Corey Dulin: More than appearances

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 1:18pm

In my elementary computer programming class, I watched a lecture led by a female undergraduate computer science student about implicit gender bias. Looking back on it, I think it is a real shame that Bill O’Reilly and Vice President Mike Pence didn’t get to see it too. I’m not a fan of either one of them, but I could put my feelings aside if it meant that they could finally learn something about women.

Good old Bill O’Reilly! Back at it again, saying something he will later regret. During an episode of “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday, instead of going on a tirade about U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters’s (D–Calif.) known disapproval of Trump, or liberals in general, he shifted his focus to an unexpected topic: Waters’s hair. Poor O’Reilly couldn’t focus on what she said because he “was looking at the James Brown wig.”

Politics can be a heavy subject and every once in a while we need some comic relief, but O’Reilly’s comments weren’t funny, and they weren’t even original. He’s just putting his own spin on the “ape in heels” insult lobbed at Michelle Obama, copying what trolls did in 2012 to Gabby Douglas, and what Giuliana Rancic did in 2015 when she said Zendaya's dreadlocks made it likely the pop star smelled like weed. On the few occasions we see Black women in positions of power and influence, let’s not follow the example set by people like O’Reilly and Rancic of reducing these women to stereotypes. Instead of making comments that blend racism and sexism into one awful little package, let’s have conversations that are meaningful, conversations that focus on the achievements of these women and how to give underrepresented groups a seat at the table.

But no one can be surprised by O’Reilly’s comments — they just verbalize what many already know: Racism and discrimination come in many different forms, from obvious signs like the Confederate flag to snide comments passed off as a “jest” in O’Reilly’s case. Despite the work these women do, they are still often evaluated in terms of their looks. These comments may not seem like a big deal to many, but our language when referring to women reflects the values of our society. If we only focus on how women look, then we aren’t placing value on their ideas, intelligence and other important characteristics. There’s no way we can effectively solve the problems around us if, instead of being invited to contribute to discussions of politics, business and science, half of the population is being rated on their looks.

O’Reilly “just couldn't get by it.” Well you better “get by it,” Mr. O’Reilly. Maybe you forgot but you’re not the host of a beauty pageant. Rep. Waters is not walking down a runway in a sparkly dress so that you can judge her — she has more pressing concerns than how her hair looks and what your opinion about it is. She’s “going to stay on the issues” and her hair isn’t one of them.

Pence has a similar problem. According to The Washington Post, Pence states that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” This may seem like a sweet gesture, but he didn’t sit and stop to think how unprofessional it is and what the implications of this patronizing practice can be. I’m sure many of his employees are dying to get any chance to speak with him one-on-one, and his acts clearly favor men. His male employees have the opportunity to communicate with him and work with him during a meal, but this is not extended to his female employees. Also, this practice gives me the sense that he thinks meeting a woman — besides his wife — in these settings is scandalous because women are dangerous seductresses.

Both of these situations are attempts to shut women out of positions of power. Through childish insults, avoiding their presence in Pence’s case and other strategies, women are being silenced in the workplace and in society as a whole.

In case O’Reilly and Pence didn’t get the hint from Rep. Waters, this will not fly. Like Waters, women “cannot be intimidated” and “cannot be undermined.” They are also more than their appearance and not something to be pushed aside to make room for men. I know O’Reilly and Pence probably have a hard time accepting this and retiring their archaic ideas, but they’re going to need to get over it. These attitudes won’t go away overnight, but if O’Reilly, Pence and all of us make a conscious effort to question why we think the way we do, we won’t have to hear or deal with so much stereotypical nonsense.

Corey Dulin can be reached at cydulin@umich.edu.