What’s in an “-ism?” A Brief Look at Systemic and Everyday Prejudice

There are a lot of isms today. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, sizeism…this-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism.

I don’t know how often people think into what exactly is meant by whatever-ism. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I thought deeply into it, honestly.Probably more recently than I should have, honestly.


Prejudice is easy to point out…whether based on race, sex, size, age or whatever. It happens all the time, and it sucks. Whatever the extent of it, and whatever the reason, we all run into it in some way or another. So I’m going to attempt to be brief (not really easy for me) and talk a bit about discrimination based on race, sex and weight, in a kind of introductory sense. So here goes.

My two favorite personal stories regarding racial prejudice are these two:

1. I’ve lived in Providence, Rhode Island for almost 11 years now. I’ve lived all over the city. East Side, South Side, nice areas, crappy areas. All over. I’ve biked through the majority of the city and gone to or played shows in all sorts of less-than-savory locations.

I bought a house in the city in 2008. It was a foreclosure. It’s a pretty nice house, and really was in much better condition than almost any other place I’d seen, especially for the price. But it was a foreclosure so it was empty. Empty means target for crime. Breaking in, vandalism, stealing pipes…whatever. It’s in an area that isn’t exactly upper class, and it was empty. The grass was high, the back door was smashed in, a back window was smashed in. Nobody had lived here for 8 months.

So my girlfriend (at the time) and I started coming by the house once or twice a week. Cleaning up trash from the yard, generally making it look not-so abandoned. We would bike here. We lived off Union Ave…another horrible area. We would see drunken breakups and people attempting to run one another over. Good times.

So we biked the few miles to the house in the months before closing. And the people in the neighborhood noticed. We got some interesting looks.

Like.. “dude…those two white people are lost.” type looks. We would get stares and whatever. People didn’t know what we were up to. Eventually though…in two or three weeks, people started to recognize us. The next door neighbors were already friendly and excited we were taking care of the property. The people sitting on porches or playing in the streets would nod or say hi.

We didn’t quite fit in, but we were part of the scenery. I still am. They still nod or say hi. So do the people I’ve never seen who are visiting friends. Friends recognize me, so nobody is weirded out by this white guy in fluorescent bike gear hauling ass down the road in spandex. I don’t look the same, but I fit in now.

The second story is from a trip to DC that I made in 2013. My friend was going to GWU and I stopped by. First time seeing anyone from field school since the trip and this kinda made things real. Anyway, I parked and called her, she came out. She was with a friend. He stayed on the other side of the street until she got up to me. Then he headed over.

She explained that he’s her friend, and that he was intimidated by me because I’m a tall white guy with a beard. He’s a black guy. We laughed about it. He’s a nice guy an the three of us met up with several other field school friends, and some others, throughout the night.

Both of those are the only encounters I can say I have with anything resembling out right racism directed at me. Both instances were isolated and kinda stopped there. But it was interesting to have that perspective for once.

By contrast, the same girlfriend worked in a higher class area in Rhode Island (not mentioning the town) as a nanny. Apparently one day a contractor was doing some work outside of the house of a client and was nearly arrested.

He’s black.

So while I can walk into an inner city neighborhood and into the lot of an abandoned house and just hang out and start doing things…and make friends…this guy is nearly arrested for doing his job in a white neighborhood.

But as interesting and compelling as these stories are…they’re anecdotes and really don’t mean anything without context.

For a bit of context, let’s just take traffic statistics into consideration.

In one study of traffic stops, when correcting for population, black individuals were stopped almost twice as often as white individuals. In stops, cars with black drivers were searched twice as often. However, cars driven by white people that WERE searched were about 30% more likely to actually have contraband.

So that’s fun.

Are the black drivers up to something? They could be.

Maybe the drivers are just assholes and the cop didn’t like their attitude…which is kind of legitimate.

Maybe the cops in question are racist? I don’t subscribe to the notion that all cops are evil…but sure…some of them are inevitably going to be assholes.

Or, maybe the drivers were having a conditioned reaction to being singled out and treated like second class citizens for their entire lives and that is the attitude detected by the officers.

Without assigning blame, and with only minor attempts to provide context…it’s easy to see that something is up.

With emancipation happening in 1863, the 15th amendment allowing the black vote was passed in 1870…but really black people had a rough time actually doing so until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then there is a whole bunch of other not-so-nice stuff that went on as far as not really letting blacks buy houses.

