Racist PB&J? (Alternate Title: Shitty White People Playing Dumb)

I usually only write about stuff that directly pertains to feminism , but this one is too stupid and the conversation is too one sided to not comment on. So, this one is going to just be about race/ethnicity.

Apparently, about a year ago, the Portland Tribune ran an article about a Portland, OR elementary school that was taking some specific measures to help teachers be more sensitive to the needs of children of color. One of the things that was mentioned as an example of “subtle racism” was a classroom activity involving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Instead of explaining what the activity was or why it would be considered racially charged, the author, Jennifer Anderson, decided to just throw that in there without context and then include a bunch of decontextualized quotes from the principal, Verenice Gutierrez, to make her sound kind of anti-white and crazy.

So, here’s the thing. Apparently, a fairly popular writing activity/assessment is to have students describe, in as much detail as possible, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Gutierrez pointed out that some of the schools students are first generation immigrants, and most countries outside the US don’t eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The activity is supposed to involve taking something that all of the kids know how to do and have them describe how to do it. If you’ve never eaten a PB&J sandwich because your parents never make them at home, you’re not going to be able to explain how to make one. This is an activity that has an unnecessary obstacle built in for kids with different cultural backgrounds. Some people are arguing that that doesn’t have anything to do with race or ethnicity, because it’s a cultural difference, and that would be true if we were talking about a classroom with a bunch of recent immigrants from Europe, in which case the activity would probably be modified pretty quickly because white European kids don’t have the same stigmatized expectations attached to them. When Mexican or Somalian kids fail, it’s assumed to be caused by something else, not bad teaching – it’s a crappy, baseless assumption, but you know that there are people, even well meaning people, who think that way. We’re talking about something that all of the white kids in the class can do, and likely some of the non-white children can also do, but the ONLY ones who are adversely affected are children of color. For something to be racist, it doesn’t have to affect EVERY SINGLE PERSON of that race. It is racist because it exclusively disadvantages children who are not white.

Anderson also speculates that the school is running a drumming class going on during lunch periods that is exclusively available to black and Latino boys. The basis that it is discriminatory apparently came from an anonymous letter saying that girls and children of other races had tried to sign up but were not allowed to join. It’s hard to piece together what’s going on there, since the original article is so poorly written, but what’s most likely going on is that it’s an intervention for at-risk students, as group drumming lessons have lead to positive outcomes for kids with behavioral issues. Considering the fact that 65% of the student body at the school in the article is black or Latino, there is only space for 30 students in the class, and girls at the elementary school level are known to have less behavioral issues, it doesn’t seem unbelievable that  the kids who need the class the most happen to be black and Latino boys. Anderson wrote a year ago that a teacher had reported this drumming group to the ACLU, who apparently decided not to pick up the case. Considering the fact that the ACLU takes discrimination pretty seriously, I’d wager that if they don’t think this drumming class is a problem, it probably isn’t one.

Predictably, a bunch of shitty white people are working themselves into a frenzy over this whole thing. The article somehow resurfaced over the past couple of days and people are responding as though it is recent news. They’re storming the school’s Facebook page to give reactionary 1-star reviews and idiotic commentary is spreading like wildfire across conservative outlets. Particularly offensive to these shitty white people is the fact that Gutierrez made several references to white privilege, or in other words, she pressed the panic button for shitty white people collectives across the US. Somehow, there are people who live in the US, the same US that I do, and claim not to have noticed the fact that some things are a little easier here for white people than they are for almost everyone else. More specifically, white culture is the dominant culture in the US, so when little white kids go to school, they’re likely to encounter lessons and expectations that were designed by people who share their cultural background. It’s not always intentionally discriminatory, it’s just the way things happen. That makes a difference. It doesn’t mean that no white person has ever had a hard time with shit (duh) or that no person of color has ever had an easy time with shit (obviously that happens sometimes too). It just means that most of our institutions are designed with white people in mind. It’s an advantage: one that isn’t earned, isn’t based on merit, and isn’t based on general ability or intelligence.

