I had a conversation yesterday that lasted about an hour. A cis heterosexual white man was trying to justify to me that the gender pay gap is “not sexist” for two reasons: 1) the highest earner at the company he owned was a woman, and 2) the gap couldn’t be “an anti-female conspiracy” because there was a neutral explanation for the gap: maternity leave.
Other than the obvious problems with this viewpoint, I was struck by how much his defense, to his rhetorical detriment, incorporated the vehement assertation that he wasn’t “a sexist”. This implicates the “if you do one bad thing X, you must be a Bad Person” narrative that underlies not only our interactions with each other but the kinds of policy we make (hello, mandatory minimums). I’ve been thinking a lot about this thing I wrote a couple months ago—in relevant part:
“Consider that many people in this country are taught the grade-school version of intentional racism in a racially isolated school and then end up interacting with racial minorities only occasionally for the rest of their lives. How receptive are they going to be to the idea that racism might include their friend Paul, the senior manager at the Chico’s down at the mall, who keeps promoting people over his only Black employee, because she can be a little too belligerent? Or their friend Sheri, who speaks a little more slowly with the Latino cashiers at Costco regardless of whether they speak fluent English or not? Or their friend Martha, who crosses the street at night whenever she sees somebody she can’t immediately identify as white? After all, those decisions don’t flow from an intent to present racial animus, right? There are other justifications for them. How dare we call those things racist.
But, even if they don’t fit into that grade-school version of racism, they are judgments made on race. And even if the judgment comes from a good place, or seems to be separately justified, these are things that need to be changed. And in order to change them, they must be discussed.
And in order to do that productively, I think that there needs to be a term that we can use to describe benevolent or unintentional judgments that implicate race.
Better yet, though, I think that term already exists, and just needs to be redefined in modern discourse. Let’s call it ‘racism.'”
What is a racist? You ask any person on the street and they’d likely conjure up images of the KKK or a man with a seersucker suit and a syrupy accent from the 1930s. What is a sexist? That person on the street probably thinks of a stuffy old man telling a woman directly that she doesn’t have the right instincts for the job or a man sitting on a back porch having a thinly veiled conversation about “feminine values”.
This country will not move forward until we can internalize the idea that one misstep doesn’t condemn you. And in order to do that, we have to come up with a way to discuss judgments based on race or gender (or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or national origin, or disability status, or…) that don’t rise to this level.
Oddly enough, there is one example of broad social internalization of this kind: religion, and in particular, the Christian tradition. Sins, after all, are: a) universal, b) necessary to confess, and c) can be forgiven with understanding and repentance. This is exactly the kind of framework I’d like to be able to use with people. People who insist that there is plenty of evidence that racism or sexism is solved. People who are scared enough of being labeled a sexist that they’re willing to rail against “PC culture” to insulate themselves from any criticism along these lines.
I’m not saying that these discussions should be overtly evangelical. As somebody who grew up within the Baptist and Presbyterian traditions before going the R.E.M. route, I would find this not only more difficult but also counterproductive to the cause as a whole. Even for Christians, such an approach may feel particularly smug and self-satisfied.
But the blueprint is out there.
We just have to find the words.