May 19, 2003

RETHINKING SEXISM: Why Vijay Singh is not a racist

Sexism is not racism. In light of Singh's recent comments, it is important that we do not confuse sexism with racist sentiments. To do so is to slight those who oppose racism and sexism. Singh's recent protest over Annika Sorenstam's invitation to play in the Colonial is grounded on the validity of gendered spaces. In our day and age, we must ask if gendered spaces are inherently sexist. If they are, then we must move toward making all spaces co-ed, including locker rooms and public restrooms. And therein lies the difference. The majority of society still accepts many forms of gendered spaces, while few accept racially exclusive spaces. Public restrooms for "blacks" and "whites" are a shameful thing of the past. Most will agree that there is a significant difference between a public restroom for women and a public restroom for "blacks." While the latter reeks of racism, the former suggests that there is a valid difference between being a woman and being a man. To suggest otherwise not only betrays common sense, but undermines the unique qualities of womanhood and manhood. To be a woman is to be something other than a man, and to be a man is to be something other than a woman. Sexism is not an acknowledgement of differences; rather, it is the faulty notion that one gender is inherently superior over the other. Racism exists when racial differences in others are viewed as being less human, less valuable, less equal. Sexism also exists when gender differences are viewed as being less human, less valuable, less equal. However, it does not exist when a man is not considered a woman or vice versa. If a man enters a women's restroom, it is not sexist to suggest that he does not belong there. However, if a black woman enters a women's restroom, it is racist to suggest that she does not belong there. This difference between sexism and racism is crucial if we are to fairly evaluate Singh's comment. As a society, we must ask if gendered divisions are still valid. Beyond public restrooms, is there still a place for women's sports and men's sports? Or should these divisions cease to exist altogether? Those who oppose sexism (and I include myself in this group) should be wary of suggestions that Sorenstam is doing something akin to Jackie Robinson. Such a suggestion equates all women's leagues with the "ghetto" leagues of the past, which not only undermines the historical struggle of black athletes but also the present validity of women's sports. What Singh's remarks reveal is a crisis of identity for female athletes and women's sports. What does it mean to be a female athlete in our day and age? Does it mean to be less of an athlete than their male counterparts? Are professional men's leagues the standard to which all athleticism must judge itself? Are women's leagues merely a stepping-stone, or are they valid in and of themselves? Are they their own standard? One might argue that Serena and Venus Williams are doing more for women's sports in their refusal to play John McEnroe, claiming that they have nothing to prove, than the eager Annika Sorenstam. For many, women's tennis has become the more preferable tour to watch, not merely because of Anna Kournikova, who consistently loses in the earlier rounds, but because of the overall quality of play. Might is not the only way to judge athleticism. For some, Jason Kidd is preferred over Shaquille O'Neal. In the future, other women's sports may prove to be "better" and more popular than their male counterparts. The notion of "best" or "better" depends on the criteria of judgment. Female athletes may very well foster different qualities of play. Nike and the WNBA spend a great deal of money propagating the idea of female athletes being something other than male: equal but different, indeed, superior in their own way. But it seems that one must choose the path of Sorenstam or the Williams' sisters: either admit that the women's leagues are of lesser quality than the men's league, thus, making it the goal of female athletes to compete with men and ultimately do away with gendered divisions altogether; or acknowledge that the women's leagues are equally valid and potentially superior to men's sports. Depending on one's view, Sorenstam's participation in the Colonial could be more sexist than Singh's disgruntled opposition. If we can move beyond our tendency to treat sexism as racism and consider the reasonable protest of Singh, we might actually advance the cause against sexism in professional sports. We might conclude that it is not inherently sexist for gendered divisions to exist, that these divisions afford the opportunity to esteem different qualities of play, and that the ultimate goal should not be the migration of female athletes into men's leagues, but rather the continued advancement of professional women's leagues. Or else we might conclude that the idea of gendered groupings and spaces need to be challenged, that the PGA is not, and should not, be a gendered association (like the LPGA), and that the ultimate goal should be the elimination of all gendered divisions (except for sanitary purposes). Either way, the issue demands more thoughtful discussion and less reactionary name-calling. Sorenstam success in the Colonial may very well change the future of women's sports, for better or worse. NOTE: I'm aware that the PGA is a golf association for the best golfers in the world and does not exclude women in the same way that the LPGA excludes men (thus, it is the PGA and not the MPGA). The point of this column is to explore the following two questions: (1) are gendered leagues for men and women inherently sexists (that is, would it be wrong if the PGA decided to exclude women in the same way that the LPGA excludes men), and (2) is it possible that Sorenstam's acknowledgement that the men are "better" than the women sexist in its own right (or for that matter, is it sexist for anyone to suggest that Sorenstram deserves to play with the best, meaning "male golfers")?

posted by jacknose to commentary at 11:16 AM - 0 comments

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