So when that teacher at that school decided to use the PB&J activity, their white privilege prevented them from being aware of the fact that it was an activity that wouldn’t make sense to some of the students. They likely had not had the experience of being in a classroom where things that were expected to be “universal” knowledge were not part of their personal background. Things that are problems for people who are outside the dominant culture are invisible to members within the dominant culture (until someone brings them to light). That doesn’t mean that the teacher is a racist bigot or anything like that. But it does mean that being informed and aware about that privilege will make the teacher more sensitive to the needs of students with different cultural backgrounds. Why would that possibly be a bad thing? If you don’t want to level out the playing field to help disadvantaged kids succeed, there’s something broken in your brain and I don’t know what to tell you.

This is why efforts for “equality” shouldn’t always involve treating everyone exactly the same way. As an analogy, let’s say you and all your friends are going to a movie that starts at 8pm. Your friends all have the evening off, so they decide to meet up for dinner beforehand and then walk to the theater together. You have to work until 7:30pm, so you can’t join them for dinner. Let’s say your friends demanded that you need to be treated “equally” and insisted that after you get out of work, you have to go to the same restaurant and eat dinner and then walk to the theater alone. You’re going to be really late to the movie (or maybe even miss it altogether). Would that demand make any kind of sense? Of course not. Assuming your friends aren’t totally unhinged, they’d have no problem with you just driving straight to the theater from work and maybe buying a hot dog at the concession stand or something. Because it isn’t a contest. Because it doesn’t hurt them for you to be on time for the movie. Because it’s more fun for everybody when you all get there on time.

There’s nothing wrong with making exceptions so that the system works for everybody.

It doesn’t hurt anyone to use an example other than peanut butter sandwiches in writing class.

Unless your definition of “hurt” is that you and your kids don’t get an unfair advantage anymore. If that’s your working definition, I have some advice for you: suck it up.

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George Zimmerman & Interlinked Oppressions

I am so angry right now, I am actually considering deleting the photo off the top of this post because I can’t stand looking at this awful human being’s disgusting face. As many of you know, George Zimmerman, the dude most famously known for murdering an unarmed black teenager and getting away with it, is in trouble with the law again. Shocking, right?

This time, it’s for violence against his (hopefully now ex) girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, who called 911 after he smashed a glass coffee table and pointed a shotgun at her. Those of you who are big fans of his will be happy to know that he has already posted bail and is back in society! Originally, bail was set at $4900, but was raised to $9000 after the judge became aware of another allegation: that he had tried to choke Scheibe a week ago. In spite of all the horrifying information available about this situation, the judge initially was going to clear the newly bailed out Zimmerman to drop by Scheibe’s address to pick up belongings he had left there. Thank god, someone with capacity for rational human thought convinced the judge that this was a really bad, really dangerous idea and the decision was reversed.

How many times is this shit going to play out before the justice system decides to get real and protect society from Zimmerman? I’ve seen some snarky comments online already about how Zimmerman ended up in jail this time because this time his victim is white. While being white in the US is obviously a position of privilege, we need to bear in mind that he’s already out on bail and he also has, at this point, got a LONG and DETAILED history of victimizing women while remaining essentially untouchable. Just as far as known reports go, we have this awful case, just a couple of weeks ago he nailed a bulls-eye filled with bullet holes to the side of his estranged wife’s parents’ house (this is after he punched her dad and stabbed her iPad with a knife, for those of you keeping track at home), he has been accused of molesting at least two women for over a decade, and he stalked and assaulted his former fiance in 2005.

And EACH TIME, he pulls the same morally bankrupt, downright sociopathic, absolutely delirious excuse: he tears down the victims’ credibility, frames them as hysterical liars, and pretends that THEY VICTIMIZED HIM. In the most recent conflict, he made a 911 call after the police had already showed up at Scheibe’s apartment (in response to her initial call), wherein he refused to open the door to the cops that were already there and told the dispatcher that his “pregnant” girlfriend had gone “crazy”.  Oh, by the way, Scheibe is not pregant. Similarly, Zimmerman spun a wild yarn about ex-fiance, Veronica Zuazo, saying that the true story behind the stalking allegations was that she had called him because he was coincidentally “in her neighborhood” and that she had instigated physical violence against him because he wouldn’t spend the night at her apartment.  In fact, he filed a counter-claim against her and they both ended up with equal punishments: a restraining order against each other and a one year bar against possessing firearms. This really isn’t a he said/she said thing if totally unrelated women independently keep making the same claims about him over and over again.

