I would like to examine a matter raised in the derail of the “where are the women political bloggers?” thread – that despite the care that every commentor there took to refer to behaviour rather than persons – that the phrase used (“going native”) has a history as a racial slur, that a pattern of centring White experience with regard to the usage of that phrase was emerging – no matter how much care was taken to NOT claim/accuse that this usage/pattern makes the person using it consciously racist, the simple fact that race was being discussed and behaviours surrounding it criticised was used to make claims/accusations that the criticism implied that the person displaying the criticised behaviour is “a racist”, and the reaction to that is one of outrage.
Is there anyone reading along here who knows enough feminist theory to grok the concept of unexamined privilege who doesn’t believe in unconscious/subconscious sexism? Surely we all know by now that many if not most of the most insidious and difficult to change sexist behaviours are those that operate as unexamined habits rather than conscious choices.
Feminists don’t believe that every single instance of sexist behaviour that demeans the dignity of women, whether exhibited by a man or a woman, is coming from a conscious decision to display sexism in that instant – it’s much more likely to be a case of Business As Usual and the unthinking repetition of behaviours that have been conditioned into us since childhood (by people who never examined why certain phrases/expectations existed either). It’s what the phrase “casual sexism” was coined to describe – the use of traditional phrases and tropes that perpetuate rigid gender role expectations without examination of the meaning/effect of those phrases/tropes.
e.g. the tradition of men paying for shared meals and entertainments on a date reinforces the societal expectation that women are dependent upon men because they own fewer material resources, but most men and women who follow the tradition don’t consciously think of it that way, and there is often outrage when feminists point out that it’s not just done as a way for men to impress women, that the trope has a double message regarding who is the active and who is the passive person (or regarding who is forthright and who is manipulative, or regarding who is generous and who is greedy) in the scenario. The men and women playing into the men-pay tradition are not being consciously sexist, but it’s behaviour that reinforces sexist assumptions nonetheless.
So, if you think that any of us are immune from unconscious racism I suggest that you would be very wrong – we’ve all been swimming in the toxic soup of assumptions and common turns of phrase within which systemic hierarchical prejudices are embedded all our lives.
Being called out for displaying a racially/sexually denigrating behaviour is not (or at least not necessarily) an accusation that one is thereby “a racist” or “a sexist” – it is a special form of reality check, the privilege check. Checking one’s own unexamined privileges as a result is an opportunity for self-awareness, an opportunity to become a better ally, an opportunity for self-growth.
By all means be embarrassed that you didn’t previously realise that what you did/said reinforced toxic social systems, especially ones that you are consciously endeavouring to dismantle. But try to keep hold of that embarrassment long enough to change, try not to give in to the temptation of shoving the sense of embarrassment away in favour of being outraged at the idea that you too can be an unthinking prejudice-reinforcing arse sometimes.
The response to being informed that one has reinforced a prejudice should not be “but I’m a good person” – criticising a behaviour is not a claim that you are not a good person, so how is that really relevant? A productive response would be more like “wow, I never noticed that one before, thanks for calling it” or “that one was a deeply buried one, sorry I never thought about it before”. If you want to argue that the behaviour doesn’t really reinforce prejudices that’s also a valid response, but that too has nothing to do with whether you are “a good person” or not. Deflecting the discussion of behaviour onto whether you are or are not a person of goodwill is of course a very natural and mostly unexamined temptation, but it demonstrates a failure to engage with the criticism of the actual behaviour that was called out.
Sticking just to the facts of a criticism of behaviour instead of deflecting it to personalities/character is the ethical response to a privilege check. Of course, nobody ever claimed that behaving ethically is necessarily easy.
Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Andrea Rubenstein (tekanji): “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it