CN: sexism, racism, trans-antagonism, Caitlyn Jenner, use of “phobia” terms to mean bigotry.
In the fight for social justice, it’s not just sexism and racism you need to worry about. There are new isms and phobias popping up every day: transphobia, ableism, homophobia, classism, fat-phobia, and Islamophobia.
Each of these terms refers to a different form of institutional bias. Unlike individual instances of everyday rudeness or disrespect, institutional bias is different in that it is reinforced by institutions like schools, corporations, the legal system, and the government.
If someone picks a fight with you and beats you up because they don’t like you, you may be able to call the police and press charges against your attackers. If someone beats you up because you are black, if you call the police, you may be in danger of being arrested yourself, and charges are less likely to be pursued if the police dismiss your accusations.
In the first instance, the malice is personal, in the second, the malice comes from the cultural narrative that black people are inferior, and this attitude is supported and reinforced by an institution that encourages it to continue.
Racism can’t be everywhere...
I’ve seen the following occur frequently: Person A points out an instance of racism. Person B denies that it’s racism. Person A explains the subtle underlying messages that make the action racist. Person B says that if Person A’s argument were correct, then that would mean racism is everywhere.
For someone unfamiliar with the extent of systemic racism in our country, the idea that racism could be deeply embedded in every aspect of our society is a terrible and ludicrous thought. If this one small action were caused by racism, then how many social interactions, decisions, systems, organizations, laws, are be based on racism too? The sheer scope of the potential damage is too big for them to accept. They believe the hugeness of the idea means that it’s ridiculous, rather than horrifying.
The flip from unimaginable to terribly real for me came when I read Soraya Chemaly’s article, “10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.” Don’t be fooled by its clickbait title. Chemaly article explores how and in what circumstances men and women interrupt each other, touching on a wide range of social patterns influenced by sexism and ties them together flawlessly.
Men Interrupt, Women Oblige
We’re all guilty of cutting off our friends mid-sentence occasionally. But statistically, men interrupt women far more often than women interrupt men, in a huge variety of contexts. This pattern even continues in situations where the woman has more power in the interaction, such as if she’s a doctor or the man’s supervisor. Additionally, men spend more time talking than women do, both in real life and in the media, which directly contradicts the stereotype that women do nothing but talk.
The reason for this trend is that men are socialized to see assertiveness in expressing strongly held opinions as a good quality. They are taught to consider the act of interrupting, or speaking over someone else, as a necessary part of expressing those personality traits, and a negligible loss for the interrupted person.
Women, however, are socialized to be polite, which in this context means to be silent. They are taught to stop speaking as soon as someone else begins speaking. They are also taught that to continue speaking when someone has interrupted you is rude. Of course, this also means that women have a tendency to stop speaking if another woman interrupts and that some men have no issue interrupting and talking over other men.
Because socialization is not only unconscious but we are usually unaware of the differences in our socialization to that of other demographics, men don’t realize that their interruptions count on women’s silence to succeed, or that it’s rare that a woman would ever respond by interrupting back, even if he was okay with that happening. They don’t realize the pattern is occurring, but, they also benefit from this dynamic a great deal.
What struck me about Chemaly’s article was the growing list of evidence linked in her article that supported her thesis. There were so many contexts these social patterns applied to: the workplace, doctor-patient relationships, social interactions, media, education. And as she named each context, I found myself able to think of times I had experienced or seen that happen myself in every context, and unable to think of many scenarios in which the genders were reversed.
It could be easy to dismiss Chemaly’s observations as not that big of a deal. But as I’ve talked about before, visibility is one of the best tools for combating oppression. The more you talk, the more the group you’re representing is heard, the more influence you have over the people around you. If men are getting a substantially more opportunities to influence their social interactions than women do and men are actively preventing women from having influence by interrupting them, social power dynamics will always be in men’s favor, and the needs of men will be prioritized more often.
I don’t believe that all men are rude, inconsiderate, or entitled. I don’t believe men are inherently any one thing. Sure, there are some men who are self-centered enough that even if you ask them to consider others in the room, they will never adjust their behavior. But I believe that these men, while common and socially rewarded for their behavior, are still the exception and not the rule.
If these social rules are so widespread and universal, and men are not born self-centered, then the majority of men must have no idea they are participating in these patterns. Women frequently don’t realize they are assisting in maintaining the status quo either.
The day I read the article, I went to discuss it with a male friend of mine. Over the course of the 5-minute conversation, he interrupted me a minimum of three times. This friend was a sweet, intelligent, respectful man who had a good sense of humor and supported women’s equality.
