Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic
I posted Monday about the “Writing the Other” panel at Millennicon. Today I wanted to address one of the comments. Jim Van Pelt (whose writing I love, by the way — check it out) described an academic panel in which the moderator opened by saying, “If you are white, male and straight in America, you are also, automatically racist, sexist and homophobic.” Comment link here.
This next part is scary to write. To be clear, I’m not talking about you. I’m not talking about Van Pelt. I’m not talking about anyone except myself, ‘kay?
That moderator is correct. I am a straight white male raised in the U.S. I am also racist. I am sexist. I am homophobic.
While on the phone with a woman from tech support a few months back about a software problem, I found myself getting fed up, angry, and aggressive. Afterward, I asked myself whether I would have been equally aggressive had the other person been male. I wasn’t happy to realize the answer was no. Given the same conversation, I will be more restrained with the male support person. Because the female is someone I’m “allowed” to be angry/aggressive at. Because I am sexist.
I feel safe walking around my neighborhood, or to and from the parking lot at work, but I try to be aware of my surroundings. Walking down the street, if I see a group of teenagers coming toward me, I automatically assess them as more of a potential threat if they’re black. Because I am racist.
When my kids talk about getting married, I’ve told them that whoever they want to be with, that’s fine with me. I’ve taught them that not everyone is attracted to the opposite sex, and that’s okay. Yet deep down, a part of me still hopes they settle down with someone of the opposite sex, because I want them to be “normal.” Because I am homophobic.
I’m believe in accountability, and a big part of that is the need to own your shit. This is mine. I’m not proud of it. I’ve been working on this stuff for years. I’m not done yet.
Does this make me a bad person? You’ll have to make your own decision on that, but I don’t believe it does. I know who I am. I know my strengths, and I know my flaws. I could try to hide those flaws, but it wouldn’t make them go away. And maybe by sharing those flaws, I’ll work harder to change them.
I am racist. I am sexist. I am homophobic.
People tend to flip out when accused of these things. I understand the urge. I had to stop myself from trying to explain or excuse my behavior above. From trying to show how, even though I screw up sometimes, I’ve done a lot of other good stuff. (The nice guy defense.)
I’m not going to tell you how to respond to accusations of racism and sexism and homophobia. I will share that owning my flaws takes some of the fear away. It lessens my need to get pissed off, to argue and defend myself. I feel like I can listen. I might decide someone’s accusation is correct. I might not. But at least I’m in a space where I can listen.
A part of me thinks I should delete this thing and post a picture of my cat. But after Monday, this felt like something I needed to write.
Discussion is welcome, as always.
March 31, 2010 @ 8:44 am
I have a bit of a problem with your trifecta, Jim. I think I understand what you’re getting at; nevertheless, the stench of the doctrine of original sin hangs heavily over it, and as a non-Christian I find that particular doctrine offensive.
For one thing, it denies any possibility of self-improvement. You’ve just demonstrated that you are aware of the problems of racism, sexism and homophobia. You’re also aware that you’ve matured in a cultural environment that pre-programs you with this as a default set of values, and as far as I know you’re not embracing them enthusiastically. As long as you see racism, sexism, and homophobia as bad things, and strive to correct those failings in yourself (while recognizing that doing so is a continual process rather than something you do once and forget about thereafter), I don’t think you’ve got any grounds to beat yourself up. (Other than the question of privilege. And, frankly, privilege is a dubious reason to beat someone up; you don’t choose privilege, it’s externally imposed. So all you can do about it is use it to help other people, not to oppress them.)
Too much hedging. In a nutshell: absolutist doctrines like the idea of original sin — or intrinsic racism, sexism, and homophobia — are deeply damaging to the person they’re pinned on, and can backfire by giving the recipient an excuse to not strive to do better. So: not a terribly helpful concept.
