Why Do We Treat Sexism Different From Racism?

Julian Sanchez:

We can point out sexist remarks or attitudes without getting derailed by pointless discussion of whether a particular person “is a sexist.” It even sounds a bit weird to pose the question as though it were a simple matter of “yes” or “no,” with the world neatly divided into sexists and non-sexists. Rather, we all get that, the culture being what it is, basically decent people—and occasionally even level-seven gender studies Jedi—will have imbibed unexamined sexist presuppositions or adopted mistaken empirical beliefs about gender differences.

This is, presumably, because for all that our society may have historically denied women full equality, even at its worst it stopped short of denying their humanity. “Racism” is associated, in its practical consequences, with a system of violence and repression so irredeemably evil that we want to think of it not as a species of error, but as something so monstrously “other” that it creates a chasm between those contaminated by it and those free of its influence.

I would say there’s an even simpler explanation.  In some situations — for example, a refrigerator lifting contest — there are clear, observable differences between men and women.  This makes it easy for our minds to accept a “sexist remark does not a sexist make” type of attitude. But when it comes to issues of race, it is much less acceptable to claim there is a legitimate difference between two groups. Because it’s harder for our minds to recall legitimate racial differences, we tend to interpret a single racist claim as evidence of a deeper racist attitude.


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