone, but Chris Matthews, for one, said almost exactly this on network news. Zero consequences. There are others who’ve uttered sentences of the same substance…all with the same lack of effective consequences.

    As for the racism solved bit, i don’t think you believe that. Unfortunately, that’s the form your argument takes. You don’t say,”I’d hate it if sexism were punished as poorly as racism, but that would at least be a step up”. Your argument doesn’t give the reader any clue that you would be dissatisfied with sexism being treated as racism currently is, nor do you say that the response to racism is inadequate. In your argument, the response to racism is the ideal and women are suffering because society is better/more invested/more effective in opposing racism than sexism. I think that’s a bad argument. I think a lot of people would find a reasonable reading of your argument to be that it engages in oppression Olympics — “women have it worse than men of color”.

    While I admit that you may not have intended to say anything like that, without knowing you, without more context than the post itself, how would one know?

    I don’t think ill of you BTW. I’m critiquing the argument itself. I’m sorry if it came off any other way. I’ll likely not post again b/c at this point I think I’ve said all that’s useful, but I will point out that “that’s not what I’m saying” without reference to what you did say isn’t a very helpful contribution to the discussion. If I missed the part of your post where you said that comparisons btwn racism and sexism are problematic and/or that responses to spoken/typed racism are inadequate, then my critique is off base. Otherwise I think it was necessary even if uncomfortable.

  25. 25
    Yessenia

    What is not helpful is when people like me raise debating points just to get shut down by received dogma without any useful input. If you actually care whether society changes lose the “mansplaining” reflex and engage in a debate, we might all learn something.

    You’re right. I clearly missed out on a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn something from a privileged middle-aged white dude.

    What an utter tragedy for me, not learning from your keen insights into how sexism is true because social institutions like sports already assume sexism is true.

  26. 26
    Yessenia

    Your argument doesn’t give the reader any clue that you would be dissatisfied with sexism being treated as racism currently is, nor do you say that the response to racism is inadequate.

    Oh for fuck’s sake, the reader can get a clue by reading pretty much anything else OB has written. The post wasn’t about racism. It was about how casual sexism is so common as to be expected and dismissed as no-big-deal. Because hey, even SPORTS is built on the premise of female inferiority!

    Has it occurred to anyone on the Team “Ophelia Trivialized Racism” that it’s a form of sexism to derail threads on sexism by accusing the authors of saying racism is solved (and god knows I’ve seen this form of derailing many times), as if we can’t talk about the problem of sexism UNTIL racism is solved?

  27. 27
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    You write as if I brought up racism. I didn’t.

    I wouldn’t have had a critique if the OP hadnt mentioned racism.

  28. 28
    Yessenia

    So then her sin was in making any comparison to racism without a twenty page appendix detailing all the ways that racism is, of course, still a thing. Funny, I had no problem figuring that out for myself. Shame on her for not predicting what fantasy thought-crimes the bad-faith nitpickers would critique her on to derail the thread. She pretty much asked for it.

  29. 29
    Lyanna

    I agree with Ophelia. It’s not about racism being less severe than sexism, or less prevalent than sexism, or in any way less of a problem.

    It’s about overtness. People will be overt about their sexism in a way that they often won’t be about their racism. Yes, some people are overt racists, but they are not in the majority. They are also usually overt sexists as well.

    But the majority of people who AREN’T overt racists, and who would take great offense at overt racism, will often spout overt sexism. I can’t even count the number of white liberals who will say “throws like a girl,” or use ‘woman’ to mean ‘cowardly,’ or throw around terms like ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch.’

    For the record, I’m a woman of color, and I don’t think racism is any less severe than sexism. But I would say the majority of my friends and co-workers and acquaintances would at least pretend to be sympathetic if I complained about a racist term, or said that racism was still a problem in society. If I complained about ‘bitch’ or ‘cunt’ or ‘throws like a girl,’ though, forget it. I get all kinds of arguments and laughter.

