Prejudice made invisible
A recent blog post about the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, Trayvon Martin Was A Floozie provides an insightful analysis of the parallels between the way racism and sexism are perpetuated and cease to be understood as prejudices within society and institutions. The post focuses on some of the arguments surrounding the controversial case in the US and specifically looks at how violence is justified, comparing common defences used in the murder of African-Americans and the rape of women. There are other articles and commentaries such as What should Trayvon Martin have done? that also point out similarities in the treatment of African-American and women victims of violence.
I think the analysis can be applied more broadly to show how both racism and sexism are tolerated, accepted, encouraged, dismissed, and further entrenched within societies. The operations of power are the same in perpetuating racism and sexism: find fault with the victim, explain ‘reasonably’ and justify the actions of the perpetrator so that the offence becomes ‘understandable’ and no longer seen as unreasonable. It is no longer an offence and there is no prejudice in the act committed, no matter how serious the consequences. Hence, racism and sexism cease to exist. As racism and sexism are made invisible, they become further entrenched within social and institutional structures. It is harder to fight something that is not recognised for what it is.
This normalising of attitudes, behaviour and actions that are racist or sexist/misogynist provides excuses for continuing the offensive attitudes, behaviour or actions. The insidious process of the normalisation of racism and sexism results in those committing the offences being unable to recognise the inherent prejudice in their attitudes, behaviour and actions. It also has the effect of diminishing the real hurt and insult felt by people who are the targets of these offences. Furthermore, it can institutionalise prejudices and discrimination.
Take for instance gender pay inequality. Jobs, occupations and even whole sectors that have been traditionally considered ‘women’s work’ or are female-dominated are largely low paid (such as childcare, domestic work, hospitality, social services, nursing, teaching). This is despite the fact that many of these occupations require a high level of education and training. For example, a social work degree requires about the same of number of years of university education as a finance degree. However, a social worker is unlikely to have the opportunity to earn as much as a worker in the finance sector. The skills, tasks and knowledge required in sectors and occupations that are ‘feminised’ are not valued as much as those in traditionally male-dominated industries and occupations, such as finance, law, engineering, medicine, etc. In Australia, as in much of the rest of the world, women are still being paid less for their work because it is still valued less than men’s work. Although ‘feminised’ work is some of the most essential work for the reproduction of society, women get penalised for working in these areas. In this case prejudice and inequality are made invisible by cultural traditions, the historical undervaluation of women’s work, the ‘market’, and the false belief that gender equality has been achieved.
The continued use of racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes also serve to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. The use of and references to racial or cultural stereotypes and mockery are in no danger of disappearing from popular culture or the media anytime soon. These stereotypes are often defended or dismissed as jokes or ‘just harmless fun’ with no serious intent. However, it is not for those committing the offence to judge whether it is harmless or not. Dismissing the offence caused to others does nothing to foster greater understanding between different cultures and communities. It only does more harm by entrenching ignorance and prejudice, among all groups and communities. The lack of willingness to see and understand from another person’s point of view harms everyone in the end.
Perpetuating racial, cultural and gender stereotypes confines people, to various degrees, to the margins of society, despite acknowledgement that they are part of the same society. It is a re-working of the concept of the ‘other’. This is not an unknown or mysterious ‘other’. It is an ‘other’ that is known and familiar, part of the society, but one that is based on harmful stereotypes and prejudices. It is an acceptance of ‘otherness’ into society, rather than the people this ‘otherness’ supposedly represents.
In response to the Trayvon Martin case and the continued discrimination and racism that still exists against African-Americans in the US, a blog called ‘We Are Not Trayvon Martin‘ was created, asking people for personal submissions about why they are not Trayvon Martin. In less than a week it has received over 1000 posts, which are mostly articulate, beautiful and painful. The submitters understand all too well the inherent injustices and inequalities, the racism and prejudice that seep through all layers of society and the way it has benefitted some and condemned others. They understand how society has accepted African-American male ‘otherness’ and how it can kill. There is a lot of sadness in the posts, but also hope in that so many know what is wrong and what needs to change.