March 31, 2010 @ 8:53 am
I have to admit, I can deal better with someone who admits it than with someone who claims, ‘oh no, I’m not Xist; I have an X friend’. Of course, X equals sex, race, or any other identifier. If a guy says, ‘yeah, I’m sexist, but I try not to be,’ I will cut him much more slack than that guy who claims not to be; but his actions say that he is.
I am a white Southerner. I am racist. I try not to be. And it always pleases me when my gut reaction is not racist. I do have the comfort that at least I’m beyond the ‘but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one’ stage of some members of the previous (& possibly current) generation.
March 31, 2010 @ 8:57 am
Charlie, I think that both original sin  and what Jim’s talking about are similar, and they are externally imposed. But I didn’t get the same vibe from what Jim said as you.
I see what Jim wrote as an acknowledgment of existing flaws as a first step in improvement, rather than a excuse to avoid improvement. Saying “I’m a sinner” or “I was raised in a racist/sexist/homophobic society” is not an excuse, but is instead an obligation. I still run into lots and lots of people who actively deny that our society  is sexist, racist, or homophobic. They actively try to ignore the structural elements in society.
I tend to recommend Privilege, Power, and Difference as a great resource (and an easy read). If you don’t have the time, the key quote (for me) is paraphrased in my blog post here (scroll down a little bit).
 I recognize that original sin is rarely used in such a nuanced way.
 And I know that “our” society is a slippery thing as well, esp. since you’re across the pond.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 8:58 am
I’ve never been big on original sin either, from the Christian perspective.
Part of what I run into is a definitional problem. The idea that to be racist (to pick one of the three) is to be Racist! — the mind automatically goes to lynchings, cross-burnings, and so on. These are definitely racist, and anyone involved in such activities needs to be put away.
Most people aren’t Racist in the cross-burning sense. But I believe many — myself included — are still struggling with racism in a more day-to-day sense.
I don’t feel like I’m beating myself up. I’m not perfect in any way, but I happen to think I’m a pretty good person. I do see racism/sexism/homophobia as bad things, and I do continue to work to end them both in myself and in the larger world.
That said, I’m not completely comfortable with the absolute statement of “If you are ____, then you are automatically racist/sexist/homophobic.” I do feel it’s true in my case, and I suspect most of us do struggle with this stuff, but am I in a position to judge/convict all white American men? I think I see what you mean about Original Sin with this one, and I can say it’s not a judgment I’d be willing to state in such absolutes.
Look at me getting all long-winded. You’d think I was nervous about the topic, and trying to be extra careful with my words or something!
Thanks, Charlie. I appreciate the comment!
March 31, 2010 @ 9:03 am
I’d also like to think there are degrees: surely it’s not an either/or existence between “racist” and “black,” for example. Acknowledging that you have a different frame of perception (because of many circumstances of birth, not just race, gender, and sexuality), and likely different experiences interacting with the world, is part of growing out of the egocentrism of childhood.
March 31, 2010 @ 9:04 am
I still run into lots and lots of people who actively deny that our society  is sexist, racist, or homophobic. They actively try to ignore the structural elements in society.
Such people are a problem. I’m less convinced that Jim is.
(And, oh yes, the cognates of racism are radically different in non-American societies. No, they’re not racism-free. But racism — especially white anti-black racism — has a very different flavour in the US.)
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 9:05 am
When I was writing this post, I had to fight the urge to add all of those disclaimers. I literally found myself wanting to write “But some of my best friends are _______!”
It’s really hard to set that defensiveness aside.
“I try not to be.”
To me, that’s the piece that is most important.
March 31, 2010 @ 9:08 am
Kudos for posting this, Jim.
Reading back in the comments from the original LJ post, I’d go along with mtlawson – though maybe not quite in the same way.
I think that everyone in our society is racist, sexist, and homophobic – along the lines of existing power structures.
That is, I’m saying (for one example) “Women are born into a chauvinistic society and are sexist in those ways even though it works against themselves.”
Sure, we can also talk about racism, sexism, etc, that goes against the existing power structures… but that ignores the privilege that you mention above.
