She knows what prejudice looks like. Do you?

11 Nov

I’m a fan of TV. Some TV. TV like this: http://www.hulu.com/watch/555939.

I’ve never watched the show Scandal, but I didn’t need to, in order to appreciate this clip. In it, Lisa Kudrow, who plays a Congresswoman running for President, addresses sexism in the campaign. She points out (perhaps with career-ending clarity–I guess we’ll have to tune in to find out) how everyone–her opponents, the press, the voters–is able to “speak in code about gender… [to] remind people that [she’s] a woman without using the word: by referring to hers as “a Cinderella story,” by requesting to interview her in her home, and by creating a “neighbor lady” persona for her.

Why is it so important to remind the voters that she is a woman? Whether or not a voter consciously thinks the President of the United States should be a man, there’s an uninterrupted historical precedent that says so. It’s normal for the President to be a man. A female President would simply (and factually) be abnormal. So there’s no need to get into a long, complicated and nuanced debate of equals between a male and a female candidate. It’s much more simple and effective to go for the one point of essential, unchangeable inequality: sex.

What Kudrow’s character points out is that sexists aren’t just angry men who believe women should be shackled, shoeless and subservient. The gross majority of sexists are everyday, often nice people who either intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate inequality among men, women and agender folks by, at the very least, failing to recognize how they give permission to discriminatory language and action.

The scariest sexists, at least to me, are the ones who refuse to even consider that they might be sexist, thereby giving their biases free reign when they’re voting in an election, watching TV or raising their kids. Gaertner and Dovidio (1986) might call these individuals aversive sexists: egalitarian-minded folks who can justify not voting for a female Presidential candidate because of lack of experience and a variety of other reasons without ever naming how her sex matters to them. I’m not saying that a female Presidential candidate might not actually lack experience: the point is that an aversive sexist will, consciously or not, use that lack of experience to sidestep or outright deny that the candidate being a woman also counted against her in their minds. It’s not that aversive sexists are bad people: it’s that their need to believe they’re good people (who would never discriminate against a woman) is so strong that they end up granting themselves full license to do bad things (yes, I characterize discrimination as “bad,” unlike bias which I characterize as “human”).

So it’s up to all of us, and to awesome moments of TV like this one, to take risks, to hold up mirrors and call each other on our prejudiced speech and actions. And it’s also up to us not to shrink away from what we see reflected back at us. Not to interrupt when someone points it out. Because sexism isn’t just about me and who I want to think I am. It’s about the whole world.

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