    I realize that promoting an “Oppression Olympics” mentality is stupid and harmful. But I don’t think that’s a reasonable reading of what Ophelia said. I think it’s a conclusion that many readers familiar with the Oppression Olympics might jump to, but it’s really quite a jump.

  30. 30
    Mags

    Lyanna says:
    “People will be overt about their sexism in a way that they often won’t be about their racism.” …this simply illustrates the point that sexism is generally acceptable, racism less so.

    She also says that her objections are met with laughter. This is not laughter but JEERING, a strategy that keeps misogyny alive and well.

  31. 31
    Amy Clare

    OB is right and Lyanna is right. I see it in my own life all the time. Nobody is saying racism is not a problem any more in society, but in terms of social acceptability there is an observable difference between being racist and being sexist.

    I don’t know if there is a difference between the US and the UK in this regard, but here in the UK if you use a racist epithet you are likely to be met with a stunned silence, or be called out, or have people use that to judge you as a bad person. Quite rightly.

    For example, in the last six months alone in the UK two people have been jailed for expressing racist sentiments (one woman caught on film, one man on Twitter).

    I haven’t seen sexism be taken that seriously. If you say something sexist you are still likely to have that either ignored, or laughed at, or defended, or agreed with. It doesn’t reflect on your character an awful lot. People are still more likely to hold ‘traditional’ sexist views and believe that there are fundamental differences between men and women.

    Another example: there was a debate programme on late last year on BBC1 (the UK’s main television channel, it has a state mandate and is paid for by the public) which asked the question: “While unemployment is rising, should women stay at home and let men have the jobs?” This was a serious question being asked and broadcast on national television. People debated it as though it was something worth considering.

    I very much doubt that they would have asked “While unemployment is rising, should black people work for free and let white people have the paid work?” That would have caused outrage, and rightly so. More to the point, it just wouldn’t happen at all.

    As Lyanna says, it’s about overtness, and the extent to which society overtly approves or disapproves. If there is a message ‘racism is wrong’ then eventually it will die out. If there is a message ‘sexism is okay actually’ then how is sexism ever going to go away?

  32. 32
    Ophelia Benson

    Crip Dyke -

    While I admit that you may not have intended to say anything like that, without knowing you, without more context than the post itself, how would one know?

    That’s a very strange question. Is this post just hanging out there in the universe, isolated from all context? Is more context simply nowhere to be found? Were you somehow forced to read this one post in isolation from anything else I’ve ever written?

    The more context would be almost ten years worth of archives. It would be other posts on this blog and on the ur-B&W.

    Your nym is familiar, so I know you know at least some background here, at B&W and I think at Pharyngula (and maybe elsewhere at FTB). And I’m afraid it looks just asinine to ask how one would know without more context when the context is right there on the page. This is one blog post, with links to hundreds of other blog posts easily reached from the right-hand margin. This is one blog post embedded in a blog embedded in a blogging network on the intertubes. Desolate cries of “without more context” just look ridiculous.

    So I take you to have been playing some kind of malicious “gotcha” game, for no reason I’m aware of. (I have a whole lot less context for you than you have for me, you know.) I think that’s bullshit.

  33. 33
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    SteveBowen, it’s not my job to hold you by the hand and teach you, and I laugh at the idea that by not doing so, I’m letting the sexists win.

    Also, what Yessenia said at #25. This isn’t a fucking “debate.” This is our lives.

    Lyanna:

    It’s about overtness. People will be overt about their sexism in a way that they often won’t be about their racism. Yes, some people are overt racists, but they are not in the majority. They are also usually overt sexists as well.

    But the majority of people who AREN’T overt racists, and who would take great offense at overt racism, will often spout overt sexism. I can’t even count the number of white liberals who will say “throws like a girl,” or use ‘woman’ to mean ‘cowardly,’ or throw around terms like ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch.’

    Yes.

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