Marguerite is a lesbian and a feminist, and she hates men. “I hate them all,” she has been heard to say. “Absolutely, unequivocally and without exception.” At one point in her life she went on a campaign of “getting even” with men, in a small way. Whenever she was out and about, she began to deliberately sabotage men by messing with their heads.
If a male stranger stopped to ask her where such-and-such a street was, she cheerfully and convincingly sent him off in the wrong direction. It didn’t matter if he was polite, or going to a job interview or to a funeral; he was a man and she was not helpful.
Once she was stopped in the grocery store by a couple of American men who were getting supplies for a camping trip. They asked if she knew where they could find the crackers. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “We don’t have crackers in Canada. I know what they are, of course, because I’ve seen them on TV—we get American cable up here. But I’ve never tasted one, and there’s nowhere to buy them north of the border.”
She enjoyed these little pranks, and she enjoyed telling her friends about the encounters after they happened.
Is Marguerite guilty of reverse sexism? Absolutely not. Because in Canada men have the advantage over women on nearly every possible measure. The culture does not support or re-enforce Marguerite’s hatred of men, nor would it approve of her behaviour. There are many things you could say about Marguerite’s activities—you could say they are mean-spirited, or wrong-headed or senseless or vindictive.
But they are not reverse sexism.
And there are some tell-tale signs that they are not reverse sexism. First, she feels a little guilty every time she sabotages some man who never did her any harm. Most men in our culture do not feel guilty for similarly “harmless” attacks on women, such as laughing at a “blonde” joke or enjoying a billboard with a scantily clad woman draped over a car.
Second, she is a little shocked by her behaviour, and her feminist friends are a little shocked too. But no one is shocked by the fact that women earn less than men do. They may be angry, or acknowledge that it is not fair, but they are not shocked.
Third, she worries a little about the fact that the particular men she is messing with did not do anything to deserve it. Nobody worries that Joanie, the girl in fifth grade who learns that “girls can’t do math,” never did anything in particular to warrant being shut out from a career in science and tech. They may not care, or they may work on “leveling the playing field,” but they do not zero in on Joanie’s individual experience.
Marguerite’s behaviour is not sexism, because her views are not part of the cultural beliefs of Canadian society. She may hate men, but her feelings are not shared by the general populace. She may hate men, but she cannot act out her hatred in public without swift repercussions. She may hate men, but no power goes along with her feelings.
But they treat us badly too!
With startling regularity, people in the dominant group will say, of people in the targeted group, “But they treat us badly too!” A white person might argue that Blacks are prejudiced against Asians, or that First Nations men commit spousal abuse.
The point of such an argument is to demonstrate that a target group – Blacks, or First Nations, for example – are seeking to be treated with respect they are not worthy of, because they themselves treat others with disrespect. A white person might argue against affirmative action programs, because “they prevent decisions based on quality alone,” without recognizing the privilege that goes into creating “quality.”
Straight people respond to claims from the LBGT community for equality by saying that queers are seeking “special rights.”
All of these examples have this in common: they fail to take power into account. When a white person, or white institutions, discriminate against a person of colour, they have the power of the Canadian culture behind them. There has been no public outcry about the fact that almost all of our legislators and our judges are straight white able-bodied Anglophone (outside Quebec) men.
Racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or able bodied-ism, or any other oppression) is prejudice plus power. So, if a First Nations woman says she hates white men, she is expressing a prejudice. She might be being mean. But her statement is not racist, because she does not have the cultural power to enforce her view of white men.
The term “racism” cannot be used to describe the behaviour of white people to people of colour and Aboriginal people, and also to describe the behaviour of people of colour and Aboriginal people towards white people. Using the same term hides the way that, in Canada, people of colour and Aboriginal people are victimized by racism; white people are not.
How to Combat the Myth of Reverse Racism
Whenever you hear an argument that says everyone treats other people badly, as an excuse for treatment that is racist or sexist or homophobic or otherwise discriminatory, speak up. Sometimes a question about the results of such behaviour helps:
A: But black people aren’t any better, you know. They murder white people, too.
B: Yes, but do they get away with it?
C: Women beat their husbands, too, you know. It happens in reverse.
D: Yes, but does anybody think it’s normal?
And If You Go Along with the Idea of Reverse Racism?
The only way to work against power imbalances is to be able to recognize power. In this case, what you are looking for is evidence of the beliefs and behaviours that keep some people up, and others down, in this culture. If you don’t recognize the systemic weight of racism, you may begin to think that racism is cause by “a few bad apples.” But you are not one of the bad apples; you are a “nice person.” In this way, you lose sight of your privilege, and continue to be part of the problem.
And If You are Vigilant about Reverse Racism?
- You will not be distracted by false arguments.
- Your thinking about the ways that oppression works will become clearer.
- You will be able to respond to reverse-racism (or sexism, or whatever…) arguments.
What Gets in the Way?
Our society says that we are all equal. Of all the lies, that is the one that hides the most. We fall for arguments like “but that’s the same as…” because we believe the lie about everyone being equal. Arguments that start “But they are prejudiced too…” fit into the idea that all the groups in this society are equal.
An excellent blog about why there is no such thing as reverse racism: Open Letter to the Three White Students Who Filed a Discrimination Complaint Against Their Black Teacher
Feminspire: Why Reverse Racism Isn’t Real