Why Eliminating Sexist Language Matters

Contrary to popular belief, it's not always about this guy.

If you’re going to advocate for social justice and organize in your community, you need to be actively resisting the potential reproduction of oppressive hierarchies. In other words, if you’re going to fight against capitalism, for example, don’t create a discriminatory “chain of command” reminiscent of the very system you’re fighting against!  This includes being conscious of offensive and harmful imagery, language, slogans, and so on.  Reproducing racist, sexist, classist, and ableist hierarchies within social justice movements isn’t uncommon, sadly, and if we don’t challenge oppression within organizing, the struggle itself will be undermined.  How can you bring about “revolution” when you’re benefiting off of the people you’ve marginalized, excluded, exploited, and stigmatized?  Where is the “change” when people are still struggling against oppression, even within social justice groups?

It is always discouraging to see oppressive hierarchies surface in our own communities because these are spaces that are supposed to be safe.  Recently, I noticed a status message that shamelessly insulted and degraded Muslim activists who have been criticizing the Obama administration.  It isn’t necessary to name this person, though it is disturbing how some people who claim to be “representing” the Muslim American community feel so comfortable ridiculing others.  The message included sexist, masculinist remarks like, “American Muslims need to grow some balls and join the electoral system,” and “American Muslims need to grow up and stop being cynical,” and “American Muslims need to stop whining and victimizing themselves.”  When I critiqued the sexist language used by this person, I received a reply that didn’t address any of my points.  Unfortunately, the person who wrote the message didn’t take responsibility for his sexism either.  Instead, I was told I “misunderstood” what was meant to be a motivational message to get Muslim Americans to participate in “American democracy” and not “whine” about Islamophobia.

I’m not interested in attacking or denigrating this person. I bring up the discussion only to critique the victim-blaming and heteropatriarchal politics that exists in our community.  Indeed, there is a lot to deconstruct when you hear someone say, “American Muslims need to grow some balls” and accompany the statement with remarks like “grow up” and “stop whining.”  As many feminist critiques have pointed out, sexist language makes women invisible and reinforces heteropatriarchal domination. Telling Muslim critics of the Obama administration to “grow some balls and join the electoral system” removes Muslim women from the discussion and, subsequently, from the voting process.  Furthermore, “grow some balls” means to “man up,” which is code for anti-female directives such as “don’t be/act like a girl” (because girls are inferior to boys and men, so if you act like them, you lose your “manhood,” your “natural inclination” to be “superior”). Since male-centered language asserts problematic universalist ideas such as the term “man” equaling “people” (and vice versa), Muslim critics of US wars only consist of men who “lack the balls” to do “macho” stuff, like voting to get president Obama re-elected.  Subsequently, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist critiques of the administration are characterized as “whiny,” “childish,” “angry,” and “self-victimizing,” which are all code for sexist perceptions of so-called “feminine” traits, i.e. “sissy,” “girly,” “oversensitive,” dwelling in “self-pity,” and so on. Because women are not part of this conversation, the “Muslims for Obama” are “manly” men, whereas Muslims criticizing Obama are the “girly” men.

Unfortunately, anti-racist and anti-war activists are not outside heteropatriarchy either.  bell hooks offers a feminist critique of Paulo Freire’s book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” because of its “tendency to speak of people’s liberation as male liberation.” hooks points out that Freire, like other brilliant political thinkers, including Frantz Fanon, Albert Memni, and Aimi Cesaire, “speak against oppression, but then define liberation in terms that suggest it is only the oppressed ‘men’ who need freedom.”  Missing from their incredibly important works about “colonization, racism, classism, and revolutionary struggle” are anti-sexist politics. By no means is this saying that their works are not important or significant. In fact, as hooks points out, the works are still valued by feminist activists, but with the understanding that focusing exclusively on heterosexual male liberation perpetuates sexist oppression and must end.  Centering analysis and language on men resisting racist, classist oppression erases women’s struggle against racism, colonization, sexual violence, and misogyny (not only within their communities, but also outside).  It is also worth noting that hooks discussed her concerns with Friere, who “supported wholeheartedly this criticism of his work and encouraged me (hooks) to share this with readers.”

Within white-dominated feminist groups, harmful language arises out of failure in resisting discriminatory hierarchies and acknowledging different histories.  AF3IRM, a transnational feminist and anti-imperialist organization, expressed concerns about the “SlutWalk” movement by addressing “the issue of sexual violence and continuing victimization of rape victims by police,the justice system and other agents of authority.”  AF3IRM and other women of color called upon “SlutWalk” to reexamine its use of the term “slut,” which carries a long history of exploiting and oppressing women of color around the world. In their statement to “SlutWalk,” AF3IRM write:

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. It was never ours to begin with. This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

Another recent example of using offensive language in social justice organizing can found in the “occupy” movements that began on Wall Street. Many indigenous communities in North America have stressed in their critiques that the land being “occupied” by anti-capitalist activists is stolen indigenous land and already occupied. Under occupation, racism and sexism are wielded as weapons against the colonized, therefore use of the term “occupy” dismisses histories and realities of those who live under colonial occupation.  Resistance to this criticism, which is meant to make the movement stronger by centering anti-colonial politics, represents the ongoing cultural genocide of Native peoples.  That is, Native peoples are thought to be “extinct,” therefore their struggles against colonialism and sexual violence are “not important enough” to get the white-majority “occupy” activists to reassess the language it uses.   Recently, the “occupy” movement in Albuquerque, New Mexico decided to change its name to “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” out of solidarity for Native communities.  As one writer explained:

For many indigenous people, the term ‘Occupy’ is deeply problematic. For New Mexico’s indigenous people, ‘Occupy’ means five-hundred years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power, and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement. A smaller chunk hasn’t.

