When I Talk About Bigotry

Politics 150There’s a big disconnect in our society when we talk about bigotry. I think a lot of people in privileged groups believe that bigotry means something like “active discrimination and disrespect of a minority group” or maybe “active/vocal hate directed towards every single member of a minority group”. There are a lot of people out there who believe that they aren’t bigoted (or even behave in bigoted ways or have bigoted thoughts) because hey, they’re not being Nazis or anything — they really just have good times with people, without “seeing” the race, orientation, religion or gender identity that makes them different.

It’s difficult to describe why that definition of bigotry is a misunderstanding, simply because our deepening ideas about what bigotry is don’t neatly fit within the space of 140 characters. There isn’t a good way to sum it up in a sound bite, or a metaphor that nails it perfectly. The fact of the matter is, an understanding of what I mean when I talk about bigotry requires an understanding of how I understand our society works, how bigotry is baked into the fabric of it in fundamental ways, and how we internalize and repeat those ideas.

OK, first, a definition of terms. Who is a bigot? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own prejudices and opinions; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” Intolerance is defined as “a quality of being unable or unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression or grant or share social, political or professional rights”.

So, a bigot is someone who treats members of a group as socially, politically or professionally inequal. A bigot is unwilling to allow members of a group equal expression or rights. A bigot is someone who is so devoted to their own ideas about the way the world works that they are unwilling to entertain the notion that it may work differently, that reality isn’t the way they think it is. They have the truth; that truth is immutable, and anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do is wrong and most importantly, intolerable.

The reason that the label of bigotry is such a hot one is it comes across as a value judgement. The subtext being spoken when you call someone a bigot is that “they are fixed to a particular way of thinking so firmly that they are unable to rethink it; they’re uncritical, inflexible, intolerant and unchanging.” And that you are, by definition, not any of those things. It often feels like two things are happening here. One, that the person designated as “bigot” is someone who is incapable of changing their beliefs. Two, that because this person is bigoted, anything they have to say can be completely ignored and there’s no reason to engage with them at all.

Being accused of being a bigot really hurts. It means that someone out there thinks you are a dinosaur, incapable of change; stupid; part of a generation that will die out to make way for a new, more enlightened generation. Too often, the accusation of bigotry is used as a wall that divides one person from another, and gives both parties a reason to never attempt a connection again.

I think there might be cause to “soften” that label. I think that bigotry is taught to all of us on a subtle and societal level, and that each and every one of us internalizes those bigoted ideas. That internalization causes us to act on bigoted assumptions — and by definition those actions are bigoted. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. We simply act on what we’ve been taught is true and have no reason to question.

Part of dismantling bigotry within ourselves and on a societal level is understanding how these are ideas are part of the dominant institutions within our societies, how they are transmitted to the people within those societies, how we accept and absorb them as members of those societies, and how we can rethink these basic ideas, test them to see if something feels right or it doesn’t. It’s a lot of work, but it’s essential to understand not only how we work but how deeply these assumptions can be held. Once we’re able to recognize the capacity within ourselves to hold these thoughts, we can more easily recognize why other people believe and behave the way that they do, and why it can be so extraordinarily difficult for them to change.

There are so many assumptions about various groups that are hard-baked into our society — especially minority groups who tend to be under-privileged and don’t have access to the kind of massive reach that the powerful use on a daily basis. This of course includes mass media — not just news, but entertainment, marketing, education and more. All of it, either implicitly or explicitly, promotes and reinforces biases that need to be re-examined.

I don’t think this is a situation that’s necessarily borne from maliciousness, though malicious behavior has served to stifle and discourage attempts to change the status quo. Let’s take an example to see how institutional bias contributes to personal bigotry, at least from my perspective.

