Understanding Systemic Sexism

By Teresa Roberts

There’s something about the concept of systemic sexism that causes confusion. Just the mention of it can trigger anger. Even those with whom developing self-awareness has been a goal are not immune. Individuals become defensive, because they don’t understand that systemic sexism isn’t about them. It’s about the culture they inherited. This misconception can lead men to feel like they’re being attacked.

Can we truly understand the day-to-day grind of thousands upon thousands of subtle messages experienced by those who have been cast in social roles deemed “lesser than” and the many blatantly damaging repercussions of being assigned such a lot in life?

Can anyone fully appreciate generational pain, frustration and lack of opportunity that our grandmothers, mothers and daughters have endured without enduring it themselves? It seems unlikely that a person would be able to fully grasp how it feels unless they’re living it. Just as a white person can’t know what it feels like to be black or a rich person can’t fathom the deep struggles of being desperately poor, even the best of men will not be able to fully appreciate how it feels to be a woman in a patriarchal society.

Because systemic sexism has been woven into our social fabric, it is passed on as a matter of routine to the succeeding generations.

We inherit our culture through the sheer lottery of birth. We are not taught to question what has been passed on to us. Thus, we’re often unaware of the limitations our cultural heritage forces upon us let alone what harm it does to others. We’re essentially blind to many of the problems people face due to the fact that we see the world the way we were taught to see it, a world view not of our choosing. This inherited world view defined what was “normal” and acceptable long ago. If something is considered to be normal and acceptable, it goes largely unnoticed.

Although many things contribute to our cultural conditioning, I contend that across the world, religion has been leading tribes down the wrong path for centuries.

Whenever societies make a step forward, it has been in spite of not because of these culturally sanctioned religions. The three big religions of the world — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — have cast women in a secondary role. For the purposes of power, there are many who resist changing that model. When women suffer in silence, there’s almost no chance that anyone in positions of privilege will take notice of their plight. Maintaining status quo becomes the goal.

The world has only recently become interested in the notion of equality for everyone. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to witness some movement toward social change.

Anyone, however, who believes that it will only take decades to root out systemic sexism, do not understand how these cultural systems work. They have been around for centuries, supported by our parents, grandparents, teachers, preachers, bosses, holy books and religious practices. They have infiltrated our government and monetary systems. They define our roles and determine our hierarchy of power. So much of what takes place between humans isn’t even a choice. Instead, we are driven by subconscious motives and belief systems that were predetermined long before we were born.

To listen to the hurt and suffering of others, to actually hear what they’re saying, requires an enormous amount of awareness.

Only those affected can tell their stories. Only they know the entire story — all the sordid details, nuances and expectations that come from living the story. It’s hard work to listen. It’s even harder work to understand and then give full credit to what the less privileged have to say. If we want social change to become a reality, however, we need to accept the responsibility to do that hard work. Sometimes, women are going to be angry. You’re going to hear it in their voices. Becoming defensive will be a natural reaction. Listen, instead! Listen without asking those who suffer to express themselves with less anger. Remember that you haven’t experienced the systemic subjugation that generations of women have endured. Listen and believe them.

With every step forward, societies tend to take two steps back.

Sometimes, it begins to feel like the goal is to drag us all the way back to the Dark Ages. In modern American politics, we’re seeing evidence of that desire where women are concerned. The current political movement is triggering fear and anger in many women. Some of these women won hard fought battles in the past. They’re old enough to remember marching for women’s rights back in the sixties and seventies. To feel the forces of the Christian right closing in all about them is terrifying. Let them speak their minds when they choose. Let them rail if need be. Listen and then join their cause.

If we’re ever going to create a secular world that honors women as equal to men, we must rid ourselves of systemic sexism.

Teresa Roberts is an author, world traveler and dedicated myth buster. Her recent book – Have We Been Screwed? Trading Freedom for Fairy Tales – can be purchased on Amazon.

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