“I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender and therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”
Bahar Mustafa (Goldsmith’s University)
As you might have seen, there has been a bit of a furore occurring on Twitter (although, to be fair, that happens every day). It’s made the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Independent, and many more. The Goldsmith’s University Diversity Officer, who shot to infamy after hosting diversity events that banned white men, followed by tweeting pictures of her mocking men, has now called for people to “kill all white men” and talked about her critics as “white trash”. Now, it seems clear to me that Ms Mustafa is not a very nice person (generally, I tend to dislike people who criticize others based solely on their gender and race). But that is by the by. What really interested me (and when I say interested, I mean I shouted at the computer) was Mustafa’s defense that she cannot be racist or sexist because only white men can be those things. More than a few people have asked for my thoughts on this, and so I’m writing this short blog post. And it will be short, because I really should be working.
For a little background: I am a moral psychologist who focuses on intergroup behavior. My undergraduate and masters thesis focused on anti-Muslim prejudice, and I specialized in intergroup bias and prejudice (i.e. preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people or a person based on group membership). I’ve subsequently moved away to focus on parochial altruism, to look at why people are nice(r) to their own group, rather than mean to other groups. But nonetheless, I do have some academic knowledge about this, before someone inevitably jumps in to say how uninformed I am.
First off, I’d like to highlight what the actual dictionary definition of racism is. One standard definition is that racism is:
“The belief that people’s qualities are influenced by their race and that the members of other races are not as good as the members of your own, or the resulting unfair treatment of members of other races”
So, even from the simplest of standpoints, Mustafa is wrong to claim that she isn’t racist in the sense that what she is doing fits exactly the dictionary definition of racism.
But what interests me more is how her claims fit with actual academic opinion on racism (rather than proclamations from student activists). In short, Mustafa is wrong to claim she cannot be racist or sexist because she confuses psychological and sociological definitions of racism. On a sociological definition of racism / sexism, we could say that (in Western cultures), only white men could be racist / sexist, because systems of power disproportionally benefit whites / men. The focus here is on racist intuitions and systems, rather than racist individuals or racist interpersonal or intergroup behaviour. To focus on the latter type, we must turn to psychology. And psychologically, there is nothing in the construct of racism that means it is exclusive to white men. Racism and sexism are particular forms of intergroup bias, consisting of prejudicial judging of groups based on their ethnic background or gender – and both men and women do this (see this review in one of the best psychology journals by my supervisor). The problem is that people like Mustafa move from the sociological (Societal structures are racist / sexist in favor of white men) to the psychological (only white men can be racist / sexist people, or exhibit racist / sexist behaviour). And that is unwarranted.
For example, we know that both men and women exhibit sexist attitudes that are both benevolently sexist and hostile sexist (c.f. Glick & Fiske, 2001). Hostile sexism reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about a gender (e.g., the ideas that women are incompetent and inferior to men). Benevolent sexism represents evaluations of gender that may appear subjectively positive (subjective to the person who is evaluating), but are actually damaging to people and gender equity more broadly (e.g., the ideas that women need to be protected by men). Research shows that men AND women endorse these ideas: that is, that psychologically they exhibit sexism. The claim that only men can be sexist is, quite simply, inaccurate. On sociological grounds, societal structures are sexist because they favor men, but again, this doesn’t entail psychological claims about the people who endorse prejudicial attitudes.
What about racism? The same point applies. I don’t have available evidence to cite here (though, I could, if necessary). But I don’t think that is even necessary. Just think, for example, of racial conflicts throughout history. Ones that immediately come to mind as examples within my lifetime are the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides, or the Northern Irish Troubles. These are unarguably the extreme endpoint of racism. But it was not white men murdering non-whites. Think about Rwanda, where the (black) Hutu majority mass-murdered (black) Tutsis. This was a racially group based genocide, but neither side were white. Even looking at non-genocidal contexts, think about the ongoing prejudice between Japanese and Chinese people. Or think about prejudice directed at those from sub-Saharan African countries by those from Middle Eastern countries. I could labor this point, but I don’t really see how this could be contested. Given even a moment’s reflection, it seems to me just obvious that people of all groups can be racist in the psychological sense.
One thing that Mustafa is right about, though, is that reverse racism and reverse sexism do not exist. (Psychological) racism is racism, and (psychological) sexism is sexism. And when you call others to “kill all white men”, and devalue people based solely on their gender or racial background, that is racist and sexist. Sure, society might favor white men. But that doesn’t give you a free pass for you personally to be racist.