“How DARE you call me a racist!”
We’ve all heard that one before, and it’s becoming ever more frequent with the debate over Trayvon Martin’s death. Marriage equality opponents have been adopting the same tone over the past few years, claiming “homophobic” is now an insult. In the video posted above, Jay Smooth makes an excellent argument for shifting the focus from criticizing actions instead of people in order to spark more productive dialogue about racism and this can be applied to any discussion about xenophobia.
But outrage at any charges of xenophobia is not only an issue of grammar. This outrage usually relies on the assumption that “racist” or “homophobic” automatically denotes a Neo-Nazi level of vitriol. (This is why it’s frequently accompanied by the protest, “Some of my best friends are black/gay/dwarfs!”) The outrage silences any discussion about the more insidious forms of chauvinism, and this is the very discussion that needs to happen, because the most insidious forms are the most ubiquitous.
Most people who harbor transphobic, racist, ableist, sexist, lookist, ethnocentric or homophobic views are not Neo-Nazis. Most would never physically harm anyone, and as Jay Smooth demonstrates, most would never admit to being xenophobic. My theory is that chauvinism appears in society today in four different forms:
1. Violence: Both organized and individual violence, though of course the more organized, the more terrifying. (The Southern Poverty Law Center reports this month that hate groups are on the rise in the United States.) A hate crime should not necessarily be punished more severely than any other case of assault or murder, but its designation is an essential counter-statement by society to the statement the violence was intended to make. While the most horrific form of xenophobia, violence is also the least common.
2. Overt Animosity: Harassment and disrespect that falls short of violence. It’s insulting someone to their face, knowingly using slurs, arguing in earnest against someone’s human rights. It’s refusing to hire, date or talk to someone because they belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they do not belong to a certain ethnic group. It’s parents disowning their children for being gay, trans or disabled. It’s the guy I witnessed at the mall yesterday who tapped a Chinese woman on the shoulder, closed his eyes and babbled, “Ching-chong-chang!” before dashing off. It’s the Yale Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s pledge, which included the chant, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” It’s the New Orleans cop saying Travyon Martin was a “thug and… deserved to die like one.” Because the intention is either to provoke or dismiss the victim, it’s extremely difficult to find a constructive counter-argument. Beyond ignoring such provocations because they are beneath us, our only hope is to appeal to any capacity for empathy the offenders may have when they are not in a provocative mood. Such cruelty always stems from profound personal insecurities.
3. Covert Animosity: Disrespect behind someone’s back. This usually occurs when the speaker thinks they are surrounded by their “own kind,” and thus unlikely to offend anyone present with their slurs or jokes. We’ve all heard at least one relative or coworker talk this way. Often an environment encourages such disrespect and the peer pressure to join in is high. Often someone will insult an entire minority privately but be utterly decent when meeting an individual from that minority. A friend of mine once dismissed a boy band on TV as “a bunch of fags” just hours after he’d been raving to me about my awesome neighbor, who he knew is openly gay. Sometimes this behavior is excused on the grounds that the speakers are from “a different generation,” an excuse I rarely accept since those with more progressive views can often be found in the same generation.
4. The Xenophobic Status Quo: The stereotypes and privilege that surround us. Most of us have some of these prejudices without knowing it because we have been bombarded with them from birth on. It’s the invisibility of minorities in the media and the social segregation in public that causes us to stare when we see certain people. It’s the jokes that rely on the assumption that all heterosexuals find gay sex, intersexuality or transsexuality at least a little gross. Or the assumption that physical disabilities, mental disabilities and physical deformities are always tragic and sometimes morbidly fascinating. It’s the virgin/whore standard to which Western women are still held, leading us to comment far more on the appropriateness of their clothes and promiscuity than on men’s. It’s our collective misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that converge to make us wonder why a man would ever want to wear a dress, but not why a woman would want to wear jeans. It’s the prevalence of chauvinist expressions in our language (e.g. “Congressman,” “flesh-colored”) and of chauvinist traditions in our books, films and legends (e.g. our god is a white male) that makes them difficult to avoid and easy to reiterate. It’s our demanding transgendered people wait for the rest of us to “get used” to the idea of their transitioning instead of questioning our belief in the gender binary. It’s our view of every person who belongs to a minority not as an individual but as an example representing that minority with every move they make. It’s the assumption that a difference upsets normalcy in lieu of the concession that normalcy is a delusion. The privileges bestowed by our society on some members at the exclusion of others, rewarding those who have done nothing but be born with characteristics considered “normal,” are perhaps the most insidious reinforcement of these prejudices.
There is a danger to placing too much emphasis on the differences between the four tiers—I never want to end up in a conversation where people’s actions are excused as being “only Tier 4 sexist”—because all four tiers feed off each other. They don’t exist in a vacuum. The non-violent ideas of covert animosity and the xenophobic status quo provide confrontational people with a means of choosing their victims. Conversely, regularly seeing society’s long tradition of hate crimes and public humiliation both in our history books and in our everyday news is what leaves us all dangerously unsurprised by the less belligerent forms of disenfranchisement many of us help perpetuate.
Yet it is important to distinguish between these manifestations of fear in order to avoid the assumption that only violence and overt animosity qualify as xenophobia. That assumption lets millions of people off the hook. You don’t have to belong to the Westboro Baptist Church in order to have homophobic views. You don’t have to belong to the NPD or the BNP or the Georgia Militia in order to have racist views. You don’t have to wait in a dark alley for a stranger in order to commit rape. You don’t have to threaten someone in order to to make them feel unwelcome. Our society has been built on many xenophobic assumptions, making it very easy for all of us to pick some of them up along the way. The fight for equality aims to make it more and more difficult, but it needs to be able to recognize its targets and use tactics suitable to each.
I make these distinctions in the hopes of facilitating the conversation on chauvinism. Yet it should come as no surprise that chauvinism is difficult to discuss because, in the words of Jay Smooth, it’s a system that has been designed to insult and subjugate. In other words, it’s hard to speak politely about the idea of being impolite.