All the “-isms” and Why They Matter.

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

– Scott WoodsScottWoods2748_small

This quote has spent the past several days circulating among my Facebook friends, and it in combination with some internet infighting has made me really want to address the understanding and use of “-isms.” Racism, Sexism, Cissexism, are all examples.

(It’s somewhat unfortunate that the above quote regards racism, because that is the one “-ism” that doesn’t follow the sort of language pattern I want to discuss. But, the description of the term as it is can be applied to most any “-ism.”)

There is an important actual and linguistic difference between individualized and institutionalized marginalization. Individual marginalization has terms like misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, etc. It refers to the ways in which a person or discrete small group of individuals are hateful to another. The “-isms” refer to institutionalized, internalized, ways of thinking and behaving that marginalize others without any conscious intent to do so. Here are some examples:

If a man tells a woman he’s going to rape her because she refused to accept his romantic advances, he’s a misogynist. If a person with no ill will toward women honestly believes women are “just different” and that’s why women are often less successful in science and math, they are being sexist.

If someone calls a trans* person a “trap,” or a “tranny,” they’re being transphobic. The fact that people actually feel the need to legislate the use of “correct” bathrooms because they’re really concerned about how genitalia align with bodily functions, they’re being cissexist. Or, for a more “polite” example, when every fucking interview with a trans* person crashes and burns because the interviewer asks about the interviewee’s genitalia, those interviewers are being cissexist.

Waving a sign that says “God Hates Fags” is homophobic. When a gay couple gets married and everyone legitimately wonders who’s going to wear the dress vs the tux (no matter the gender of the couple), that is heterosexist, though in this case the term more frequently used is heteronormative.

Telling a polyamorous person that she is “cheating” on her husband with her other partner(s) is polyphobic (I’m not 100% sure that’s a word, but it really ought to be). When filling out a medical form regarding sexual history, and there’s only one space for a “primary” or “main” partner, that’s monogamism.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, racism is more difficult to parse out because there is only one term. If someone calls a black person the n-slur, they’re being racist.The appropriation of the cultural mores of another race because you think it’s fun and will make you cool, is racist. The prosecution of drug charges that results in an overwhelmingly black prison population, is also racist. The differences in behaviors and intentions all just have one word, and frankly throw my whole argument out of whack. But, it wouldn’t be the English language if a few words didn’t follow the rules.

The upshot of all this, as with any of my commentary about marginalized groups, is to check your privilege before you say something. No, you might not be transphobic, you might not be homophobic, you might not be polyphobic or misogynist or a hateful person of any sort. But, the insidious thing about “-isms” is that they can thrive without hate. They can be perpetuated without malice or intention. As Woods states, “It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.” Whether or not we “like” black people, gay people, women, etc., we still view those who are different from ourselves in particular ways that can very easily become marginalizing.

If you are not a member of the particular marginalized group you’re discussing or interacting with, you’re liable to fall into an “-ism” trap because that’s just the way we’re brought up to think. Woods refers to this trap as a vast ocean we’re floating in, “a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.” The privileged perspective that gives rise to the many “-isms” is an integrated parts of our lives that we have to consciously and constantly resist in order to truly support those who are not privileged in the same ways we are.

This last bit about “in the same ways we are” is important. A lot of people think they can’t be marginalizing because they are marginalized. Being poly does not make you magically a queer ally, being trans* does not make you immune from racism, etc. Every group carries unique sets of privileges that allow them to marginalize other groups. 

There are already a lot of resources addressing how to deal with privilege and be a true ally, and I don’t think I need to become one more. The simple point I’m trying to make is that a lot of us think that just because we aren’t hateful people means that we automatically do not marginalize others, and that’s simply untrue. Not being hateful is a solid baseline, but to work our way out of the deeply ingrained “-isms” that teach us what is normal and what is other, is an ongoing and difficult process. Though, I would argue, it is a necessary one to be an actualized person and full member of humanity at large.

 

Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

nba-commercials

Isn’t it so funny? Because see, Asian men are short and basketball players are tall. Contrast is amusing!

I saw a commercial last night for some cel phone thing that let you get NBA information all the time. I don’t really care about sports, or confusing phone add-ons, so I don’t recall exactly what they were trying to sell me. But this was the story: an Asian family is coming downstairs for breakfast, only to see that their dad has transformed into some famous tall black basketball player – I didn’t catch his name. See? Don’t care about sports. Anyway, his pajamas are super short and he looks very silly, he has a dialogue with his son to the effect of “you look different!” The mother looks at him, and in sultry-voice says “I’ve got something for you to do.” Cut to him cleaning the gutters without a ladder. The end.

On the surface, it’s basically “ha-ha, that’s so funny, he’s cleaning gutters because he’s tall.” And what they’re selling you is a famous basketball player in your house. If you had this phone thing, it’d be like having this basketball player at your disposal all the time. How fun for you!

Unfortunately, commercials (and all of television) are always rich with layers, usually exploiting negative cultural expectations regarding race, sex, and class. In this case, we’re given the Asian mom supposedly coming on to the big black man. This resonates with our expectation: big black men are virile, Asian women look cold on the surface, but are all secretly wild and kinky in bed. But it turns around! She wants him to clean the gutters! That’s funny because while it doesn’t follow the expectation of the dialogue, we’re still not surprised: this is a woman with a child, and a woman who looks her middle-age. Those women don’t want to have sex, they just want their husbands to do chores for them. So it’s a funny twist that doesn’t take us outside our realm of anticipated stereotypes.

