Note: This entry emphatically subject to the privilege disclaimer.
This is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time. It applies not just to racism, but bigotry in general. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, etc. This addresses “I’m not a racist/sexist/homophobe, but…”.
So many people, in arguments about bigotry, use the fact that they don’t actively, consciously hate the people they’re being bigoted against as evidence that they are not bigoted, as though that sets them apart. It doesn’t.
Let’s rewind the clock a bit. In 1851, a man by the name of Samuel Cartwright wrote about a mental disorder he called “drapetomania”. Drapetomania was a mental disorder symptomized by wanting to flee your master if you were a slave. This guy apparently believed that not wanting to be a slave was a full-on mental disorder.
The question I want to ask is this: does this make that man a bigot? Does it make him racist?
Because here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible that he genuinely believed this to be true. It’s entirely possible that his beliefs about black people were so woefully at odds with reality that he genuinely believed their natural state was slavery. It’s possible he believed that wanting to escape slavery was a form of insanity.
I presume we all think he was wrong. Here’s the thing, though: if he genuinely believed this, he could’ve prefaced a talk about this “disorder” with “I’m not a racist, but…”. He could’ve genuinely not held (or at least not thought he held) an active, conscious hatred toward black people, just a collection of beliefs so incredibly misguided and wrong that they caused him to act in a way that was indistinguishable from hatred. He might’ve said, “I don’t hate blacks, I just want to protect them from the consequences of their own disordered thinking”, and genuinely thought he was telling the truth. Obviously, however, that wouldn’t make the position he was taking any less inherently harmful.
Plenty of people today argue that homosexuality is a disorder, and that by discouraging homosexual activity, they are “hating the sin, but loving the sinner”. My question to you, dear readers, is this: is there a categorical* difference between the kinds of things those people are saying and what Samuel Cartwright said? If Samuel Cartwright genuinely believed that wanting to escape slavery was a symptom of a mental disorder, could he not have argued along similar lines, that he was “Hating the sin, but loving the sinner” by preventing slaves from escaping, by treating them for a disorder he believed they had?
Plenty of the police officers who so preferentially go after minorities may genuinely believe that they are going after people most likely to commit crimes. What is the difference between those people and Samuel Cartwright?
Plenty of people argue that they don’t hate women, they just think that if she was wearing a short skirt or drunk or talked about sex, she was asking for it. What is the difference between those people and Samuel Cartwright?
In all of these cases, people are merely acting on their own beliefs about the world. Samuel Cartwright didn’t say, “I hate blacks, therefore they should be slaves”, he said he thought that slavery was the natural order of things, and that wanting to pervert that natural order by fleeing was akin to being not-right-in-the-head. He had a belief that caused him to do things that were destructive and immoral by any metric. But it’s possible that he, himself, believed it. It’s possible he thought he was “Just keeping it real”.
If you think that he was being racist when he talked seriously about drapetomania, then you acknowledge that problematic beliefs on their own, qualify as bigotry. Whether or not the person who holds false beliefs actively, consciously hates the group of people those beliefs are about, they can still qualify as bigots. This means that when you talk about homosexuality being immoral or women being at fault for dressing sexy or how women or people of color probably earn less because they just can’t do the jobs as well, etc, etc, you don’t have to hate those people to qualify as being prejudiced against them. All you have to be is wrong.
If you’re wrong, the difference between you and Samuel Cartwright is a difference of degree, and that’s all.
* I want to emphasize that I’m talking about categorical differences. I do not intend any of the examples in this post to imply that the things I’m drawing analogies between are equally bad. Only that they are the same type of bad. The type that involves doing harmful things based on harmful beliefs even where possibly independent of active, conscious hatred.