“I’m Not Being Sexist Or Racist! You’re Defining The Word Wrong!”

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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?”

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“I’m Not Being Sexist Or Racist! You’re Defining The Word Wrong!”
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7 thoughts on ““I’m Not Being Sexist Or Racist! You’re Defining The Word Wrong!”

  1. 1

    I’m usually baffled by those who insist that if someone isn’t being INTENTIONALLY bigoted or discriminated that they aren’t racist, merely ignorant. I don’t think any significant number of racists EVER lacked ignorance. Even the most vehement slaveowners and anti civil rights activists likely thought they had justifications for their actions beyond mere skin color. In that sense, the simplistic non-academic usage of “racism” is not only useless, it has NEVER been a problem on the planet EVER.

  2. 3

    So many of the arguments against Hillary Clinton are based on misogyny, although often it’s very insidious and coded misogyny. During this political cycle, I’ve had many conversations with the “Never Hillary” wing of Bernie Sanders supporters (I don’t even bother with Trump supporters, because fuck that shit) about why they refuse to support Hillary Clinton as a nominee. I try to get them to tell me what it is about Clinton, versus any other politician in recent memory, that uniquely causes them such outrage and derision. The result: lots and lots of handwaving and dancing around the issue.

    I think only a handful of times have I ever gotten someone to admit that, yeah, being a woman *possibly* makes it harder for her in the political world. But typically when the conversation starts to devolve, I’ll make the point I was always coming to from the beginning: misogyny is as much a set of ideas as misogynist is a character type, and it’s possible to be complicit in the spread of misogyny WITHOUT self-identifying as a misogynist.

  3. 4

    A question if I may, you say that the racists and sexists conscious or otherwise have a system in place that they control, benefit from and gains them advantages that result in keeping things the way they like it. I image that discussing this system would result in exposure its bigotry, this would mostly lead to change. The racist and sexists would lose the system by which they established and maintain control. What possible reason would they have to want to discuss issues that would lead to a loss of their privilege.

  4. 5

    ETA on my last comment, because I don’t know how clearly I related it to Greta’s original post:

    Even when they concede the point on women in politics, they’ll say something along the lines of “Well, that’s not how I PERSONALLY meant it” or “But I can’t say something misogynist because I’m a liberal/Democrat/progressive/atheist/skeptic/woman.”

  5. 6

    Part of the problem seems to be that the people in question don’t seem to believe that there is any such thing as unconscious bias or oppressive systems that are not actively, purposefully maintained. At least, not in THEMSELVES. They’re the ones who think that straight white men are the only ones who can be “objective” about things, because women always think like women, and black people always think like black people, but THEY just think like PEOPLE. And if they’re completely objective, how can they POSSIBLY have any unconscious biases?

  6. 7

    Uriel @ #4: Ideally (and to some extent realistically, at least for some people): Compassion. The desire to do the right thing. The desire to not live in a horrible world. The recognition that other people matter as much as we ourselves do. The recognition that this life is our only one, and that’s as true of other people as it is for ourselves. The recognition that there is no god dispensing justice, that if we want a just world we have to make it ourselves. The desire to have a wider variety of people in our lives. The desire to not shut out the world or live in denial of it. The admiration of other people who do this work, and the desire to work with them.

    More selfishly: Being pressured into it by people who don’t have much power, but do have the power to make life very uncomfortable for people who don’t do the right thing. Being shamed into it (another form of making it less comfortable to ignore problems than to do something about them). The recognition that a just society is a better society for everyone, including ourselves, even if it means giving some things up. The recognition that an extremely unjust society is an unstable society, which makes life worse for everyone, including ourselves. The recognition that people can only take so much injustice before they snap and fight back.

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