And so that the links can be here: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (PDF link) and Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack II: Straight Privilege. If you skimmed over my response to Charles Stross above, I also highly recommend Privilege, Power, and Difference
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 9:15 am
“…surely it’s not an either/or existence between “racist” and “black,” for example.”
I’m not sure what you mean — could you expand on that? I wouldn’t say these are mutually exclusive categories, no. Though I know there are definitions of racism that include power/privilege as a prerequisite, and would change the question.
March 31, 2010 @ 9:25 am
Oh, I like this topic.
Racism, to me, seems a good word to describe someone that looks at a group of black teenagers as more of a potential threat than whiteys. I mean, because you obviously feel superior and think you–lone white male walking by yourself to the car–are much better than they are. It could not possibly be that our society as-a-whole deals in racism like the street-corner dealer (he’s probably black or puerto-rican, right?) deals in crack. That our media, including our oh-so-progressive entertainment industry, might just portray black male teenagers in groups as being more aggressive/prone-to-crime. Is it right? I don’t know, I hate everyone.
I’ll give you the sexist one–that does, in fact, appear to me to be sexist. Now get in the kitchen, Jim, and make me some eggs. Also, while you’re at it, quit looking at my sugar lumps. I don’t swing that way without a fifth of Vodka and a rufie. I know, I’m cheap.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 9:27 am
“[T]he cognates of racism are radically different in non-American societies. No, they’re not racism-free. But racism — especially white anti-black racism — has a very different flavour in the US.”
That’s something I’ve been coming to realize a lot more in recent years. It’s strange, but educational, to read reactions from those outside of the U.S. culture. Even when those reactions are just “Americans are just plain crazy when it comes to race” 🙂
March 31, 2010 @ 9:34 am
Remember that racism (or sexism, or heterosexism – we’ll keep using racism as an example) is both personal and structural. A large part of what Jim’s talking about (unless I’m wrong, in which case I’m sure he’ll say so) is the intersection between the two. Structural racism does not imply intent. You can act in racist ways while honestly never thinking of yourself as racist.
The example from Privilege, Power, and Difference that I use is this:
“When I was playing Monopoly with my children, I realized that I was being mean to them. It was not anything personal; it was just the way the game is played. To be nice to someone while playing Monopoly is cheating. You’re breaking the rules. But I am not mean to my children. I don’t want to be mean to my children.
“So I stopped playing Monopoly.”
March 31, 2010 @ 9:57 am
Thank you for this very courageous post, Jim. I understand exactly what you mean. I’m a white southerner, and while I at least had the advantage of going to a high school that was probably 40% black, I had issues that I wasn’t even aware of for years afterward. If you don’t acknowledge that these issues exist within you, as a product of the culture you were raised in, you can’t work on them, and nothing ever changes.
On a related note, if I’m on one more panel where a group of white American panelists ALL proudly proclaim that they were “raised colorblind,” I think I might scream. Being raised in an all-white neighborhood doesn’t make you freaking colorblind, people. I don’t think it’s possible to have been raised anywhere in America and not have absorbed certain kinds of thinking about other races. But, as has already been said, people equate racism with lynching and cross-burning, so that even the suggestion that there might be more subtle things going on is violently rejected.
I will add that racial relations, at least in my part of the country, have improved dramatically over my lifetime. It’s no longer at all unusual to see interracial couples, whereas in college I got glared at just for going to the store with my black male roommate. But to pretend that there is no work left to be done, starting with our personal attitudes, is to deny the hope of any further progress.
March 31, 2010 @ 10:32 am
Jim, I just want to say that I admire you a great deal, precisely because of posts like this. Thank you for being honest, and for calling others to the plate as well. As a woman of alternative sexuality who is currently dealing with a damaging, upsetting case of sexism and harassment at her day job, it is good to see people recognizing that this is still a big problem. (I wrote an open letter the the person involved, and I had been unsure about posting such a personal thing on my blog. Takes a lot to hit the ‘publish key’.)
