Systemic Racism, Systemic Sexism

The consequences of racism, sexism, and other intolerant attitudes are far-reaching and deep in America, and yet they also result in everyday acts that wear us down, battering at our sense of self-worth and value as a human being. Many of these acts are systemic, meaning that they are the results of a social system that has been in place for a long time and goes largely unquestioned. These daily acts of racism and sexism mirror each other in strange ways, and yet each brings with it unique circumstances.

When I read Michael Twittty’s open letter to Paula Deen (regarding the accusations of her racist speech and acts), it resonated with me. Not because I am African-American; no, my ancestors were largely European, and I recognize that I come from a place of privilege. Rather, Twitty’s incisive commentary about the effects of daily, under-the-radar (for white folks, at least) racism being ignored, while controversial phrases get sensationalized, resonated with me as a feminist.

Twitty writes: I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here.  Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. 

And this makes me want to weep in frustration, because it’s very similar to the systemic sexism that women face on a daily basis. We, too, sigh in resentment and frustration when sexist slurs are hurled our way, but we go on with our lives. Being called a “bitch” or “cunt” is certainly not that a big deal when compared to all the other horrendous assaults on women’s bodily and economic integrity.

As author Genevieve Valentine points out, women are told to “deal with” the minor acts of harassment and personal space violations that we face on a daily basis. They’re also not terribly big deals in the grand scheme of things: These are not the assaults, the beatings, the rapes. These are not the traumas. These are small things, mostly; they happen a hundred times a day, you have to deal with them all. To ignore these is to know they’re collecting little victories of privilege, and to wait for “baby” to turn to “bitch” when you don’t answer. To respond almost always risks escalation, telescoping the amount of time you’ll have to deal with it. Either can be dangerous, if the man has a mind.

It wouldn’t make any sense to claim that the suffering of women under sexism is the same as the suffering of African-Americans under racism, and yet there are commonalities. Oppressive structures often work in similar ways, employing silencing tactics, infusing hierarchies with their values, making it difficult for victims to voice their suffering or fight back, and so on. And then there’s intersectionality, the idea that “various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality” (quote from Nerdy Feminist’s wonderful post on Intersectionalism 101).

Intersectionality gives us a view on George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict for fatally shooting (African American) Trayvon Martin, which Jelani Cobb characterizes as “historical profiling”. In a case that is oddly similar yet dissonant, Marissa Alexander was just given twenty years in prison for firing warning shots into a wall in order to discourage attacks in a domestic abuse situation. No one was harmed in the shooting. It’s already been established that women who kill their (male) domestic partners are given longer sentences than men who kill their (female) domestic partners – so when we add race into the mix (as Alexander is African-American), I can only imagine how much the added weight of unconsciously ingrained stereotypes as well as sedimented legal prejudices hurt her case.

Experiences of racism and sexism are awful, sometimes even lethal. Hopefully, though, recognizing that these systems of oppression are intertwined, and recognizing that they are systemic as well as individual, can help us forge ahead in the fight for greater rights for all.

I’d like to end by noting that while I believe it’s important to discuss the intersections of racism and sexism (along other other -isms and attitudes such as homophobia), my own privileged perspective is likely preventing me from seeing the whole picture. I’m not trying to say that my suffering as a woman under the patriarchy equips me to perfectly understand and sympathize with the suffering of non-whites in a white-dominated society, but rather that there are some similarities, and discussing those can be illuminating. Along those lines, I’m a fan of this deconstruction of the privilege implicit in saying “I am Trayvon Martin” as well as this tumblr called “We Are Not Trayvon Martin,” which is devoted to exploring how privilege affects people’s life differentially. Because in order to fight it, you have to recognize it, and that’s one place where a discussion of systemic racism and sexism is useful.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.