This is how I watch television. All the time. On one hand, it’s incredibly frustrating, because I can’t just laugh at a joke. I can’t just sit through a love scene without picking apart its implications. On…well, not the other hand, but maybe the other side of the other hand, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I know that so many people just DO laugh at the jokes, and enjoy the scenes, and just buy it all without examining what their entertainment is telling them.

The worst culprit, of course, is advertising, because it is specifically aimed at selling you something, and only has a very short time to do so. However, whenever I see an ad get called out for encouraging dangerous cultural biases, there will inevitably be some detractor telling us that we’ve got our collective panties in a twist and it’s “just a commercial.” For example, this delightful ad for Audi aired during the Superbowl this year.

audi-superbowl-commercialThe commercial creates a subtle environment, in which every moment plays a part. The kid starts out anxious, unhappy that he’s going to prom alone. The mother’s reassurance is ineffective, but the father hands him the keys to the Audi and says “have fun.” A look of shock passes over his face, but now that he can drive the Audi, he’s more confident. He parks in the principal’s space, marches into the prom, and kisses the prom queen without introduction or overture. He’s cheered by the general assembly, but the prom king gives him a black eye. He drives home, exultant, and fades out to Audi telling us: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”

Let’s go over what this kid did, and someone please tell me what was brave about it? He parks in the principal’s parking space. This is defiant, not brave. It exemplifies bravery as willingness to take something that does not belong to you (that part’s important, read it again). He kisses the prom queen, who does not even know he’s there until he’s touching her. That’s not bravery, that’s assault. It is again exemplifying bravery as willingness to take what you want regardless of the consequences. It frames the prom queen as a “what,” rather than a “who.”

The commercial was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, saying:
“Grabbing someone and kissing them without their permission is not Brave, it’s Cowardly, and it is Assault. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that our default state of existence is community property. No Thanks to Venables Bell & Partners for creating this Audi ad, and inspiring a generation of consumers watching the ads at the Super Bowl to think that grabbing and kissing someone without their permission = Brave.”

One of the first responses was from a man who said, “It didn’t look as if she minded? And being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message. Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.”

This comment demonstrates two of the most popular flaws in thinking, first about sexual assault, and the second about the media’s impact on our consciousness.

So, the first comment: “it didn’t look as if she minded,” is an incredibly common response to an unexpected and non-consensual sexual interaction that is generally considered minor, such as a kiss. Lots of people in this internet discussion echoed that sentiment. The first issue with this comment is that consent can’t be given retroactively. That’s not how consent works. “Go for it, if s/he likes it then it was consensual,” is not an acceptable way to approach sexual contact. You’re rolling the dice that the girl you’re assaulting is into that kind of thing. And that’s just backwards thinking. The bigger issue with this comment is that he is himself forgetting his second statement, that this is a constructed fictional account. Of course she didn’t mind, she was scripted not to mind because we’re being fed a scenario in which the assailant’s behavior is lauded as “brave.” If she didn’t smile, it wouldn’t be a good ad.

The second half of his argument is that “being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message,” and that “Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.” He’s right about that second half, but what he’s not considering is what kind of sex is being sold here.

What he’s trying to argue, that anyone “playing with a full deck,” should supposedly be able to see, is that this is a kid with low self-esteem who just got to kiss the prom queen. You can kiss the prom queen too, if you drive an Audi. That simple. But advertising is not that simple. Rooms full of people spend lots of time and money planning and scripting these ads. There’s a reason that the prom queen didn’t approach him as he got out of his car, saying “Nice car, wanna fuck?” That would still be selling sex, and the nerd would still get to kiss the prom queen, but the message would be completely different.

The message Audi wants to sell us is that this kid is brave. And being brave, he is defiant. He takes things that don’t belong to him. That includes the principal’s parking space, and the prom queen – even when he gets punched in the eye by the person that prom queen belongs to, it was worth it, because he was brave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Audi is trying to make the boys of America into rapists. I’m not calling them malicious. I’m saying that this is a culturally acceptable message to send, and by including it in their ad, they are keeping it alive while organizations like SlutWalk are trying so hard to kill it and replace it with consent culture.

While people like the Facebook commenter want us to believe that commercials are no big deal, that anyone “playing with a full deck” can see that it’s just fiction, the problem is that most people (him included) don’t put this much thought into the media they consume. I’d guess most people saw this commercial and thought “that’s so sweet, the nerd got the girl.” They thought, yeah, he is brave. Go you, boy in the Audi. They did NOT think, for a second, hey maybe that prom queen is a person. Maybe taking a kiss from the prom queen isn’t the same as taking the principal’s parking space. Maybe there’s something wrong here.

Popular culture and entertainment media feed each other in an endless loop, and accepting unacceptable behaviors in media representation makes the jobs of feminism, racial equity, consent culture, or any other group trying to prevent their own marginalization, so much harder. So, maybe it is “just a commercial,” but there are millions out there like it, and they keep getting made because people keep buying into their messages.