In the context of North American culture, we have come very far since the days of overt sexism. Women have fought and gained the right to wear pants, vote and be employed full time if they wish. When asked on the street, strangers generally say yes when questioned if they support equality amongst the sexes. In a culture that prides itself on political correctness, telling women that they’re less than men is no longer cool or acceptable. People often take this progress and go as far as asserting that we live in a society that no longer has sexism. They might say the fight is over and everyone who is vocal and angry right now is simply overly sensitive and overreacting.
Not only is this untrue in terms of policy and legislation regarding men and women, but sexism still exists amongst societal interactions – it’s just sneakier now. If anyone has ever commented on how messy, good at driving, hairy or into video games (the list goes on) you are ‘for a girl,’ that’s sneaky sexism. This sneakier brand of sexism will not explicitly limit you to your socially assigned gender roles, but certain judgements are made about you based only on your assigned sex. In a culture of political correctness, the average person will say yes when asked if they support equality (which is awesome because it wasn’t always like this), but don’t buy into the idea that this admits them into the club of not being sexist. The reality is that this club does not exist and, in the slightest chance that it does, the membership is much smaller than we make it out to be.
This is not a rude awakening that we’re all sexist, but more of a reminder that we’re all imperfect and that there is work to be done (there’s nothing wrong with some self-improvement). You might think that the fight against inequality only happens through changing laws and going out to protest, but that’s only a part of the fight. There are ways to address these gendered restrictions if you simply know how to recognize it. One of the biggest problems is that the acts are so subtle they often go unnoticed or we don’t think they’re important enough to mention.
The more established and technical term for sneaky sexism (though it is also used for sneaky actions that may degrade a minority) is microaggression. This term was first used in academic settings. Professor Derald Sue of Columbia University used it to refer to “brief and commonplace daily and verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” The formal definition of microaggression has stayed the same, but it has been extended to speak about sexism and other commonly discriminated traits, like socioeconomic class or disability.
So, why is the little stuff like microaggression important? It’s important because the way in which we treat each other on a day-to-day basis manifests itself into how people raise their children, make laws and portray people in all the media and products we consume. It is also important to understand that we can all be guilty of this from time to time. The result of repeatedly enduring these seemingly small slights is that we are continually conscious of our own actions and words as well as those of the individuals around us – we are making ourselves socially-aware
A great example of someone publicly fighting against microaggression is Kristen Stewart in her parody interview with co-star Jesse Eisenberg. Kristen prepared extremely invasive questions to ask Eisenberg, such as, “do you have a boob job?” or “are you pregnant?” These questions, which are regularly posed to female celebrities, are unacceptable to ask anyone in normal circumstances. Meanwhile, Kristen received questions like what her favourite sports team was. The parody interview was awkward, which showed that while women in entertainment go through these interactions regularly, no one ever blinks an eye at how extremely inappropriate and sexist they are.
Acts of microagression are important to address because they’re often overlooked and those on the receiving end are just expected to withstand it. They can be such small afflictions that we forget how they can add up to be something so detrimental. Recognizing and addressing microaggression allows us to understand that none of us may be perfect, but everyone has the ability to be empowered and fight inequalities by speaking up or changing our own behavior if we see it in ourselves.
The fight against inequality doesn’t only happen through legislation that affects the top down, but can also be done from the ground up, starting from what you choose to do in your everyday life.
Microaggression, by nature, is hard to categorize as many of those everyday interactions have been passed off as acceptable for so long. The point is not to demonize those who commit sexism in everyday life, but to understand that that these behaviours are problematic.
Sexism doesn’t always come in the form of deliberately making one feel lesser – it can also come in forms of compliments. For example, if your boss praises you for doing a surprisingly good job, having expected less because you’re a woman, that’s microaggression. This is a great example because, though it won’t be doubted that the intent was good, the statement doesn’t acknowledge the ability for you to be a dynamic human being who’s beyond the stereotypes of one part of your identity.
There’s no formula to pick out acts of microaggression, but if someone treats you in this way it might be worth exploring or having a conversation about it. I believe when spoken in openness and good intent, people will surprise you in how respective they are to your ideas and feelings.
Written by Henrieta Lau. Published in the Winter 2016 Issue.
What are some ways you find sneaky sexism in your everyday life? Let us know in the comments below!