The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Over and over again this conversation happens:

“Anyone who voted for Trump is racist and sexist.”

“Well, you’re never going to convince them of anything if you call them that.”

Leaving aside the fact that not everyone particularly cares at this point about convincing them of anything or thinks that’s even possible, this conversation is unproductive because the people in it are talking past each other.

The fact that we acknowledge that Trump voters are racist and sexist doesn’t mean we have to open a discussion with one of them by announcing that they are racist and sexist, and the fact that we may use different language to try to engage with Trump voters doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a potentially crucial theoretical framework in our own heads and spaces. You can think something without saying it out loud in a particular situation.

Personally, I don’t care a whole lot about which words we happen to call Trump voters; what we call them for the purposes of our own internal conversations doesn’t change what they do and what they believe. As I discussed in my last post, right-wingers have made their beliefs about various social groups abundantly clear, and whichever words you chose to use to describe those beliefs, they are still out there, and still affecting public policy and group behavior in measurable, observable, and harmful ways.

However, I think that words like “racist” and “sexist” are appropriate descriptors for Trump voters for two reasons: 1) the majority of them would endorse statements that easily fit the definitions of those words, such as “Black people are more dangerous than white people” and “Women aren’t fit to be president”; and 2) even those who would not endorse those statements still voted for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern American history, who has stated an intent to harm marginalized people in multiple ways.

Racism and sexism aren’t just about beliefs. They’re also about behaviors. Someone who truly believes in racial equality but for whatever reason refuses to hire people of color to work at their company is acting in a racist way. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about race but helps elect someone who repeatedly states an intent to violate the civil rights of particular racial groups is also acting in a racist way. I get that it’s difficult to think of your actions as having consequences when elections are decided by millions of votes, but the fact that millions of people are equally responsible doesn’t mean you aren’t.

One of the few things I think that the edgy white liberal thinkpieces are getting right is that, indeed, screaming “You’re sexist!” at a Trump voter probably won’t make them change their minds about their sexism or about voting for Trump. Thankfully, nobody has seriously suggested that it would; believe it or not, the people of color and women who have been writing about this problem for years have much more nuanced suggestions than that.

The problem with screaming “You’re sexist!” at Trump voters is threefold: 1) screaming at people usually causes them to shut down and stop learning, which is why I don’t recommend it in any situation that is meant to be educational; 2) labeling someone’s behavior “sexist” doesn’t actually tell them what they did wrong or what you would like them to do differently; and 3) if you do use it as a jumping-off point to explain what exactly they did wrong and what you would like them to do differently, you probably won’t get anywhere because they probably disagree that those things are wrong.

For instance, I’ve been in arguments with conservatives about Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in which I would claim that the system is racist because it disproportionately targets people of color, especially Black men, as potential criminals and treats them more harshly than others. The conservative would respond that that’s because people of color, especially Black men, are much more likely to be criminals. I would point to data that show that there is overall no racial difference in criminal activity; that whites are actually more likely to commit certain crimes; that the data that shows that Black people are more likely to commit crimes is based on convictions and it’s also been shown that they are more likely to get accused and convicted (including falsely) in the first place and etc etc etc. And the conservative would say that that data is just liberal propaganda and that everyone obviously knows that Black people are simply more dangerous than white people, so I should be thanking our brave police forces for keeping me safe from them. I would point out that in our country it’s supposed to be unconstitutional to execute a criminal, actual or suspected, on the street without a trial. They shrug and say that sometimes bad things happen and I can’t let that get to me.

(These experiences, plus research about persuasion, have convinced me that there’s literally no point in arguing with someone by presenting them with factual evidence they disagree with.)

If you define “racism” to someone and they disagree that it’s a bad thing, then obviously you’re not going to get anywhere by telling them that they did something racist. If they do think it’s a bad thing, they’ll just waste your time arguing about how what they said or did isn’t actually racist and that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

(While it’s plausible that calling Trump voters sexist and racist will just reinforce their belief that liberals look down on them and hate them, contrary to the thinkpiece du jour, I don’t think that this is what literally created the systems of sexism and racism in this country. I’m pretty sure the transatlantic slave trade predated Vox.com significantly.)

None of this means that we shouldn’t consider them sexist and racist. As I also discussed in my previous post, sugarcoating, euphemizing, or simply ignoring conservatives’ beliefs about various social groups is not going to be helpful in defeating their ideology. You may choose not to come at a Trump voter accusing them of hating women, but you need to keep in the back of your head the fact that they would probably endorse lots and lots and lots of sexist statements–or at least not be very bothered by them.

If we acknowledge that Trump supporters are racist and sexist and just about every other kind of -ist, that changes our behavior and predictions in a few ways. First of all, that informs us what Trump can and can’t get away with. Friends of mine have joked that after all of these allegations–sexual assault, fraud, tax evasion, and so on–the only thing Trump could do that would actually lose him a significant number of supporters is come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s also clear that just about anything he does to target marginalized people, no matter how flagrant, will be met with either tacit approval or open celebration by his supporters.

If we assume that Trump supporters endorse many bigoted beliefs, then we cannot appeal to their better natures to stop him. It seems that so far, Trump voters who regret their choice regret it mostly because he has not tried to imprison Hillary Clinton and because his fellow Republicans are hoping to dismantle Medicare.

Second, when it does come to engaging with Trump supporters, awareness of their bigotry can help you choose the best approach. Nothing he has said about women, people of color, or other marginalized people will be relevant. It won’t be like talking left-wingers out of supporting Hillary Clinton. You will have to show how Trump is a threat to the sorts of American values they do hold dear, such as free speech and relatively unregulated markets.

Third, acknowledging the bigotry of the Republican base is, honestly, a vital self-care tactic for marginalized people. Over and over we have been told that it’s not that, it’s that they love Jesus and want to spread his love, it’s that they’re worried about their taxes, it’s that they want to see their values reflected in our culture just like anyone else would, it’s that they want their jobs back, it’s that the Democrats have ignored their needs, it’s that globalism has shut down their factories so of course they’d be against trade agreements, it’s that some of these immigrants are probably bad people so naturally we should vet them carefully, it’s that the police have very stressful jobs so you can’t blame them for freaking out sometimes, it’s that Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs and so are they, it’s that marriage is supposed to be for procreation, it’s that if you work hard you won’t be poor or homeless, it’s that if you do something sinful like have premarital sex it’s only fair that you should have to face the consequences, it’s that fetuses are living babies, it’s that they miss the way things used to be when everyone knew their place and nobody asked for more than what they got, it’s anything but the fact that they simply believe that men are better than women, white people are better than non-white people, and LGBTQ people are disgusting abominations altogether.

And almost all of us, to a person, grew up with that awful buzzing voice in the backs of our minds: What if it’s me? What if I’m the problem? What if I’m disgusting, sinful, ugly, criminal, dangerous, lazy, stupid, sick? What if I’m a bitch, an outsider, a slut, an animal? What if I deserve everything they’ve done to me, and everything they still intend to do?

The reason marginalized people have been so adamant about naming Trump and his supporters for who they are isn’t because we still have much hope that they’ll feel even a twinge of shame, but because naming them for who they are is how we survive them.

Naming bigots as bigots allows us to stop blaming ourselves for our own oppression. And as soon as we’re able to direct blame outward rather than inward, we become able to fight it.


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The Importance of Naming Bigotry

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