Similarly, Zimmerman painted Trayvon Martin as the aggressor in their totally unnecessary encounter that lead to Martin’s death. Never mind the fact that acquaintances and colleagues of Zimmerman’s have stated openly that Zimmerman and his family are super racist and that he has an explosive temper. Or the fact that over the span of the previous 8 years, Zimmerman had made nearly 50 batshit calls to his local police department, often to report the “suspicious activity” of people of color, including a “suspicious” black child estimated to be 7-9 years old. Despite self-identifying as Hispanic, Zimmerman also has no qualms about making bigoted statements about Mexicans, so while he is also technically a person of color, he clearly sees himself as being set apart from them.

Let’s be clear here: these are only the things we know about. Considering how wildly under reported crimes like sexual assault/abuse and domestic violence are, the fact that Zimmerman has this much easily accessible public dirt on him should probably have everyone worried about all the awful things he’s likely done without getting caught. Shellie Zimmerman has described her estranged husband as seeing himself as being invincible and above the law, which sounds delusional until one considers the fact that it’s actually kind of true. How many times is Zimmerman going to waltz through the criminal justice system before we take his guns away for good and figure out a way to get him to stop committing acts of violence against marginalized people?

This isn’t just about Zimmerman being racist (which he is) or a misogynist (which he is), it’s about a person repeatedly exercising his social power to victimize members of oppressed groups.  We live in a culture where having plenty of money and being socially/politically well-connected delivers near-immunity from being held accountable for bad behavior – especially if that bad behavior is targeted at our society’s undesirables, especially the poor, women, sexual and gender minorities and people of color (multiply that effect by orders of magnitude when those categories overlap).

George Zimmerman is a shining example of why we need coalitions, alliances, and intersectional goals. While we all feel the effects of inequality differently and to varying degrees, it’s more important to address who does have power rather than who doesn’t. Making a few things better for one group is not going to cut it. The powerful are the ones who benefit from infighting between the disempowered: as we stand divided, we stand conquered. Dismantling institutions like white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and class privilege is a big job – one that will take all of us. As long as any of us are being beaten, raped, murdered, starved, humiliated, or degraded because of our ascribed statuses, our identities, it affects us all. Or, in the immortal words of MLK Jr., whose eloquence and bravery I could never approach: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So, let’s start talking. What does justice look like and how are we going to get it?

On Electing a Woman President

Hello Kitty for President by Christian Lau, on Flickr

 

The New Republic ran a much discussed story this week, titled, “Hillary’s Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies with Elizabeth Warren”. As one might guess, much of the focus lies in pitting the politically powerful women against each other in the event of a (for now, just hypothetical) bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Author Noam Scheiber compares the two as potential candidates, concentrating most heavily on their respective involvement with and ideologies regarding the financial sector. Fair enough, but why exactly was Warren, who has not expressed any intentions of running so far, cherry-picked out of any number of other potential Democratic hopefuls? Well, here’s at least part of his reasoning:

“In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again.”

This is an incredibly problematic attitude. First, it reduces the desire for a woman president to a “desire to make history,” as though this is an issue on comparable footing to getting in the Guinness Book of World Records. There area a few reasons why a woman president might be meaningful:
1. It would demonstrate that the barriers that explicitly and overtly forbade women from filling this role have been lifted. Okay, so that’s been the case for a while though, right? Margaret Chase Smith ran in the Republican primaries all the way back in 1964.
2. Ideally, it would demonstrate that women have achieved equality with men in general and that they have the same life chances that could lead them to political power. This is NOT something that could be demonstrated by electing one woman president. This is something that would be demonstrated when women are generally filling positions of power commensurate with their membership in the population: roughly half the time. We already know that this is not the case at the given moment. Women currently hold 4.5% of Fortune 1000 CEO positions and 18.3% of seats in Congress.
3. Theoretically, it would mean that the interests of women were represented in the nation’s highest political office. It doesn’t take much critical  thinking to observe that this is not necessarily always the case. Remember the undeniably anti-feminist platform Michele Bachmann ran on back in the 2012 ? Even Phyllis Schlafley endorsed her.

