I interrupt a swiftly-turning-boring conversation about raccoons (you're right, I should just take the birdfeeders in, even though that means the racoon won, dammit) to turn to what blew up the Internet yesterday and how it relates to other conversations I've been involved in that are way, way more important than raccoons.
So yesterday there was an incident with a ridiculous JC Penney t-shirt about girls being too pretty to do their own homework and giving it to their brothers. Shannon did a great job covering it at BlogHer, and Liz Gumbinner -- who works as an advertising exec on Madison Avenue -- said better than I could say -- because she works as an advertising exec on Madison Avenue -- what I believe about capitalism and also about racism and sexism. She wrote:
Messages are sexist because people are sexist.
Messages are sexist because people are lazy. They fall back on stereotypes because it’s easy to get a laugh, easy to get an idea approved, easy to move onto the next thing on your to-do list.
I know because I’ve done it.
Liz wasn't talking about racism, she was talking about sexism, but it strikes me that all isms are isms because they are buried so deeply in our unconscious that we don't even realize we are doing it.That's why it's so hard to eradicate. It's one thing if someone says something sexist or racist on purpose, but it's something entirely different and so much more dangerous if the person saying it doesn't even realize he or she is doing it. The power humans have to believe their truths is strong. We'll die for our truths. It's very difficult for us to change our truths. It takes generations of conversations.
Liz's comments about the t-shirts and how she has caught herself making sexist jokes struck a nerve with me, because it reminded me of something I commented on Kelly Wickham's race post a week or two ago about my own growth when it comes to my awareness of cultural attitudes about race. I wrote:
The defensiveness comes from not realizing it doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to hurt someone with your thinking and actions and not realizing it doesn’t make you an evil person, but it does make you unaware. And when you’re unaware, you participate in institutional racism without realizing it. And when you do that, you teach others by your example that it’s okay.
I used to tell my daughter there was no color until I realized it was total bullshit. There are colors, we have history, and the world is not perfect yet nor will it probably ever be — which is why race is such a dominant theme in science fiction. She knew there were colors — she’s not blind. She doesn’t care, nor does she mention it in descriptions, which is more than I could say for myself until I started noticing I did it. I still catch myself doing it. Here’s an example.
Kelly describes herself as a tall woman with icy looking eyes.
We already know Kelly is black.
You just met Kelly. How do you describe her so someone can find her in the crowd?
a) Kelly is a tall woman with curly hair.
b) Kelly is a tall black woman with curly hair.
Now, you’re describing me so someone can find me in the crowd.
a) Rita is a blond woman with blue eyes.
b) Rita is a white woman with blond hair.
(I know for a fact there are women who are not white with blond hair.)
I almost never hear anyone describe a white woman as a white woman. I almost always hear anyone who’s not white described by their race.
This is institutional racism, making the “other” before we even meet someone. It’s not necessarily intentional, but look what we’ve just done with what to us is an innocent description. This is the level of blindness white people have, and it’s why we’re getting nowhere fast trying to change things.
I watched Battlestar Galactica a while back and was at first shocked that both men and women in exec roles were referred to as “sir.” I spent about three days thinking about it. Finally, I decided I loved it, because it took gender out of a title of respect so it could apply unilaterally without indicating gender. But it took me three days to figure it out because the idea that men are usually in the position of authority is so ingrained in my mental model that I had to question what the word “sir” really meant.
When you start thinking about race in that context, it becomes much easier — for me — to talk about it. Am I evil? No. Do I need to question how the world works? YES YES YES.
At my Own Your Beauty panel at BlogHer, several white women talked about becoming invisible after they passed a certain age. It was surprising to them when they realized ads were no longer being targeted to them, that they saw no one representing their age group for anything other than vitamins and denture cream. And it was so surprising to no longer be targeted because they had grown accustomed to being the norm, to being what everyone else is supposed to be like: white and young.
When you're in the majority, you don't see the isms.
When you're plugged into the matrix, all you see is the matrix.
We are plugged into sexism and racism so completely that we have no idea we're even participating in it.
Kelly wrote recently about a comment her secretary made to her about her hair looking more professional when she straightened it:
It was one comment from one person, but the damage that this way of thinking does to young girls who are constantly trying to look like they fit in with white hair styles betrayed to me what she really thought. I’m no less professional because of my hair, but if my secretary thought that (and felt comfortable enough to say it to me) then what about the parents of my students? I pray to God that they don’t see me as less accomplished or proficient or respected in my job just because of the natural way in which I wear my hair.
And yes. I totally DID just make that all about hair.
I see these things as being connected, because they are all unconscious manifestations of institutional sexism and racism that we have to fight to make ourselves aware of. We have to fight to see the racism and sexism in our own thinking, correct it, call it out, teach our kids it is wrong and have those conversations over and over for however many generations it takes to make a change, to remove male connotations from words that really mean respect and white connotations from what someone's hair should look like and stop our culture's ridiculous obsession with young white women.
It's hard to look at yourself and realize you're part of the problem. It makes you feel icky and guilty and sad -- I know -- I've been there. I got past it by realizing it wasn't conscious but that I could consciously make a decision to stop. I could unlearn my truths, change them for the better, and I could teach my new truths to my daughter.
We can change it, but we have to vote with our dollars. This is capitalism. We have to stop voting for politicians who ignore sexism and racism, we have to stop listening to radio shows that spew hate, we have to stop buying Rolling Stone or whatever magazine it is when some female celebrity is naked on the cover, we have to refuse to let our young girls wear anything broadcast across their butts, we have to demand to be taken seriously and we have to allow change to be reflected in our media, in our programming and most importantly, in our schools.
Because it's not okay.