What Will it Take to Learn?
As part of my work in the batterer program where I teach, we learn about oppressions like racism and sexism. Most sexism involves not the most offensive words or physical abuse, but much more subtle offenses. Similarly, racism is most often manifested by subtle behavior rather than the horrific language or physical assaults the public is more likely to focus on.
Good people can and do engage in racism and sexism without realizing they are doing so or intending to be hurtful. Context and history are critical to understanding these oppressions. We live in a society that has long advantaged white men. The unearned advantages are so ingrained that those who benefit often live their lives unaware of the advantages they receive.
Racism and sexism involve both prejudice and power. Men and women; blacks and white could all be prejudiced, but only whites and men have the power and privilege based on the long history of racism and sexism. This means that when men or whites deny their unearned privilege or even claim they are the victims; they are only exposing their complete lack of understanding about racism and sexism.
Sexism and Racism Cause Atrocities
Sexism and Racism are difficult to speak about especially because of the extreme defensiveness of offenders. The tragedy in El Paso was committed by a white supremacist. The tragedy in Dayton was committed by a male supremacist. This is a painful subject but we must talk about it because of the unspeakable harm it causes.
If most people understood that racism and sexism include harmful behavior that is often subtle and unintentional, it would be so much harder to have the present absurd debates that seek to justify the most blatant forms of male supremacy and white supremacy. Today, most people are focused on El Paso and Dayton, but I cannot forget an atrocity committed a year earlier.
Kayden Mancuso was just seven-year-old. Her father had a long history of violence and domestic violence. He threatened to kill Kayden’s mother. His beliefs and his actions were based on male supremacy. His behavior was not the subtle, unintentional abuse that might leave open the possibility he could be a good father. Instead he engaged in the kind of blatant and deliberate abuse that ought to be easy to recognize.
The judge viewed Kayden’s fear of her father as an obstacle that needed to be overcome rather than a warning of the danger he posed. The judge assumed that his threats to kill Kayden’s mother somehow had nothing to do with Kayden. The judge didn’t know that contested custody involves the most dangerous abusers who believe their partners have no right to leave.
The judge didn’t know that abusers understand the best way to hurt a mother is to hurt her child. The judge didn’t know that in the last ten years over 650 children involved in contested custody have been murdered; mostly by abusive fathers. The killer left a note on Kayden’s lifeless body confirming his purpose was to hurt the mother. Shockingly, the judge still doesn’t understand as the judge and his colleagues responded with the defensiveness that prevented them from learning from their tragic mistakes.
The juxtaposition of El Paso, Dayton and Kayden came together in an unbearable manner. Kayden’s brave mother, Kathy Sherlock marked the painful first anniversary by describing the events that led to the tragedy and how she learned the male supremacist murdered Kayden. The grief is overwhelming as it is in El Paso and Dayton. And it will never go away.
Learn and Change or Constantly Repeat
Everyone knows the danger of DWI, driving while intoxicated. People of color are far more likely to be familiar with the risks associated with DWB, driving while black. Some of the police shootings of young black men were instigated because of DWB. There is a tendency to focus on the specific details of each tragedy and in doing so we miss that larger picture.
The problem is based on the widespread and false stereotypes about young black men being violent and dangerous. Undoubtedly some of the killings were committed deliberately by racist officers, but most probably felt genuine fear based on the unaddressed stereotypes.
Research demonstrates that local television news air stories about crimes committed by young black men all out of proportion to the frequency or danger presented. The coverage is driven by ratings and money but the harm is personal. Many politicians use these stereotypes to exploit racism for votes. The gun industry promotes this misinformation to drive profits.
We have seen studies about employment decisions where employers presented with resumes of similar qualifications are more likely to interview and hire people with names that sound white instead of black. It is likely most of the bosses do this without realizing their racist response. Similar studies have demonstrated favoritism for men over women.
Toward the end of my legal career I had a custody case in which the evaluator referred to the father as “counsellor” because he was an attorney and referred to the mother as “hon” short for honey. I doubt the psychologist would commit sexual assault but his behavior was clearly sexist and biased. It is hard to imagine that he could be fair to both parents—and he wasn’t. We raised this unprofessional and sexist behavior, but the female judge continued to treat the psychologist as if he was a neutral professional.
Sexism, like racism continues to be committed unintentionally. How many parents and grandparents focus praise on young girls for their beauty while praising boys for a wide variety of talent and abilities? These parents and grandparents want only the best for their children. They are trying to be loving and supportive, but they are sending a sexist message that is limiting to the girls and encourage boys to believe they are more important than girls.
Dealing with racism and sexism is hard work and mistakes will inevitably be made. I wish I was the least racist and the least sexist person in the world. It would take enormous humility, listening and effort. If we understand that racism and sexism include far more than the gross and obvious offensive behaviors and statements that we now focus on, it would be easier to create the needed changes. If we focus on the more common and subtle manifestations of racism and sexism, we can avoid the absurd denials that are so far from reality.
One of the important points I have learned from my work as an instructor in a batterer program is that those directly harmed by an oppression are the experts and we need to listen to them. It is much harder for someone who has grown up with unearned privileges to recognize the harm or even recognize when he commits racist or sexist actions.
We can stop racism and sexism if we decide it is important enough for us to do so. Who would choose to live in a society where El Paso, Dayton and all too many similar atrocities have become common-place? How can we tolerate a court system that sends Kayden Mancuso and 650 other precious children to be murdered by abusers? Even worse, how can the courts try to justify these mistakes instead of trying to learn from them? People who blatantly promote and encourage racism and sexism must be viewed as unqualified for any position of trust.
We can change if it is important enough to us. God help us if it is not important enough after El Paso, Dayton and Kayden.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.