Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On the privilege to ignore "isms"

This was scientist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins' response to a woman, blogger Rebecca Watson, who complained that being followed into a hotel elevator at 4 a.m. and propositioned by a male conference-goer made her feel unsettled:
Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Read original post and more comments at Pharygula
The elevator incident, and the response of Dawkins and his acolytes, has been capably analyzed by several bloggers, including Liss at Shakesville, Amanda Marcotte, Jen McCreight at Blag Hag  and Rebecca "Skepchick" Watson herself. I will leave that topic alone. But I do want to talk about how marginalized people, including women, are often asked to ignore it when "heroes" deny us our equality.

Watson wrote this in her final post on the subject of Elevatorgate:
So many of you voiced what I had already been thinking: that this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experiences as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same. There are so many great scientists and thinkers out there that I don’t think my reading list will suffer.
A few Skepchick commenters, even ones that disdained what Dawkins said, thought this was a step too far. Here is one such comment from "madoc":
So Dawkins might be an asshole when it comes to women. I’m not sure about that, but I’ll grant the possibility. I have not read anything from him that deals with feminism; I value highly what he wrote and discussed regarding religion and atheism. I really like his thoughts and contributions in this field. But I could not care less about what he thinks about feminism. I would not regard his writings about atheism worse even if I knew that he were a misogynist. Why should I? Those are unrelated topics. 
Now, sure, this is Rebecca’s blog, and she can recommend or not recommend who and what she wants. But I consider her reaction an overreaction.
What does is matter to this man what Richard Dawkins says about feminism. Dawkins is an expert in science and an atheist activist. THAT is what people should pay attention to. His views on women are not important.

Except they are. They are important to women.

High-profile and influential men, like Dawkins, who use their status to minimize sexism in the West, deny the lived experiences of women, and advance the stupid thinking that all Western women are both white and privileged, poison a well already rank with gender bias. Men like Dawkins who sneer at Western misogyny make Western women's lives more difficult, including women like Watson who are atheists. So, why should Watson and other women continue to hand Dawkins their money and support, and prop up his influence, when he thinks they're all a bunch of whiny bitches who should be satisfied getting sexually harassed because somewhere (in those bad, brown, Muslim countries) a woman has it worse?

Sometimes it is hard to have idols as a marginalized person. You hope that those you look up to have not bought into biases against you--that they are on your side. Sometimes you find that is not true. Sometimes you find your heroes are ambivalent about you. Sometimes you find they are downright hateful.

I think of this when the GLBT community is asked to wholeheartedly support President Obama, while he waffles and drags his feet on helping them secure their equal rights. I imagine it is hard to embrace someone who says they are "evolving" on the issue of whether you should have the same rights as other adults. Obama's ambivalence effects the lives of GLBT people. They shouldn't be asked to overlook that.

I think of this when folks talk about some civil rights heroes. I have heard many black men say they were inspired by "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Yet, when I think of Malcolm, as a black woman, I consider that he once said, "The closest thing to a woman is the devil," among other more egregious things. I know the man's views on women were evolving when he was assassinated and that he rejected some of his earlier misogyny. I am not aware that he rejected all of it. So, Malcolm leaves me hollow as an icon. Malcolm wasn't the only misogynist in the civil rights movement--not by a long shot. And so, I find myself gravitating toward the female activists of that effort who didn't think a woman's only place in the movement was "prone." The black community has a long way to go in recognizing and fighting sexism. I cannot overlook it when someone denies my humanity as a woman. No one should ask me to.

But that commenter on Skepchick needn't think about what effect Richard Dawkins' comments may have. Whatever they are, they will not directly impact him. They seem irrelevant. (Though I question whether the willful ignorance of the leading face of a movement based on science and reason is truly irrelevant.)

The choice to ignore "isms" is a privilege--one marginalized people do not have.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...