“I am not racist. I have plenty of friends of all different backgrounds and we are close.”
“Sexist? Me? Not a chance. I have nothing against women at all.”
“I am so sick and tired of all of the race baiting and over selling of everything and everyone as anti-women or anti-gay. Can’t it just be that perhaps a white male was the best for this job or that opportunity?”
“How can we really move forward in being more unified if we continue to spew the racist and sexist card at every single turn. It’s both divisive and untrue.”
“Take a breath.” I have to tell myself that every time I facilitate a dialogue about race, gender, sexual orientation, or any variation of diversity and inclusion. Of course, I could be encouraging the same to the audience who, five minutes into the discussion, are already pumped, perplexed, annoyed, and beside themselves. This is true regardless of what side of the discussion they are on. Fact: In today’s America, we are talking more than ever about equality, fairness, and equity and yet we are becoming more divided.
- Pundits spitting verbal fire at each other in a back-on-forth on CNN or Fox News? Check.
- Co-workers losing their cookies over the use of an idiom that, in years past, didn’t draw the public ire of peers and colleagues? That’s happening.
- (Former) friends that haven’t spoken in 8 months because one of them believed her and the other was awaiting evidence? True story.
- Strangers at a bar watching a headline pop-up about a #BlackLivesMatter moment wherein one of them is shaking their head in annoyance and the other is nodding in pride? Only on days that end in Y.
Make no mistake about it, social division is multiplying as accusations of racism, sexism and other social injustices continue to add up. But this isn’t a math equation. There are few open and shut cases and even fewer admittances of guilt in any form or fashion. And as we label people or comments as being sexist or racist, their denial and outright vitriol is palpable. But who’s right? Is someone racist for saying something that is culturally insensitive? Does awaiting evidence before determining the guilt of a man make someone sexist? Are the terms racist, sexist, homophobic and other like ones overused? Are we turning something into a race or a gender thing when the reality is nothing of the sort?
One’s answer to these questions will depend wholly on how they define these words. Putting the definitions aside for a moment, it is societies use and interpretation of these various words that is turning national conversations about equality, equity, and fairness into a bitter social divorce.
Racism is, by definition; prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race.
Sexism is, by definition; prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of sex.
In other words, someone could make a decision that discriminates against women and have that decision be labeled as sexist. This would be a fair label even if the person behind the decision was a truly loving husband and involved father to three young ladies. Can we live with this realistic association?
As well, someone could find themselves assuming that a black man with dreads is less corporate than a clean shaven white man. This someone may justify their belief by citing the social norms that are applied to appearance in the workplace. The question is, who decided what social norms were fair or not and on what basis? More importantly, were those social norms decided in consideration of the broader population, particularly people of diverse backgrounds? Otherwise, we could be coming up with discriminatory workplace practices while simultaneously perceiving that we have no racist tendencies.
These last three to five years of American life have brought to bear centuries of words and actions that were tolerated at best and acceptable at worst to a broad swath of the population. Still, they were hurtful in so many ways to the underrepresented. And as the majority grapple with suddenly being labeled hateful, racist, sexist, and other like adjectives, there are deeper lessons being missed.
It is worth noting that someone would argue that doing something that fits within the definition of racism or sexism does not automatically make them a racist or sexist. There is truth to this for the same reason that someone doing something stupid does not make them a stupid person. Regardless, there are lessons to be learned in the name of identifying and breaking down racist and sexist social habits that we have yet to overcome.
Lesson 1: In the world of equality, fairness, and equity, one needs not hate black people to be racist. The same goes for women and sexism. These things require discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping — three scarily common occurrences in the American footprint.
Lesson 2: As long as we focus on defending the old ways or outright denying the labels, we are not focusing on the actions and words that reared them.
Lesson 3: Homophobia, sexism, and racism are far more likely to show up in the areas of potential, social responsibility, and response; this as opposed to hate. (Hint: This is a lesson that everyone needs to understand as doing so can help the necessary conversations.)
Potential: My colleague and I were facilitating a diversity and inclusion dialogue when one of the participants stated “We all have to prove our abilities, it is no different for men, women, black or white. We ought not blame low promotion numbers on sexism or racism”. My colleague then asked him, “Do you believe that people, if given the same opportunities, have the same potential”? The participant responded by noting that “We must wake up to the reality that different people have different levels of abilities. It’s just how it is”. Note: He was not referring to specific individual people but instead different genders.
If we do not believe that people (regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin) have the same potential if given the same opportunities, it will affect what rewards and opportunities we give them. This is discrimination.
