Sexism, like racism, is systemic

Peaceful protesters in Altamont kneel for the nearly nine minutes it took for George Floyd to have the life squeezed out of him. (Enterprise photo by Melissa Hale-Spencer)

Last week, Sarah Gordon, a white woman who was raised in the overwhelming white Hilltowns and is now raising her daughter there, wrote us a courageous letter.

“Throughout my life,” Gordon wrote, “I’ve heard and witnessed prejudice and racism in the Hilltowns — be it bullying by my schoolmates; holiday n-bombs with the extended family; being hushed quiet when friends’ grandparents went on a racist rant; ignorant jokes and snickers when I showed up at a teenage bonfire with a Black friend; comments about undervalued laborers by old farmers; jovial stereotypes over happy-hour beers in the auto shop; repeated rumors of a KKK cell in Westerlo; or innuendo of shooting BLM protesters like clay pigeons.”

If we are honest, most of us who are white would admit to having similar experiences. Racism in our culture isn’t just individual, but systemic.

The widely circulated video that recorded George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man lying on his belly, having the life squeezed out of him under the knee of a white Minneapolis policeman, galvanized many people in our nation, both white and Black, and around the world, to make changes.

For her part, Sarah Gordon made a personal pledge to put her money where her mouth is and set up an online directory that any Hilltown business could join. So far, 18 local businesses signed on by taking a two-part pledge that Black lives matter and, if they hear racist comments in the course of their business, they will constructively confront them rather than let the moment go silently by.

No business is forced to sign on, no customer is forced to do business with only those on the list. Rather, just like similar guides for, say, businesses that support veterans, Gordon’s list gives people who want to support antiracist businesses a chance to do so.

We were horrified when we saw the reaction to Gordon’s initiative. “Fuck you,” anonymous posters wrote on her online form. She was called “bitch” and “cunt” and had threats made against her to the point where she didn’t want to share her daughter’s name with our reporter out of fear for her safety.

We should not tolerate such behavior. Just as there is systemic racism in our nation, there is also systemic sexism. The New York Times is in the midst of running a seven-part series on how everything from medical tests to car safety has been shaped by and for men. Social justice movements often work together; over a century ago, many suffragists were also abolitionists.

We had a glimmer of hope last week when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke up on the House floor, addressing Representative Ted Yoho’s calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Too often, women have shrugged off these hurtful epithets. While it may be true such slurs merely show how threatened an inarticulate man feels, such epithets are also hurtful and reflect a culture that lacks basic respect for individual rights and varied viewpoints.

Anonymous threats and slurs, like the ones Gordon has endured, are the worst; they show people too cowardly to stand up and explain their own convictions.

We have been criticized for printing an example of a slur — actually spelling out the words — that were used against Gordon. A store in the Hilltowns now refuses to sell our newspaper. We believe the anger should not be directed toward us for documenting one example — that slur and more were visible for anyone who went online to look at Gordon’s guide — but rather at the people writing such words.

A problem cannot be solved unless it is first known and recognized. Pretending it didn’t happen won’t make it go away. Rather, by exposing it to the light of day, we may, if enough people are offended and speak out, be able to keep people from using such hurtful, hateful language.

We never use slurs gratuitously in our news stories or editorials. Rather, we report on the use of such language, most often in quotation marks, when it is important for the reader to know the words that were used. 

Our Facebook page so far has more than 300 comments on the story Hilltown reporter Noah Zweifel wrote last week about Gordon’s initiative. While we disagree with many of the views being expressed, we are gratified that a dialogue on an important issue is emerging.

One of the major threads is on the first part of Gordon’s pledge that says, “I affirm that I believe that Black Lives Matter, and understand that saying ‘all lives matter’ ignores the reality that all lives can’t logically matter until we stand up and prove that black lives do too.”

Of course every one of us as human beings has a life that matters to ourselves and to those that we love. But, in the context of current slogans, “All Lives Matter” has come to mean that the status quo is fine, that we don’t have to work against the hundreds of years of oppression to bring equity to people who were brought here in chains, against their will, and have continued to suffer from systems that don’t treat them as equals.

It’s not easy to step out and stand up for what is right, to try to correct wrongs that you personally may feel you have nothing to do with. “I have run into folks that own Hilltown businesses who have told me that they won’t take a stand because they worry about their business, and their family and their livelihood,” said Gordon.

So we admire Realtor Tracy Boomhower, of Country Views Realty, who said she has no qualms about alienating clients who would expect her to stay silent before or complicit in exclusionary behaviors.

“If I have to walk away from a listing,” said Boomhower, who is white, of racist clients, “I don’t care. I won’t discriminate.”

When asked what discrimination she’s witnessed in realty, Boomhower gave the example of clients selling a home who request that the home not be sold to a particular type of buyer, whether it be a Black person, a gay couple, or another member of a group that’s considered “other.” 

“They might say, ‘I don’t want such-and-such to move in here. I have to protect my neighbor,’” Boomhower said. “‘From what?’ I ask.” 

Racism is not peculiar to the Hilltowns; like sexism, it’s everywhere. But we can work, as a society, to combat it. Laws can change and institutions can change if enough people work for that change.

We wrote in this space two weeks ago about the Guilderland school system being eager to pursue changes in curriculum, policy, and staff hiring and training. At the school board’s meeting last Tuesday, board members talked enthusiastically about forming an ongoing social-justice task force or committee.

And we were heartened by the stance the Berne-Knox-Westerlo superintendent, Timothy Mundell, took in an email he sent to faculty after George Floyd’s death: “As educators,” he wrote, “let’s be a voice for the change we seek in the world. Let’s also care for one another with our words, kindness, absence of judgement, and effort to understand.”

We remember, decades ago, when a teacher heard a racial slur used on the school playground, the wonderful response BKW had. A program was set up between teachers at BKW and teachers at Giffen Memorial Elementary School in Albany so that white children and black children could learn about each other and discover their common humanity.

As we wrote here two weeks ago, much of racism begins at home, so schools need to be a place where young minds can learn larger truths, rather than having narrow racist views amplified.

Systemic change, though, takes a community-wide effort. We were pleased that Danielle Walsh, the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, had read on our pages the words spoken by Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles, welcoming everybody to be courageous and dive in, and Walsh is ready to do just that.

And the Guilderland Public Library is offering two antiracist books to residents for free with the idea that, after one of the books is read, it is to be passed along to someone else who, in turn, will pass it along again, ad infinitum.

Our recent story on Sarah Gordon’s initiative, and no doubt this editorial, too, will bring more subscription cancellations. But The Enterprise will not shy away from covering issues important to our community. Nor will we stop continuing to express our opinion on this page, defining problems and charting what we believe to be the best course forward.

If you disagree, don’t call the editor a “bitch” or a “cunt.” Write a letter; extend civil discourse.

And so we close by reaffirming our belief that racism is wrong and each of us should do whatever is in our power to combat it. We stand with Sarah Gordon.

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