It remains to be seen whether or not a 2016 Clinton presidency would benefit women overall, but there is plenty of reason to feel skeptical. As Scheiber notes, Clinton is deep in Wall Street’s pockets, as exemplified earlier this month when she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches at Goldman Sachs. She was an ardent supporter of her husband’s 1996 welfare reform, which wrought havoc on single mothers living in poverty. While she has an impressive voting record on issues like abortion, she has a deeply unsettling history with victim-blaming when it comes to sexual violence. Comparatively, Warren does seem to have a track record that indicates her theoretical presidency would be more beneficial to women in a “big picture” sense. However, as previously stated, she has not expressed any interest in running. While Scheiber’s premise may well be correct, that Warren would be better for women, his overstatement of the relevance of that information is troubling. Does Scheiber really believe that, at this point in U.S. politics, woman-friendly policies are of critical importance to the majority of voters? That pro-woman credibility is sought after to the extent that a wildly popular politician like Hillary Clinton should be worried that a non-competitor will out-feminist her?

Scheiber’s assertion that Democrats want to elect a woman just for the sake of doing it reduces women in politics to mere tokens. Given the theatrical nature of mainstream politics, this actually might be truer than one would want to believe. But, if that is the case, does it really matter which woman would be the best advocate for women’s interests? We don’t have to look very far back to be confronted with Sarah Palin’s VP candidacy in the 2008 election, wherein she described herself as a feminist during an anti-abortion speech, and famously also gained her nomination shortly after publicly admitting that she didn’t even know what the vice president does. Around that time, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed addressing the qualitative differences between a candidate like Palin and a feminist candidate:

“This isn’t the first time a boss has picked an unqualified woman just because she agrees with him and opposes everything most other women want and need. Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”

I’ll never pretend that I see eye to eye with Steinem on every issue, but on this one in particular, she nails it. As a little girl, I used to tell anyone who would listen all about how I was going to be the first woman president. I abandoned that aspiration about 20 years ago, but I haven’t lost my passion for the subject. As a person who would love nothing more than to see women gain equal power in our society, I have little enthusiasm for efforts to artificially promote the image that we have achieved it prematurely. Whether Warren runs or not, we still have an awful lot of work to do.

Academic Essays: The Roles of Intersectionality, History, Coalitions and Post-modern Thought

book sale loot by ginnerobot, on Flickr

Note: This entry is actually composed of two papers that I was assigned to write over the course of this past year. While academia isn’t for everyone, nor is it essential for engagement with feminism, I think that these essays do a relatively good job of describing the theoretical framework I tend to write from. It’s not exhaustive of course, but hopefully someone out there will find it useful.

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Judith Butler Explained with Cats

This is a must-read for anyone struggling with Judith Butler. It is super helpful!

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Following hot on the heels of Foucault Explained with Hipsters, here’s JB’s Gender Trouble  explained in Socratic dialogue style. With cats.

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All page references from Butler, J. (1990 [2008: 1999]). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge.

Got any more ideas for philosophy/sociology/gender theory you’d like to see explained in comic form? Let me know in the comments below.

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Capitalism Will Never Be the Solution to Rape

American Money by 401(K) 2013, on Flickr

Recently, a couple of new “anti-rape” product lines have been brought to my attention. The first, AR Wear, is a line of pants and underwear that are made of ultra-strong fabric that cannot be cut and lock in place to so that they cannot be removed. The second, DrinkSavvy, is a line of cups and straws that will detect beverage contamination with certain date-rape drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine. Neither has officially hit the market yet, as both are still in preliminary/fundraising phases.

There’s an immediate part of me that wants to rejoice. The prevalence of rape is starting to make its way into the public consciousness. People are donating their time and their money to projects that aim to reduce the incidence of rape. Both of those are good things. My kneejerk reaction to AR Wear in particular was a really positive one. But, as I thought more about these products, there was something that just wasn’t sitting right with me.

There’s been a lot of criticism echoing around the blogosphere that AR Wear will promote victim blaming, which is not necessarily something that I agree with. I would think that it’s pretty obvious that there are practical reasons that would prevent women from exclusively wearing expensive, high tech anti-rape underwear every day of the week. Of course, there are plenty of obvious rebuttals to every other victim-blaming line of reasoning, but the old arguments are more culturally entrenched and pervasive. Since anti-rape underwear is a relatively new thing, one would hope that “It’s her fault because she wasn’t wearing protective undergarments” isn’t a line of thinking that would be able to establish a foothold in today’s society without being an old argument that’s passed down from generation to generation. Again, this is just speculative on my part, so my hopes should be taken with a grain of salt. In light of the fact that AR Wear has already raised over $50k to start up their business, it seems that it will just be a matter of time before we find out.

