Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and other forms of discrimination that limit opportunities to people based on some unchangeable fact about themselves don’t care about intentions.
Forms of discrimination have become a very different sort of beast in the current day. It’s no longer the obvious racism such as the Jim Crow laws. Racism, sexism, ageism, and much discrimination is now a subtle subconscious mindset that, if one is not paying attention, can be perpetuated unwillingly and unknowingly. Because of this it is increasingly easy to contribute to these subconscious paradigms unwillingly and accidentally.
There are very obvious sorts of discrimination, but it’s the unconscious reflexive sort of actions that truly contribute to discrimination in our current world. Actions such as checking one’s wallet when they pass a black person or holding on extra tight to their purse can be the subtle sort of unconscious racism that permeates our culture and constitutes our subconscious racist paradigms. They are socially constituted and culturally ingrained through stereotypes.
There are those sort of individual actions but there are also the media portrayals which continue to reinforce our subconscious paradigms and stereotypes which oppress and discriminate. The most recent example in collective memory is easily the Mountain Dew commercial created by Tyler the Creator. A goat has beaten a woman and is placed in a line-up where she is being asked to identify the goat. The line-up consists entirely of black males and the woman is battered, bruised, and on crutches. The goat intimidates and threatens the woman. This commercial reinforces our subconscious association of black men and criminals and overall puts forth the idea that if someone beats a woman and threatens her they can get away with it.
While the violence against women is quite obvious the image of an all black line-up is slightly subtler (although we are far more sensitive to it than we once were), which is where I want to focus my attention. Many comment on the obvious misogyny so I want to talk about the racism that is inherent in the image. It not only reinforces the association black males and criminals, but it also makes it seem okay and acceptable to judge black men in this way. When we are on the street and make a judgement about a black man, even entertaining the idea that he might be a criminal or a past criminal, we fall within the lines of acceptability. Images like the one in the commercial make it seem okay and seem to fall within the lines of acceptability.
These subconscious paradigms affect our decisions in the same way that color can affect our mood. We might not even be aware of it, and if we are operating on our default mindset I can guarantee we are unaware of it. What happens is we end up limiting the opportunities of those affected by this subconscious discrimination by falling back on groups that don’t have a negative stereotype associated with them (whites over black, men over women, etc). It’s a subconscious choice that happens.
Because of this, actions themselves are what are generally bigoted and do not make someone a bigot. As mentioned, a lot of actions are subconscious and are a byproduct of culture and socially ingrained stereotypes. Because of their subconscious nature if someone is unaware of them or is ignorant to them they might not necessarily racist, or a mysoginist, or a bigot. But it can be easy to slip into any of these roles because our actions are affected by our subconscious mindsets – influenced by images, language, and other stimuli.
Using the word gay because it’s liberally thrown around by friends or co-workers might not mean someone is homophobic. Checking one’s wallet after walking past a black person might not make someone a racist. Judging a woman based upon her looks and how “sexy” she looks might not make someone a misogynist. What makes someone homophobic, racist, or sexist is when they actively defend their actions or their words. What does make someone a bigot is how they respond to being called out on homophobic, racist, or sexist actions.
When called out by a woman for saying or acting sexist we should apologize. When called out on racist language or actions we should apologize. When a gay man or lesbian calls someone out for their actions they should apologize. But it doesn’t stop there, we have to actively work on being constantly aware of how our actions and words reinforce, even at a subconscious level, these stereotypes and be aware of how our actions and words contribute to the limiting of opportunities for minorities.
Being a racist, or a misogynist or homophobic isn’t boiled down to a single racist, sexist, or homophobic act. It is how one reacts and deals with being called out on said actions. Someone could be completely unaware that they are contributing to the oppressive systems. It is when someone is called out on bigoted actions that they prove themselves a bigot or not. If they defend their actions or their right to say and do things that are bigoted they are a bigot. If they give empty apologies and never change their actions they’re a bigot. It’s about actively working to stop the contribution and legitimization of bigoted behavior, subconscious or conscious.
Tyler the Creator, the mastermind behind the Mountain Dew commercial, never intended for the commercial to be racist. Tyler the Creator’s co-manager Christian Clancy offered an apology on behalf of Tyler via his Tumblr saying that: “It was never Tylers intention to offend however offense is personal and valid to anyone who is offended. Out of respect to those that were offended the ad was taken down… Context may or not help those who are offended and I wholly respect that but for those who are interested I can offer the following and leave the rest to Tyler. 1. This spot was part of an overall admittedly absurd storyline about a crazy goat who becomes obsessed with Mountain Dew 2. The lady in front of the lineup is the waitress from the first spot. 3. The lineup consists of Tylers friends and odd futures member who were available that day. (LBoy, Leftbrain, Garret from Trash Talk and Errol) 4. He absolutely never intended to spark controversy about race. it was simply an again admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously. Again we apologize if this was taken out of context and would never trivialize racism, especially now in America where voting and civil rights are being challenged at the highest level.” While the quote is long I wanted to keep the quote from looking like I had mangled it to shape my own means.
Intentions don’t mean anything when it comes to bigoted imagery, language, or actions. If they contribute to the stereotype then they reinforce and legitimize the subconscious bigoted paradigms that we all live within. The imagery itself, in the case of the commercial, was racist whether intended to be or not because it contributes to the legitimization of the steroetype which limits opportunites for black people via association of black people as criminals. While subtle it has drastic outcomes for the black community overall. As well it legitimizes the use of force to cull women into passivity. By beating the woman and then threatening her to the point where she, apparently, cannot handle identifying her attacker, the goat, as far the story had gone, got off scott free.
We have to be aware of what we are doing, saying, and thinking constantly. It’s not easy and often times in an attempt to be funny, likable, or a part of something we can slip up and do or say something which contributes to bigoted mindsets. It may never be our intention to contribute to these things, but it might be and the action itself can be bigoted. In the same way that people tell sexist jokes to cull favor through humor we have to recognize that these actions affect our subconscious in a way that shapes our unconscious thoughts around women. It permeates our culture and leads to real world consequences, such as women making 70 cents to every dollar a man makes. A woman can also be passed over again and again for a job she is fully qualified for in favor of a man. In terms of racism it means the same thing, black men can be passed up for jobs or never even contacted by companies because of subconscious mindsets which affect our decision making. It limits opportunities and these subconscious ideas affect people in the real world.
What makes someone a bigot is the tacit unwillingness to actively fight these sorts of default actions. Someone’s willingness to walk around operating on default mindsets in which they allow culture and society to continually reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes that limit the opportunities of minorities and those who are affected by these mindsets. The next time you’re at work, or school, or anywhere public be conscious of your actions and count the number of times you do something which could potentially perpetuate these subconscious mindsets. When you’re aware of them it’s a lot easier to stop perpetuating them and to start actively fighting them in your own personal life.
As a white male I have to recognize that I could be misstepping here, and some might disagree with me on this point. However, in my attempt to be an ally to minorities I have come to realize that this is how I most often contribute to bigotry – unwillingly, unknowingly, and accidentally. The occasional joke here and there and the occasional comment on something stereotyped happens in which I revert to my default settings and thinking. I’m consciously aware of when I do these things and I’m constantly attempting to ensure that I don’t misstep in this sort of way.