What is sexism? What is a sexist? These questions have been around for quite some time now, so there are, no doubt, some well-thought-out answers to these questions. But before I consult experts on conceptual issues, I like to do a bit of thinking for myself.
The first thing that occurs to me is that sexism is similar to racism, and that both phenomena occur in different kinds and various degrees. I’m going to think out loud about racism for a bit, and then see whether my analysis of racism applies to sexism.
Racism can occur in a strong form or high degree. There are examples that constitute clear cut cases of racism: Nazis and members of the KKK. These folks are clearly racists. They not only have racist beliefs and attitudes, but racism is a central part of their worldview. Racism is practically a religion for these people. We might call the racism of Nazis and KKK members ideological racism.
Your typical racist southern cracker is not a Nazi or member of the KKK (these days). A typical racist may share some of the racist beliefs and attitudes of Nazis and KKK members, but these beliefs don’t generally play such a central role in the thinking of your common racist. Such racists may believe that blacks are generally less intelligent than whites, and that blacks are generally lazier than whites, but these beliefs might not be a key piece of a political or religious ideology. Let’s call this garden-variety racism.
Racism is pervasive in American culture, so even liberal white Northerners like myself, cannot claim to be completely free from racism. I don’t believe that black people are stupid or lazy, at least not any stupider or lazier than white people. But the images and feelings that spontaneously occur in my mind when I see or meet a black person have been shaped by movies, TV shows, news reporting, and other cultural influences that suggest less-than favorable generalizations about black people, as compared to white people. My thinking is unavoidably tainted by the racism of my society and culture. Let’s call this racial-bias racism.
Ideological racism (of the pro-white and anti-black sort) not only posits negative beliefs about blacks (e.g. ‘Blacks are less intelligent than whites’, and ‘Blacks are lazier than whites’) but understands these alleged differences between blacks and whites in terms of ‘races’ and genetics. Blacks are inferior to whites not because of poverty and poor education due to unjust discrimination against blacks by whites, but because of natural genetic differences. Garden variety racism need not include such explanatory theories about the cause of the alleged inferiority of blacks relative to whites. An ideological racist has adopted beliefs about race and genetics that the garden variety racist might not accept, or may not have thought about.
Ideological racism also involves some sort of prescription or normative beliefs about how we ought to respond to alleged differences between blacks and whites. There is the prescription of shipping black people to another country. There is the Nazi prescription of a ‘final solution’ where people of inferior races are to be killed off. But one could accept the basic racist belief about the inferiority of blacks to whites without coming to favor such negative and violent responses.
One could hold a benevolent form of racism that takes pity on black people, that cherishes black people and their well-being, in spite of their alleged inferiority to whites. Children are physically and intellectually inferior to adults, as a general rule, but our response is usually to look on children with fondness and to feel a sense of obligation to provide help and assistance to children in need or in distress. We are the smart and physically capable adults, so we ought to assist children who are weak, defenseless, and incapable of taking care of themselves.
So, ideological racism involves at least three different sorts of ideas:
1. Beliefs about the inferiority of blacks compared to whites.
2. Explanations of this inferiority in terms of race and genetics.
3. Normative beliefs prescribing how we ought to respond to the inferiority of blacks compared to whites.
Different degrees of racism can be distinguished in terms of different degrees of alleged inferiority ascribed to blacks vs. whites. Are all blacks stupid and lazy and all whites smart and hard working? That would be a somewhat extreme claim. One can still be a racist without holding such an extreme view. One might believe that most blacks are significantly less intelligent than most whites, but allow that there are exceptions to the rule, and that some black people are smarter than some white people. That would be a lesser degree of racism, in this aspect of the belief in the inferiority of blacks to whites.
Different degrees of racism can also be seen in the sort of prescription that is offered (if any) about how we ought to respond to the alleged inferiority of blacks to whites. The most extreme being the Nazi ‘final solution” prescription, somewhat less extreme is the ‘Send them back to Africa’ prescription, and somewhat less radical is the idea that blacks should remain in America but be should be constrained to doing menial jobs as waiters, gardeners, janitors, etc.
So, there are different kinds and degrees of racism, and different elements of racism that can occur in different degrees. It seems to me that the same is true for sexism. I can imagine something like ideological sexism, with similar components as ideological racism:
1. Beliefs about the inferiority of females vs. males.
2. Explanations of this inferiority in terms of gender and genetics.
3. Normative beliefs prescribing how we ought to respond to the alleged inferiority of females compared to males.
As with racism, these components, esp. (1) and (3), can occur in varying degrees.