experiences in racism vs. sexism

I really wish we didn’t have to pick and choose.

For the last couple of years, I’ve remotely attempted to examine what it is that compels certainly people to feel one more strongly than the other. One of my distant friends shot down a woman a while ago by referring to her as a “racist bitch” to whom she’d never speak again. I bit my tongue from asking her whether I should do her the same for her sexism. (I didn’t, because it’s important, I think, to let deeply pained people have their moments.)

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve certainly had the same reaction, but when it comes to racism, it takes a little more with me. I mean I have to really be pushed. I won’t react as strongly, for example, to a black person not getting a job until they change their name to a typical white name on their resume as I would to a woman not getting one until she changes her name to a man’s. I’ve been extremely critical of white feminism, have been critical of it in this space (see: Femen) but it would take a white woman killing someone for looking at her wrong before I’m ready to actually punch her in the face. I’ve never posted so much on racism before as I have with Trayvon’s death. A sexist man, on the other hand, only has to exist for me to react as strongly. And I really wonder why.

What makes some women of color bring attention to the sexism they experience, even from men of color, while others shoot down racism by accusing women of being “racist bitches”? I don’t think I’ve ever been racist in order to criticize sexism, or sexist to criticize racism, but I still react more strongly to one over the other, even while holding the belief that either are destructive to the same extents.

With the experiences of women unfortunately tied so closely with their appearances, one of my friends suggested that conventionally attractive women of color experience more sexism than racism, which is why I react more strongly to the former. I don’t believe this is true. (Also, I think “conventionally attractive” and “woman of color” are still oxymorons in our society.) Perhaps the racism is less confrontational than the sexism, but I’ve had men attempt to ask me out by first greeting me in languages other than English–not French, mind you, just the ones they think I speak–which is still just as volatile. I suppose I can see her point to a certain extent, it isn’t as bad as its sexist counterparts–shoving me to the back of the mosque of example. Women who are conventionally unattractive have their femininity attacked on the basis of their race, but that’s just sexism as racism. When black women who aren’t feminine are compared to animals, it’s an extremely racist remark whose base is a sexist one.

Some forms of racism brushed past me completely until another woman of color described to me the phenomenon. It was a different woman who explained to me the concept of “white woman tears.” I thought, until she described exactly what she meant, that she was being unnecessary brash and rather cold. That is, until she described to me a time a white woman had said something despicably racist (which I will not repeat) and had been politely called out on it (“You know, that’s kind of offensive,”) at which point she promptly burst into tears, provoking the sympathy of every man in the room, and effectively making herself appear to be the injured party.

Somehow in my life this had slipped right past me. I was aware, to an extent, of the portrayal of women of color in television shows as bordering on bullies. An episode of Scrubs, where Carla first meets Elliot, comes to mind. Elliot continuously makes racially vicious remarks, but she’s the one portrayed as the soft victim to Carla’s responsive outrage. It’s clear even from the behavior of the men that Carla is someone whose wrath is to be feared, even though she’s merely reacting to being continuously antagonized. Elliot is alarmed to nearly tears every time she is confronted for being a bully, and effectively it’s Carla who looks like one.

“Don’t be offended,” I’ve been told by other women of color, “but I think you could get away with it too.”

If that’s true, then isn’t it sexism at play rather than racism? Is whether this works based on how attractive a woman is (sexism) or on how well she’s adopted white culture (racism)? I think the answer is how well she’s adopted white patriarchy.

In my gut, I really don’t think I can get away with it–at least not if I’m crying over racism, which directly challenges the sympathy of men with institutional power. I don’t know whether it would really work for other things, or if it would just be false sympathy in the space of other interests, and I’m not the type to try it to see.

As blended as things are, it’s less abrasive when a woman of color calls a white woman a “racist bitch” than vice versa, because a white woman, with the power of white patriarchy, can inflict more damage with the same remark. It’s weird to see a white woman calling a woman of color a bitch anyway, like watching a pig eat bacon.

I’ve noticed feminists react differently to the insult than other women. White women who don’t identify as feminists are more likely to be insulted by the term “racist” (and burst into tears) because to them that’s the worst thing you can tell them about their reputation. A white feminist, who cares about people and not her reputation, when the same insult is applied, always says something along the lines of, “Bitch? Seriously? You don’t have to go there,” implying of course that the first insult is a valid one, and the second is unnecessary and meaningless.

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4 Responses to experiences in racism vs. sexism

  1. Roy M. Hill says:

    And off to deconstruction land we go. First thing is first, obey your thirst, drink sprite :/ Ok, let’s try this one more time. I want to discuss the issue of East African women and the way their bodies are fetishised by internal and external communities (the internal part needs a dissertation and critical theory). But I want to do this in a manner that is true to scholarly brevity, while paying particular attention to the nuance of representation of African female bodies (emphasis on want, I’ll inevitably fail at both, this I’m sure of). As a Somali woman (and most Horn of Africa women can cosign this narrative), I’m often rewarded with instant ‘beauty points’ because of the phenotypic features of the women from my region. When one conjures an image of a Somali, an Ethiopian, an Eritrean, its usually involves some form of slender noses, loosely curly/wave hair, a face that looks like it was a ‘white woman dipped in chocolate’ as a poetic friend once pointed out. This is what people think, and this is the image we as a community boast of, and perpetuate the shit out of it. We’ve internalized these narratives and replicate a standard of beauty that marginalizes other forms of blackness. Para example, to some Somalis, other Africans are ‘Jareers’ (degorative term meaning nappy-headed), and hell yes, I’m putting us on blast. I will not be binded by code of ethnic solidarity that makes use of oppressive language used to demonize our African brothers and sisters, while simultaneously effective in distancing ourselves from any perceived kinship with other Africans/blackness. I’m not about that.

  2. It’s interesting the point you bring up about “white tears.” I saw this in action when a therapist of color confronted a white worker over a racist comment. The white worker burst into tears and everyone ended up taking care of her emotions instead of continuing to discuss the issue. She not only got out of having to take some accountability and own up to it, she also appeared as the victim that had everyone’s sympathy. The therapist of color almost quit after this incident, and white dominated agencies continue to wonder why they can’t retain people of color.

  3. Narjis says:

    I’m a white woman married to an Arab man (government classifies this as white, and I disagree – because he does not get treated in this country like a white man, with all of the privilege that entails, and also because I love his beautiful brown skin, and calling him white is like erasure of that beauty.) I am very aware of my privilege, not the least because other white people don’t know I’m Muslim, and say things that are highly offensive to people of color and Muslims, thinking that I will be sympathetic. Sadly, I don’t slap them in the face for these offenses, since I work retail and I’m not allowed to argue or get political with customers. And maybe part of that is because I’m a woman and we are not expected to argue, especially not with men, who are almost always the perpetrators of that racist talk. Ugh, they get racist and think they are flirting with us. It’s disgusting. And after I dismissively ignore the racist, Islamophobic talk, and the mansplainer leaves, I think to myself, if only I were wearing hijab, or if he saw me with my husband. He would never say such things to me. He would not even try that disgusting “flirting” bullshit. Unless he fetishized the hijab, ewww…..I know that happens too….in any case, I know I have privilege, and I am trying to be more aware of it, and to stand against racism whenever I see it. If I can, I’ll use my privilege to help my sisters and brothers of color. Inshallah, I will try to be better.

    Oh, and “white woman tears”. Now that I’ve heard of this, I realize it’s everywhere!

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