Kellie Chauvin And The Problem With Benevolent Sexism
(I have tried to find the same image of a long-suffering husband standing by his poorly behaved wife as she explains herself or apologizes before the public, but I am hard-pressed to recall a time that happened — can you?)
But Kellie Chauvin, wife of Derek Chauvin — the Minneapolis police officer charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd — is not.
Not only is she divorcing him, but she is also changing her last name. And who can blame her?
No matter what happens to Derek Chauvin when he gets to trial, his name will forever be tied to the horrific murder of Floyd and the protests that it sparked not only in Minneapolis, but across the United States and the globe.
While Abedin, Spitzer and Shriver took some time before they divorced their husbands, Kellie Chauvin is moving quickly, filing three days after his arrest, stating an “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage.
Just two years ago, when she was profiled in a local paper about her quest to become the first Hmong winner of Mrs. Minnesota, she had nothing but praise for her second husband of nearly a decade after an abusive first, arranged, marriage:
“Under all that uniform, he’s just a softie. He’s such a gentleman. He still opens the door for me, still puts my coat on for me. After my divorce, I had a list of must-haves if I were ever to be in a relationship, and he fit all of them.”
Derek Chauvin had 18 prior complaints filed against him, only two of which were “closed with discipline,” according to a Minneapolis Police Department internal affairs public summary.
Could it be that a wife wouldn’t know anything about her husband’s bad behavior (although some of the incidents occurred before they wed)?
In truth, spouses don’t always know what’s going on with their spouse, at least when it comes to white-collar crimes. In a 2017 HBO movie exploring what disgraced financier Bernie Madoff’s family may or may not have known about his ponzi scheme, his wife, Ruth, is presented by all who knew her as knowing nothing.
Some believe Kellie Chauvin, who says she isn’t asking for spousal support, is divorcing her husband purely to protect their assets— they have a home in Minneapolis and in Windermere, Florida, which she wants title to.
But no matter her reasons, the glaring issue was her description of her husband as “such a gentleman,” someone who “still opens the door for me, still puts my coat on for me.” As sweet as that may sound, it also speaks to benevolent sexism —seemingly positive attitudes about women that are based on stereotypes and on women’s subordination to men. Studies indicate when men get protective of women, it’s a problem for people of color and immigrants. And as sociologist Lisa Wade has illustrated, benevolent sexism and racism have a long, ugly history.
Many have been calling Derek Chauvin’s brutal murder of George Floyd as a modern-day lynching. Lynching, Wade notes, is more than just racist — it’s sexist, too:
“In the 1920s and ’30s, Texan Jessie Daniel Ames was one of the first women to argue that lynching was sexist as well as racist. She exposed the idea that white women needed protection from black men as a lie, gaining the support of thousands of women and hundreds of public officials for her anti-lynching campaign. She and other women went into communities where lynchings occurred — where their lives really were at risk from angry white men — and protested the murder of black men with white women’s rape as a justification. … Ames understood that all oppression is interconnected.”
Clearly not all gentlemanly behavior is sexist. But Kellie Chauvin’s definition of being “gentlemanly,” such as holding open a door for her, would be something any person would do for anyone else, no matter their gender or relationship. It’s just a social nicety.
Where being “gentlemanly” becomes problematic is when we are blinded to the motivations behind it. That is how women can be oblivious to the sexist behavior of their romantic partner and how all of us cannot see someone who appears to be a nice person as a racist.
As White Fragility author Robin diAngelo, writes:
“most white people continue to conceptualize racism as isolated and individual acts of intentional meanness. This definition is convenient and comforting, in that it exempts so many white people from the system of white supremacy we live in and are shaped by. It is at the root of the most common kind of white defensiveness. If racists are intentionally and openly mean, then it follows that nice people cannot be racist. How often will a white person accused of racism gather as evidence to the contrary friends and colleagues to testify to their niceness; the charge cannot be true, the friend cannot be racist, because ‘he’s a really nice guy’ or ‘she volunteers on the board of a non-profit serving under-privileged youth.’ Not meaning to be racist also allows for absolution. If they didn’t mean it, it cannot and should not count.”
It’s all too easy to miss the signs of sexism and racism, especially if they’re couched in terms that feel good — being a “gentleman” or “nice.” And we can miss those signs in ourselves.
This is key — “All oppression is interconnected.” If a man’s protective of his woman based on sexist beliefs, you can bet he’s creating problems for others.