So if my problem isn’t the potentiality for victim-blaming, what is the problem? I guess the first thing is that I don’t think that either product line will be particularly successful in achieving what each sets out to do: prevent rape. As far as AR Wear is concerned, there are unfortunately various ways to sexually assault victims without removing underwear. Also, in a coercive situation, an attacker can threaten, manipulate, or use physical violence to get the woman to remove the garments herself. In this situation, the product meant to mitigate risks can actually lead to the escalation of an already bad situation.

As far as DrinkSavvy is concerned, the most common form of drug facilitated sexual assault involves alcohol only. Date rape drug detection won’t do anything to prevent the overwhelming number of rapes that occur after a victim has had too much to drink – either willingly or because they were being pressured or misled by their attacker to drink to the point of incapacitation (as was the tragic case with 14 year-old Daisy Coleman of Maryville, MO). Additionally, an incredibly wide variety of drugs can be used to facilitate sexual assault, including but not limited to anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, and cold medicines. DrinkSavvy’s website says that initially the drinkware will only detect Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine, but even with updated versions it’s difficult to imagine that the drinkware will ever catch up. If these cups become as popular as their inventor wants them to be, potential rapists will likely just avoid using the particular drugs that the cups detect, as there is a wide variety of other options.

I don’t feel good about being too hard on the creators of these products – both companies drew their inspiration from awful first-hand experiences. I truly believe that the people behind these companies have the protection of potential victims at the forefront of their minds.

That being said, there’s an elephant in the room: money. There have not yet been prices released for these products, but considering the costs of research, development, and technology involved, they can’t possibly be cheap. It’s likely that only people who are relatively high-income will be able to afford to make casual purchases of these items. I can’t help but think though, that there is likely a market for these items with people who will spend money, even money they can’t really afford, in hopes of preventing future sexual assaults: actual rape victims. Many people who have survived rapes are traumatized, excessively anxious and plagued by intense fears of re-victimization.

When I saw the AR Clothing, my immediate thoughts were to wonder how I would be able to obtain at least one of the garments. Money was barely a concern, because the prospect of being able to go an entire day without the fear of rape was something that couldn’t be given a price. Believing in these products felt so important. I had to sit with my thoughts for a few days before coming to the difficult conclusion that anti-rape products would not make me rape-proof.

Despite my own conclusions, I can’t help worrying over the idea of victims sinking their income into investing in DrinkSavvy straws and cups over and over again, regardless of cost. I worry about the idea of victims feeling the need to purchase enough AR Wear to be able to outfit themselves in it every day. The products and the companies that make them are walking a fine line between offering a service and financially exploiting a particularly vulnerable population, if not outright crossing that line altogether. If there was good reason to believe that the products would be efficient in preventing rape, it would be worth it. Considering the obvious weaknesses in both product lines, I don’t believe that’s the case.

We all want for there to be quick fixes and easy solutions for preventing sexual violence. Anti-rape products play into these desires, becoming more and more profitable as the desperation for protection increases. At this point, I’m not sure what the best course of action should be. Should we protest these products, or should we sit back and cross our fingers, hoping our collective skepticism will be proven wrong?

Why Joss Whedon’s Arrogant, Clueless, 14 Minute Long Speech Kinda Matters

Ugh, where to begin. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I am not joining the parade of bloggers who seem to be lining up to pat Whedon on the back and endorse his message.

I know that I included the full video above, but Whedon’s rambling diatribe makes it really hard to watch more than a couple of minutes without tuning out (in my experience anyway). So that you readers don’t have to watch the whole thing, especially since you might not be physically able to, I’m going to include the transcribed version of which points I’m addressing specifically. I doubt you’re going to miss much, but if anyone feels like an important point is being overlooked or the context is not appropriately represented, let me know in the comments.

Whedon starts out by saying that he hates the word “feminist” because he finds it phonetically displeasing. Okay, that’s kind of a weird and irrelevant criticism to make in a speech about gender equality, but it’s definitely not the stupidest thing he will say in the course of the next 10+ minutes. It starts to get really bad right around here:

“My problem with feminist is not the word. It’s the question. It’s the question. ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a feminist?’ The great Katy Perry once said – I’m paraphrasing – ‘I’m not a feminist but I like it when women are strong.’ That’s lovely Katy. Don’t know why she feels the need to say the first part, but listening to the word and thinking about it, I realize I do understand. This question that lies before us is one that should lie behind us. The word is problematic for me because there’s another word that we’re missing. That words have failed us. And I’d like to use as an example race.