If a man does not believe that women have what it takes to lead, it will affect how they treat female leaders. Worse yet, they will not groom women to be future leaders. Again, discrimination.
If women do not believe that men have the same ability to be good nurturers and providers, it will affect how they are seen as potential fathers, nurses, teachers, etc. Yep, discrimination.
If someone in the law enforcement field sees the rehabilitation potential of people as a sliding scale where caucasians rehabilitate faster and blacks and hispanics slower, it will affect decisions from arrest to punishment to parole. Differentiating these things on the basis of race is discrimination.
The challenge with conversations about equality and potential is the justification that often follows it. I have had hundreds of people remind me that minorities commit crimes at a far higher rate than Caucasians and thus their potential to do so is justifiably higher. I have also had several people tell me that I should look at the lack of women applying for leadership positions as a sign that leadership isn’t what women really want. Except, if we believe that minorities are more criminally inclined, it will affect how we treat them. How we treat them will often determine how they see themselves and their potential, not to mention their opportunities (or not) to realize that potential. The same goes for women who may self select out because they see the writing on the wall that stems from initial false beliefs about their potential.
Distinguishing potential based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. drives racism and sexism.
Social Responsibility: Social responsibility is an emotional intelligence competency and it is defined, in simple terms, as the ability or tendency one has to connect to and serve a greater social system. Our social responsibility can often be very dependent on who is on the receiving end of the social line.
When we are watching the news and we learn that a teenage boy has been shot, does our level of empathy and grief depend on the color of his skin?
Who are we more likely to open our doors and wallets for? Girls selling Girl Scout cookies or black and African American kids selling chocolate bars for school uniforms? Based on patterns I have seen in every neighborhood that I have ever lived in, I know the answer.
These are very difficult but necessary questions to ask ourselves, both as individuals and as people within the larger collective. I teach a facilitation class wherein I show students a group of pictures and gauge their response. Over 900 students have observed and discussed these pictures with nary a comment from myself to tip them in one direction or another. Let me tell you what I observed:
When we see a Caucasian infant in need, we are empathetic towards the baby and the parents. When we see a black or African American infant in need, we are empathetic towards the baby and judgmental about the parents. Translation? Our social repsonsibility extends to the babies and the Caucasian parents.
When we see a picture of a man who is visibly uncomfortable with being touched by his female boss, women in the room are asking about why we are having conversations about men being touched when women are the ones who are predominantly touched inappropriately. When we see a picture of a woman who is visibly uncomfortable with being touched by her male boss, some men in the room want to know if the picture is real and, if so, what were the circumstances leading up to the touch? Translation? Our social repsonsibility can depend on what side of the gender aisle we sit.
When we see newspaper clippings for teen suicides, our level of empathy is significantly higher for heterosexual versus LGBTQIA.
All to say, our social responsibility tendencies can be strong indicators of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and stereotyping.
Response: Two years ago, a Stanford swimmer received a 6-month sentence because the judge did not want the young mans life wasted over “a stupid mistake”. This was the rationale of the judge. Six months ago, a man received no jail time for strangling and sexually assaulting a woman. According to the judge, the perpetrator’s loss of job was enough of a sentence. Would the response have been different if these men were not Caucasian? Do these responses paint a picture of how we value women’s experiences versus mens potential? Neither of these judges are likely to consider themselves sexist or racist and yet they took actions that give deference to men over the experiences of their female victims. Nor are they likely to look realistically at the differences in sentencing that they have bestowed upon black men found guilty under similar circumstances.
In reverse, 2018 provided several examples wherein people of color had the cops called on them for either very minor offenses (very young girls selling water bottles) or, sheer discrimination that lead to false assumptions. Here is but one of several examples. Here is another one. And one more for good measure. Were these all situational and circumstantial incidents that had nothing to do with race? It’s possible but not likely. Our response to people is very often based on our default perceptions of them.
So long as we have and respond to negative default perceptions of people based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, physical abilities, etc. we must accept the labels that come with it. Can we accept this?
You can do a sexist thing and still, in your heart of hearts, believe that you respect women.
You can do a racist thing and still, in your heart of hearts, have friends and even family who are of that same race.
Taking in these realities and asking yourself where you stand in the areas of perception, social responsibility, and response could be just the steps that help you understand your blind spots. America is talking more and yet we are becoming more divided. As TLC would say, this is actual and factual. A lot of that division comes from our own hang-ups over labels that we summarily dismiss without seeking to understand what they really mean.
Listen to understand. Look within to see if there are hard truths in your world. Begin an internal change process. Begin the social healing process.