My relatives raised me in a horrifically prejudiced, wingnut, teabagger setting. The last family reunion I went to, they were discussing how the gay population should be lynched, and the Mexicans exterminated. Unfortunately, I still struggle with racism, due to that toxic background.
I disagree that all straight white men are prejudiced, however. I think that that statement is too narrow. I would argue that all humans are prejudiced, whether it be racially, sexually, religiously, what have you. Some people overcome it. Some don’t.
March 31, 2010 @ 10:53 am
I think I got stuck on the word racism, as Steven pointed out. Even though plainly stated, I still went directly to lynch-mobs and burning crosses on front lawns.
I admire this post, Jim, regardless of how obtuse my first comment was — that’s me trying to be humorous and failing miserably.
I was born in Canada and raised in a very forward-thinking, open-minded household. Even still, I find myself wondering if I am, in fact, a racist. So I decided to take Jim’s example and apply it to myself. And what do you know? I too am a racist. I lived in Massachusetts for a while, in a neighborhood that was primarily black and peurto-rican. It could be described as a “ghetto”, with garbage strewn streets and nightly lead flyers. When I walked down the street I always tensed up more if they were a black male.
So again, Jim, thank you for having the courage to stand up and say it. The truth hurts.
March 31, 2010 @ 11:32 am
I am inclined to disagree, since a lack of privilege seems to be a rather common reason to beat someone up.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 12:10 pm
Thanks, William. I do the same thing, actually. The brain remembers the extreme examples, the big, dramatic events. Homophobia evokes memories of Matthew Shepard being beaten to death for being gay. But I think homophobia and the other terms include a spectrum of behavior, and my fear is that while those extreme behaviors must be stopped, if we only focus on the extremes, it means the more subtle aspects go unchecked.
Wordy response, I know, but hopefully I’m making sense?
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 12:14 pm
Thanks, Jaym. I wrote this up last night, and spent last night and this morning wondering if I should go in and cancel the post 🙂
I’m going to steal from my own comment above about the “all straight white men are _____” comment. I’m not completely comfortable with such an absolute statement either. I do feel it’s true in my case, and I suspect most of us do struggle with this stuff, but am I in a position to judge/convict all white American men? It’s not a judgment I’d be willing to state in such absolutes.
I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through at work. Is this a case that has any chance of a decent outcome?
“The last family reunion I went to, they were discussing how the gay population should be lynched, and the Mexicans exterminated. Unfortunately, I still struggle with racism, due to that toxic background.”
Ouch. There’s a part of me that wants to understand how someone can reach the point where this is acceptable conversation. Another part of me doesn’t want to understand.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 12:17 pm
“On a related note, if I’m on one more panel where a group of white American panelists ALL proudly proclaim that they were “raised colorblind,” I think I might scream.”
You and me both.
“I will add that racial relations, at least in my part of the country, have improved dramatically over my lifetime.”
Same here. I still live in the same neighborhood where I grew up, and comparing actions and attitudes today to what things were like 20 years ago, I do think we’ve made progress. We’re not there yet, and I think it’s important to reconize there’s a lot of work left to do, but it gives me hope.
March 31, 2010 @ 12:19 pm
I tend to agree with Charlie. I’m not Christian, and America is a “Christian” nation, not that it’s the official religion, but in that absolutist oppositional thinking is strongly built into this country. Ask most Americans what “freedom of religion” means, and they’ll start with the assumption that the different sects of Christianity are different religions. Or, if they’re broad minded, they’ll talk about Judaism and Islam (or in liberal towns, Buddhism and Hinduism) as the other religions. Pagans, Santeristas, etc. (in other words, the other 90% of religions) are either a) evil, b) deluded, or c) flaky edge-dwellers who don’t matter anyway.
