What does it mean if you believe that sexism and racism are real, but you don’t feel that they have an impact on your day-to-day life?
Does it mean that you’re like the Grand Old Party and think we all overcame by virtue of Rosa Parks’ sitting where she wasn’t supposed to sit oh so many years ago? Or does it mean that you know these things are real, but deep down you want to believe you’re too special to be held back by the invisible hand of rampant discrimination?
Or is it something else?
Pew Research interviewed millennials about the gains of women in the workplace, and while 75 percent of millennial women agreed that more changes need to take place, only 15 percent felt they’d been discriminated against because of their gender. This was both surprising and not at the same time.
Surprising because if things “feel” more equal, why do many people believe that things still aren’t fair? But then again, it was not surprising because, while I’m not a millennial, I also haven’t felt held back by my gender or my race. And it’s not because I think the world is fair to women or Black people. I have a tendency to think the rules don’t apply to me, until they painfully do.
Call it the bias of the self or blame it on being raised to think I’m a special snowflake (as a lot of us in our 20s and 30s were), but I don’t think I’m alone.
From Pew (emphasis mine):
Large majorities of working men (73%) and working women (75%) say that where they work, men and women are paid about the same amount for doing the same job …
Similar majorities of men (73%) and women (72%) say that at their workplace, women have about the same opportunities as men to advance to top executive and professional positions …
A higher share of women (18%) than men (10%) report having experienced (workplace) discrimination.
I don’t remember the first time someone told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.
I’m sure it happened. Maybe. Possibly. Whenever it happened, it didn’t leave much of an impression, because I can’t remember it. After all, I was the sort of kid who enjoyed My Little Pony and Transformers in equal measure. I liked being a leader in my classroom, had a naturally loud and resonant voice and felt that it needed to be prominently displayed in every school play (and my teachers, for the most part, agreed). I collected as many Barbies as I collected Legos. And I didn’t grasp the concept of something being for “boys only” or “girls only” until that day they separated us in the fourth grade so we could watch a video about growing hair in places where we’d never grown hair before.
I probably had to be well into my teen years before someone informed me that I was supposed to do something (“Demure” myself? Play dumb? I’m still not quite sure) in order to placate men, but again, that didn’t stick, either. I had some vague idea that boys didn’t like girls to be smarter than they were, but I’d been an egghead weirdo since kindergarten. I wasn’t about to toss away 16 years of hard-core “Nerd Life” just to please the theoretical boy who might or might not think I’m cute. That seemed ridiculous.
And so this is the mindset I went into the workplace with, because while we may be men or women or Black or White or Asian or Latino or biracial or any number of things, no matter what we may believe about those different from ourselves, none of us goes around every moment of the day painfully aware of our gender, sexual orientation and ethnic distinctions. We’re not aware of it until something happens to make us aware of it.
Until someone explicitly treats you as the “other,” you don’t see yourself as anything but yourself, aka a unique individual or the hero in your own movie of your life. When someone points out your race or gender, it’s a reminder that to someone else, you’re simply part of a herd, not an individual—a stereotype or a subversion of a stereotype, not a person. And while there are still plenty of people who will gladly remind you of what herd you belong to, jolting you back into reality, for the most part, people are subtle and work hard to hide their biases, coloring them as something else.
So you end up playing a guessing game.
Is the lack of Black women on “Saturday Night Live” (and showrunner Lorne Michaels’ sudden interest in recruiting a Black woman) because Michaels is racially biased, or is it because he hasn’t found a Black woman who’s “ready”? Were you passed up for a job promotion because you don’t have the right connections or because you don’t have the right gender? Or was it both? Do you not have the right connections because of your gender?
I can’t say exactly what my life would have been like or what I would be like if I’d been born a White man, but I think with my particular skill set, there were probably some roadblocks that would have been more easily avoided and more doors that would have more easily opened. I’m aware of what role privilege and biases play here.
What I take from the Pew study is that I and probably quite a few other women are aware that sexism is an invisible hand that is routinely making adjustments to your life, but you have a choice whether or not you want to be constantly reminded of and aware of this hand. You can make the focus of your life what’s holding you back, or you can focus on you and forge ahead.
I know that racism and sexism are real, and I don’t like it. But I don’t have to spend a lot of time caring about the personal racism and sexism of others. Those things don’t define me. They define the racist and the sexist among us, and their ignorance is their own cross to bear.
I have no interest in helping them along with it.
(Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.)