“I can’t be a bigot, because…”
“How can someone be racist if they have friends who are Black?”
The same way serial killers can have friends who are alive.
— BrownBlaze (@brownblaze) February 20, 2015
When this tweet showed up in my twitter timeline (‘”How can someone be racist if they have friends who are Black?” The same way serial killers can have friends who are alive.’), I nearly spit my coffee all over my keyboard. It’s flippant, and an overly pedantic sort of person will try to argue about how bad an analogy it is, but it’s a brilliant way to encapsulate the idea that people are more than capable of contradictory behavior. And it’s funny—sometimes we need a little gallows humor to struggle with big, horrific events.
Those of us who are queer have to deal with the classic deflection from homophobic people all the time, “I don’t hate gay people, I have gay friends!” Just as a lot of us who have been caught up in the Hugo/Sad Puppy wank have been rolling our eyes about one of the leaders of said homophobic, misogynist, racist group who claims he can’t be racist because he’s married to a person of color. As if there has never been a male chauvinist who was married to a woman…
Part of the reason people think that having friends or loved ones who are members of a minority disproves that someone is prejudiced is because they think of prejudice as an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not. It’s a spectrum, and a very subtle one, at that. One of the biggest struggles each and every queer person deals with in the coming out process, for instance, is learning to recognize and unlearn a lot of internal homophobia. Because it’s impossible to grow up in our society without absorbing all of society’s heterosexist and homophobic expectations, assumptions, and myths.
Even a very out queer person can still harbor and exhibit a lot of that learned bigotry. They use code-words, such as describing themselves as straight-acting. Or they say that they aren’t attracted to “fems” or that they aren’t “into the scene”—and they get incredibly defensive about how that isn’t prejudice, it’s just a personal preference.
Let’s pause here for a couple of important take-aways. One: If you get defensive and offended when someone points out that something you said is racist/misogynist/homophobic/whatever, it’s almost certain that you have some unexamined prejudice in action. You don’t get defensive about subjects that you don’t have deep-seated emotions about. If you really aren’t deeply invested in one side or another of the subject at hand, your emotional reaction would be, “You think so? That’s interesting. Tell me why.”
Two: Dictionaries define preference as something you want to have because you think it is superior to something else. When applied to food that’s pretty harmless—I think dark chocolate is superior in flavor to milk chocolate, for instance. Nobody is hurt or excluded because I’d rather have dark chocolate. But if you “prefer” people whose mannerisms or clothing choices, et cetera, conform to certain stereotypes, and reject other people who conform to other stereotypes, then you’re judging people on superficial qualities. And that does cause harm in various ways, depending on the situation. And will deprive you of a lot of potentially great friendships, some of which might even help you become a better person.
Now, having absorbed a lot of prejudice from society doesn’t make us bad people. It’s refusing to acknowledge it and refusing to unlearn it that’s the problem. Not to mention acting on it. And no matter how much time you’ve spent trying to unlearn your prejudices, you’re going to keep stumbling over new and different ways that they manifest.
For instance, just this last weekend I was with a bunch of friends and we found ourselves discussing guns. One friend was describing the rifle she currently enjoys taking to the shooting range, and as part of the description the fact that it has lever action was mentioned. Without even thinking, I said, “Lever action?” in a very condescending and derisive tone. When she said, “What’s wrong with lever action?” I had no answer.
I haven’t owned a gun in decades. I haven’t fired a gun in decades. I grew up in rural communities where every boy was expected to learn how to shoot and hunt, and I spent a few hunting seasons tramping around the wilderness carrying around a little Remington .243 calibre bolt-action rifle, occasionally bringing down a deer, or some rabbits, or a pheasant. I do not have a well-informed opinion on lever action vs bolt action. My dad does. My grandfather did. They both had very strong feelings about why bolt action was preferable. I’m sure that they explained their reasons to me when I was a kid. I don’t remember what those reasons were. Even if I did remember now, because they were the ones who taught me how to shoot, reload, clean, and otherwise use and care for rifles, the vast majority of my experience was on bolt action guns. It wasn’t as if I did a study myself. The only thing I have retained is a very strong feeling that one is preferable to the other, and that people who don’t prefer the one I was taught to prefer have poor judgement, or something.
That’s what most prejudice is:
- we absorb it from those around us from childhood on,
- we accept it originally as a given with little or no proof,
- our earlier acceptance colors our evaluation of later experiences,
- societal acceptance of those assumptions limits our later experiences so the assumptions are seldom challenged,
- we’re completely unaware just how much it colors our thinking, and we act on those prejudices without thinking.
When we’re discussing preferences for styles of certain mechanisms on a tool or weapon, it’s not terribly important. But when we make decisions about which laws to vote for, or which political candidates to support, or which people to welcome into our neighborhood, or which children’s parents to exclude, et cetera, it can be deadly serious.
Everyone has learned a lot of bigotry growing up and living in society. It’s never too soon to take a look inside ourselves and question our assumptions. Unlearn prejudice takes time and effort. But continuing to act on it hurts other people, and often far more than we realize.