In that context, I’d say it’s American to label myself (white male) as “racist, homophobic, and sexist.” Is it correct in context? Let’s see: I married an Asian woman, but I still get worried around groups of black teen males. Oh yeah, that’s right, racist is a black vs. white thing, and just like the Irish and Italians of a century ago, the Asians are becoming white because they’re smart and have escaped their ghettos. Yes, this is a stereotype, but DO YOU GET THE POINT? Racist is black vs. white, with the white category getting broader all the time. Sexist is Male vs. female. Other sexes need not apply. Homophobia is a defense of the two gender system, and even if you donate money to support gay marriage, you’re still labeled homophobic if getting kissed by a man makes you squirm.
Most mature Americans get that black and white is wrong. But the world isn’t in shades of gray. It’s got colors. Is red black, white, or gray? None of the above. Since different reds have different tones (shades of gray), you can’t even capture the essential qualities of “red” in any of the three categories. Stop trying.
Why do I get edgy around groups of black teens? Because I was mugged once by a pair of male black teens, and held up at gunpoint by another pair of male black teens. Rightly or wrongly, I get nervous when I run into pairs or groups of male black teens. Should I work on it? Of course. But I haven’t had trouble with people of other races.
I won’t even get into sexism. My mom was one of the only engineering students in her school, a long time ago, and I was raised with girls who are smarter, better at math, and are now more accomplished in their technical fields and social lives than I ever will be. Yet I still get accused of being sexist. Yeah. I’m sexist. I was raised thinking women should be engineers and be able to do the plumbing and anything else they wanted to do. But anyone looking at my white, male, American face would think otherwise, wouldn’t they?
You’ve got to be really careful about conflating experience and personal values with ignorance, class values, and received prejudice. It’s an easy accusation to make, because it contains some truth. But it’s also a limiting one. Hopefully I’ve shown enough of that here to make the limits obvious.
I feel sorry for the moderator on that panel, because that person is stuck in a set of stereotypes with no way to transcend them. I’m also glad I wasn’t there, because if I spoke up, I would be told that I’m denying my own problems, when the person knew nothing about me.
Anyway, this is all about me. Jim, congratulations for facing up and coming forward. What’s next for you?
Mahesh Raj Mohan
March 31, 2010 @ 12:55 pm
I think your post is honest and self-reflective, and I appreciate you putting it out there publicly. In various psychological/therapeutic sessions, it’s said that acknowledging a problem is the first step to addressing it, and your comments to that effect (acknowledgment and self-improvement) are commendable. I don’t often see this kind of introspection, in regards to racism, sexism, and homophobia – although I DO see a lot of knee-jerk defensiveness – so, thank you.
March 31, 2010 @ 1:12 pm
It does, Jim. When we concentrate on the Archie Bunkers, we tend to forget the much less egregious behaviors that create the society that supports Archie.
March 31, 2010 @ 5:33 pm
I’m going to re-phrase my statement: privilege does not justify violence (in either direction).
Want to make something of that?
March 31, 2010 @ 5:40 pm
Very little chance of a successful resolution, given that I live in the South and have a Mormon boss. I’m used to it there, unfortunately.
The mentality of such people is the same mentality that was rampant in the 40’s and 50’s. It has simply found a new target. Some things never die, just find new focus.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 5:49 pm
“Want to make something of that?”
I will! I challenge you to a Nerf gun duel at WFC!
Um … are you going to be at WFC?
March 31, 2010 @ 8:10 pm
About twenty years ago, I jumped to a racist conclusion (not for the last time). I shared this with a wiser friend, who told me, “It’s not about the conclusions we reach, which might be shaped by the culture. It’s what you do about the racist thought that makes you racist, or a person struggling to be better than the culture.”
March 31, 2010 @ 10:12 pm
We don’t have words for in between stages: aware of different privileges but still flinch when approached by a gang of black teenagers, for example. To just call everyone racist is so emotionally charged maybe it stops as many discussions as it starts.
Someone somewhere else in the thread pointed out that all of us who grow up in this culture get training in these attitudes, so being black is no guarantee of not holding racist attitudes / female=non-sexist / etc.
