Why I'm a Bigot (and you most likely are too)

There was a great man [who] once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back.
— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I don't know exactly what made you click on this post. Maybe you are mad that I would call you a bigot. Maybe you are curious as to why I'm calling myself one. Whatever it is, I ask that this post starts a discussion that you will have with those you feel most comfortable with.

White. Male. Heterosexual. Educated. These are just a few of the positions of privilege and power that I have had my entire life. I don't say this to gloat, but more to remind myself about how many struggles I didn't have to face.

Prof. Diangelo, at Western Washington University, discusses the importance of white people to "be humble" during conversations about race. The entire modern American system is leaning in the favor of white people. (The entire talk is fascinating and I highly recommend it even though it is an hour long!) Replace white with the other positions of power that I'm in, and the system still leans in my favor.

"But didn't your parents teach you to be nice to people? How could you be a bigot?" I hear some of you hypothetically say. And you are right! I have never met anyone more qualified in giving unconditional love than my parents. They are my inspiration everyday for how someone should act in love in daily life.

But there are larger systems in play...systems that if we fail to acknowledge will continue to oppress people not in positions of power. These systems make us in power bigots. Intentionally or unintentionally.

Intentional bigotry is the type we usually talk about; hate crimes, discrimination, etc. That's easy to point out and most well meaning people will call it out and try to stop it.

Unintentional bigotry is far subtler. These are the phrases said to 'prove I'm not a bigot.' I have a person of color in the family. My best friend is gay. You are playing the race card.

How do you call that out? How do we stop that? The best example in my life of fighting this unintended bigotry happened back at Allegheny college...

My parents and I during my freshman orientation at Allegheny College.

My parents and I during my freshman orientation at Allegheny College.

A group of about six of us freshman went to Brooks dinning hall for dinner. As it was a normal Wednesday, there was not a ton of people so the prime window seats were free! As we were eating a motorcyclist drove by rather loudly; enough to disrupt our conversation. Almost instinctively I responded "What a faggot."

The table went quiet, and one of them had gasped. I suddenly was worried because I didn't know why everyone was reacting that way. Blair, one of my friends at the table, calmly put down her utensils and asked "What does the word faggot mean to you, Ben?"

Still very confused, I responded "Well, it means idiot and I've only heard it in reference to loud motorcyclists driving by."

"Nothing else?" she asked. "Nothing else..." I responded.

She then calmly started to go into how that word has been used in hateful speech toward her specifically as someone who identifies as queer. After she had finished I felt horrified. I had no idea that the words I was using were so hurtful. But she didn't yell at me. She didn't say how hateful I was, or that I was homophobic. Instead she asked "Now, will you use that word in the same way as before?"

THIS is how we fight against bigotry. Blair had every right to be angry at me but instead showed kindness, inclusion, and love. My use of that word was a learned response: not from my parents or school, but just by the media I was growing up with. Blair then asked me to make the choice to act on a different learned response, with the knowledge she had just given me.

Snow piling up on my car in Manchester, NH

Snow piling up on my car in Manchester, NH

Bigotry is a lot like snow: without constant attention it can pile up to the point of hindering life. With the above story a lot of excuses can be made for my unintended bigotry: I didn't know, I was young, etc. This next story I'm not proud of, but by sharing it I hope to expose my own unintended bigotry so that I can change my behavior for the better.

On January 2, 2016, armed militants seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney Country, Oregon, United States, and continued to occupy it until law enforcement made a final arrest on February 11, 2016. Their leader was Ammon Bundy, who participated in the 2014 Bundy standoff at his father's Nevada ranch. Other members of the group were loosely affiliated with non-governmental militias and the sovereign citizen movement. -Wikipedia

During the time of this occupation, three social media hashtags were circulating around the internet in reference to the armed militants. I found them very humorous and openly laughed when I saw them online:

  • Y'allQaeda
  • Vanilla ISIS
  • Yeehawd

Did you laugh? Even a little? If you have no idea why these are offensive, these hashtags are a play on words of various militant groups in the Middle East combined with stereotypes of white rural populations.

What are some of the first things that come to mind when you hear 'white rural populations?' Redneck. Uneducated. Gun loving. Racist. Anti-environment. Associating those words with 'white rural' is just as bad as associating all muslims with terrorism.

Sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

"But white people can't be hurting!" I have heard some of my well intended friends state. "Since they are white and in such a position of power they have no right to say they are victims, or they are hurt." While it is true that their race makes them in a position of power, that doesn't mean you can discredit the rest of their life experience. Maybe she is a farmer who has lost all her land to the industrial agricultural complex. Or maybe he is a war veteran who has no access to health care and is in dire need of help.

Discrediting that entire population is what decided the election this past week. I'm privileged enough to know many people from around this nation, and connected with three friends over Facebook who voted for Trump. None of them felt proud that they did so, but had three wildly different reasons:

  • As someone in the military, Hillary being a warmonger scares me.
  • Hillary's economic plans would cripple this nation.
  • Since abortion is murder, I couldn't morally vote for Hillary.

All three are avid environmentalists who are scared that he has picked a climate denier to lead the EPA. All three are loving, good people. But because of our two party system they voted for someone who stated "grab them by the pussy" among too many other horrible things to count (Two of the above friends are women btw).

Do I believe that by voting for Trump they were practicing unintentional bigotry? Yes. As someone in many positions of power I most likely will not be effected too much directly over the next four years. But those who don't have those positions of power in our society will suffer greatly.

I still don't know how to respond to this whole thing, but John Oliver says it better than I ever could.

So what do we do? How do we go forward as a society that is so hurt? So divided?

Now more than ever, we need action along with listening. Humility and solidarity.

I will continue to be racist, misogynist, elitist, and promote heteronormativity unintentionally. I won't do any of those willingly. Rather those actions will be done because of my own ignorance.

I hope that you, yes you, will call me out on when I am being a bigot; on this blog, over a meal, and during class discussions while I try to acknowledge them myself. And I invite you to ponder the ways that you are a bigot. Even if your intentions are always for the best, we can't start fighting bigotry until we acknowledge it in all forms.

I understand that this is a very emotional and hard subject, so as a reward for reaching the end here is a video on cat curling.