After that conversation, it was like an optical illusion, where once you see the new image, you can’t unsee it.
Every time a man interrupted me, I noticed. The second a man began to speak over me, like flipping a switch, my voice turned off and I had to let him speak. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to finish my sentence. But the habit was too deeply ingrained in me and it was almost physically painful to try to resist.
Working as a customer service rep, I’m already more likely to be interrupted on average because my job means I have less social power than a customer. I noticed peculiar pattern: older men would ask me a question that they wanted a real answer to. I would start to answer it but they’d cut me off before I got to the answer. This seemed like a particularly egregious form of interruption. They weren’t simply rushing through the conversation carelessly, they were making a conscious choice to stop listening to me, even when they were the ones who requested I speak.
I tried an experiment. The next time I caught this sequence happening, I screwed up all my willpower and kept talking even though it’s incredibly difficult to overcome socialization that has become entirely unconscious. I was curious to see if the man would stop speaking in order to listen, or if he would be angry that I didn’t allow him to talk. He didn’t do either. We just spoke over each other, two unrelated sentences at full volume, face to face, in perfect chaotic unison, neither of us hearing a word the other said.
Another Data Point
During a union negotiation at the University of Oregon, a woman representing the union and a lawyer (a man) representing their employers discussed the unions’ terms of agreement. Several times, as the woman was speaking, the lawyer interrupted her mid-sentence. However, the woman did not give into socialization and instead continued to speak. The lawyer attempted to interrupt her several more times, growing increasingly frustrated. Finally, he accused the woman of being rude in preventing him from talking. She had failed to follow social rules and as a result, the lawyer was denied the ability to assert his opinions freely, as he had been taught he should do. In his mind, it was a worse crime for her to fail to stop speaking once he had something to say than it was for him to interrupt her repeatedly.
We learn from a very young age that social norms include practices that once examined turn out to be sexist. We learn them without harm or intentional malice, and the vast majority of us who practice them are good people with good intentions a significant portion of the time. We learn that these norms are evidence of good, trustworthy people, and to defy these norms is rude and unnerving. We absorb them as a normal part of everyday life, and usually don’t even notice when it happens.
Which means that we participate in and reinforce sexist, harmful behaviors daily, and never know that we’re doing it.
As a culture, we’ve come to a strange conclusion about institutional bias. It is the mainstream belief that instances of sexism or racism must be conscious and intentional in order to be real. Overt bias looks like “whites only” signs in businesses, a man refusing to work for a female manager because he doesn’t want to work for a woman, a bigot physically assaulting a trans person while yelling transphobic slurs. We’ve been taught that institutional bias is only present if someone is aware of their bias, their biased action is extreme, or if they clearly communicate that bias is motivating them. Otherwise, the assumption is that bias is not influencing their actions.
But, counter to popular belief, institutional bias causes plenty of harm even when it is unintentional.
I’ve mentioned the studies that show employers choose resumes with white-sounding names over identical ones with black-sounding names several times in my posts on privilege. This pattern doesn’t just mean that white people have more and better employment opportunities than people of color, or that people of color are being denied employment opportunities for no good reason. It also means that the majority of employers have a significant enough bias against people of color, that it shows up in their life-altering decisions. When the employers in these studies were shown the results, they were shocked. Most of them thought of themselves as people who prioritized diversity, and they never intended to allow racism to influence their decisions.
Similarly, due to astonishing levels of inequality in Florida’s legal system, an elaborate point system was established to quantifiably measure what level of punishment was merited based on factors such as prior record, whether they were armed, etc. However, judges have regularly ignored the point system and black people in Florida are given sentences as much as twice as long on average as white people who scored the exact same number of points.
A white man who committed armed robbery received a plea deal and no jail time, where a black man who committed armed robbery and scored the same number of points received 4 years in prison. But when asked about this horrifying evidence of bias, a spokesperson responded, “I can tell you that our judges sentence defendants according to sentencing guidelines and state statutes. They do not take any bias into consideration.”
In both of these examples, people in positions of authority are making decisions that are measurably biased in favor of white people and against people of color. In both cases, they are firmly under the impression that they are not biased. We can find similar evidence of race-based bias from folks not in authority positions, as well as bias based on gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, gender identity, and religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
While we may like to think otherwise, statistically speaking, we are more likely to be unconsciously biased in favor of white, male, straight, able-bodied, mentally healthy, cisgender, Christian folks in a variety of contexts.
