Preview: the views below are intended to help people try to have constructive discussions around prejudice, and to learn how to understand other people so we can all share our experience. It’s kinda long, talks about prejudice, and insists on established definitions of a few words that people often either use or interpret incorrectly.
Part of the problem with the way any kind of X-phobia or X-ist term gets thrown around the Internet is that people aren’t working off the same definitions. In a lot of cases, people shift definitions around to suit their causes, but I think the majority of cases are just people who have one definition in their heads, and nobody bothers to explain what these words actually mean.
(By which I mean that people have many times attempted to explain this, but if I’ve learned anything from the Internet, it’s that there is always someone who won’t see something until the tenth or hundredth time you say it.)
So here goes.
To be perfectly clear to start here, X-phobia stands in for transphobia, homophobia, etc., not arachnophobia, triskaidekaphobia, or any other clinical pathological fear. X-ist stands for racist or sexist, not dentist, anthropologist, or any other profession. We’re talking about conditions that make people uncomfortable with other demographic groups, or behaviors that cause harm to those groups.
First myth: “X-phobia means you hate/fear every X person.”
Here’s Wikipedia on transphobia: “Transphobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward transgender or transsexual people, or toward transsexuality.”
And homophobia: “Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).”
Note the important word in both definitions: “range.” Of course there are those frothing bigots who want all gays put in concentration camps; they’re homophobes. But then there’s also the guy who says, “I have no problem with gay people as long as I don’t have to see two dudes holding hands or kissing.” That’s a homophobic statement too. Or the person who says, “It’s perfectly fine for them to have those relationships, but I don’t think they should be allowed to adopt children.” In transphobia, you have: “As far as I’m concerned, whatever biology you were born with is your gender, period.” (Why do you get to define someone else’s identity for them?) Even a comment like “hey, if we can just identify as whatever we want, can I identify as rich?” is transphobic. It’s attempting to make a joke by trivializing the serious identity struggle that trans people go through, and it’s propagating a belief–that gender transition is a whimsical choice rather than something deeply felt for years, that there’s no professional counseling involved, that someone could just wake up one day and think “I want to be a different gender, or maybe neither, or both.” That’s as pernicious as the old saw about people choosing to be gay. That belief is what leads people to propose laws about what bathroom trans people can use, laws that actually harm people and make life more difficult for them.
All of these things encompass X-phobia. If someone says, “Hey, that comment you made is X-phobic,” it’s not constructive to say, “No; I don’t hate X people.” That’s not (necessarily) what you’re being accused of. You’re being told that your comment exposes some underlying misunderstanding of what this group’s experience is and/or reinforces prejudices. Here’s the thing: we don’t often know what our prejudices are until we examine them, and we often don’t examine them until someone calls us out on them. We inherit our understanding of the world from our parents and shape it with our friends, and if none of our friends include someone from X group, it’s easy to hold on to prejudices we don’t even realize we had.
So when someone points out a problem with a comment you made, they’re giving you an opportunity to learn. It’s constructive to say, “Whoa. I totally didn’t get that. Can you tell me what I did wrong?” Or “Wow, yeah, that was years ago and I was dumb then. I’m really sorry about that.” Are the people pointing out problems always right? Nah. But it’s also not constructive to run back to YOUR friends to ask “is this really X-phobic?” because they’re the ones who helped shape your worldview in the first place. If you really want to expand your world, listen to the people who are offering their advice.
Second myth: “I have X friends! I can’t be X-ist” (and the associated “therefore nothing I say is X-ist!”)
I thought we got rid of this back when it was “hey, some of my best friends are black.” Again: X-ist doesn’t mean you hate all X. When you befriend someone, you see them as a person; all the things that make up their identity are there, but they’re your friend first. And so your friend becomes the exception in your mind. Maybe you start saying “hey, my friend has surpassed this stereotype so why can’t all X people?” Maybe your default is still to believe that all X people are a certain way until you meet and get to know them. Or maybe you just haven’t talked to your friend about these beliefs, about their experience being a member of this group, so you feel like the simple fact that you enjoy the company of one person in this group means that you can say anything about them. Trust me: you can’t.
Third myth: “Hey, this one X person said that comment isn’t offensive, therefore it’s not X-ist.”
This one gets trotted out a lot. Republicans are very good at finding African-American conservatives to speak out against affirmative action, a program which has helped many minority candidates get an education or an opportunity denied to them by systemic racism in our private sector and educational system. The Washington, D.C. football franchise often highlights one of the fifteen percent of Native Americans who aren’t offended by their name (the percentage varies according to what poll and what year you’re looking at). But look: just because you can find one person who isn’t offended doesn’t mean that the twenty people who are offended are wrong. Is there some important truth behind your remark or behavior that supersedes the right of those people to feel like accepted members of society? It’s kind of like when a magazine writes, “Furry fandom is all about sex” (this was more common in the 90s than it is now), and they get that one furry to say, “yeah, pretty much everything I do in the fandom is sexual.” So…the rest of us should shut up about that comment because there’s at least one person who says it’s okay?
The counterargument is “What if there’s just one person who objects to everything? Should we listen to them?” I’m talking common sense here. What’s acceptable in society is constantly changing, and what’s acceptable in one community might not be acceptable in another; what’s acceptable in your community today might be different from what was acceptable five or ten years ago. If you want to keep hanging out in a community, listen to what its members are telling you. Doesn’t mean that every time a single person complains about something you say that you have to change it. But as I said above, when you get close to one of these sensitive areas, it’s always worth examining the things you say and do in public. You might come away thinking, “nah, those people are over-reacting.” But you might also say, “you know what, I still don’t see it, but I’m gonna take their word for it and try harder to understand.”
Look, ultimately all I’m saying is that if someone tells you that you’re speaking/acting with prejudice, if they say you’ve said something X-phobic or X-ist, don’t snap back that you’re not a bad person. Take it as a chance to prove you’re not by examining the words you say and the beliefs that drive them. It’s hard to put aside beliefs you’ve had for years without questioning, but the longer you put it off, the harder it gets. And if you start, if you make that initial effort, you’ll find it easier and easier to go on, and you’ll be open to a new world built on a more solid foundation. I’ve had that experience and it didn’t kill me. It won’t kill you either, and it might make the world a better place.
(And also, if you’re trying to show someone that what they’re saying/doing IS X-phobic/X-ist, don’t wield those words like clubs. Be patient, be reasonable, and try to separate the statement from the person. “Your statement is transphobic” is a lot easier to start a conversation with than “you’re a transphobe.”)