In my class, I have been ruminating on the idea of Beneficial Bigotry. I use this term to describe instances where individuals cite an awareness of bigoted ideas that are out there in the public, and offer advice given these parameters. In other words: women telling other women to lose weight, because there is weight stigma; lighter skinned folks telling darker skinned folks to stay out of the sun, because there is a stigma against dark skin. A owner of an NBA team telling his mixed race girlfriend that she should not broadcast or promote that she spends time with Black people because of what other people might think. Each of these examples features a focus outwards: I am not bigoted, but the culture and the world we live in are bigoted, and you need to take that into account when making decisions.
For many this is a painful interaction, especially when it comes from loved ones or a member of your in-group. We often have little recourse in these situations because it is coming from someone we care about and they often claim to have our best interests at heart. Beneficial Bigotry can manifest in any group: race (Dark Girls), gender (The Mask You Live In), sexuality (see homonormative or promoting “straight-acting gay folk”; to the Florida man who ripped a pink headband off of a 2-year-old boy and called him a “faggot” to help him), age (Cameron Diaz on the “Anti-Aging” movement), occupation (weight bias in science), and more. I began considering this term when, after a high point in my first year as an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University, this happened.
In the conversations after that interaction, I wondered whether this was a microaggression. I had a difficult time categorizing it as a microaggression, because there appeared to be no aggression in the actual question. Furthermore, he was an older man from a different generation wherein those statements were seen as helping. This is a common coping strategy, to rationalize the person’s behavior given their motivations. We see this in the conversation between V. Stivanio and Donald Sterling. In addition, we are talking about an 80-year-old Jewish man, born in 1934 and living his childhood through WWII. He is very aware of stigma and discrimination; he even changed his own name to appear less Jewish to have a greater chance of succeeding in law and business.
However, for those of us living in this so-called post-racial society, any manifestation of racist associations is called out as overt racism. In my opinion, this unfortunately simplifies a very complex topic and prevents us from really engaging with the endemic associations in our culture that perpetuate these ideas. Furthermore, when we describe Sterling as an elderly racist, a member of a generation which is rapidly shrinking, we neglect to recognize that these thoughts are held by people much younger than Sterling. Stories populate the discourse including…
- 4 White male students at San Jose State University placing a bike lock around the neck of their Black “friend,” lock him in a closet, and shout racial slurs.
- A noose hung around the iconic statue of James Meredith at Ol’ Miss.
- A grandmother in New Jersey raising her 2 biracial grand children had her car tagged with “N!gger Lover.”
- Racial bias demonstrated in yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks in Oregon.
These incidents demonstrate that our culture is still steeped in associations that we refuse to acknowledge, and therefore refuse to actively combat. These associations result in Vogue covers that mimic racist reference of a time past (August, 2006) and give opportunity to beneficial bigots, who may perceive themselves to be helping the target by actively vocalizing things that the rest of culture refuses to.
It is important to note that sharing experiences can be very different from beneficial bigotry. In the example following the Wilmore interview, the older man was providing explicit instructions regarding navigating the world, while perpetuating through inaction, the racist world in which we live. On other occasions, where someone has shared their own experiences with me and described what worked for them without explicitly telling me what I should do. It is this imposition on personal choice that continues to perpetuate these bigoted attitudes and ideas.
I think that this distinction is important as it provides a greater understanding of what we consider to be bigoted (e.g., racist, sexist, homophobic). We often disregard any thoughts that feel like they are coming from a bigoted place to immediately call the person bigoted. The problem with this strategy is that in doing so, we focus on the individual and avoid the conversation about what makes us uncomfortable.