If you’re going to study any isms, the first thing you should really look at is power structures – how society has traditionally structured itself and evolved. In feminism, this is often called the “Patriarchy” (rule of the father/male role models). In terms of intersectionality – which is about where feminism meets anti-racism, meets class issues, etc (ie minorities in different categories) – this is called the Kyriarchy… The interaction between different systems of domination and submission.
I start with the Patriarchy as this is the one I most commonly can relate to. This is the idea that in western society most things are geared towards men – that society values the role of men much more than the role of women, and denies women the same opportunities and equality. There are lots of stats around but what is most well-accepted is that there are more CEOs who are men than women, and more MPs who are men, than women. Why is this? There is nothing in the requirement of being a CEO or an MP that inherently discounts women – it is not an explicit requirement, for example, to have a beard or a penis, or any other thing which we dictate to be ‘male’. Levels of testosterone or maleness should not dictate that you cannot be a CEO or an MP. Yet women continue to be under-represented in these fields. Women are also paid much less in work – again, there are statistics and reports on this out there, should you wish to find them. Yet women are over-represented in the public sector – why is this? This is what feminists talk about as the Patriarchy – that “men” as a group are generally dominating, and much better off than women are. That is entirely different to saying that individual men hold power – although some do, this is clearly an inaccurate generalisation.
It’s a fairly simple concept, once you understand it, and one you can apply to any arbitrary category of society – for example, with regards to sexuality, ‘heterosexuality’ is the dominant group and ‘homosexuality’ is the oppressed. It follows thusly:
- Cisgender people are dominant, transgender people are the oppressed.
- White people are dominant, non-white people are oppressed.
- Men are dominant, women are oppressed.
- Middle class is dominant, working class are oppressed and exploited. You could even take this one further and look at the ‘ruling classes’ (ie politicians, nobility, etc) as dominating over all, including the middle classes. Then the middle class dominate over those below them, and so on – so the lowest class in society is oppressed by all of those above it.
That is not to say that anyone who happens to fit into one or all of these dominant groups is a horrible person – just that society is automatically geared towards giving them an advantage. They are privileged. These are social structures of power. It is easy for one person in the dominant group to have power over someone in the oppressed group. And while it is possible for someone in the oppressed group to be horrible to, or not like, those in the dominant group, I maintain that it is impossible for there to be ‘isms’ in this context. It is in fact entirely understandable why people in the subordinate group may hate those who have been oppressing them. Allan Johnson explains this in The Gender Knot (2005):
“Given the reality of women’s oppression, male privilege, and men’s enforcement of both, it’s hardly surprising that every woman should have moments when she resents, or even hates, ‘men’.”
It is not possible for women to be ‘sexist’ against men. It is not possible for non-whites to be ‘racist’ against white people. There is a distinct difference between group interactions (ie systematic oppression from society and its rulers – who are, incidentally, mainly cisgender, straight, white, middle class men) and individual interactions. There is a difference between me growing up in society, feeling that the message I’ve heard is “as a woman you are worth less than a man” – and me insulting an individual man, telling him he is not good at something/making generalisations. That might be wrong and not-very-nice, but it is not sexist; it is not misandrist (I have already argued that misandry doesn’t exist here and here). It is me disliking an individual man. Whereas a man doing the same thing to me, does so in a generally anti-women and hostile environment that affects me to a large extent and has a negative effect on my behaviour and the way I perceive myself (see street harassment that happens worryingly regularly if you happen to be a woman and go outside your own house). That’s sexism, and that’s why women need to fight back.
The reason that women – and other oppressed groups – feel the need to have women-only safe spaces, and should be allowed them, is that they can achieve much more without the interference of the aggressors. Some women feel deeply uncomfortable discussing feminist ideas in front of men, because they feel that men will dominate the conversation – this aggressive hijacking of the conversational thread or debate happens all the time in every day life where the dominant groups take over. It’s called derailing, and as a ‘privileged’ member, it takes a while to see that you’re doing it. This is why, when people discuss racial issues, I fully support them and I add my two cents if need be – but I’m more intrigued about following what the people who have to live with abuse due to their skin colour, have to say about it. I try to listen more and speak less. What can I possibly have to add? I have never been the victim of a racial attack and I never will be, and I suspect they are fed up of white people claiming the mantle for themselves.
What is really interesting about power structures is that once you see one (of course, I started with the patriarchy) you begin to see all. I once would have considered myself the victim of a ‘racist’ attack, where I was called a “white whore” “white prostitute” “fucking white slag” and so on by a group of young black men. I was shaken up by the experience – but the more I thought about it later on, the more I realised that, had they called me “whitey” I wouldn’t have had an issue. There is no historic meaning or basis for insults against white people – whereas there is a rich, awful history and background to, for example, the ‘N’ word. What was hurtful and awful about me being shouted at was that I was being called a prostitute, a slag, and a whore, simply because I was female. It didn’t matter what colour my skin was – it was sexism rather than racism. I think this really sums up my understanding of power structures, and it’s why – among a great many other things – Diane Abbott isn’t a racist.