Some of it was subtle, some of it was blatant, all of it was racism. And big deal racism. If I was prevented from buying a house or voting because of my Irish ancestry…it would be a big deal.

Even with the president. We have had a lot of white presidents. While I’m fairly certain someone threatened to kill each of of them, I’m also pretty sure Obama was the only one threatened with lynching.

“Oh…but if they’re threatening to kill all of them, how is that different!?!?!”

Well, because lynching is a thing that people used to do to unwanted black people to punish them for being black.  It conjures up certain emotions and intentions that really are still underlying.

Anyway, on to sexism.

I’ve been dismissed and given unnecessary shit because I’m a guy. And it sucks.

Another story about that same ex girlfriend (we dated a while…). I was at her mom’s, and her mom was telling my girlfriend’s younger siblings to put their laundry away.

I made a joke about how I’ve been leaving my clean laundry in a basket, and when the dirty laundry pile on the floor gets larger than the clean laundry in the basket, I switch.

Her mom’s response was “yeah, that’s because you’re a guy and guys are lazy.”

To which I replied, “No. It’s because I’m working 67 hours a week to pay your daughter’s bills because she has no job and I have no time and am too tired by the time I get home.”

I’ve gone with multiple people…partners or no, to a mechanic or an autoparts store. And I’m the one talked to. Even when whoever I’m with is the one whose car is being worked on…or who is asking the question.

Not just cars…kind of anywhere. The men talk to the man. The women talk to whoever is talking to them.

Guys may be “lazy,” but apparently we must also be more competent or something.

Again, I’m not trying to attach any values to this. I’m writing about it so you already have a good impression of my perspective (especially if you’ve read anything else I’ve written…)

But I have to bring up that video of the woman who walked around New York and filmed the harassment. Issues with the video excluding things like white guys aside…it’s pretty incredible. And just about every woman I know (I know a lot…I don’t really befriend guys very often) had the same reaction–that this is a pretty typical day for them.

And, a lot of the reaction I would see from men (and some women, it’s true), was that so and so is just trying to be friendly, why is she being such a bitch, why doesn’t she just say hi back.

Now…that one guy in the video followed her for several minutes. If that happened to me, I would have turned around and punched the guy in the mouth and everyone would have been like “yeah man, fuck that guy what’s his problem anyway!?” But I guess with a woman, for not being receptive to his intimidating stalker-ish behavior…she should have just been nice to him so he would go away.

No. She doesn’t owe him or anyone else anything.

But the enculturation is everywhere.

It’s in toys, it’s in how we are raised. It’s in how we are taught to speak and interact.

I did my capstone thesis in anthropology on how people conceptualize gender and feminism. One respondent in particular had some pretty great insight.

She pointed out that through the feminist movement, and less radical activism, women have gained more flexibility with their own gender roles than men have. The male gender is still very rigid and men are often in a position of discomfort with say, childbirth.

I can agree with that. I’m a guy. I find the male gender to be stiflingly stiff, for the most part. Still…men get a pretty good deal, all said and done.

But, things like the wage gap (it’s real. I don’t care what teenager’s youtube channel says otherwise. Read up on the social science research done on it–not popular press articles with an agenda and a demographic to satisfy–before arguing that point here)

Things like the wage gap. This one respondent said something that really resonated.

Women are now permitted in higher paying jobs. There are no explicit barriers. And you do see women as CEOs and whathaveyou. But, she points out that even without the barriers, women are enculturated to just feel less comfortable going for them. Whether they’re uncomfortable around the men surrounding them, more comfortable taking a back burner because they’re raised to be more passive, or whether it’s outright sexism and patriarchal behavior of the men…it runs deep.

Even chivalry. There’s a find line between being a nice guy and being a benevolent sexist. At some point it goes from helping out to enabling sexist gender stereotypes.

Are the guys at the mechanic place talking to me because I’m a guy? Maybe.

Or maybe, as a guy, I’m more likely to maintain eye contact with strangers and they’re reacting to that. Maybe I know a bit about cars because growing up I was expected to learn it. So, I know I’m more comfortable and I knew my girlfriend was less comfortable so I just handled it.

Yeah, I helped out. But maybe I also kept up a barrier that I should be working to dispel.

I just think about this stuff sometimes.

The last one I wanna talk about right now is size. Weight discrimination. Fat shaming. Whatever you wanna call it.

This one is weird to me. I can see the same kind of patterning with discrimination as with racism and sexism.