As Sewicked says above, I find it far easier to deal with someone in an intermediate stage: they are educable. Sexism has these other words like “feminist” or “patriarchal” that can be applied to attitudes. You can say something like, “What do you think this is, Donna Reed?” which maybe trivializes the issue but doesn’t shut down the dialogue.
March 31, 2010 @ 11:51 pm
I’m going to risk something here, but oh well here goes. I wonder if it’s really possible not to be racist, sexist, and slightly phobic of anyone not in your groups. I wonder if it’s possible to ever get rid of us vs. them. No matter how hard it seems we try not trust our groups more than those we’re not a part of, we still have trust issues.
I think we have such a hard time escaping this because it’s part of our biology. And I don’t know that we should try. I think it’s like saying hunger is what makes us fat so we should elminate hunger. Trying to eliminate hunger would require genetic rejiggering. And once we got rid of it, we’d die. I think trying to elminate groupism would require the same genetic rejiggering. First, we’re social (group) animals. Second, our brains are structured to categorize, to type, and then make inferences in the future when we meet that type again. We’re hard-wired for it. And if we got rid of it, we’ll, I think we’d start dying off in droves. I know you’re rolling your eyes. But I think this helps us with crocodile groups, snake groups, shark groups. It helps kids with family and non-family. Rickety bridges type, going to fast on snowy roads type, etc.
I think groups are with us as long as we’re human. I mean look at the well-meaning posts here. I can point to three or four instances of some sort of groupism. Some sort of us and them with blanket negative stereotypes. Not because anyone here is a nasty hypocrite and meanie, but because we just can’t help ourselves.
This doesn’t mean we don’t practice kindness and courage and remain open to new experiences that will change our types and try to give people in other groups the benefit of the doubt. But I do think it means we should stop castigating ourselves and others for having a mechanism that keeps us alive and is just part of who we are. We should celebrate our ability to group. Stop trying to fight it. Instead roll with it. I want to be wary when I walk on a bridge of the rickety type–thank you group brain!!
When the alarms or anger towards other goups sound, that’s a time to pay attention to what our brains are telling us, and, as anyone who has gone through cognitive therapy knows, we can check the immediate reaction to see if it’s warranted or a distortion or something we need to put in the wait and see box. And know that even if half of our brain is shouting “Danger, Will Robinson!” another part can say, give it a shot, give it a shot, these guys may not be so bad after all, but thank you group brain for being on the lookout, love you buddy.
April 1, 2010 @ 12:02 am
BTW, that moderator. I don’t care who it is, he or she is a groupist just like all the rest of us. As the opening comments so clearly show.
Jim C. Hines
April 1, 2010 @ 7:10 am
That’s an argument that hasn’t come up yet. When you talk about groupism and the alarms/anger toward other groups, who decides the other group? Do you get wary around redheads? That’s a physical difference, just like skin tone, but we’ve learned that one difference doesn’t really matter, while the other carries all sorts of baggage.
I’d also argue that racism/sexism/homophobia actively harm a large part of the population. I’m not just talking about those who commit physical violence against other groups, but the more subtle forms — acts that individually might not have much of an impact, but collectively help to keep more power for certain groups, while making it harder for others to gain that same power.
I do think there are instances where the mental shortcuts of grouping are helpful. Teaching my kids not to talk to strangers, for example. At their age, I don’t want them trying to evaluate everyone individually — I want them to leap straight to the “Oh, they’re a stranger — I’m not gonna talk to them.” But just because sometimes this mental process is useful, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in all cases. When we’re talking about racism et al., I think it’s a problem, one that is actively harmful and does need to be fought.
Jim C. Hines
April 1, 2010 @ 7:15 am
I definitely agree that actions/behaviors are more important, in the end. I don’t believe anyone should be prosecuted or persecuted for thoughts alone. But I also know that thought precedes action. (Okay, I do act without thinking more than I like to admit, but hopefully you get what I mean.) So for me, examining the thoughts and trying to unravel them is part of the process of preventing/changing the actions.
