Like -ing, -ation, -fy, or -itis, -ism is a suffix appended to the end of a word to form a derivative. Suffixes have meanings so -itis indicates inflammatory disease say dermatitis, -fy forms verbs that denote producing like amplify, and -ism indicates a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy. All -isms are preconceived and widely held ideas that are often fixed and oversimplified, they create unjust treatment of different categories of people or things, and are harmful to those on the receiving end. When this prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination is based on race, we call it racism; when based on age, we name it age-ism; and when due to sex, we refer to it as sexism. Capitalism and authoritarianism are -isms too.
As mentioned above, an -ism is a system. A system is a cohesive group of interrelated, interdependent parts that can be natural or human-made. Systems are bound by space and time, influenced by their environment, defined by their structure and purpose, and expressed through their functioning. A system is more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Our economies are systems, so is the garden in our backyard, as is our work culture.
I’d like to dissect sexism like a specimen as it’s one of the -isms I’ve faced countless times. I’ll take one very specific example to explore how the -isms we repeatedly navigate are both out there and in here. Even if we are unwilling participants, we live within these systems and they infiltrate us in subtle ways.
I strive to wake up early in the mornings, to have silent time for reflection and writing. I prefer to do all of this before my workday begins and when I don’t, I’m not able to get to it later in the day. My husband in tandem has a packed work schedule that’s typical of big consulting firms; with early mornings and late nights, back-to-back meetings, high-pressure and high-visibility deliverables, and often zero breaks for food. It’s been particularly relentless recently. Because I’m more adept at cooking and I love him, I ensure he doesn’t go hungry. He’s a wonderful partner and puts in his share of work in his limited free time (laundry, gardening and home maintenance are his domains). When his work takes over though, it takes over my life, routine and mind-space too.
Then rather than writing right after my contemplative practices like I prefer, I make breakfast. By the time I get to my desk, my internal silence (which I appreciate for writing) has dissipated. I’d rather just make my tea and start writing but if I don’t first make breakfast, he won’t get a chance to eat…and I feel guilty when he hasn’t eaten. Similarly, when I heat a quick lunch, desperately wanting to get back to work, I worry he hasn’t eaten. When I see his empty water bottle sitting on the kitchen counter, I know he must have been in such a rush that he forgot so I fill it and poke my head in his office inconspicuously to prevent dehydration and headaches. By the time I get back to my work, its often taken far longer than I would have liked and my focus has already dissipated, replaced by self-scolding.
Most modern men will say they respect women and treat them as equals but what we all don’t see is that -isms aren’t as simple. In the scenarios above, where does my guilt and emotional weight come from? Why am I more adept at cooking and he at home maintenance? How is he able to care for me with tenderness and respect but without guilt? Could I just do my work like he does his without worrying about him? (This is why I miss being in an office environment by the way). I couldn’t tell you even if I tried where my love ends and the ingrained gender-normative patterns begin. I’m quite independent and free by all Indian cultural standards. I have a marriage of equals but I can’t shake some of my behaviors because of my cultural exposure, where the fierce strength of women and their subservience is on equal display.
In our trigger-happy social-media fueled world, it’s easy to have an angry knee-jerk reaction when someone brings up the -isms they struggle with. We’re tempted to find someone to blame or to deflect responsibility altogether. But these are very messy, entangled threads that weave invisible webs all around and through us. My husband’s employer, for instance, is as much a part of this system; because there is an underlying assumption that overworked employees are able to ensure their own wellbeing. This is where capitalism meets sexism, an example of -isms intersecting and weighing down certain people in unseen ways. He’s able to work like he does because I stay on top of our nutrition, cleaning, groceries etc. Employers most certainly don’t see their part in feeding our gender-normative behaviors at home.
The first step when navigating an -ism is to see it as a system and do our small part in untangling our own complex and interconnected threads. I’d like to be more like my husband– tender yet boundaried; but I don’t think I will ever be able to just walk by with food and dive right back into focused work when he is clearly hungry. My personal task then is to create some healthy boundaries with his employer and not let them encroach into my work, to erase the guilt and infuse my care only with love. We can work on our -isms only if we first become aware of the patterns.
“Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once.”— Audrey Hepburn, actress and humanitarian.