Beyond the way sexist language reinforces maleness as the “norm,” which is undoubtedly important to critique because it eliminates women from, well, existence, there are connections that need to be made between sexist language and the heteropatriarchal system which is foundational to the United States. Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith argues:

It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European relationships on Native communities that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems in place, we are then unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty… Implicit in this analysis is the understanding that heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through a nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence, and control (emphasis added).

If we apply an anti-colonial analysis to sexist language and the heteropatriarchal nation-state, we can see how arrogant and pompous statements like “America is the greatest nation on earth” are very masculinist because they promote absolute domination and self-entitlement to rule, invade, bomb, and occupy other countries. When Muslim American community leaders assert that Muslims “proudly” played a role in the “founding” of America, they are aligning themselves with the built-in structures of heteropatriarchy and colonialism, as well as dismissing the fact that many of the Muslims they refer to were African slaves forced to this continent.  What does it mean to be the “greatest” nation on earth?  Who determines “greatness” and why is it so important for America to be the “greatest”?  I am reminded of when a good friend told me, “Women have no country” and that the building of the nation-state is masculinist, as is evident in the way it flexes its military power.

"You want to fight sexism and challenge the nation-state?! What are you, crazy?! Think like a man and be more practical."

With this in mind, it is very telling when certain individuals, particularly those who believe they have more authority than others in their communities, resort to sexist language in effort to defend and deflect criticism of the heteropatriarchal nation-state. When anti-war stances are shot down with degrading insults, it becomes that much easier to brush the person off as some “whiny,” “cynical,” and, um, “ball-less” nuisance.  Sexist language often intertwines with ableist slurs like, “you’re crazy,” “you’re delusional,” or “you’re just being hysterical.”  Because women are perceived in heteropatriarchy as “weak” and “irrational,” ableist words like “crazy,” “delusional,” and “hysterical” are easily assigned to them, and especially more damaging to women with dis-abilities.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is synonymous with being “rational,” “brave,” and “courageous.”  When heterosexual male community organizers ridicule anti-racist feminists and assert themselves as “more practical,” they are reinforcing sexist masculine notions that anyone who disagrees with them is “hysterical” and  an “emotional reactionary.”  They’re not “thinking with their head.”  If these anti-racist feminists are women, the attitude is, “Of course they would say that, they’re women.” If these anti-racist feminists are men, the attitude is, “What a bunch of pussies.”  Interestingly, if being masculine is all about “toughness” and “bravery,” then what is to be said about the countless number of women who often put themselves in danger to fight not only against misogyny and sexual violence, but also against racism and colonialism?  What is to be said about the Native women and other women of color who not only fight sexist oppression in their own communities, but also actively challenge the nation-state itself? As bell hooks says, “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Working within the colonial framework, telling people to “shut up” about their criticism of Obama and join the “voting system” (as if voting ever abolished racism, sexism, classism, etc.) only serves to maintain, not disrupt, established power structures and “secondary marginalization,” which is described by Smith as politics premised on the “most elite class” furthering “their aspirations on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.”

It is understandable if the reality of struggle rarely being safe bothers us because it reveals the lack of support and solidarity. No one should ever feel compelled to put themselves in danger for their God-given human rights. I point it out here to emphasize on heteropatriarchy’s dangerous use of language and how its sexist labeling degrades, vilifies, and erases (rhetorically or violently) anything that doesn’t conform to the heteromasculine status quo. If we are going to fight sexist language, the established hierarchies need to be decolonized, and society must base its principles on interconnectedness, mutual accountability and reciprocity, and liberation for all people.  I recall the words of Cellestine Ware:

Radical feminism is working for the eradication of domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today.

The downfall of sexist language is very much part of the revolution she calls for.

4 thoughts on “Why Eliminating Sexist Language Matters

  1. miteypen says:

    Excellent argument. I am a Muslim convert and feminist. I know another convert who is on the verge of leaving Islam because of its sexism. Unfortunately, she will not be able to escape sexism that easily, because it’s everywhere. But she’s right to be critical of Muslims who don’t see that elitism of any kind is a perversion of what the Qur’an teaches. I realize that your article covers much more than the behavior and attitudes of Muslims, but it is wonderful to read such words coming from a Muslim who has a voice, and a very wise one at that.

    • It’s repulsive how sexist and patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an are so common and mainstream in our community. Indeed, elitism and domination in human relationships contradicts the Qur’an’s advocacy for gender equality and respect for all human beings.

      Have you read this post on “The Fatal Feminist’s” blog?:

      http://thefatalfeminist.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/blatant-antipatriarchy-in-the-quran/

      I think it does a fantastic job in addressing the way the Qur’an rejects sexism and is “blatantly anti-patriarchal.”

      Thanks for your supportive comments, as always. :)

  2. Quix says:

    I’ve never understood sexist slang. What is it about the phrase “grow some balls” that is so much more persuasive than “grow some initiative”, or “get some courage”? Why not just say “stop being such a coward”, rather than insulting your own intelligence by saying “be a man”? I’ve used some ostensibly discriminatory slang in the past, but I’ve never used sexist slang. It seems to me to be so ludicrous. Racists have the bad excuse* of having a warped view of other cultures, being so unfamiliar with them so as to be completely ignorant. Ableists have the (also bad) excuse of “ability” being ingrained as a metric for worth since childhood. Sexists, on the other hand, don’t even have a bad excuse. No matter where you live, or who you associate with, members of the opposite sex are everywhere. You just can’t justify thinking they’re inferior when they show you by example every single day that they are not.

    * note that when I say “excuse”, I mean it excuses them for obtaining their prejudices. I don’t consider it an excuse for retaining them.

    • For sure, It is ridiculous how racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression persist in the world. It’s pathetic how people justify their prejudices for the sake of asserting power and domination.

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