A friend was telling me about a conference she recently attended. At the conference, a paper was given that was racist in its assumptions and premise. The audience raised the issue of the racism of the paper. The response of the presenter was: well, of course, we’re all racist.
Universal racism as alibi: It’s ok to be racist, because we’re all racist. My paper is racist, but it’s inevitable, so it has to be accepted.
The opposite can also happen: I am not racist, because X is more racist. There was a march on Brick Lane in London a few days ago by Britain First, in defense of “the local community.” But Britain First assures us that they’re not racist, not like the English Defense League. And it’s easy to imagine David Cameron making the same claim on the same logic: I am not racist because someone else is more exceptionally racist.
Thinking about the ways that both sets of claims “of course I am racist, we are all racist,” and “of course I am not racist, look how much more racist this other person is” can be used to excuse racism made me remember something that happened the first time I confronted my sexist professor with his sexism.
“I’m a feminist,” he said. “And XX (another student) is a feminist. If this were sexism, don’t you think she and I would know?”
It’s slightly different: he’s using his own expertise, and the expertise of another whom I am meant to trust, to override the concerns I’ve voiced. He’s trying to dominate me. But it’s also still there: “I am not sexist because others are more sexist,” and “because I can (sometimes) see when others are (extremely) sexist, I am therefore not sexist.”
Claiming that he is a feminist becomes a way for him to justify his continued sexist behaviour. Is this ‘critical sexism’?
I encountered the universal alibi when I raised the issue of another professor’s sexism with a friend. I was explaining the ways I found the professor sexist and why it was unacceptable. “Yes, fine, he’s sexist,” my (male) friend assented. “But he’s no more sexist than many other men of his age in similar positions.”
The wide-spread nature of sexism as justification for complacency: there’s nothing to be done because so many are sexist.