You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

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Yahoo’s New Female CEO Isn’t a Feminist: Does it Matter?

Marissa Mayer is unquestionably a badass. But she’s wrong about feminism. (Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino)

This piece was also published on In Our Words.

Yahoo! has a new CEO. Her name is Marissa Mayer and she is 37 years old, making her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer’s accomplishments in her career are incredible and she deserves credit for them. However, to some extent, so does feminism.

Mayer was born in 1975, as the women’s movement was really starting to take off. But at the time, it was still controversial for a woman to wear pants rather than a skirt, let alone to cohabit with a boyfriend, work outside the home after marriage, and so on. However, Mayer was able to benefit from the gains of feminism: she attended college (and not just any college, but Stanford University) and became Google’s first female engineer.

On the same day that Yahoo! announced Mayer as its new CEO, Mayer and her husband announced that they are expecting a baby. In a time when pregnancy-related workplace discrimination is still very real, this is momentous. And don’t think for a moment that this happened in a vacuum.

So, does Mayer identify with feminism, given all of her achievements? Nope:

I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.

This viewpoint seems to be very common among successful women in the U.S. these days; I’ve heard it from many of my female peers at Northwestern. Yes, women can do anything men can do; yes, women should have equal rights, but do we really need to be all, like, negative about it?

First of all, there’s a certain amount of irony here. Feministing‘s Chloe writes, “Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”

Second, what Mayer said that she believes is exactly what feminism is. Feminism is the idea that women and men should have equal rights, and that women and men are essentially capable of the same things, despite the physical differences that may exist between them.

Beyond that, everything’s up for debate. Different feminists believe entirely different things. Some very radical, separatist feminists believe that women should choose to be lesbians and to associate only with other women. Most don’t believe that. Many feminists see feminism as a place to address related issues, like racism, homophobia, and class issues. Others don’t. Some feminists supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Others didn’t. Some feminists are angry and bitter (and, often, rightfully so). Others are cheerful and friendly. Some feminists hate men. Others love them, and still others could take ’em or leave ’em. Some feminists are lesbians. Others are straight, bisexual, or something else. Many feminists are women. Some are men. Others don’t identify as either men or women.

Despite this incredible diversity of opinions, lifestyles, and identities, many people, including those who support equal rights for women, insist on distilling feminism only into its most unpleasant stereotype. This is a classic strawman fallacy, and, the way I see it, it’s an attempt (if an unconscious one) to avoid discussing the real issues. It’s unfortunate that Mayer has chosen this path.

However, as Amanda Marcotte points out in her post at Slate, Mayer’s refusal to identify as a feminist might be the only option for a woman who wants to get ahead in the corporate world:

Women are correct to believe that direct confrontations with sexism result in people turning on the “complainer” instead of blaming the person who acted sexist in the first place….Taking that on just isn’t for everyone, even for a powerful woman who is unquestionably willing to suffer for the ultimate success of her corporation. Someone who would rather do what’s right than what’s profitable simply isn’t going to climb very high on that corporate ladder.

I would agree. Not everybody has to be Super Social Justice Warrior (although I’d like to see more people at least not hold the movement back). Given Mayer’s career goals, it makes sense that she chooses not to align herself with feminism, and I can’t blame her as an individual.

That said, I do wish she wouldn’t promote the same tired stereotypes about feminists having “a chip on the shoulder” and “negative energy.” Are there feminists like that? Yes. Is feminism itself like that? Depends on who you’d ask. I would say no, because I’m involved in countless feminist circles online and in real life, and our discussions there are fun, productive, and extremely connecting experiences. It’s certainly more “positive” than sitting around and pretending everything’s fine with the world when you don’t really feel like it is.

Of course, there’s a good chance that Mayer already knows all of this. It’s quite possible that her statement about feminism was entirely a political one, something she said to make sure that the men she’ll be leading don’t feel too threatened.

I can’t blame her for making that choice, but she shouldn’t have had to make it–because our culture should not be so militantly averse to serious (and, sometimes, uncomfortable) discussions.

Liking Yourself and Being a Good Person–Is There a Connection?

Read this quote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

If you were to take a wild guess, would you say that the person who wrote this was a productive member of society? Do you think that he or she was the type of person who helped others, who contributed meaningfully to his or her community? Was he or she a good person?

If you’re like most people (which, if you read this blog, you’re probably not, but bear with me), you’d probably answer “no” to those questions.

And you’d be dead wrong, because the author of those dismal thoughts was Abraham Lincoln.

This past weekend, my Jewish education group had its second retreat of the quarter. (I wrote about the first one here.)

One of our many discussions during the retreat was on which qualities are necessary for someone to be a good person (however one defines “good”). Some of my group’s suggestions, such as empathy, seemed completely accurate.

Some, however, did not. One student mentioned that she thinks that liking yourself is a prerequisite to being a good person, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.

I waited for her to explain. She said that you have to be fine with yourself before you can focus on being a good person to other people. She said that not liking yourself is unhealthy. (And unhealthy, by extension, must mean bad.)

I said, “What if the person you are right now just isn’t likable to you?”

She said, “Well, then you would just be bitter.”

I said, “I don’t like myself and I’m not bitter.”

She stammered, said sorry, and left the subject alone.

Here’s the thing. I would agree that genuinely liking yourself is a pretty good goal to have in terms of your own psychological development. However, I completely oppose the moralization of this quality. That is, I oppose the idea that liking yourself makes you a “good” person and that not liking yourself makes you a “bad” person. I also oppose the idea that you can’t be a “good” person unless you like yourself.

