Sexism and Racism
Problems in Comparing Racism and Sexism
In my response to the essay by Mr. Laurence Thomas (“Sexism and Racism: Some Conceptual Differences”) I will first say that while “sexism” and “racism” are each serious social issues, his is an entirely impractical argument, an exercise in rhetoric and semantics. I say that not just because there is no “right” and no “wrong” way of comparing the two forms of antisocial, ugly behavior, but because all that can be accomplished in an essay like his is the polishing of one’s skills in persuasive writing. Because it is all based on subjective analysis. Secondly, in my essay, I will point to the numerous flaws in the specific points he tries to make. In many instances his arguments are based on his own archaic views of the man-woman issue; he takes the position of a chauvinist which is flawed to begin with. In other cases, he makes comparisons between sexism and racism that are based on vague assumptions and out-of-date stereotypes. Of course, his essay was written twenty-six years ago and in that time the world has changed drastically, and people’s attitudes have changed too, so one has to take that into consideration.
Let me begin by questioning the limits of his racism scenario; he uses the prejudice a Caucasian person may feel towards an African-American, and by doing so he is relating to a tiny drop of water when the real problem in America is like Niagara Falls. He fails to touch on the real social problem that is alive and well in America, which culturally-based bias and bigotry. There is, after all, a mistaken view among many Americans that Asians, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and “whites” (Caucasians) make up biological entities called “races.” But any beginning anthropology student will explain that “race” is really just a word, a way to identify people. What we should be talking about is cultures and cultural bias, which is prejudice based on the hatred for or fear of another culture.
It is really based in many instances on ignorance, but it isn’t just “racism” it is cultural bias based on certain values that are different between the two cultures, or based strictly on environmental factors (if a person is raised by parents who dislike Catholics, that person is likely to be negative and biased against Roman Catholics, for example). So “racist” is too narrow and hurts Thomas’ argument.
He fails also to mention this point, and it would have helped his argument to point out that there are “racist” things said about illegal immigrants coming across the border into the United States; saying that they are “wetbacks” is almost as serious as using the “N” word about blacks. Racism is not limited to blacks and whites, is my point.
And how does any of this cultural bias match up to a man’s feelings toward a woman, whether or not he feels superior to a woman or whether he feels all women should stay at home and raise children while the man goes out and works? The comparison is too vague in any event to equate in any way a male’s views of females with any individual’s dislike for a person of another culture.
I will offer another consideration: an intelligent person must understand that debating sexism and racism is like having a dialogue over the difference between snowboarding and space travel. Two people could find a thousand comparisons and ten thousand dramatic differences, but where would the discussion end up? On the moon? What would be resolved other than having discussions brings out the competitive spirit in alert people? The argument should be on what causes cultures to abhor one another, and why do men act so badly around women, and treat women in many cases very poorly, with little respect for their strengths and values?
And here is still another consideration: taking the position of a chauvinist in order to explain what sexism is ruins his argument in the first place. For example, on page 247 he says in the “traditional male role” a “real man” is one who “wears the pants around the house.” This is an old-fashioned concept and has little to do with a man being “sexist” except for the fact that the writer himself seems to have chauvinistic ideas about the man-woman genre.
Meanwhile, some of the arguments spelled out by Laurence Thomas have value, but others are completely innocuous. How can he say that “sexism” is “unlike racism” because it “lends itself to a morally unobjectionable description”? Both sexism and cultural bigotry are morally objectionable. Both are examples of the cultural confusion in our country.
Also, he could have taken the position that blacks are culturally biased against white people because many blacks were raised in families that don’t trust white people. Blacks in some cases show hatred for whites in the same way whites show hatred towards blacks. The author could have made the point that this cultural antipathy is a two way street, and made a comparison between blacks hating whites and whites hating blacks. That would have been far more relevant that comparing sexism and “racism.”
In addition, the author should have noted that when things don’t go right for blacks, too often they fall into the trap of saying it’s “racist.” When a black athlete like Terrell Owens, who is a football star, got criticized by the media for a certain stunt he pulled in the end zone (autographing a football with a pen he pulled out of his sock) he claimed it is “racism.” He claimed that if a white player had done the same thing, nobody would have said a word. This point is made because the word “racism” is thrown around in a lot of situations, and it has become too vague to be a good point of discussion. For some blacks, it’s a crutch.
But the most irrelevant comparison the author makes is by saying that “behind every man is a good woman,” and that women “play a central role in the self-development of men” and thus men have a “positive conception of themselves.” Of course men also play a central role in the self-development of women, and in a good relationship, it is a two way street. Those are not unreasonable assertions. But then (p. 243) Thomas uses that man-woman theme to bring in the racist comparison; “There is no time-honored saying to the effect that behind every white there is a good black.” That is ridiculous.
In conclusion, it is clear that sexism is a separate issue completely from racism. And racism is such an entirely different topic from chauvinism (or “sexism” if you prefer) that they shouldn’t be considered as side-by-side issues. So maybe Thomas was defeated before he even began his essay, since the two concepts are not just as different as “apples and oranges,” but they are really as different as oceans and deserts, or maybe trees in Ohio and rocks on the moon.
Thomas, Laurence. (1980). “Sexism and Racism: Some Conceptual Differences.” Ethics, 90,
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