In the public discourse, there’s one word to deal with race. Racism. That is the word. And it implies something very important. It implies something that we are past. When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful. Is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don’t have the word for it. People are confronted with the word feminist and it stops them; they think they have to deal with that. But I think we’re done with that as intelligent human beings. Being on the wrong side of history in terms of the oppression of women is being on the whole of history, all of recorded history, you’re on the wrong side. …
I start thinking about the fact that we have this word when we’re thinking about race that says we have evolved beyond something and we don’t really have this word for gender. Now you could argue sexism, but I’d say that’s a little specific. People feel removed from sexism. ‘I’m not a sexist, but I’m not a feminist.’ They think there’s this fuzzy middle ground. There’s no fuzzy middle ground. You either believe that women are people or you don’t. It’s that simple.”

On one hand, there are a few nice sentiments woven in there. Whedon wishes that patriarchy and racism were things of the past, and that’s certainly something I can appreciate. I have to admit that I was beyond annoyed by Whedon’s casual insistence that we’re “past” racism though, because the United States still has some truly serious race issues to work on. As a white dude, Whedon is not especially qualified to make that kind of claim. It’s also really troubling because it sounds like he’s acting like, as a society, we’ve made more progress in dismantling white supremacy than we have in dismantling patriarchy, which, as an intersectional feminist, is absolutely not a statement I feel comfortable with.

The theme of being unqualified is part of the reason why Whedon’s speech is so arrogant to start out with – Whedon is a man, stepping in to tell women why the framework of our movement is misguided (You should focus on people who aren’t feminist instead of people who are!) and how he has personally devised a foolproof plan to fix it for us. I absolutely believe that rights movements, including feminism, should be inclusive and should have space for all sorts of people to share their ideas about how we can achieve our goals together.

That being said, Whedon is being a totally sucky ally right now. I feel like, if you are a person of a privileged group and you want to be supportive and helpful to a marginalized group, the majority of your efforts should center around amplifying the message of those marginalized people. For example, when I discuss racial issues, to the greatest extent possible, I try to make sure that I am doing everything I can to direct attention to the arguments and concerns of people of color. I am a white person, which means I don’t have the lived experience of racial oppression. Not only am I unqualified to speak on the behalf of people of color, I also don’t want to further contribute to their under representation. I want to make their voices louder, not substitute my own voice instead.

In that same vein, Whedon is substituting his own voice for women’s voices. First, he’s using his own definition of feminism – not one that is particularly grounded in theory – and then criticizing its utility.

But here’s the part where he has accidentally come up with something that is useful and worth discussing: the idea that anyone who believes in women’s right to equality is automatically a feminist. Up until hearing this speech, I would have agreed with that idea. I was also annoyed when I heard someone say that they were not a feminist in one breath but that they do believe in gender equality in the next. “If you believe in gender equality,” I would think, “then that means you’re a feminist. You’re just being a coward by not wanting to label yourself with a controversial word.” 

But when I heard Whedon use that idea to attack the word “feminist” and argue that we should be identifying and labeling people who are anti-feminist instead, it gave me pause. Obviously, feminism is about a lot more than just believing in equality, so the term feminist should describe more than that, too. Feminism is an activist movement, aimed not just at changing the attitudes of individuals, but also at addressing and someday resolving institutional problems. Labeling oneself a feminist should coincide with beliefs, not just that women should have equality, but also that they don’t already have it and we need to do something to make it happen. 

At this point, everyone knows that you can’t openly discriminate against women for job hiring, raises, and promotions. But even companies like Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer of women, who have anti-discrimination policies on the books, were shown to  pay male employees more and promote them to salaried positions more often even though women, as a group, had more seniority, higher performance reviews, and made up a larger percentage of the pool of eligible applicants. Statistician Richard Drogin, consulted as an expert witness for the Dukes v. Wal-Mart class action suit, plugged in all the numbers and found that the probability of those things occurring by random chance was nearly impossible – the odds were one in a number so large I wouldn’t be able to express it without using scientific notation (seriously, we’re talking billions of billions). In spite of this, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the anti-discrimination policy was enough and said as much in their ruling. When something like that happens, it’s not about one guy who doesn’t think “women are people”. It’s about a large scale, collective patterns of behavior that are allowed to continue without oversight or intervention.

