Academic journal article Women's Studies in Communication

In the Guise of Civility: The Complicitous Maintenance of Inferential Forms of Sexism and Racism in Higher Education

Academic journal article Women's Studies in Communication

In the Guise of Civility: The Complicitous Maintenance of Inferential Forms of Sexism and Racism in Higher Education

Article excerpt

In this paper, I examine and explore the continued existence of inferential forms of sexism and racism in higher education. Situated in autoethnography and using complicity theory and narrative analysis, this essay addresses issues and experiences related to civility, sexism and racism on a largely Euro American campus. More specifically, I critically examine the interdependence of sexist and racist ideologies that persist in university classrooms in the guise of civility. I argue that inferential sexism and racism are endemic to U.S. higher education and classrooms and are as dangerous as overt forms of sexism and racism because they are harder to identify, and more naturalized and acceptable.


There is no easy way to describe the interlocking systems of domination that plague our society daily; i.e., the integration of ability, class, gender, race, and sexuality. The complexities become apparent when we begin to recognize the infinite ways in which marginalizations become normalized and naturalized through communication and action. Social institutions are sites where we see the power and influence of communication and action upon our daily lives. Institutions such as education, government, law or media not only have influential power, but these same institutions in some ways meet our needs, needs that vary based upon our situated experiences (class, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.).

In my work bringing in perspectives and experiences of marginalized peoples into class curricula, I have encountered resistance from many students (both females and males from a variety of ethnic groups) to acknowledge the privileges, double binds, l and marginalities that people face. Despite the fact that many students have said, "I didn't know that existed anymore," most students do eventually acknowledge that men, in general, are more advantaged in certain respects than women, that sexist attitudes remain predominant in the classroom, and that racism is equally as palpable. I believe that people are consciously taught not to recognize any privileges they may have, particularly those related to gender and race. Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness supports the growth of what Fiske (1996) has called inferential racism.

According to Fiske (1996), there are three types of racism: overt, denied, and inferential. Overt racism refers to those actions that we can point to and say, "that's racist;" (e.g., the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998, cross burning, Jim Crow laws). Denial of racism, a strategy most often practiced and favored by conservatives, is the belief that racism does not exist or that only a few "bad people" practice racist behavior (Fiske, 1996, p. 39). Denial of racism renders the ethnic minority experience "invisible even while we are hiding in plain sight" (Dyson, 1 February, 2001).

Inferential racism, also known as nonracist racism, is "ultimately more dangerous [than overt or denied forms of racisms] not only because it is harder to identify, but because it is often exerted by liberals with an explicitly anti-racist intent" (Fiske, 1996, p. 37). Fiske goes on to say that, "Inferential racism is the necessary form of racism in a society of White supremacy that proclaims itself 'nonracist.'" Until relatively recently, the U.S. was legally segregated. Since the Civil Rights movement and desegregation, "White America [has been] left with the belief that desegregation has produced a nonracist society, and thus the problem of continuing its racism in nonovert ways" (Fiske, 1996, p. 37).

Inferential racism affects and prohibits co-cultural and cross-cultural understanding of one another, thus impacting domestic and international intercultural communication. Several factors belie the realities of living in a White supremacist society. Notable among them are the myth of merit; the myth of a "politically correct" culture; the myth of the melting pot; Whites experiencing "reverse racism;" and the labeling of those who talk about experiencing racism as "too sensitive. …

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