I teach undergraduate courses that address issues such as sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression. Students are often surprised to learn things that have been right in front of them that they never noticed. Sometimes they notice that a friend or other person close to them is acting in a way that perpetuates injustice. They might point this behavior out to the person, and they may be shocked with this is received with hostility, indifference, or derision. For example, they may begin to realize that a friend makes derogatory comments about women (this is a very common one students report). My students may respond by pointing out that the behavior is sexist, thinking that the person who said it was just not aware. They believe that if this person just had this problematic behavior made aware to them, they would surely stop. Another common student behavior is pointing out that women often make less money than men at the same job (see the Bureau of Labor Statistics for a myriad of examples), believing that the recipient of this information would surely be shocked and want to address this injustice.

Unfortunately, the responses my students expect (or want) are often not the responses they get. More commonly, they will be told that they are overreacting or can’t take a joke if they point out a comment is sexist. When pointing out injustices, the most common reaction seems to be “Stop complaining!”

A 2001 article by Cheryl Kaiser and Carol Miller in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the social costs of pointing out discrimination. They found that even when an individual was being blatantly discriminated against because of his race, if he called it discrimination he was seen as a whining, hypersensitive, irritating troublemaker. This is too often how others respond to those who call out discrimination. Why? One reason is that we want to believe that the world is fair, that if you work hard you will succeed, that any child (but in reality, it has only been boys) can grow up to be president with hard work and determination. Discrimination based on group membership violates that belief in meritocracy and fairness. We don’t like when people point out to us that the world is not always just and fair.

Additionally, most of us see ourselves as and strive to be fair and decent people. If you tell me that my joke is sexist, you are implying that I may not be as egalitarian as I believe myself to be. So the solution is to attack the messenger. It isn’t that the joke is sexist, because I didn’t mean any harm by it (some of my closest friends are…), it’s that you took it the wrong way. I was just joking, and everyone knows that jokes are never harmful or mean-spirited, right? We do a lot of cognitive work to maintain our images of ourselves as good people. For example, did you know that if you just begin a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” you can say anything you want about a racial group because you have already told us up front that you are a fair and non-racist person meaning that anything you say afterward cannot be racist (please read this last sentence with dripping sarcasm).

There are real repercussions for calling out discrimination. Just look what happened to civil rights workers in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. Fear of a backlash for reporting discrimination may stop someone from challenging that discrimination. As a result, the discrimination continues and the world continues to be unfair. And if no one is complaining, then clearly there is no problem, right? If we want to live in a fair and just world, and I believe most of us do, we need to listen without defensiveness to those “complainers” without defensiveness. Those complainers may risk their reputations or their lives to bring us that fair world.

About the Author

Christine Smith, Ph.D.

Christine Smith Ph.D., is a professor of psychology, human development, and women and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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