Feminism is about recognizing the subtle, insidious problems of patriarchy in every day life. It’s about women going on maternity leave and coming back to their jobs to find that their career path has been stunted or that the company no longer has any use for them at all (gosh, where have I heard that before? Oh, right, that’s exactly what Whedon did to Charisma Carpenter when she was a new mom: sorry for the video quality, Carpenter addresses this around 5:50 or so). It’s not just about a husband making stupid jokes to his wife about making sandwiches – it’s also about that wife coming home and working what Arlie Hochschild calls the “second shift” where she gets home from her full-time job and finds herself responsible for a disproportionate amount of the child-care, cooking, and housework. There are so many reasons why we need feminism that I couldn’t possibly list all of them in this blog post.

So if Katy Perry believes that women are people and that it’s cool when women are strong but she doesn’t think patriarchy is a problem in today’s society and she doesn’t want to do anything about it – I’m fine with her saying that she isn’t a feminist. I hope that someday she will be a feminist, but right now, it’s totally probable that she isn’t one. When people say “I’m not a feminist but…”, maybe we should take the statement at face value. They care about women but are comfortable with the status quo. They want equality but are not activists. Does it really serve anyone to pretend that everyone who believes that “women are people” are automatically feminists? I don’t think that it does, just like it doesn’t serve anyone when people insist they aren’t racist even though they have obviously problematic racial attitudes.

Now we need to spend a minute addressing Whedon’s “solution”:

“So clearly I gotta come up with this word. We need this word so that we can change the public discourse a little bit. And I came up with a lot of good ideas. I’m not going to lie. Good stuff, good stuff.

Obviously number one, I like the rhythm and intent of ‘pathetic prehistoric rage-filled inbred assclown,’ but that’s a lot to ask of a hashtag. I’m mean, lets just be honest.

Second in line: genderist. I’m alone in my room and I come up with genderist and I think ‘Oh! I’ve cracked it. This is amazing.’ This is it…I think about it for a long time. It really resonates with me, and so for two days, I live with it, and I don’t go anywhere near the internet because I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it. And then I finally do…Stupid Urban Dictionary.

Of course other people had thought of it, many people had thought of it, but I had never heard it. And I still haven’t heard it. And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal. And we are past that. And every evolved human being who is intelligent and educated and compassionate and to say I don’t believe that is unacceptable. And Katy Perry won’t say, ‘I’m not a feminist but I like strong women,’ she’ll say, ‘I’m not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty.’ And that’ll be fine.”

First of all, we already have an equivalent word for this – sexist. Earlier in the speech, Whedon dismissed the word outright because he thinks that people won’t admit to being sexist when they are. That’s awfully silly grounds for dismissal since people generally won’t admit to being racist either. We could get into a discussion about whether or not “sexist” is a less than ideal term on the grounds that it might make transwomen feel excluded (any trans ladies reading, please feel free to weigh in on this one) but that’s not Whedon’s argument so maybe that’s something to take on another day in another post.

It’s sort of surprising that Whedon is admitting to checking the internet to see if anyone else had come up with his new miracle word. Whedon is being accurate when he says that there is one lonely entry on Urban Dictionary that defines “genderist” the same way he does. However, the top hit if you type in “genderist” is the Wikipedia article about genderism. If you don’t want to click the link, here’s a quick summary: genderism is prejudice on the basis of a person’s failure to comply with the gender binary. Or in other words, negative beliefs about people who are transgender or genderqueer. Since obviously it’s super important to talk about the awful way that trans and genderqueer folks are treated in our society, I’m pretty happy that this term exists, and it seems like the term is well-suited to what it is describing. I find it extremely difficult to believe that Whedon saw that Urban Dictionary entry and somehow didn’t notice the Wikipedia article. So not only is Whedon telling us that our movement’s words are wrong, he thinks we should fix it by stealing a term that already exists from another movement and redefining it. Wildly uncool.

At the end of the day, I guess it works out that Whedon hates the word “feminist”, because I don’t think that’s a word that I’d use to describe this speech anyway. Congrats, Joss Whedon. You don’t have to worry about me calling you a feminist any time in the near future.