Sexism is as sexism does

Another wonderful misconception about sexism is that not intending to perpetrate it allows you to wash your hands on the matter. This misconception isn’t limited to sexism- there are similar attitudes about racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on for all of the various -isms and -phobias. Apologies from politicians for being caught dipping into the cookie gar of misogyny tend to go along the lines of “but that’s totally not what I intended to say!”

Firstly, you need to recognise that reading is not just about reading the author’s intent. I know this is how it works when you’re the boss, and you’re not expected to have the time to write clearly for others, but where we talk to and write to our equals, we have to accept that words are open to many interpretations and every one we leave open in our work in valid until we correct it. When you say something you didn’t intend, you have still said it until those words are corrected. An admission of guilt is not enough to address the real issue- it just stigmatises the words you used, which is only sometimes helpful. If you really mean your apology, go back and say what you meant to without offending people, like it should have been said, just to show you can do it. That’s what we do in the world of writers and speakers who are expected to be accountable.

The important thing to remember is that being feminist/antiracist/queer-friendly/trans-friendly/name your cause, is about your openness to the fact that being true to yourself is beautiful, that being open to difference is good, and your acknowledgement and activism for the cause. It’s about awareness of how society might turn who you are to your (dis)advantage, even if you happened to win the lottery and be born into a relatively privileged life. It’s about following up intent with dialogue. It’s about listening to the disempowered. It’s about accepting the fundamental truth that we’re not just born into equal opportunity, but that sometimes that opportunity is squandered or oppressed after we’re born.

When someone calls you on sexism, or another similar allegation, they probably don’t care about you being politically correct. They care more about everything I listed in the last paragraph. And if you can correct yourself and show that you’ve recognised those things as virtues to uphold and believe, then you’ll have a defense a lot more solid than your intent.

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