With racism…it’s economic minorities and immigrants or specific groups that kind of upset the status quo (kinda like what happened to spark the genocide in Rwanda). Regardless of the culture, you can kind of “get” why a certain group encounters racism.

With sexism…well…women just kinda get the shit end of the stick regardless of culture or time period.

With weight…the discrimination is at least loosely tied to affluence. Related to wealth and status and all that.

In some developing and impoverished countries, fat is seen as beautiful. You have money to afford lots of food. And you have money to not have to always be working. Fattening huts are a thing in Uganda. Girls are strapped to a bed and forcefed for months so that their would-be husband and his family think they’re well off.


In more affluent areas, being thin is beautiful. You can afford healthy. You can afford to go running or biking instead of working three jobs. You can afford good food. You can afford tummy tucks.

Maybe it’s just my own perspective on things, but I see people looking at racism and understanding it. And looking at sexism and understanding it. But then they hear about a culture that find fat beautiful and they short circuit.

Fat is the last bastion of being a complete goddamn asshole that this society has. It’s ok to bash fat people. Why? Because they’re fat, of course.

Blurt out a racial slur in public and you’re gonna get kicked out of wherever you are. If you’re being a sexist asshole, maaaaybe you won’t get kicked out, but people are going to treat you like a dick. Because you are one.

But make a fat joke and most people are gonna laugh.

It’s everywhere. It reminds me, in some ways, of what I deal with being left handed. Just hear me out.

I go out and I see disposable soap dispensers at the super market and the pump is contoured for a right hand. Same with glasses when I go out to dinner. Even wooden mixing spoons! As a lefty, I’m constantly reminded in subtle ways about how I just don’t fit in.

Same with groups that experience outright discrimination. And with heavier people…it’s not only accepted…it’s almost cool to make fun of them.

And that’s weird to me.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be attracted to anyone. Fat, skinny, white, black, pink, tall, short, inverted. I don’t care who you’re attracted to.

But at some point, you need to treat people like people.

Here’s what I’m getting at:

It sucks to be shunned for anything, whether it’s an involuntary product of heredity or a lifestyle choice.

What makes it “racism” or “sexism” and not “wow, that guy is a total dick,” is its incorporation into society. Racism, sexism, ageism, fat shaming…they’re all predicated on power dynamics.

Don Sterling is a racist asshole.

I’ve read bits about how “oh he’s racist for that, but the NBA is apparently not racist for wanting an all-black league…”

No. They’re not. And here’s why:

The racial stereotypes leading people to believe that black people can run faster and jump higher are what’s at play. The fact that almost 70% of scholarship in the United States are awarded to white people, while 11% are awarded to black people is what’s at play here.

I’m not a victim of discrimination because I got looked at funny for a few weeks.

Keira Knightley isn’t a victim of “skinny shaming” because she’s often accused of having an eating disorder. She’s spoken out against eating disorders because she’s had family members with them.

But at the end of the day, she’s still one of the hottest people on the planet according to like…everyone. She’s got it pretty good.

So do I. I’ve been  made to feel like shit for being too skinny. I’ve been called “grotesquely skinny” and that fucked me up pretty good. I also wasn’t…

But having hurt feelings isn’t tantamount to experiencing discrimination. The heroes in movies are people who look like me. Or like Keira Knightley. How many fat black women save the day in the movies?

This stuff goes on. If you’re not white…or at least really hot…you’re a novelty.

And then people like me are apparently too sensitive.

White people complain about reverse racism because some equally qualified black dude got the job they want.

Boo hoo, idiot.

An underrepresented group produced an individual who is equally qualified, DESPITE having a tougher (at least statistically tougher) background than you. That’s not preferential treatment. That’s better qualifications because they’ve experience adversity.

So really you’re just pissed that you have to work for it for once. It’s not me that needs to be less sensitive. The sun is bright when your head is pulled out of your ass.

I’m gonna stop there. I think this is shorter than most, and gets my point across. Time to put on some spandex, get on my multi-thousand dollar bike in front of my computer with the 27″ screen and watch netflix. Then I have to make sure I get my French Press back in time for breakfast tomorrow.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 01/16/2015, in Cultural Anthropology, Social Justice Babblings. and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. “Fat is the last bastion of being a complete goddamn asshole that this society has.” <– Yup.

    • It’s true. And it’s kind of disgusting. I wondered starting this blog if I would have an audience. I hope you enjoy my posts, it seems you got something out of this one and that means a lot.

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