Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions


As 2011 comes to an end, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.  Due to the dangerous intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other positionalities, it is important to stress on being conscious of these interlocking oppressions.  The term “intersectionality” is invoked a lot, but there is a huge difference between writing about it and understanding it.

Recently, someone who self-identifies as an “activist” exercised his misogyny by taking a paparazzi-style photo of a woman’s body part and shared it with his friends on Facebook.  Over a hundred perverted and horribly sexist comments were made under the image.  All of this happened without the woman knowing that a zoomed-in photo of her body was publicly on display for a bunch of perverts to gawk at and sexually objectify.

Confrontations with the police does not excuse a male activist of being held accountable for his misogyny and violation of a woman’s privacy.  Those who commented in favor of the photo are also complicit in sexist oppression and objectification.  You cannot fight state violence while participating in another form of oppression and not acknowledging how the two are interconnected.  It undermines everything you claim to stand for.

I know there are a lot of men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are outraged by sexism and misogyny.  However, many of us make the mistake in seeing ourselves as being “outside of patriarchy.”  That is, because we have feminist politics and speak out against sexual violence, sexist exploitation, and patriarchal domination, there is no way we can be sexist.  On the contrary, I am not outside of it and neither are you.  None of us are.  I have read several posts written by men (some of which were recently pointed out to me) who tell this narrative: “I used to be sexist, but after reading feminist literature and making feminist friends, I am cured and better now!”  I have made this mistake as well and I accept that I will make more mistakes in the future. Being called out on your sexism is not always easy, but that is how you learn to unlearn.

Instead of congratulating ourselves or rushing to claim that “we are good men” and “not like those misogynists out there,” we need to understand our responsibility in constantly unlearning the sexist socialization we have internalized. We live in societies where sexist and racist oppression is so deeply engrained and even foundational to the established order, so saying “I’m not sexist” is not enough (likewise, saying “I’m not racist” is not enough for white people). Asserting this claim only puts us on the defensive and overlooks how we benefit from oppressive power structures. We cannot dismantle patriarchy externally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our complicities and actively confront sexism within ourselves, not just once, but every day, for the rest of our lives.

When a woman is addressing the awful reality of sexual assaults against women that occur in anti-racist spaces, we should not center our attention on thinking that she is only talking about “those men,” i.e. the assailants, the misogynists, the rapists, etc. Such an outlook only makes us perceive ourselves as “innocent” and “not sexist.”  We have to be conscious of the sexism we have internalized and how we exercise sexism in our everyday lives.  We have to take action to ensure we will not maintain and reproduce those power dynamics.  This is not about demonizing men or saying that all of us are monstrous at the core.  This is not about implying that all men will assault women in social justice spaces either.  This is about understanding our responsibility in challenging and eliminating sexism externally and internally.  In movements that are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., if there are people being abused, assaulted, discriminated against, beaten, or excluded, we must work to eliminate that violence.  When you are called out on your sexism, apologize, listen, and hold yourself accountable.   Take responsibility for it and accept the consequences, even if that means you cannot be part of the group anymore or that some people will never be able to trust you again.  Do not get defensive and say that what you did “wasn’t sexist” or “wasn’t patriarchal.”  Don’t make this about you “being a good man” or that “you had good intentions” or that you have women friends who “don’t see you as sexist.”  Don’t attack the “tone” of the people calling you out on it either. Denying your complicity only exposes the sexist masculine power you exercise.

Furthermore, we have to move beyond “accepting” sexist and racist socialization.  Accepting that white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy has programmed us to uphold these interlocking structures of oppression is important, but it does not at all give us an excuse to normalize our sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.  I have come across individuals who say, “Yes, I admit I’m racist, I accept it.” There’s a huge difference between understanding your responsibility in unlearning racism and simply asserting that “everyone is racist,” as if that makes everything “ok.” No, it is not “ok.” We live in a racist society and all us are impacted by it differently (and if you are white, you benefit a great deal from white supremacy). Instead of just sitting back and saying, “I admit I’m racist,” you should be challenging yourself on a daily basis and actively doing something about your racism. Don’t use racist socialization as an excuse to normalize your racism.

