Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wearing sandals during the summer

Since I started my feminist blog, friends and strangers love to quiz me on my definitions. "Discrimination" is an especially contentious term and whenever I dare offer a definition, it is usually met with suspicion and sarcasm.

Yesterday a friend asked me whether the practice of accepting professional women to wear sandals during the summer discriminates against men who are usually expected to cover their toes all year long. It is the second time I get this very same question (the first time it was about men not being allowed in "nice" clubs in sandals) so I thought I would open it up for discussion here as well.

Tell me what you think!


  1. Wait! Is the discussion of whether people consider that to be a serious form of discrimination out of ignorance or in order to willfully ignore actual forms of discrimination. It reminds me of when I was a barista and a woman in line was outraged, and alleged discrimination because she was charged .40 extra for soy milk in her latte. Yes, Starbucks disciminates against bourgeois white women, the workplace discriminates against men.

    No wait, those are their bases.

  2. Good question. My posts are often ridiculed for creating a big fuss over nothing...and I think people are asking so that they have yet another reason to dismiss feminism as a mode of social analysis.

    I think the question is a good teachable moment, though. So I am not entirely above trying to answer it.

  3. Yes, it is "discrimination," but not "discrimination against men" qua "men." And, you're right, it is also an excellent tteaching moment.

    In my race and feminism classes, I hear analogous arguments all the time. The point of them is, really, to say something like: "If discriminiation is so bad, then why don't we protest as much about ALL forms of discrimination?? Why do only the women and the blacks and the gays get the attention??" This is where I like to point out that ALL forms of discrimination are NOT the same-- the kind of discrimination that is practiced in racism/sexism/homophobia is NOT the same as the kind of discrimination practiced when you are selecting what you want to order from the menu. Both involve discrimination, only one also involves injustice.

    In fact, as I tell my students, I don't want to teach them "not to discriminate." That would be terrible! What I want to teach them is how to discriminate better, how to be more discriminate people, which amounts to teaching them how to use their powers of judgment in more just ways.

    We all discriminate all of the time. It's a necessary, and indispensible, part of getting through the world on a day-to-day basis. I NEED to be able to discriminate between objects and persons, between dress shoes and sandals, between situations of comfort and situations of danger. The problem arises when we use our powers of discrimination badly, that is, when we allow fundamentally flawed and largely unacknowledged ideologies (like racism, sexism, homophobia) shape and guide the discriminatory judgments we make.

    Back to the sandals:
    The real question ought to NOT to be "is this discrimination?" but rather "is this sexism?" (that is, is this unjustified and unjusitifiable discrimination? is this injustice?). Making the case that not allowing men to wear sandals is equivalent to, say, not paying women an equal wage for equal work would require that we make some judgment about men qua "men" that assumes their inferiority and restricts their freedom on the basis of that assumption. In the case of sandals, I don't think such assumptions are being made. It seems, rather, that people are simply making assumptions about generic social/professional dress codes and not really about the dressers to whom those codes apply.

    An aside (and I know this is getting long):
    If a company had a POLICY that said something like "men can't wear sandals but women can," there might be a case to be made for unfair discrimination there. But the sandals thing is largely a kind of social more and not a regulation. We "accept" women wearing sandals to work because sandals are a part of the generally "acceptable" attire for women in the summertime. We don't "accept" this from men because, simmilarly, it runs counter to our normal social practices. It's not "sexist" for 2 reasons, I think: (1) because sexism is a structural phenomenon and not an individual phenomenon, and (2) because, in all likelihood, the REAL reason we don't "accept" men wearing sandals to work is because it appears "unprofessional" of them, which is judgment that is a derivative of an other (truly sexist) assumption that men are the "real" professionals and we ought to reinforce the codes that make them appear as such.

    So, in sum:
    (1) Discrimination simpliciter is not a bad thing.
    (2) Racist, sexist, homophobic discrimination is qualitatively different from other mundane forms of discrimination.
    (3) The kinds of discrimination that we ought to protest involve injustice, not merely asymmetry or inequality.
    (4) The sandals thing is a red herring.

    [Apologies for running on so.]

  4. I would say that yes, the matter at hand is discrimination. Why is it OK for a woman to show her toes but not for a man (in the professional environment)?

    People love to debate what is or isn't discrimination. My favorite was a couple of months ago we were on our way to my wife's grandmother's house and we were riding in her aunt's car. Her aunt's boyfriend is a smoker...a chain smoker. We had stopped to let her cousin out to hit up a small shop to get something to drink, and he goes to light up in her car, and she says "no".

    Keeping in mind they live together, and he knows very well that he's not supposed to smoke in her car.

    He then proceeds to launch into a profanity-laden rant about how all non-smokers are racist for not allowing smokers to smoke in their vicinity.

    Yes, you read that right. He used the word "racist".

    I'm actually stoked. They are finally launching no-smoking in public places in Bulgaria next year (I think my wife said it goes into effect next June).

