Sexism and other forms of bias/prejudice

Possibly we are fairly much all over the issue of women in the bibliobloggosphere, but…

April DeConick posted about the insidiousness of sexism. I agree. Men who in general are amazingly supportive of women’s equality with men will occasionally come out with some comment that is based on sexist stereotypes of the roles of men and women in society. This doesn’t make them anti-women – it simply means that there are areas of their thinking that haven’t overcome their social programming. Women can also be sexist – and they can have sexist attitudes that are biased against men but they can also pigeon-hole themselves and other women on the basis of their gender. Men can also limit themselves and other men on the basis of gender. The thing is that we have all been taught to differentiate between people on the basis of gender since we were very small. Some do it more often than others and some think it’s perfectly OK and just the way God ordained it, while others don’t.

Racism is the same.  I used to think that I was pretty much immune to stereotyping based on race until I went to the sixth birthday party of my friend’s son.  He came over to tell me something about what Andrew had done.  I asked which one Andrew was and was told “the one in the red jumper”. As well as wearing a red jumper, Andrew was also the only Chinese-ethnicity child in the room and I would have said “the Chinese boy” – although it turned out that both he and his parents had been born in Australia. I have no particular negative stereotypes of Chinese people, although I do tend to expect them to be more polite in general and more respectful of older people in particular than is the average Australian.

That incident, however, caused me to stop and think about how often I actually do make judgements about a person based on their race, or socio-economic status, or job or even gender. I do it somewhat more often than I’d like, but I try very hard not to and I try very hard to get to know people at least a bit before I make judgements about them.  Doesn’t always work, of course, because I’m not perfect and because sometimes I just don’t have time to get to know people. We all stereotype, all the time.  We would go crazy if we had to stop and assess every chair-like object for ‘chairness’ before we sat on it and every table-like object for ‘table-ness’ before we put things on it. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the person in the department store wearing a shirt with the store’s logo on it is, in fact, an employee of the store and most of them would become quite irate if every customer said “Excuse me, do you work here?” before they asked a question about the store.

When this becomes a problem is when these assumptions are used to limit people or when they are used as a basis for hatred and discrimination. If someone has gifts/skills that enable her/him to do a particular task, her/his gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background etc should not stop her/him from doing it. If we consider a particular gift to be of God and worthwhile in one person, surely it must be of God and worthwhile in all? And even if you don’t think gifts come from God (perhaps on account of being atheist), the worthwhile argument still holds.

As you will recognise if you have been reading this series of posts on this blog, I have been suggesting that a significant part of the reason for the lack of women bibliobloggers is that the church as institution has held onto sexist understandings of the role of women significantly longer than has secular society. One of the things we can all do to combat it is to examine our attitudes and try to avoid any that limit people on the basis of their gender. A bit of positive discrimination can’t do any harm, either, as long as it’s not patronising, grudging or designed to show someone up in a poor light. In other words, I don’t think it’s helpful to say things like “this surprisingly good post by a woman blogger….” or “I guess, in order to get the femi-mafia off my case, I need to add some women…” or to highlight the post of an inexperienced and unqualified woman together with those of some of the giants in the field (unless the woman is holding her own amongst them, of course!)

And now, I plan to resume posting mainly on GosThom and early Christianity. At least for a while. 🙂

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8 thoughts on “Sexism and other forms of bias/prejudice

  1. A pet dislike of mine is the use of the word racism to denote racial stereotyping. The fact that you have a Chinese stereotype is not racist. Your stereotype represents the majority of information that you’ve collected regarding people with a chinese appearance. Certainly, people lie outside that stereotype – many people. But that doesn’t make you racist. You’re racist if you believe that Chinese people are inferior to you because of the colour of their skin, hair, etc.

    None of that negates your point, but it represents a shift in perception (at least here in Australia) about what racism is. It’s fine to stereotype. It’s natural, as you say.

    You’re right that if these assumptions are used to limit or to make a inferiority judgement, then stereotyping can be the cause of a problem. A stereotype is no reason to limit someone’s actions. But
    stereotyping is not in and of itself, a problem.

    I apologise for the slightly off-topic rant, Judy.

    • Fair comment, Damian. Perhaps I should be talking about race-based stereotyping and gender-based stereotyping, although I suspect that Australians of Chinese descent and therefore appearance might find the fact that I expect them to be polite and defer to older people limiting in the same way that I do when people expect me to be only, or mainly, interested in discussions about fashion and babies because I’m female.

      I think the point I was trying to make was that once I recognised that I made some decisions about people based on their ethnicity, I also recognised that some of these attitudes were actually also racist. I don’t think that makes me a racist *person*, because *in general* I don’t make negative assessments about people based on their race and when I do and I am aware of it, I don’t act on those assessments, but I do have a few racist attitudes, if that makes sense.

      I don’t think it’s off topic or a rant. 🙂

  2. Since you’re planning to leave this issue for a while, I wish to thank you for the insightful commentary you have provided in your latest posts.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the most tragic aspect of the “insidiousness of sexism” is its power to limit individuals in their choices, compressing their personality into the “correct” mould, with little freedom to express their talents and interests as they wish.

    As you say, it is hard to avoid stereotyping, and I don’t think it should be avoided, either. But I draw the line between using stereotypes in my head as heuristic tools for coping with the world, and between saying them aloud and using them in everyday speech (including jokes). It does no good to keep on blabbering about my own social programming, especially regarding gender and race, as it simply ensures that the same programming will be passed on to the future generation(s).

  3. A thoughful, well-written post on a rather thorny issue. I do have a quarrel with “A bit of positive discrimination can’t do any harm” as I respectfully think that discrimination in opportunity is “bad” whether it’s holding someone back because of their race/gender/etc or promoting them for the same reason. The core issue is the insidious message it sends — you can’t make it on your own without largesse (which, I regret to say, is just another way to patronize).
    Blogs are free and easy to set up so I, for the life of me, cannot fathom this “male conspiracy” that is supposedly keeping female bloggers out (it isn’t as if you have to have anyone’s permission to set one up). If there is a population disparity between male and female bloggers, have we asked “Why?” (i.e., gathered some data on the barriers to entry) or are we pulling a convenient theory out of the nearest hat?
    –Ishamel (not a member of the male conspiracy)

    • Ishmael,

      I don’t think there is a male conspiracy to keep women from blogging on biblical studies topics – which is the issue, rather than that women don’t blog. As I hope I have made reasonably clear in this series of posts, I think there are a number of factors that contribute to their under-representation and one of them is the insidiousness of sexism within the church and to a lesser extent within society. They have bought the myth that women can’t do biblical studies more firmly than the myth that women can’t do maths and computing.

      And I think that you can exercise positive discrimination in ways that aren’t condescending. Mark Goodacre says that he goes out of his way to highlight the work of women scholars, but he does it in ways that aren’t condescending. At least, I’ve never felt condescended to by Mark. I am thinking of things like, if you are going to link to the work of both men and women bloggers, you put the links to the women’s work first, so they are more likely to be followed, rather than that you only link to women.

  4. Pingback: clayboy » Your weekend pleasure picks (including lusty lexiconitis)

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