What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias refers to our immediate reactions, gut feelings, and positive and negative associations that we don’t have an explanation for.
When Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender and debuted her transition on the cover of Vanity Fair, the most common reaction from the public was commentary on her appearance. I don’t consider Jenner a good advocate for transgender activism based on her unsupportive behavior toward the transgender community, however, it was a revolutionary and bold move for her to appear on a big-name magazine.
But because we’re socialized to comment on women’s appearance regardless of circumstance, when Jenner came out as a woman, appearance was the most important trait for people to respond to, even when there were many other options: “How cool that she’s the first trans woman to be on the cover of vanity fair,” or “Good for her for coming out publicly,” or “It takes a lot of courage come out as trans to a nation that sees you as an icon of masculinity.”
When called on it, people making comments on her appearance frequently defended that they didn’t intentionally focus on Jenner’s looks. It’s just the first thing they thought of.
But the fact that it’s the first thing they thought of, doesn’t mean it’s a natural or inherent thought to think. It means that we’ve been socialized to see commenting on women’s appearance as so normal, that we don’t even think about it anymore. On top of that, we’ve been socialized to see it as perfectly acceptable to make those comments, so once that initial thought pops into our head, we go ahead and say it because it’s normal to do so. Our unconscious bias is at work manifesting itself whether we’re aware of it or not.
Review of Privilege and Blind Spots
But what causes unconscious bias to favor certain groups and disadvantage others? Where does this bias come from in the first place? In order to understand everything at work here, we need to review a few concepts from previous posts.
Socially, we tend to perceive people as being in one of two categories:
“There is a group that our society currently considers "default," "normal," or "neutral" and anyone outside of that group is the “variant.” Anyone who can be categorized as the “variant” is often considered “abnormal” and can be subject to oppression. This isn’t a statement about how things should be but about how they are.”
These two categories are also known as marginalized and privileged groups. We’re socialized to criticize and distrust the actions of the “variant” groups and normalize the “default” groups. As a result, marginalized groups are punished unfairly and denied proper acknowledgment for their skill, while privileged groups are able to succeed socially, financially, and institutionally at higher rates than their marginalized counterparts.
But, despite success being highly influenced by how many default groups you’re part of, our society still sees social, financial, and institutional success as correlating with skill, merit, and good character.
“We assume that people who have money, who are attractive, who have good jobs, who have an education are good people, whereas people who are poor, who don’t fit society’s expectations for appearance, who work low paying jobs or are unemployed, or who are uneducated are bad people. Success implies moral virtue as well as skill.”
We come to believe that privileged groups are good and ethical, and marginalized groups are untrustworthy and inferior. We absorb these attitudes from a thousand sources and they sink in and become our unconscious bias.
However, when we stay unaware of the fact that we have a bias or we continue to receive the reinforcement that the attitudes we’ve absorbed are normal, then our knee-jerk reactions solidify into a pattern. Our unconscious bias begins to affect our slow, calculated decisions too.
One side effect of any type of privilege is having blind spots to the struggles of other groups. Blind Spots make discovering our unconscious biases incredibly difficult.
“In addition to not understanding the intricacies of a type of oppression you don’t face it’s also likely you don’t know about the most severe outcomes of that oppression. But it’s not just that you lack that information. It’s that the social system of privilege makes it exceedingly difficult to get this information, it punishes marginalized groups for being vocal about that information, and it rewards privileged groups for ignoring it. Socialization is used as a tool to reinforce naturally occurring blind spots.”
Because of these blind spots, the more privilege we have, the more severe our bias is likely to be, the less likely we are to have our unconscious bias challenged, the more likely it is that our bias will influence more of our decisions.
Influence Over Socialization
Privileged groups tend to have more social power, such as an increased ability to get people to take you seriously, which means they also have the most influence over what is considered normal, and what socialization is passed down to the next generation.
“When given institutional privilege, people frequently make decisions that benefit themselves and benefit people like them. Rich white able-bodied lawmakers write laws that benefit rich white able-bodied people and severely disadvantaged people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities. White cis male managers promote and hire other white cis men above women, people of color, and trans folk.”
Those privileged groups use institutions like schools, legal systems, and corporations, as well as socialization tools like media and marketing to spread the idea that their groups are normal, and oppressed groups are not. These attitudes are so insidious that even members of oppressed groups internalize negative views of the group they are part of.
