The Accidental Sexist

On September 25, Hazlitt (Random House’s Online Magazine) interviewed David Gilmour, a lecturer in literature at the University of Toronto. Some of the things he said made the internet explode.

The article’s here:

‘I’m not interested in teaching books by women,’ he said. ‘When I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. … I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.’

(I’m not going to go into the hilarious ‘serious heterosexual guys’ thing here, but it’s hilarious. I guess the name on the cover of my books means that I’m doubly out in the cold, too.)

It’s not surprising that the internet exploded with cries of sexism and counter-cries that students had a choice; if they didn’t want a course exclusively about white male authors, they didn’t need to sign up. Damn political correctness; Gilmour is expressing his opinion; he’s entitled to his opinion, he’s entitled to decide what he wants to teach, and if people don’t like it they can stay away.

And if asked, I’m sure that Gilmour would deny that he’s any sort of sexist. He just likes literature written by people like him; white men who have had similar experiences to him that he really understands.

In fact, if you go out into the street and ask anybody they’ll deny that they’re racist or sexist. Nobody sees themselves as racist or sexist.

Sexism isn’t the wild obvious discrimination that you see in the media. It isn’t a man pointing at a woman and saying ‘go back to the kitchen where you belong’, and seriously meaning it.

Real institutionalised sexism is what Gilmour does. It’s much more subtle, much less vindictive, and has a great deal to do with a lack of awareness. And there’s that word that’s thrown around so much that it’s started to lose meaning; awareness.

Imagine a whole faculty of professors like Gilmour. They have nothing against women, or people of colour; in fact if asked they’ll claim to love women and POC. They are just much more comfortable teaching literature by people who are just like them; white men. Of course they’ll admit that there are excellent female and POC writers; of course they’re not racist or sexist; they’re just more comfortable and enthusiastic about teaching works written by people like themselves. And if the entire faculty is like that, what do they end up teaching? Only white male authors.

And of course, when they have to choose colleagues, they’re just much more comfortable choosing employees who are like themselves.

A manager who isn’t (of course) sexist or racist will go through the list of resumes and have to make a decision. And if he doesn’t see himself as sexist or racist he will that the women and POC have perfectly acceptable resumes; they’re smart and talented and more than suitable for the job. But the manager will have a much easier time if he employs a white male like himself who has the same set of life experiences and cultural attitudes. And if he has to choose someone to promote to work closer with him, he’ll be more comfortable if he chooses a white male like himself. Of course, these women and POC are talented and skilled and very suitable for the position, but they’re so talented and skilled that of course someone else will give them a job very soon. Because sexism and racism no longer exist, right?

I have been told many, many times that I am skilled and qualified and that I didn’t get the job because reasons, then in the same breath, that someone else would definitely hire me soon because I’m so skilled and qualified so no worries, right? (I’ve been told this three times in two weeks in three separate job interviews. Really.)

And if all the top of the hierarchy are white males choosing employees who they will be comfortable with, then more like themselves will end up at the top, and I will end up spending all my time being interviewed and impressing people who then proceed not to hire me.

And this is the patriarchy.

It’s not a deliberate set-up by white males to stay in power. It’s inhabited by people who sincerely and honestly believe that they aren’t sexist or racist; they’re just more comfortable working with people like themselves. And they aren’t aware that they’re limiting other peoples’ opportunities by their behaviour. Each case where they have to choose someone to work with is individual; and if they choose a white male it’s because he’s the ‘best for the job’ even though there were several ‘best for the job’ but this one will be the easiest to work with. It’s not sexism; it’s just taking the easiest, most effective, and most comfortable choice.

This is why quotas work. It makes those in power appoint exceptional people who are outside their comfort zone.

And this is why this term awareness is bandied around so much. It’s because so many people in power are so lacking in it. And when this is brought to their attention they will automatically begin a sentence with ‘I love women! Some of my best friends are POC! Of course I’m not racist or sexist but…’ Which is a dead giveaway. And then they’ll go on to share drinks with a bunch of professional white male buddies and complain about ‘bitching women and POC complaining that they aren’t getting a fair deal’ because, of course, sexism and racism no longer exist and none of them are sexist or racist.



11 responses to “The Accidental Sexist”

  1. Rachel says:

    I recently moved from Brisbane to Toronto and heard about this on the radio the other morning. I think you’ve summed up the issue perfectly; the only problem is getting them to realise it…

  2. Rege says:

    I agree. I have been reading the comments underneath and I am sorely tempted to be upset. However, being upset will not resolve anything. The best we can do is affect our small region of reality. Don’t worry Kylie, eventually, your books will be rated up there too :).
    My hubby bought me white Tiger in January 2007. I have read it a million times, (well maybe not an actual million) and I have been eagerly anticipating the next books. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing your creative genius

    • kylie-admin says:

      Thanks, Rege, what I’m seeing from the new generation young women and men is a new set of attitudes, which gives me hope.

  3. Ben says:

    I’m so glad that you have this point of view!

    I’ve become aware of this in myself and have tried to overcome it. But when people try to counteract it by employing someone Because they are a different sex or colour and they need to diversify… it seems like that is a form of racism/sexism in itself. It makes it a fine line to tread

  4. Gordon says:

    I agree with what you’re saying. In my own) limited) experience,I have been turned down by several different employers. All of which have told me that they were impressed by my skill set but the job had just been given to another. Some have even gone so far as to say that they will call me if the position becomes available. I haven’t received any calls, even from the jobs I know have opened up. To be blunt, I prefer working with woman. It doesn’t matter whether or not a woman is white or a POC. Everyone has a problem with some personality types, but the funny thing about personality is that it is not race or sex, related. I think that is part of the reason that the terms “Racism” and “Sexism” are not as prevalent anymore. That’s just the opinion of a guy 18 years of age, from a small town.

  5. Martin says:

    What a prat. I have worked in universities and government and you are totally right about entrenched sexism and other ‘isms’.

    Luckily I always seem to be on good terms with senior managers and get away with regularly pointing out the elephant in the room, like ‘do you realise you are talking to breasts?

    And so forth. But it is amazing how often people say nothing, even when it’s public and obvious, let alone subtle and insidious.

    I have seen the other side too, where someone feels uncalled because they were hired not because they are intelligent and valued, but to meet a gender or racial quota (and happen to also be lovely and intelligent too).

    Hopefully it will all change.

  6. Martin says:

    Err that should have been ‘unvalued’ not uncalled, oops iPhone autocorrect

  7. Emma says:

    I’d like to add a quote I heard on Game of Thrones – “… nothing someone says before the word “but” really counts”.

  8. I know I’m late to the conversation, but…wow, you captured my sentiments on racism and discrimination perfectly. You might find the topic of “aversive racism” interesting, as that’s pretty much what you’re writing about. It’s an area of study in the fields of psychology and sociology. Aversive racists openly claim they’re not racist, but their actions show otherwise.

    Another suggestion — if you haven’t already, check out Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s writing. His book “Racism without Racists” will also resonate with you, I’m sure.

    • kylie-admin says:

      ‘I’m not racist but…’ … As my daughter says, nothing before the ‘but’ is meaningful and nothing after the ‘but’ is ever good. Thanks for the suggestion, Jocelyn, I love your page!

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