“I’m Not Sexist” – A Response

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.

Advertisements

Gender Abolition?

In 1975 the feminist Gayle Rubin proposed in her work ‘The Traffic in Women’ that every society has a sex/gender system. This is a “set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention”. (Rubin 2011, p39) On this view gender is the social structure which determines how different bodies which perform different reproductive roles are categorized, socialised, treated, expected to act and so on. For example, people with vaginas will be categorized as women and socially positioned as inferior and subservient to people with penises, who will be categorized as men. Women will be socialised to be housewives, treated as sex-objects, and expected to not be interested in DIY. We thus have a simple distinction between sex, which is a biological category, and gender, which is a social category that is mapped onto sex. A person is born a female (sex) but only becomes a woman (gender) through society.

From this conception of sex and gender emerges the view that a feminist revolution would “liberate human personality from the straightjacket of gender”. (Rubin 2011, p58). For women to be free they must abolish gender and return to simply being females. Rubin writes,

It suggests that we should not aim for the elimination of men, but for the elimination of the social system which creates sexism and gender. . . we are not only oppressed as women; we are oppressed by having to be women—or men as the case may be. I personally feel that the feminist movement must dream of even more than the elimination of the oppression of women. It must dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.(Rubin 2011, p61)

There are two main problems with Rubin’s way of thinking. Firstly, while sex is a biological reality, how humans think about biology is socially produced. It has been falsely believed that there are only two sexes. On this model, If you have XX chromosomes then you are a female and if you have XY chromosomes then you are a male. This sex binary was enforced through the process of medical professionals assigning a sex to a child at birth based on their genitals. If a child’s genitals could not be fit into this binary, then genital reshaping surgery was performed in order to render the child’s genitals more ‘normal’. Modern science has since come to understand that sex is in fact a spectrum due to the existence of people who are intersex, or to use the scientific jargon, have ‘differences of sex development’. (Ainsworth 2015) Intersex people have a combination of chromosomes, gonads and sexual anatomy that do not fit into a strict male-female binary, such as having both a womb and a penis, or having a significantly large clitoris. Rubin was therefore wrong to think that gender was simply mapped onto a pre-existing biological reality. Sex as an assigned category is also socially produced.

Secondly, Rubin conceptualises gender as something which happens to people. People do not determine their gender, but rather have their gender determined for them by society and the sex/gender system under which they live. You are born, assigned a gender based on your sex, socialised into gender roles, and then reproduce these gender roles. What people have agency over is refusing to neatly fit into their assigned gender, such as males knitting or women boxing. The end goal being that people stop reproducing gender and thereby abolish it.

Refusing to follow gender roles is not, however, the only way that people can resist their assigned gender. People can also create a whole new gender system in which people’s gender is determined by their own personal sense of self, rather than what reproductive organs they have. This is exactly what non-binary and trans people have been doing. They have rejected the gender which was assigned to them at birth and have instead identified as a wide array of different genders, such as being a trans-women, a trans-man, agender, gender-fluid, pangender, genderqueer and bigender. In so doing they are transforming gender from being a strict man-women binary to gender being a broad spectrum. At this point gender stops tracking reproductive organs since one can have a vagina but be a man, or one can have a penis and be neither a man or a woman. Anyone with any body can be any gender. This goes alongside the dismantling of the gender binary through the combination of forms of behaviour and presentation which are rigidly separated by patriarchal gender roles, such as people who were assigned male at birth wearing dresses and make up and acting effeminately, or people who were assigned female at birth having short hair and not wearing make up.

Trans and non-binary people are therefore dismantling gender in Rubin’s sense – a rigid class system in which one is positioned at birth – and are building in its place a pluralistic fluid notion of gender which is determined by individual self-identity and represents a form of individual and collective self-expression. What Rubin failed to realise in 1975 is that the abolition of gender as a class-system does not look like gender becoming less and less important, but instead takes the form of gender fundamentally changing into something wonderful.

Bibliography

Ainsworth, Clare. Sex Redefined (Nature, 2015). http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943

Rubin, Gayle. Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2011)

What is Identity Politics

Within political discussions the phrase ‘identity politics’ is thrown around frequently. Rarely, however, is it ever defined by either adherents or critics of it. Instead the phrase seems to operate as a catch all buzz word for whatever features one likes or dislikes about contemporary and historic social movements focusing on the liberation of particular oppressed groups, such as women, queers and people of colour.

