What is reverse sexism? Can it exist? Can it not exist?
If the answer appears straight-forward to you, please read the entire post and do let me know your thoughts.
There is not much to discuss about what sexism is. But, it will become clear why we must start from the basics.
Let us look at some definitions of sexism from internet.
“discrimination against women based on her sexual features in the context of an unequal and discriminatory society” –Geek Feminism
Everyday Feminism has a post that goes one step ahead and calls microaggressions also sexism:
“But, even if you have good intentions and don’t mean something “in that way,” microaggressions are still insidious. Even in their subtlety, all those “unintentionally” sexist comments and actions gradually build upon each other — and they sting.”
I will not spend much time here right now because we will see more definitions of sexism coming up soon.
Here is where things get really undefined. I will start with why I started writing this post. In the diversity and inclusion in open source mailing list an email was posted like thus:
“I am curious how you have approached discussion on the usefulness of specifying that reverseisms (e.g. reverse racism) reports won’t be taken. Specifically the mention of this in a Code of Conduct, as I have seen if in the increasing amount of Code of Conducts I have seen, is used to outline that marginalized people’s safety is prioritized over those who are privileged.
Some ways I have seen critiques leveraged against this rises from the idea that this is overtly political and has more a USA centric perspective. Such critique in my opinion doesn’t have standing but I am curious if there are those who think there’s a way to approach this that may have a more global perspective. Thoughts?”
To understand this point, we have to look at what reversism means. In this post I will try to restrict the analysis using only reverse sexism as an example (because there is more literature about that).
“Efforts to assist minorities to achieve parity are sometimes labelled as positive or reverse discrimination. For example, an effort to do outreach to women and recruit them to a software project may be described as reverse sexism.” – Geek Feminism again
If you search “reverse sexism” on duckduckgo, you find many articles that say “why reverse sexism can’t exist”. Here is one, for example:
“Humans first introduced permanent inequalities in their society by establishing unequal gender relations. The subjugation of women provided the model for subjugating fellow human beings. Now, these permanent inequalities were established to gain control over another social class or group so that the group or class that is acting as the oppressor can benefit from it. That is the whole point of oppression.
This is one of the fundamental reason that why women cannot be “sexist towards men”. Keeping in mind all the prejudiced notions that women have about men, women do not benefit from these notions. They do not put women on a higher social pedestal than men. Women do not get the upper hand while it comes to obtaining material or intellectual dominance or superiority in society. “ –Post on Feminism in India
Now this is a very important detail. We are redefining sexism to say sexism is prejudice against an oppressed group (women, sexual minorities, etc). Or, sexism = prejudice + power.
The same was reflected in some replies to the mail thread. (I initially pasted some of the sentences (removing any personally identifiable information) from the mail thread for more context, but considering how posting from non-public mailing lists are considered offensive in some mailing lists, I am not posting those mails. But, if you manage to join the mailing list, the google group has archive of the entire discussion.)
The problem as I see it
When you are looking at a single dimension of gender, it is easy to say that world over women (and sexual minorities) have been oppressed against. That men hold more power over women. That men have benefited from this systematic oppression.
But, how can we isolate power into one dimension? Power is influenced by gender, geography, race, financial & social status, and (especially in India) caste. When you are talking about historical oppression, someone might say that an average member of the oppressed caste group suffers more than an average member of the oppressed gender group.
That last point is where in the mailing list I got a lot of banter against me for ‘splaining’.
I will explain with a concrete example. I have seen, privileged caste women showing prejudice against oppressed caste men on the basis of gender. Do you call this reverse sexism or not? That is, simply put, crux of my argument. From the replies on the thread I felt like the answer (from a US perspective at least) is that all cis-males have more power over all women and therefore there is no reverse sexism.
But I simply cannot understand that answer. I am writing this post only to solicit more opinion, especially from feminists in India, to help resolve this conundrum.
There is some writing on the caste-gender matrix in this epw article. But unfortunately, I can’t make out a conclusion on my specific problem from that.
In the Feminism in India article I mentioned above itself there is a sentence that raises a tangential point.
“For example, gay men are highly discriminated against and looked down upon. But as long as they do not defiantly display their sexuality, they continue to enjoy access to masculine and public spheres of influence and power. On the other hand, lesbians are oppressed not only because of their sexuality but also because of their gender. Here oppression works on two different levels.”
(In the US centered narrative, gay men belong to sexual minorities and are considered to be more oppressed than women. The relevance of the excerpt is that the hierarchy of power is different in different contexts.)
Various articles on the internet talk about intersectionality like this one - What is intersectionality and why you need to know about it on YourStory - but I am seeing more about how caste and gender overlap in Dalit women, but not much about how/whether Dalit men can be affected by sexism.
In my mind, there definitely are some women with more privilege than some men. But, I don’t know about what others think. So, if you have some thoughts on this line, please let me know. Can reverse sexism exist?