In a society where every educational system, every branch of the legal system, every business, and every media company, is run by people with privilege, the vast majority of contexts that you encounter people and interact with them socially are controlled and influenced by cis, white, able-bodied, straight, Christian men. You cannot avoid the socialization that they are normal and marginalized groups are not.
The groups with the most privilege end up monopolizing our ideas, our cultural narratives, our media, which means that just a few types of people determine the socialization that all of us receive.
“Large groups of people receive the same kind of socialization, meaning mainstream society tends to reward and punish certain sets of behaviors the same way across the board. If you choose to encourage a behavior that’s usually punished, it’s likely that you and/or the person you’re encouraging will experience social punishments in return.”
The result is a large population of people who have received messages from countless sources that members of the default groups are good/normal/ethical and members of the variant groups are bad/abnormal/unethical.
Some of these messages stem from the desire to keep other privileged people in power, which requires keeping anyone from the variant groups out. But some of the messages stem from the ignorance that comes with being privileged. You simply do not know that your actions do not take into account the struggles of the variants because you’ve never been one.
You Are More Likely to Be Biased Than Not
If the majority of people follow the social patterns above, then it is more likely than not that you have internalized socializations that are racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, Islamophobia, and classist, because women, trans folk, the LGB community, people with disabilities, Muslim people, and poor people, who are more likely to spread the message that their groups are normal, don’t have as much influence over what socializations trickle down into the subconsciouses of our society.
Throw in the fact that following mainstream socialization leads to social rewards, whereas ignoring it leads to social punishments, you have built-in incentive to accept biased socialization. When this socialization is so inescapable and so consistent across society, it is impossible that you have not absorbed institutional bias towards marginalized groups. You may be unaware that you have them because you’ve been taught that they are normal. But you were given them, regardless of whether you knew about it or not.
Which means that every aspect of our lives is influenced by a set of biased views, that is not based on truth. Millions of people who happen to be part of the variant group, who did nothing wrong to deserve ill-treatment, are harmed as a result of these untrue narratives.
What Do I Do Now?
If you were to make an off-color comment to me and defend yourself by saying that you don’t have a racist/sexist/classist bone in your body, or that you are “colorblind” your response would give me an important piece of information about you.
If you think you have no bias, then you are not aware of your own biases. You’re actually likely to be more racist etc than someone who has faced the reality of the biased patterns they’ve absorbed. It is more dangerous to move through the world unaware of the ways you might be harming people than it is to see the problematic behaviors you engage in regularly, identify them, and attempt to remedy them.
But in order to pursue the second option, we need to confront the pesky belief our culture has about institutional bias: Thinking about race makes you racist. Identifying bias makes you biased.
Our society has come to only recognize institutional bias as being present if it is conscious and intentional. The same applies to other patterns like sexism and transphobia as well. Making conscious intentional decisions, even if they are positive ones, with regards to issues like race or gender, is therefore racist or sexist, whereas unintentional discrimination that results from unconscious bias is not.
In order to recognize our own bias, we have to let go of this misconception. We have to understand that we are all capable of institutional bias, and the harm that comes from it. Good intentions don’t erase that potential harm, and neither does ignorance. We have to acknowledge that it is more likely than not that we are a little bit racist and sexist and all the other isms and phobias. We are so likely to have all those biases that it would actually be really weird if we didn’t.
As the song says,
“Everyone's a little bit racist,
Doesn't mean we go around committing
Look around and you will find,
No one's really color-blind
Maybe it's a fact we all should face
Everyone makes judgments...
Based on race”
Try to notice when biased thoughts flash through your brain. If you feel scared when you see a tall black man coming towards you, or you guess that the woman cleaning your hotel room can’t speak English, take a second look at the assumptions involved in your thoughts. Why do you assume the black man is dangerous? Why do you think a woman with a full-time job can’t speak the same language as you? Where did those ideas come from?
You can’t control that first impulsive thought. You can control what your second one is and you can control the actions that follow the thoughts. Do this consistently enough, you’ll find that your unconscious bias begins to shift, and your first thought changes too.
Note: Many activists are shying away from using the word “phobia” to describe a form of bigotry. True phobias are a form of mental illness, whereas bigotry is a chosen set of behaviors. I use the commonly recognized words here to prevent confusion and reach an audience that’s newer to social justice, but some alternative words to use in their place are:
Transantagonism or anti-trans instead of transphobia
Anti-gay or homoantagonism instead of homophobia. Anti-queer is also an option, but not recommended for straight cis people to use
Anti-fat instead of fatphobia
Anti-muslim or anti-islam instead of Islamophobia