As I’ll be speaking about identity politics a lot in the future, I thought it would be helpful to start by defining the phrase itself. What we’ve come to call identity politics was initially developed within the feminist, gay liberation, and anti-racism social movements of the 1960s and 1970s new left. These social movements developed out of a reaction to sexism, homophobia, and racism within both the left itself and society at large. They organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, and sought to conceptualise and combat the particular kinds of oppression suffered by these groups. The many different versions of the politics of identity these social movements developed had in common three core beliefs. These beliefs in a simplified form are,

1. Structures of oppression produce shared experiences and identities among the oppressed. For example, white supremacy has produced a social group known as ‘black people’. Members of this social group are united by being positioned within society as ‘black’ and as a result of this societal positioning thinking of themselves as ‘black’ and experiencing anti-black racism throughout their lives.

2. The shared experiences and identities of an oppressed social group can be used as a basis for building a social movement aimed at the liberation of said social group. This usually takes two forms.

First, developing political consciousness by showing how experiences of oppression at the level of the individual are not isolated apolitical incidents, but are rather components of a society wide structure of oppression. A concrete historical example of this is feminist consciousness raising groups. In these groups women would meet and discuss every day experiences of patriarchy. As Carol Hanisch put it famously in 1969,

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. . .I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles. (Hanisch 1969)

Second, producing positive group identities in order to help people unlearn the negative self-conceptions which oppressive social structures instil in them. For example, transphobia teaches trans people to hate and be ashamed of themselves. A positive notion of trans identity can help combat this. Other examples of this are notions like ‘sisterhood is powerful’, ‘black is beautiful’, or ‘#blackgirlmagic’. These positive group identities are important not just because they improve people’s mental health but also because they contribute to the development of the confidence, self-worth, and agency that oppressed people need to abolish their oppression.

3. The liberation of an oppressed social group must be achieved by the oppressed group themselves.

This isn’t to deny that people outside these oppressed groups can and should play a positive role in struggle. Rather, it is to affirm the importance of self-emancipation and the central role oppressed groups should have in struggling against their oppression.

My understanding of what identity politics is comes from how the term was used within the Combahee River Collective Statement, which was written in 1974 and published in 1977. The Combahee River Collective were an influential black feminist group in Boston, which also contained numerous black lesbians. In the statement the collective outlines their particular version of black feminism, which sought to fight white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia simultaneously. This was grounded in the idea that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking”, such that, “[t]he synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” As a result, they sought to “combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face”, rather than only fighting on a single front, such as racism. Since the 1970s these ideas have been developed into what is now called intersectionality.

Of particular importance to the collective was the manner in which personal experiences of structures of oppression contribute to the development of political consciousness. For them,

There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men.

Initially these experiences made them have “feelings of craziness”. This was changed through consciousness raising groups in which they learnt to understand and analyse their experiences within a feminist framework. They write,

In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression. (Quoted in Heyes 2016).

The collective also placed importance of their identities as black women. They write, “focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity”. The core of their politics was thus the view that, “[b]lack women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.”

Later in an interview, co-author Barbara Smith said on the term ‘identity politics’,

I think we came up with the term. . . I never really saw it anywhere else and I would suggest that people if they really want to find the origin of the term that they try to find it any place earlier than in the Combahee River Collective statement. I don’t remember seeing it anywhere else. (Quoted in Breines, 2007, 129)

I cannot confirm Smith’s remark that they were the first to use the term “identity politics”. What I can say, however, is that when I use the term “identity politics” I am doing so in the manner that they did.

Bibliography

Breines, Winifred. 2007. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. Oxford University Press.
Hanisch, Carol. 1969. The Personal is Political. 
Heyes, Cressida. 2016. “Identity Politics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The Combahee River Collective. 1977. The Combahee River Collective Statement.

Feminism Reading List

Pdfs/epubs of most of these books can be found on b-ok

Feminist Theory

For newcomers to feminism:

  • Finlayson, Lorna – An Introduction to Feminism
  • Hooks, Bell – Feminism is For Everybody
  • Hooks, Bell – Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism

For people who know their feminist basics:

  • Young, Iris – On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like A Girl” and Other Essays
  • Walby,  Slyvia – Theorizing Patriarchy

Feminism & Men

Anarcha-Feminism

Marxist-Feminism

  • Vogel, Lise – Marxism & The Oppression of Women
  • Brown, Heather – Marx on Gender & The Family (for summary see)
  • Federici, Silvia – Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body & Primitive Accumulation
  • Federici, Silvia – Revolution At Point Zero