Some people, to my own astonishment, have told me to my face that they hate Indians and Pakistanis.  They have told me things like, “I hate Pakistanis. I hope you don’t take offense to that.”  Of course I take offense to it; it is racist and against me, in particular. Others have told me they “hate Indians” and then say, “I admit I’m prejudice against them, but everyone is racist, right?”  What makes them think this is acceptable to say to me or to anyone else is the real indicator of how deeply entrenched racism is. Accepting that we are socialized to be racist and sexist does not make things “ok” because these oppressions have serious effects in the real world.  “I am racist” or “I am sexist” is not something to boast about or repeat shamelessly.  Move beyond accepting the status quo and be responsible.   Apologize for the damage you have caused and do something about it.  Don’t expect your South Asian friend to continue talking to you when you’ve demonized his/her culture and never held yourself accountable for it.  Don’t expect your Arab friends to return your calls when you “jokingly” referred to them as “terrorists” and thought that was cool.  You may have “accepted” your racism or sexism, but your friend may not accept how your racism or sexism targeted him/her, so if you care about preserving that friendship, do something about it.

Challenge yourself in your daily interactions with people.  Challenge yourself when you use racist, sexist, colonial, and/or ableist language.  Challenge the stereotypes you have of certain groups of people when you see/meet them.  Critique yourself and analyze every aspect of your life.   We all make mistakes and we are going to continue making them.  It’s how we respond to those mistakes and actively work to correct them that matters.  Listen to the people you have offended, hurt, discriminated against, marginalized, etc.  Don’t accuse them of being “too angry” or “too mean”  when they condemn what you said or did.  Deconstructing and unlearning racism, sexism, and other oppressions is not something you can accomplish overnight; it is something all of us have to do for our entire lives.  Read the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has already been done, if you have access to the books and discourses.  Write about your resisting oppressive socialization, speak about it, teach about it, educate others about it, call yourself out on it, implement it into your life and work on it everyday. Never excuse yourself of your complicity, never be “ok” with it, but always assume the responsibility to struggle against it.

12 thoughts on “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions

  1. Nour says:

    I really LIKE this. You are a fantastic writer by the way. It’s like when people start a conversation, “I don’t mean to be racist…” but know they are going to say something racist, but taboo topics makes people feel like they need to start a statement that way.

    You bring up a lot of excellent points, but I think the Middle East unfortunately will continue to uphold “patriarchal” traditions. So what you see is a disproportional distribution in the work force, in the development of society, etc. Anyway, this is probably a discussion all on its own… :)

  2. RenKiss says:

    Thank you for writing this. Even though I’m a woman of color I too come to realize that I have heterosexual and able-bodied privilege. Now the process of un-learning is underway. :)

  3. I really did enjoy this article/post. I’m not sure if this is the article you were halfway referring to: http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/i-am-a-racist-deal-with-it/ (I am a racist.Deal with it – The Good Men Project).

    I don’t think, that the points the author was trying to make, is that it’s okay to be racist, or sexist, or ableist, but that we need to be aware, that we will never become perfect, and that we all say and do racist and sexist and ableist things. All the time.

    And no, it’s not okay, and we do need to become aware of it in order to change it.

    But that is the first step, becoming aware, starting the process of unlearning. And it’s a process that never finishes.

    And yes, you are absolutely right, we need to listen, and dare to take a good look at ourselves, even when it hurts our self-image.

    Thank you for a great article, as always.

    • Thank you, Becky. I appreciate your comment.