I’m a black man, and if you look through mass media throughout history our culture doesn’t have many positive examples for me. When we were brought to the United States, we were viewed as barely human, little more than savages who could understand basic commands and endure back-breaking labor that more genteel and enlightened races could not stomach. This myth of superhuman strength and physicality has been woven into the narrative of black men from that time on: in so many of our stories, black men fill the role of the “gentle giant” or a subset of the “noble savage”. In our entertainment, we’re presented as street-savvy toughs who are intimidating and dangerous. We join gangs, deal drugs, kill people. We go to prison (justly or unjustly), we father children and either die, abandon them or are taken from them. Three centuries of narrative on black men can be traced from slave owners selling their goods in the late-1700s to what policemen and news anchors say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

We’re often seen as people who are prone to violence, have poor impulse control and limited (at best) intelligence — when we are seen as smart, it’s more of a cunning than an actual ability to learn complex concepts and make connections between them. There are, of course, exceptions to this — especially recently. But the monolithic image of the black male as someone with a dangerous and animal strength, as someone unpredictable and tough, prevails. It informs how we’re reflected in news reports and movies, TV shows and books. That image is disseminated in a hundred different ways, subtle and unsubtle, and absorbed by those of us who see those news reports and fictional accounts everywhere.

We internalize this idea, and we begin to act on it instinctively. Police officers are quicker to assume that black males have weapons, and more likely to interpret actions as aggressive or hostile. They’re more likely to use deadly force as a result. We, as civilians, instinctively grow more nervous when we see one or more black males on the street. We begin to make assumptions about how they live, what they want, and who they are. Even when it’s tinged with a positive sentiment, there are underlying traits that reflect centuries of basic, bigoted ideas handed down to us from the stories we’ve told ourselves over time.

This doesn’t only happen with black men. This happens with women, other people of color, the disabled, the mentally ill, transgender and gender-fluid people, gay, lesbians, bisexuals, the poor and disadvantaged, the homeless…and the list goes on.

With the rise of the Internet and the resulting democratization of content available in our culture, we’re seeing those minorities push back against these stories. Black men are standing up to say we’re not all hulking athletes, or dangerous toughs, or cunning tricksters. We’re not the stories you’ve heard about that are causing you to cross the street, assume we’re up to no good, shoot us down in our neighborhoods. We’re just people, as widely varied and scared and messed up as anyone else. We don’t fit into these societal narratives.

What we’re finding as we speak up is that there are many, many people who don’t want to examine the stories they’ve been told, the ideas they hold because of them, or the prevalence of this false and in many ways dangerous information. They don’t want to look at how this narrative has lead them to bigoted thoughts and actions — because of it, black men can’t gather in places without being harassed; we can’t interact with the police in the same ways a white man could; we’re far less likely to be considered for white-collar jobs or opportunities in STEM education; we’re much more likely to be suspended and disciplined in schools. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture about black men lead directly to the unequal treatment of us as a group, at all levels of society.

That’s bigotry in action. It’s codified in our culture, repeated over and over again throughout our history until it becomes a sort of background radiation, something we simply accept. Most of us have assumptions about various groups because that’s what we’ve been exposed to from an incredibly young age. Centuries of history and decades of personal absorption are incredibly hard to dislodge.

But it can happen. It does happen. It first takes realizing what’s going on in the first place and challenging our assumptions about basic ideas. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to identify with a gender that’s different from your physical sex? What does it mean to believe in a non-Christian view of the universe? Who are all of these people who don’t share your race, religion, orientation, socio-economic status? How do these differences affect their daily lives?

I’m learning an awful lot about this simply by listening to the people speak up about their own experiences. The plight of transgender people and women is something I haven’t been aware of until only recently, but my eyes have been opened in so many ways. It’s shocking to hear the things they’ve been through, the battles they continue to fight because of the ingrained, reflexive bigotry that we reflect unthinkingly.

I’ll admit, I’ve done, said and thought things that were bigoted. I will probably do so in the future; this is not because I’m a bad person, or that I’m intractable. It’s simply because I haven’t gotten to the place where I’m challenging basic, incorrect assumptions I’m still holding on to. But I’m working on that, I’m learning more all the time. That’s the burden we bear, the thing we must do to improve ourselves and the society we live in.

I ask sincerely that people have patience with me through this process. More importantly, have patience with other people who are still learning how to undo the education they’ve received; we’re all members of a flawed society we didn’t opt-in to, and some of us are going to have a more difficult time learning about those flaws, accepting the ways we’ve internalized them, and undoing that. Some people will be able to do this on their own; some people will need significant help that they may or may not ask for; some of us will never be able to do it. But I believe we’re all in the same boat with this, and it would be a great thing to help each other make progress however we’re able to do so.

