Content note: sexism, racism, other systems of oppression, gaslighting, passing use of racist and sexist language
Tl;dr: Rejecting the definitions of sexism and racism don’t make them disappear.
“I’m not being sexist or racist! My friend isn’t being sexist or racist! That person I admire isn’t being sexist or racist! Sexism and racism means being consciously, deliberately bigoted. It means consciously believing that women or people of color are inferior. I don’t care how the words are defined by the thousands of researchers who have been studying this for decades — I looked the words up in a dictionary, and that makes me an expert. So stop saying we did something sexist or racist unintentionally, that our stubborn refusal to listen to women and people of color is sexist or racist, or that there are systems of oppression we’re perpetuating and participating in. You’re only sexist or racist if you openly say you are!”
When we talk about sexism, racism, and other isms, we hear this stuff a lot. It’s been coming up a lot in the shitty defenses of TJ Kirk, a.k.a. the self-styled “Amazing Atheist” (see Martin Hughes’ extraordinary takedowns for context). There are lots of arguments against it: I could rattle off a bunch in my sleep. But there are times when I want to throw up my hands and say, “Fine.
“Let’s concede the terminology. For the sake of argument, let’s say the words ‘sexism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘classism,’ ‘ableism,’ etc., only mean conscious bigotry and oppression. And let’s give another name to that other stuff. Let’s give another name to unconscious bias, to systems of oppression, to the stubborn refusal to acknowledge them. Let’s give another name to people who deny that they’re sexist and call women cunts; to people who deny that they’re racists and call African-Americans lazy thugs. Let’s call it (goes to random nonsense word generator, hits ‘refresh’ until she finds a word she likes) grimprom. Strenaviction. Yurity, Ooo, ‘yurity.’ I like that.
“Can we now have a conversation about yurity?
“Can we please have a conversation about the yurity that permeates our culture? Can we talk about the unconscious yurity we all learn, even before we’re conscious of learning anything? Can we talk about the thousands of ways our economy, our government, our media, our laws, perpetuate yurity? Can we talk about the thousands of ways that targets of yurity are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, the systems and biases that make it literally impossible to win?
“And can we please have a conversation about how people who aren’t the targets of yurity benefit from it — and thus have a vested interest in pretending it doesn’t exist? Can we talk about the fact that every time anyone brings up yurity, people trivialize it, change the subject, or blame the victims? Can we talk about the fact that yurity has been extensively and carefully documented by thousands of researchers, and people still deny that it exists? Can we talk about the fact that when people deny that yurity exists, and we point out the extensive research demonstrating that it exists and does serious harm, we’re told that we’re in a cult of victimhood?”
I don’t, in fact, concede this argument. The word “sexism” and “racism” are useful, and I don’t see any reason to concede them to people who have shown a complete lack of concern about them.
And if we did change the language, people would still squawk. If we started talking about yurity instead of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transantagonism, and so on, people would soon start insisting that yurity only means conscious, willful yurity. They’d start treating “yurity” as the meanest insult in the world — and any attempt to point it out would result in outrage. “That’s not yurity! How dare you say I’m yurious? Yurity just means conscious bigotry. Here, let me show you what it says in the dictionary…” Look at the word “privilege.” People throw fits when they hear it, and make up a whole assortment of ridiculous straw-definitions, to avoid dealing with what it does mean.
So I’m not, in fact, proposing that we change the language. But I may start using this as a rhetorical tool. “You insist that you can’t be racist or sexist because those things only mean conscious bigotry? Fine. Let’s give another name to unconscious bias, systemic oppression, and willful ignorance about both. Let’s call it ‘yurity.’ Now, can we now please have a conversation about yurity?”