Monday, March 17, 2008

The Continuing Curse of ISMs

I listened to callers and commentary on a progressive radio station tonight and the curse of ISMs reared its ugly head once again. I feel frustrated and irritated about the pervasive prejudice that still gets bandied about without being challenged.

Aside: Before you get all "I'm not prejudiced" on me, take a deep breath. I am talking about institutional prejudices and cultural prejudices that persist in our society. I know people who truly believe that they harbor no racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation prejudices yet who display them on a regular basis. These people are rarely challenged because institutional and cultural prejudice is, by its very nature, insidious.

What am I talking about? First, let me give credit for opening my eyes on this subject to one of those two great, sister, advice columnists - Ann Landers or Dear Abby. (I really can no longer remember who, I read the column perhaps thirty years ago, but I have never, ever forgotten it.)

Now, here's the gem of wisdom.

When a person uses gender, racial, ethnic, or sexual orientation as an adjective or as a descriptive term, the person is displaying prejudice - often unconsciously - UNLESS the adjective or descriptive is required for clarity or is germane to the topic at hand - because using that adjective or descriptive word indicates that you find it to be outside the norm.

Examples: a woman doctor, a black lawyer, a homosexual father, a Muslim politician.

The test for this is to restate the label with its "expected" gender, racial, ethnic, or sexual orientation descriptive and see if it sounds stupid.

Examples: a man doctor, a white lawyer, a heterosexual father, a Christian politician. Just for kicks, try this one: a heterosexual couple. If that sounds redundant, you need to give yourself a good talking to.

We don't say a "man" doctor because we expect doctors to be men. Likewise, we expect lawyers to be white, fathers to be straight, and politicians (at least in America) to be Christian. Or, some people do. And even people who can happily accept a black doctor or woman lawyer in actuality may still bow to the institutional prejudice that says it is somehow unusual, unexpected, or rare.

After hearing me praise my rheumatologist, a friend who also has lupus asked me for a referral, which I happily gave. A couple of months later, I ran into the person and asked how the doctor's visit had gone. My friend said, "Oh, I loved Dr. P., but you didn't tell me he was black."

No, I didn't. And why would I? Does Dr. P. being black have anything to do with his skills and qualifications as a doctor? Not at all. But how many times have you heard someone refer to a "black doctor" as if this were a revelation?

Aside: And, no, I didn't give you any hints about the gender of my friend either, because what, really, does gender have to do with friendship or displays of prejudice? I could have really turned that little example into a nice condemnation of somebody by adding a touch of gender, a hint of religious persuasion, and the lightest tint of color, couldn't I?

Those of you younger than I am (57) may not remember the consternation caused by a riddle that popped up in the 1970s. It went like this: A boy was injured in a car accident. He was rushed to the hospital by his father. The emergency room doctor, upon seeing the boy, exclaimed, "I can't work on this child. He is my son." How could this be?

Believe it or not, you young'uns, people were absolutely baffled by this riddle. All kinds of suggestions would be raised - stepson, adopted son, mistaken identity, etc. - before people would give up and say, "This must be a trick question."

Can you guess the answer? I hope it is very obvious to today's reader. The doctor was the boy's mother. But in the 70s, this notion was almost heretical. Oh, we had women doctors; we just didn't think about them or think there were enough of them to be worth considering seriously, even for the purposes of a riddle.

I raised my children on the Rule of ISMs: Never use an adjective or descriptive word to describe someone's gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation unless you have a specific and pertinent reason to do so.

Example: If a woman friend wants a referral to an ob-gyn and expresses a preference for a female physician for this very personal care, it's okay to say something like, "I know a really good woman doctor you might like."

I am hard put to come up with additional examples because I rarely find a reason to qualify people by physical or cultural attributes. And I am not trying to be holier-than-thou; it's just that I have been practicing this for 30 years and I've gotten pretty darn good at doing it.

If you aren't already following the Rule of ISMs, please start now. If you already do, thanks from the bottom of my heart. You are making the world a better place for all of us.


P.S. And a Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of you from the very Irish Devereux clan. (I figure that bit of ethnic reference is completely appropriate given the day, although, by way of full disclosure, I must admit that I am Swedish-German- English and not a bit Irish meself.)


Anonymous said...

I wonder what you make of the LeBron James cover contreversy. Is it racist? Is calling it racist politically correct facism? Is it because she's white? If she were brown, would anyone care?

Anonymous said...

What I make of the controversy is nothing at all. It surprised me. When I looked at the photograph, I thought, "Oh, he must be a basketball player. Ah, she's pretty." I didn't know who LeBron James was and, although I had heard Gisele Bundchen's name, I wouldn't have known her from any other lissome, blonde model (except Heidi Klum, because I watch Project Runway).

I would have responded to an egregiously racist image and in my opinion, this wasn't one. Could it be that the people who are seeing the image as objectionable are people who themselves have hang-ups about interracial dating and stereotypes?

During a political contest in the South two or so years ago, the white male politician ran ads against the black male politician in which a white woman was placed in proximity to the black politician while critical comments were made. The ads were constructed to play on racial stereotypes and had nothing to do with actual events or facts. That I do see as playing to racist attitudes.

It seems to me there is a qualitative difference between depicting real people doing what they make their livings doing (basketball and modeling) in order to sell magazines and creating an artificial picture where nothing is real for the sole purpose of discrediting another person.

Mallory J said...

Great reaad thankyou