Sexism = Sexual/Gender Prejudice + Power

Dear President Trump,

In addition to wondering what it might be like to adapt some of the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop exercises to a workshop on undoing sexism, I’ve been thinking about using the framework of the UR racism definition for sexism. You surely won’t recall that the PI’s definition of racism is as follows:

Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power

You also won’t remember that based on this definition, people of color and white people can hold racial prejudice but because the former don’t have access to the power to change the institutions that maintain racism, they cannot be racists – only white people can be racist. Additionally, and although true, is the quite hard to swallow conclusion that all white people are racists.

I know I already covered this ground in another letter, but I thought it was necessary to remind you of it before laying out the case for the sexism corollary. Here goes:

Sexism = Sexual/Gender Prejudice + Power

If we follow the same logic as above for racism, girls and women can definitely have sexual/gender prejudice; it is not exclusive to boys and men. Check. There may be a few fortunate odd-duck girls who are somehow completely impervious to the constant, all encompassing messaging around the presumed superiority of boys/men and the presumed inferiority (less than, not quite as good, strong, smart, clever, creative, capable….) of girls/women. I hope so. Odds are, though, that the vast majority of girls and women have internalized hefty doses of sexual prejudice, as have boys and men. Then there’s the power piece and although I’m going to offer a twist on this in a minute, individual girls and women don’t have power over the institutions that have concretized sexism – only men hold that kind of power. Greater access and fairer laws, etc. have to be granted by the people with power and the people in those kinds of power positions are men.

So you can see where this is going, right? In this framing only boys and men can be sexist and all boys and men are sexist. You might argue that plenty of women in managerial positions favor male job applicants (especially white male job applicants with “normal” sounding names) and pass over equally qualified female job applicants and therefore women also have the power to grant or deny access to resources in ways that perpetuate sexism (this same argument is also relevant for people of color in managerial positions). This is a tough one and I would say that women who do this are perpetuating sexism and the behavior is likely sexist (though without some more context it’s hard to say whether such hiring decisions were reasonable) so the women in question are acting as tools or instruments of oppression, but as individuals they still don’t have the power to undo systemic sexism.

It’s useful, though, to ask the question: What if some women manage to get to positions where they have influence over hiring decisions and they strategically hire more women and more people of color who in turn hire more women and more people of color? This could, over time, bring about a critical mass sort of shift in the dynamics such that white men find themselves looking around at a lot of people who don’t look like them and who they don’t have an automatic, easy affinity with and they have to adapt or get left behind. And what if women and people of color are deliberate about this and talk with each other and organize their collective efforts to make such inroads – couldn’t this shift the power dynamics enough that white men are no longer the sole keepers of the institutional keys?

This is starting to happen in some workplaces and in some governing bodies, but to truly be successful in removing the impediments to real change, we need men to sign on and get busy and help. We need men to stand up for women when women aren’t in the room. We need men putting themselves out in the public sphere supporting concrete changes in work-life policies and legislation that supports women and families (and thus all people). Some are, for sure, and that’s wonderful. But we need legions of them, just like we need legions of white people stepping up in support of antiracist measures, large and small.

I don’t know that this re-use of the PI’s racism definition to frame sexism is new or offers all that much to the conversation, but I needed to get it out of my head and onto paper (so to speak). Whether it’s new or not, I think being clear that we need historically disenfranchised people using their power to empower other historically disenfranchised people and we need men, particularly white men, to use their power to empower everyone, not just those who look like them.

May we have enough safety in our families, workplaces, and legislative bodies to push for real change.
May we be willing to be strategic and work together to make positive change the most logical choice.
May we commit to a culture that is healthy for everyone.
May we make peace with growing pains.

Tracy Simpson

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