      There were several things I took issue with in that article on “The Good Men Project.” The title itself reveals how the piece is framed in problematic ways: “I am a racist. Deal with it.” Who is the author telling to “deal with it”? People who have been targeted by her racism? No one should have to “deal” with another person’s racism; the person who is being racist should actively confront him/herself and take responsibility for his/her racism. While the author explains how her racism has hurt and injured people, there isn’t an acknowledgment of oppressive racial hierarchies and how the phrase “I am a racist” means something entirely different when white people say it and when people of color say it.

      While Andrea Smith’s journal article “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” is addressing women of color and people of color organizing, she provides a detailed framework of white supremacy that is relevant here. She contends that rather than organizing under “shared oppression” or assuming that communities “share similar strategies for liberation,” it is crucial to understand that all communities of color are impacted by white supremacy differently. This understanding “does not assume that racism and white supremacy is enacted in a singular fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics.” Within the context of “The Good Men Project” article, the idea of “shared oppression” is used to conflate the experiences of white people and people of color as “the same.”

      This may not have been the author’s intention and I do acknowledge that she talks about making changes at the end of her article, but when she points out that she is a racial minority and “still racist,” it places the racism of white people and people of color as “the same.” She doesn’t specify who she has been racist against, but whether it’s against other people of color or white people, there is a significant difference between white people having privilege/power from white supremacy and people of color internalizing white supremacist logic. Framing racism of people of color and white people as “the same” not only ignores white privilege/power, but also reinforces the myth of “reverse racism,” which silences and dismisses anti-racist struggle.

      I’m glad you got a different message out of the post and I’m sure others have, too. However, my point was that this argument has been conveniently used by people of privileged status to trivialize and normalize racism. I think we need to go beyond “acceptance” and center on responsibility and radical change. The negative consequences of racism and all oppressions need to be taken into account. There is no such thing as institutionalized racism against white people, so often times when white acquaintances tell me that they “admit” they are racist and that “everyone is racist, everyone has to change,” I explain that while their intentions are positive and honest, their privileges and experiences are not the same as mine. Yes, we all have to take responsibility, irrespective of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious background, and so on, but we also have to be conscious of our positionalities and how we are affected by white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy differently.

      I think contextualizing the oppressions we internalize within the logics of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism is important. For example, understanding the structure of white supremacy helps us understand why “reverse racism” arguments are so problematic and damaging. Similarly, this holds true for “reverse sexism” arguments within the structure of patriarchy. Through a framework that understands how these logics are interrelated, we base our social justice struggles on dismantling interlocking oppressive systems while simultaneously understanding that we all experience oppression differently and that our efforts for justice should be rooted in mutual accountability, reciprocity, and commitment that our struggles don’t intrude on the rights of others.

      I don’t dismiss her piece entirely, but I think it’s important to critique the way such arguments have been and *are* used to normalize racism while disregarding the racial power dynamics that exist. It’s the framing of the argument that I took issue with.

  4. D.I.D. says:

    This is a good article, very well written…

    I think I now understand some of what you were getting at previously, and now that I think of it, when I use this lens, my previous posts were indeed one sided and refused to look objectively at the problems of racism and sexism from the position of someone else in what you describe as the racial heirarchy.

    Thus, if I may, I sincerely apologize for my hyper-defensive jackassery today. I took you to be an unthinking militant, when it was I who was, in fact, the close-minded militant.

    You are completely right – racism and sexism is often the product of a negative-feedback loop, whereas we are socialized to exhibit certain thought processes with regards to people based on outward appearances or other trivial things. It becomes internalized and reflexive: when we see someone for the first time we often quickly associate a racially-based stereotype with that person almost subconsciously and it is pre-programmed into our mindset. Society both allows and perpetuates this evil way of thinking.

    It is also so, so easy for us to fall into the “righteous warrior” trap, as well, where we rationalise some of our other moral shortcomings by “making up for it” in other ways, without realising that oppression is oppression no matter what you do.

    Your argument is good and logical, so I retract my previous statements about and defence of “white victimhood”. You have changed my POV.

    Peace be with you…

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