Does this make sense? Do you agree, disagree? I look forward to the discussion in the comments.

2 thoughts on “When I Talk About Bigotry

  1. I did most of my growing up in Houston–one of the largest and most diverse cities in the nation, if not the world. Houston holds the world’s second largest concentration of Nigerians, second only to Nigeria itself. The high school I attended had a student body of about 4400, with over 60 different nationalities and cultures represented among the student body and staff. (It was such a huge and broad spectrum that I didn’t even know until years after I graduated that I had attended high school with Beyonce–yes, THE Beyonce.) I met many people from all walks of life, and that quickly made whatever preconceptions I may have held based on factors such as race or religion dissipate almost instantly.

    When you live in such a profoundly diverse culture with such a high density of people like that, unlearning bigoted thoughts becomes effortless. Attending college out in a much more rural part of Texas, however, showed me just how tenacious old-world attitudes can be when the economics and population of a region encourage a status quo to be preserved.

    I attended college out in Beaumont, TX, which was very close to Jasper, TX–a town you may remember as being the locale of the infamous murder of James Byrd, Jr. Byrd was a black man who was dragged behind a truck by Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King–three White men, at least two of whom were accused of being White Supremacists. As such, the murder became national news and was reported as being a hate crime.

    However, while at college, I met some friends who had grown up there in Jasper, and explained to me how things actually are. Are there still regular KKK meetings there in Jasper, TX? Yes. Do people still hold highly bigoted attitudes towards people of a different race than their own? Yes. Are these attitudes solely the result of malice? No, not exclusively, though for some that is very likely the case. Was Byrd’s murder motivated exclusively by race? Not from the reports of local citizens, who heard a different story through the town gossip chain than what the media reported.

    According to my Jasper-born friends, Byrd’s death was more motivated by a drug deal that went sour than by racial hatred. I have not done enough personal research into the case to know how true any reports of the story are–either from the media, the courtroom, or from residents of the town–but we ALL know how the story was played out: as a vehicle to continue the message that skin color is a hard line in the sand that somehow matters.

    From what I learned from friends at college, one of the main reasons why such old-school attitudes remain in the rural town of Jasper is more economical than anything: as racial minorities gained rights across the US in the mid- to late-20th Century, many who held power in rural areas, where population density and diversity are far lower, did not have the first-hand experience to change their attitudes towards people who were different from them and the people they already knew. These members of their culturally-imposed “out group”–Black Americans, namely–were therefore integrated only very slowly into the population. They were passed over for better-paying jobs almost as a hardline rule, and so Blacks grew up in Jasper (like in many parts of the USA still) with institutionalized racism, where they congregated to poorer neighborhoods.

    This would result in very clear trends in the schools in Jasper, even when my fellow collegiate friends were in high school during the Byrd murder media frenzy: since you usually grow up and play with kids on your block, you tend to make friends with the kids in your immediate neighborhood. And since, because of institutionalized racism leading to a sharp divide across generations, there were poorer neighborhoods that were almost all-Black and richer neighborhoods that were almost all-White, the kids growing up would tend to befriend other kids of the same skin color as their own. This would lead to them sitting at lunch tables together at school, which the media journalists reported as being racist, bigoted attitudes among the young children of Jasper. However, this wasn’t necessarily true (at least, according to my friends): kids in Jasper had no problems with people of different skin color; they just never got the chance to meet them and befriend them like they did for kids their own race, due to the economically-imposed institutional racism I described above.

    Nevertheless, it’s these sorts of environments that have the strongest potential to breed and incubate bigoted attitudes, because it all boils down to availability of information and experiences: the more diverse experiences you can access, the more open-minded you tend to be.

  2. I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember the exact words, but I’ve heard a similar suggestion that maybe instead of just saying someone is a bigot, telling them they seem to have some bigoted opinions. It’s subtle and I’m reasonably sure I’m not phrasing it correctly.

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