One of the first steps in fighting oppression is to acknowledge its presence within the institutions we are a part of, yet far too often injustice is outsourced and framed as something that other people do. Racism in our society is distilled down to groups like the BNP, whose ideologies and practices are so indisputably racist- and whose membership is so easy to “other”- that it is not a painful process to identify and publicly disown them as racist. Similarly, the media and mainstream politics finds it easy to locate sexism in “othered” communities such as those which promote practices which clearly hurt women- so-called honour killings, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. While it is important to locate and fight against such examples of oppression, I believe that it is unhelpful and counterproductive to be content with simply declaiming the uncontroversially sexist.
This is because sexism isn’t a deviation from the “normal” functioning of society. Gender oppression is tightly tied into the power workings of the state and the economy to the point that the current political and economic system reinforce and perpetuate institutional sexism. This means not only that we need systemic change to overcome sexism, but that being “gender blind” serves to reproduce rather than negate gender inequality. It is difficult to acknowledge that one’s society, or institution, carries with it a burden that we as individuals neither asked for nor want to participate in. Yet our inheritance of self-reinforcing inequality arising out of institutional practices and traditions means that we can never equate non-participation with refutation. If we do not proactively address the inequalities which permeate our institutions, and by unfortunate extension, our mindsets, we are condemning ourselves to scapegoating and simply dealing with symptoms rather than cause.
Throughout the discussion about institutional sexism within the Union, there was a distinct sense of defensiveness from several of the Committee members. In many ways their defensiveness is easily understood- it is difficult to acknowledge that the organisation which they chose to participate in acts in a way which reinforces sexism. On that count, I respect the Committee members who have acknowledged the institutional sexism within the Union and expressed a willingness to address it. However, without a solid understanding of how sexism, racism, and other injustices are systematically enacted through institutional policies and practices, good results are expected from the unfortunate combination of good intentions and poor analysis. Misunderstanding the “institutional” aspect of institutional sexism can lead to individuals feeling that critiques leveled at institutions are personal accusations. Inversely, individuals can claim that because they are not sexist (or because they are a woman) there can therefore be no problem with the institution. This reasoning obstructs meaningful action against institutional sexism, as it does not facilitate the holistic and systemic change that we need to see not just in the Union, but across society.
The task that the Cambridge Union now has before it is to not take the easy way out. They need to tackle sexism in the short term through changes to their speaker and events programme as well as through the process by which these programmes are arrived at. They need to make long-term changes through implementing strong policy which will guide future committees, so that dedication to equality and diversity is handed over to their successors. They will also need to do a lot of the legwork themselves, rather than forking it out to other individuals or organisations. Vitally, they will need to locate and challenge normalised inequality rather than asserting the status quo, because it is only through critical engagement with problematic norms that we confront institutional injustice.