Who Can Be Sexist?

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Can women be sexist? Throw this question out there whenever you crave an intense argument. The discussion always heats up as debaters try to prove their opponents wrong and themselves right. However, the debate is in fact one of definition, for categorizing is pointless until the categories are defined. And because definitions are made up by humans, they are not judged as “right” or “wrong” but rather “useful” or not for describing the reality and communicating messages. It is probably not helpful to define sexism as “a red apple,” though it is not technically “wrong.”

A common definition supported by frequently consulted sources like Wikipedia and Merriam Webster defines sexism as prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender. People who hold this definition naturally believe that women can be sexist—anyone can—since the accusation is based on individual actions and thoughts. Yet others question this definition, arguing that sexism as an “-ism” should be defined by its institutional nature. Since both the systematic oppression of and individual bigotry against women exist in reality but manifest themselves in two different watsm they should be referred to with distinct terms to avoid conflations. Using “sexism” interchangeably with individual discrimination or prejudice blurs the line and may cause confusion: sometimes downplaying the situation while other times exaggerating it.

If sexism is defined as the institutional oppression of women, who can be accused of sexism? Who are the perpetrators of this systematic discrimination? One might answer that those who have and exert the power to oppress women are capable of being sexist. It is clear that men in general are more empowered and entitled than women, yet are there potentially women who derive power from other socioeconomic factors than sex and use it against other women? For example, in some parts of China, social convention grants mothers of sons to verbally or even physically abuse their daughter-in-laws who have not successfully given birth to children (or specifically sons). Are these mothers perpetrators of sexism with their power over the young wives? What complicates the judgment is the fact that they themselves have been victims of this sexist mindset that prevails the community when they were young wives. Should they be blamed for passing on mistreatment once imposed on themselves too?

Another definition of sexists seem to be able to avoid this paradox by defining sexists as those who benefit from the institutional oppression of women. Under this definition, women cannot be sexists because any institutional power they may have will only abuse their own gender. The mothers in the previous example would strictly be victims of sexism. However, this definition too can be controversial at times. Are men who personally believe in gender equality and who never discriminate against women also considered sexists by being born into a society that favors their gender? Though disadvantage is not a choice, neither is privilege. This judgment would be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it might drive men to actively support feminism in order to negate the accusation on themselves and their gender—if being privileged necessitates being accused, the only solution is to reduce and eliminate this privilege. On the other hand, if the accusation is viewed as reverse discrimination, it might predispose men to be hostile against equal gender rights movements.

Ideal definitions in the social justice context should promote awareness, education, and practical undertakings. Shared understanding of a useful definition is the prerequisite to any constructive conversations.

Featured Image: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/womens-march.html

About the author

Lora Xie is a IV boarding student from Chengdu, a southwestern city in China that has the best spicy food in the universe. She feels driven to think and talk about the “big” and abstract questions. She has a weird sense of humor and takes pride in making others think. Her current life goal is to figure out the meaning of her life (or the lack thereof, should that be the case). She hopes that the things she enjoys - math, philosophy, language, computer science, and visual art - will guide her on this journey. She plays tennis and is trying to run. Eating a good breakfast helps her write more elegantly.

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