I have several reasons for opposing this concept. One is that I truly don’t believe that your opinion of yourself is strongly correlated with your treatment of others and your ability to contribute positively to society. There’s a stereotype of people who have low self-worth as selfish, miserable, and–as the girl in my group said–bitter. While it’s quite possible that not liking yourself would lead some people to be this way, it can also push people to turn outwards and do incredible things for others. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, may have been one such person.

Second, while the argument that you must like yourself in order to be a good person does not necessarily imply that liking yourself automatically makes you a good person, I think that’s something that should be examined. Once you do that, you’ll hopefully realize that there’s simply no connection. Some people who like themselves are great people. Some are horrible people. Some like themselves so much that they don’t give a crap about anyone else.

Third, there is an illness that up to a quarter of adults will experience at some point during their lives that has as one of its symptoms feeling worthless and hating yourself. That, of course, is depression. I hope I don’t have to explain why I find the suggestion that depressed people can’t be “good” people to be inaccurate, superficial, and downright offensive.

Fourth, all of this hinges on one’s personal definition of a “good person,” which was never elaborated on during our discussion. (I find that in conversations of a religious nature, these things tend to just be left undefined.) To me, a person who isn’t good is a person who has the opportunity to help others but chooses not to. A person who cannot help others due to circumstances beyond his or her control should not be labeled as “bad.” So if disliking yourself really is keeping you from helping others, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you have to work on your issues before you can put your goodness into action.

As I told the girl in my group, I dislike myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I have depression, and as I mentioned, that’s one of its symptoms. The other is that the culture I live in rejects many of my most defining traits, and it’s really, really hard to like yourself when you’re bombarded with cultural messages that tell you that you’re unlikeable.

With time, I’ll probably learn how to ignore those messages. But to suggest that I can’t be a good person right now because of them (and because of my depression) is extremely condescending. I do my best to be a good friend, daughter, sister, and leader in the Northwestern community. I have found causes that I support and advocate for them tirelessly. Because of my openness about my own experiences with mental illness, I have been able to serve as a source of information and support for many other people that I’ve met over the past few years.

Now, that’s hardly on the level of, say, Abraham Lincoln. But it’s more than a lot of other people my age do. A lot of the ones, I might add, who insist that this time of our lives is a time to “just focus on me” and “just do what I want.”

Liking yourself is great. It feels nice. But we shouldn’t confuse it with having the ability and the desire to do good.

On Identifying as a Feminist

[Snark Warning]

It’s fashionable these days to align yourself with virtually every feminist cause but to shun the label “feminist.” It’s not “cool,” people protest. We don’t want to be associated with those mannish lesbians. We don’t want to ruin people’s fun. We don’t hate men. Blahblahblah.

Okay, here’s the thing. There is no identity out there, no label or group, that doesn’t have some negative stereotypes associated with it. Unless you’ve decided to forgo all labels entirely, you’re singling out feminism for some very special treatment if you refuse to call yourself a feminist, feminist beliefs notwithstanding.

For instance, if I tell people I’m agnostic, they may assume that I just don’t have the guts to pick a viewpoint. If I tell them I’m atheist, they may assume that I’m selfish, inflexible, and intolerant. If I tell them I’m Jewish, they may assume that I’m privileged and cliquey.

Or, they may not.

I’ve identified as all three of these things at one point or another, fully aware of the negative connotations that they sometimes have. But did I hesitate to call myself these terms? No!

Some liberals are whiny and naive, but I still consider myself a liberal. Some Israelis are harsh and uncompromising, but I proudly tell people where I’m from. Some Northwestern students are snobby, but I never hesitate to tell people where I go to school. Some psychologists are annoying and try to psychoanalyze you, but–guess what–I’m still going to become a psychologist, and I’m still going to tell people what I do.

If someone judges you based on one word that you use to describe yourself, that person is probably an idiot. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that no idiot out there ever misjudges you, because what idiots do is misjudge people.

To say, “Yes, this word describes me perfectly but I’m not going to use it lest anyone judge me idiotically,” is letting those people win. Because, unsurprisingly, the people who will still have the courage to call themselves feminists will be the radical ones. Love them or hate them, they don’t represent the majority of people who hold feminist views.

In other words, when you disassociate from an identity that describes you just because you don’t want to be associated with some of the people who share that identity, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feminists are not all alike, just as atheists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, vegetarians, liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Americans, Democrats, and Republicans are not all alike. You can’t understand a person in their entirety just by knowing that they belong to one of these groups.

I am a feminist. I am not identical to every other feminist you have ever met, studied, or heard about. If I tell you that I am a feminist and your response is to smirk, roll your eyes, or ask me if I hate all men, then I’m probably going to consider you an idiot. Why? Because you haven’t bothered to take me seriously. You haven’t learned about my beliefs, but you’ve already decided that learning about them is a waste of your time. Because you’ve disagreed with me without knowing what you’re even disagreeing with. That’s idiotic.

If you actually learn about what I believe and then decide that you disagree, that’s fair. But that’s completely different. And don’t worry, I won’t think you’re an idiot.

As for people like my younger self, who refused to call herself a feminist for fear of ridicule, I only have this tiny suggestion–stop fearing people’s judgment so much. They can’t do anything to you. They come and go. Your beliefs are the core of your character and, although they may change with time, they will always matter to you. They will always matter more than some idiot who sneers at you and asks if you’ve burned your bra yet.

Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.