People often respond to allegations of sexism by saying “but I’m not a sexist. I believe in gender equality.” There are several problems with this response.
Firstly, what makes a person a sexist is not them consciously identifying as a sexist. If this were the case, then someone who thought that women shouldn’t be allowed to do physics would magically stop being a sexist if they started consciously believing that they weren’t a sexist. What makes a person sexist is that they think, say, and do things which are sexist, regardless of whether or not they are aware that they are sexist. Therefore, in order to show that one isn’t being sexist, it needs to be demonstrated that what one said or did was not sexist. Saying “I’m not a sexist” doesn’t work as a response because being sexist is about how you act, not about what you think about yourself.
Secondly, the beliefs of people are not consistent or coherent. I can think one thing, while thinking something which contradicts it. As a result, genuinely believing in anti-sexism does not by itself get rid of all my sexist beliefs. Part of me may believe that sexist jokes are wrong, while another part of me may think that they’re funny and its ok for people to tell them. Likewise, I can think something while doing something which is at odds with what I think. For example, a stalker may believe that stalking is wrong, but doing so doesn’t stop it from being true that they are a stalker.
Thirdly, a person may genuinely believe in anti-sexism but have a false understanding of what anti-sexism means and entails. The result will be that they may profess belief in anti-sexism and a variety of related views which they think are anti-sexist, but nonetheless be mistaken in doing so because of their poor understanding of anti-sexism. For example, a person may believe that anti-sexism entails that women only marches are sexist because they exclude men. This stems from the erroneous view that anti-sexism means treating men and women exactly the same. The problem with this view is that under present conditions men and women are unequal. Moving towards equality will require, in certain situations, treating women differently to men because of the different positions women and men are in. Having a women only march is such a situation since it creates a space in which women can develop their sense of community and collective power as a gender and therefore develop the necessary consciousness for abolishing their oppression.
Fourthly, people don’t like to think of themselves as bad or immoral. In our society, people are taught that sexism is bad and so it feels bad when someone accuses you of it. People will as a result try to represent themselves in a positive light and so deny to themselves and others that they are a sexist. The bias to think positively about oneself makes it very easy for people to be caught up in their rationalisations and so fail to realise that, despite what they think, they are a sexist. In other words, perhaps you’re not the best judge of whether or not you’re sexist and should instead listen to those around you.
Given all of this, when someone says you’re being sexist you may want to consciously reflect on whether or not what you did was sexist, rather than assuming that you couldn’t possibly be sexist. I find it helpful in these situations to remind myself that I didn’t choose to be sexist. I was raised to be a sexist by this patriarchal society and so will through sheer force of habit do sexist things. What I do have control over is how I react to this socialisation and so how I react to those moments when I unwittingly perpetuate patriarchy. I find that unlearning sexism is to a great extent about one’s willingness to fully listen to women’s concerns and one having the courage to confront how you have been shaped by living in this society, regardless of how unpleasant staring in the mirror can be.