Jim C. Hines
April 1, 2010 @ 7:16 am
Thanks, Mahesh. It’s the knee-jerk responses that bother me. People get so angry, and so defensive, that they’re completely unwilling or unable to listen or understand what’s actually being said. It’s fruastrating.
Jim C. Hines
April 1, 2010 @ 7:23 am
I’ve been thinking more about why I prefer to use terms like sexism as a continuum, rather than restricting it to the extreme examples. I think part of it comes down to the “Us vs. Them” mentality, the idea that the truly egregious offenders are those bad guys over there. By making that hard distinction “They are sexist; I am not,” it feels like it’s excusing me from working on my own sexism.
I talked about this some in an article I wrote a few years back.
The terms definitely have a strong emotional charge. While I owned them in the blog post, I don’t think I’d try to label someone else that way. I think that telling someone “That thing you just said sounded homophobic” is going to be easier to hear than “You’re a homophobe.” I think in general, the latter will be a more effective starting point for a conversation.
I hope this makes sense?
April 1, 2010 @ 10:26 am
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be kind or that the process is always benign. I’m just saying that I think it’s impossible to avoid typing. No matter how much you try not to type people, you will do it. Our brains just serve it up. It’s part of the automatic emotional biological circuitry. And it’s not something we grow out of. So to try to eliminate it and castigate ourselves for having those reactions is unproductive.
However, the good thing about emotions is that we aren’t dependent on one emotional circuit. We have a fast circuit that bypasses conscious thought where our brains appraise a situation (based on types) and trigger an appropriate physical response. We have another circuit that’s a bit slower, taking the input of cognitive thought as we monitor the situation to change the appraisal of the situation. This is where we get to see if the initial appriasal is distorted. People with depression and irrational phobias have to deal with this all the time.
So the only real way to alter a reaction is to change our appraisal of the situation. The inputs. For the fast circuit we have to build up enough experiences with the situation type to change how our brains appraise it. This is why the best thing for people who freak out about snakes is to slowly face snakes, snakes, and more snakes to learn by experience that they aren’t as threatening as supposed. That’s why groups start to trust one another when they begin to mingle. For the slow circuit we can consciously examine the thoughts we’re having about the situation. If we pin them down, we can examine them to see if they’re distorted. In both cases the only productive path to changing the reaction is to change our appraisal of the situation. To actually believe something new. It’s not to try to avoid the process altogether.
So I don’t think we’re saying totally different things. I’m just saying that the quest to eliminate all groupism is not only misguided it’s impossible. What can be productive is to simply accept this is how we are, delight in the fab emotional process we have, and then work with it instead of against it, doing the things necessary to change the fast and slow appraisals if we believe they’re distorted. And recognize that it takes time. That sometimes we might have to live with a quick appraisal that’s just stubborn.
BTW, as for who decides the other group, I don’t think there’s always someone deciding. Some of it learned, but some seems to be automatic. I just read some interesting things about race and grouping in NURTURESHOCK. It appears you can’t stop kids from categorizing groups by skin color and other salient physical features. And trusting their group more. It was an interesting discussion.
April 1, 2010 @ 10:37 am
I’d pay a buck to see that.
April 1, 2010 @ 10:54 am
Jim, I don’t think you’re any of the above. What you are is prejudice. We all are (sorry, it’s a primitive brain function, unless you have it excised, it’s the normal function). Those prejudices are society normative.
Racism and sexism are political actions based on those prejudices. And this is where you aren’t one of these. Why? Because as you state in your post your forebrain is active and short circuits the prejudicial actions. That is, at most times when you’re cognizant your conscious tells the lizard brain to get stuffed. That’s the difference between people who are and aren’t racists and sexists. Those who are allow the lizard brain to override conscious thought, and find justifications for their actions.
As for hoping your kids are hetro, that again is societal normative behavior. If you were homophobic you would demand your kids be normative, and if they weren’t, you would cut them off from your life. Any breach of perceived sexual normative behavior on their part would elicit a swift “corrective” reaction on your part. There’s the difference.