    Thing is, I've been a smoker most of my life. It's only recently that I have quit (a few months ago). But even when I smoked I always appreciated that a non-smoker has the right to NOT deal with my smoke, and I would usually sit in non-smoking areas of restaurants with friends, or go outside if I needed one, or hit the bar. If you are in someone's car and they are a non-smoker, it's not discrimination in any way, shape, or form, if they ask you to not smoke. It's respect for their personal space. And it's certainly not racism.

    I still get the giggles when I think about that car ride. Racism!

  5. I say the practice of not accepting sandal-wearing men is undoubtedly a form of discrimination against women. To wit: men wearing sandals (traditionally a female footwear) makes them more female-like and therefore they are viewed as inferior, making the practice unacceptable for men. If sexism were eliminated, it would be perfectly acceptable for men to wear sandals.

  6. I dunno about sandals being feminine. If you look back in history, men have worn sandals just as often as women have, especially in certain parts of the world.

    Maybe it could be considered sexism, but isn't sexism just another form of discrimination when you get right down to it?

    On a side topic, I hate wearing shoes. I only wear them in the winter or if we are going for a rigorous hike up in the mountains or something when we are on a trip. I've been a sandals/shorts/shirt guy for years, and that will never change. Even when I was in the US I would still show up to meetings with clients wearing shorts and sandals, because that's just how I roll. It never seemed to hurt my business.

    I guess I've just never been in a situation where sandals were an issue, so the discussion from my points of view is viewed from the outside, looking in.

  7. @T.W. Anderson:

    No, sexism ISN'T "just another form of discrimination." Sorry to sound like a broken record here, but discrimination is not a simple thing, nor is it simply "bad." There are all kinds of discrimination that are quite good practices-- discriminating between better and worse arguments, for example-- and then there are other kinds of discrimination that are bad, like sexism. It just doesn't make any sense (or, at least, doesn't mean anything significant) to ask "isn't x just another form of discrimination when you get down to it?" because, when you really get down to it, the many and varied ways that we actually employ our powers of discrimination simply do not form a homogeneous set of practices.

    Consider this analogue: what if I were to ask something like "isn't sexism just another form of belief when you really get down to it?" On the one hand, you would have to say yes, of course it is. But what does that actually say? Are we now to put sexist belief on a par with all other kinds of belief? Is it the same as my belief in democracy? or in gravity? or that the sun will rise tomorrow? or that my friends will be loyal to me?

    The attempt to flatten the plane of discrimination, such that all forms of discrimination are just variations on the same fundamental practice, misses the point. And in missing the point, it trivializes the kinds of discrimination that we ought to guard against... as well as the kinds of discrimination that we ought to foster and develop.

  8. Agree to disagree :)

    While there are varying degrees of discrimination--with the extreme ends of the spectrum being racism and sexism--when it comes right down to it, I find that they are nothing more than discrimination, albeit at their most ugly.

    If an employer looks at two qualified candidates and chooses one over the other based upon how articulate they are in terms of speech, discrimination was at play. They have the same qualifications, but one of them simply spoke better, or in a manner which the employer found more appealing. A lesser form of discrimination, but discrimination nonetheless.

    Take the same scenario, only replace speech with color of skin. Let's say the individual hired was white, and the other man was black, and the employer hired the white man because he is racist. A higher form of discrimination, but the principles are the same: the employer based a decision upon a specific set of mental criteria that had absolutely nothing to do with the qualifications of the individual in relation to the job.

    Then we can say the situation was a man being hired over a woman, because the employer doesn't think a woman can do the job as well as a man, or vice versa. Sexism, yes, but it is still a form of discrimination, exactly the same as the first example, when the employer chose to go with the person who "spoke" a certain way.

    In every case the qualifications are the same, and while the levels of discrimination vary, they vary solely based upon labels that society has attached to them. At their heart they are still basic discrimination issues.

    I actually discussed this with my wife last night and her response was that in the case of sandals, it's not discriminatory because "sandals look better on women and are designed to be visually appealing, whereas men's sandals are simply designed for durability and functionality."

    I disagreed with her :) Whether or not a piece of footwear looks better one one person or another has absolutely no relevance to their capabilities as a human. You can insert any base-line discrimination issue you want here, be it "woman vs. man", or "black vs. white", or "visually appealing vs. ugly", but it really comes down to one, simple thing: discrimination.

    So...gonna have to agree to disagree. I will admit that sexism and racism, for example, are uglier versions of discrimination, but at the end of the day they are still part of the same school of thought.

  9. Well, the sandals thing is part of the dress code - we should think about the different dress code standards for men and women. Western women's dress code includes a broader permission for revealing the body, even in professional attire. Women can wear sandals, shorter skirts, dressy shorts, lower necklines, tank-tops (yes, they are frown upon, but still ok, especially if worn under a cardigan/blazer).

    For me, this is a clear indication women are expected to be attractive and desirable even when they assume a professional role. It's sexist for men and for women.