So yes, we are all prejudice. Our brains are hard wired for it (it’s an evolved survival instinct that keys for “the other”). And you live in this society, and feel the pressures of the norm. Welcome to living. It’s what we do with those feeling that make the difference. If we act on them, or if we’re able to change the reaction (which, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, is also a societal normative function these days).
April 1, 2010 @ 12:09 pm
… loving the discussion, but I simply must chime in with my immediate thought, silly though it is.
Have you ever heard the some “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway show Avenue Q? (Here’s a youtube ‘video’ of just the soundtrack version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbud8rLejLM&feature=related )
… just came to mind.
April 1, 2010 @ 12:17 pm
Very slightly off-topic, but appropriate: I was hanging out with my wife and a bunch of our friends last night. I was the only US-born person at the table, and one of only two for whom English was my first language. I was also the only monolingual person there, which I’m not proud of.
And that, plus some other things I read today, got me thinking about English. As I think most of us know, a majority of English speakers now learn it as a second language, and it is one of the world’s lingua francas, particularly for technical information.
This is a problem for us native born speakers. English, historically, is a white language. I’m not denigrating the speeches of Martin Luther King or the writing of those who have made traditional English their own, whatever their racial or cultural heritage. But if you’re one of those people who loves the full beauty, breadth, and depth of the language, who revels in the versatility of its sentence structures, who can’t stand repetition…well, you may be at a disadvantage these days.
See, my friends are all highly educated, technical people, and I know a couple of them read science fiction. But to them, English is a second language, learned for clear communication, especially clear communication of technical information.
I’m not sure how much they like our elaborate language. To paraphrase my wife, I think they like “stories where the conversations are like those in real life, not that other stuff” (and yes, she has an advanced degree and got A’s in English in American schools).
Regardless of how we feel about our personal prejudices, I think our use of English can be exclusionary totally by accident. If a writer gets lost in the joys of finding that perfect word, in packing a transition with all sorts of different meanings and functions, that writer might lose a lot of potential readers.
Fortunately, everyone likes a good story. Those bring us together.
Jim C. Hines
April 1, 2010 @ 1:26 pm
Thanks. I’d heard *of* the song, and actually thought of it as I was writing the post, but I’d never actually seen the musical or heard the song all the way through.
Jim C. Hines
April 2, 2010 @ 7:17 am
“Racism and sexism are political actions based on those prejudices.”
From my post, I’m obviously not using this same definition. But I’m curious about the inclusion of “political” in your definition. That seems like it could exclude a lot of things I would expect most people to classify as racist or sexist.
April 2, 2010 @ 5:51 pm
Here I mean “political” in its loosest sense. That is in our interactions between people. Getting “fed up and angry” with the woman on the phone can be defined that way. Now, everybody has their moments, and if you reacted to the same stimulus the same way again (that is, if you would get “fed up and angry” with a woman for something that you would let slide with a man), every time, then yes, that’s sexism and you would be a sexist. If, however, having recognized the issue once, the next time when you start to get fed up and angry your brain overrides the function and defuses the situation then you’re not one. And at a deeper level if you would then take those “fed up and angry” emotions and start making stereotyping statements (“All women just don’t get this”) and move to taking punitive actions (“therefore women shouldn’t be allowed to do this job/be in that situation”), that rises to the level of institutionalized sexism.
Unfortunately we still live in a society that isn’t equal. As we get closer to one, the more people will adjust their reactions to the signals our lizard brains bombard us with, the less the next generation will notice and adopt inappropriate responses. And hopefully that cycle will continue. Or in other words, we’re already fucked, but we can try and make sure out kids and grandkids are less so. What we can do is recognize our own prejudices and adjust our behaviors to match the society we wished we had, short-circuiting the knee-jerk reactions.
And I should say here, I’m not nearly as good at doing that as I’d like to be and too often I fall into RailFail and SexismFail. But I’m getting better.