Reading Between The Lines: An Adventure In Privileged Communication

[TW: discussion of extreme homophobic and racist language]

As soon as an interview with Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty broke in GQ, a furor was raised over his comments on race and homosexuality.  I’ve watched white, straight people on facebook defend him all day.  The argument boils down to, “He didn’t say anything overtly hateful. In fact he talked about loving everyone no matter what their sinful choices might be.  So why is everyone upset?”

Welcome to privileged communication 101.  The encoded bigotry.  The erasure and silencing which pushes the burden of proof onto the oppressed.  “He didn’t say he hated you. He didn’t use any slurs. So prove to me that he shouldn’t have said what he said.”  The problem is, there are plenty of encoded ways to perpetuate hatred and bigotry without saying straight up, “I hate you.” You can even say “I love you” while still perpetuating hatred.  That’s because Phil Robertson wasn’t introducing a new kind of bigotry to us.  It’s not as though we live in a pansexual, open-minded, accepting society and Robertson is the first person to ever be bigoted against gay people.  He didn’t have to stand up and say, “You know that homosexuality thing that so many people do and everybody celebrates as just one more option on the sexual spectrum? Well I don’t think it’s right. I think it’s evil and disgusting and sinful” in order to be perpetuating bigotry.

…but wait! He actually DID say he thinks homosexuality is a sin, and he equated it to bestiality, terrorism, and alcoholism.  The only reason many people don’t find that shocking is because that’s been the default in our society for so long. We’ve become totally blind to bigotry because it’s the ocean we all swim in.  We think it’s acceptable for someone to perpetuated hatred as long as they throw some bible verses in to justify it.  “There’s a couple verses in a Stone Age text that are against homosexuality! Well obviously we must give bigots free reign to say anything they want, to fill our air with the kind of vitriol that makes LGBT people internalize that they are lesser and unworthy of life.”  Oh by the way? That’s what fundamentalist Christians who claim homosexuality is a sin are saying. Let’s be perfectly clear about what every “homosexuality is a sin” statement implies:  Their god offers eternal life, but unless homosexuals or bisexuals or pansexuals somehow magically become heterosexual, they deserve eternal death.  LGBT people, if their sexuality is “sinful”, deserve to die and suffer eternal torment, simply because of who they love.  The claim is that straightforward.

But you see what I mean about coded language?  When you hear the word “sin”, you don’t think of the implications.  You just put it in the category of “someone else’s religious beliefs.”  You, a straight person, can dismiss hatred that’s not directed at you because you forget what the phrase “homosexuality is a sin” actually means.  But LGBT people don’t forget.  Every time someone says “homosexuality is a sin,” it strikes at who they are.  It’s a harsh condemnation instead of a celebration.  It’s as unacceptable as racism and sexism and it needs to stop.  We finally need to admit that condemning LGBT people is not an innocent tenant of religious belief, but rather part of a system of oppression and hatred which leads to substantial harm and even suicide for those on the receiving end.

So yes, saying that homosexuality is a sin is hateful. Maybe you claim that you love LGBT people and want them to come to Christ and leave their sinful ways.  That’s not an acceptable use of the word “love.”  Love doesn’t require someone to change their very selves in order to receive a “redemption” you’ve somehow determined that they need.

Now let’s move on to the racism that people are trying to claim isn’t racist.  Robertson spouted off the following, probably the most privileged statement I’ve heard in a long time: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

I fail to see how any white person is allowed to erase the entire history of Civil Rights and claim that black people were perfectly happy under segregation and share-cropping.  Maybe nobody told Robertson to his face, “I don’t like white people. I feel oppressed.” (Might there be some reason why an oppressed minority in an area of the United States known for lynching and KKK action would present a fairly happy face to the world?  Might we not learn something from the violent backlash against the Civil Rights movement as to why it took so long for black people to stand up for their rights? And might we think that a white person isn’t the most reliable source on racism in the Deep South?)  As a side note, according to a simple Wikipedia search, the blues were invented before Robertson was even born.

During the time period Robertson was talking about, the black population in the South was migrating to Northern urban centers in unprecedented numbers. When six million members of the same race uproot their lives to move from an agrarian setting to some kind of factory job hundreds of miles away, we can assume that perhaps not all of them were perfectly happy with their lives in the South.  When I do my job, working with real estate title in Detroit, nearly every death certificate for an elderly person follows the same pattern: they are almost entirely African-American, born in the South, with some form of manual labor, typically in the auto industry, as their occupation.  The hundreds of death certificates I’ve seen in the past year and a half probably do not all belong to people who were perfectly happy and content in the South and just decided to move to Detroit for no reason.  Although, if we are to believe Robertson, each one of these people were just thrilled with their lives.

So then, after the Great Migration, we have the Civil Rights era.  Although black people were, according to Robertson, perfectly happy as sharecroppers, living in a segregated world, they rose up en masse to demand equal legal rights with white people.  Now we get to the really insidious part: Robertson implies that black people are only unhappy these days because of “entitlement” and “welfare.”  Are we still pretending this characterization of black people isn’t racist?  Are we still pretending that portraying black people as lazy & sponging off the government isn’t horrifically racist and untrue? Do I have to remind you that being treated as equals under the law isn’t “entitlement”?  Do I have to remind you that “welfare”, meaning government money as a social safety net, goes almost entirely to the elderly, children, the disabled, or to people busting their asses at a minimum wage job? Not to mention that quite a lot of “welfare” recipients are white, so although we might interrogate the racism and classism which trap people in poverty to begin with, making the question of welfare solely about black people makes no sense at all. (Also can we stop pretending the only reasonable choices for how society should look is “how it used to be” and “how it is now”?)

What Robertson is doing here is silencing.  He’s telling his version of a story, yes, but the story is about the feelings & thoughts of others.  And his narrative runs directly contrary to the narratives of black Americans who are his contemporaries.  There are plenty of first person accounts of the pre-Civil-Rights South where black people express something other than happiness with their lot in life. Robertson doesn’t get to say those peoples’ narratives are untrue.  He doesn’t get to simply state “they were happy” and hope that makes racial oppression disappear. He doesn’t get to impose his own anti-government construct on the entire story of black Americans in the South, and he doesn’t get make the wildly racist implication that welfare has turned black people into heathenish malcontents. (Nor by the way does he get to imply that an oppressed group he’s not part of should take any particular course of action whether it is making the best of their difficult circumstances or trying to change society by fighting against the oppression, especially not when his suggested solution, “be happy and godly,” encodes the idea that fighting against oppression is evil).

There’s more to break down in the article, like Robertson’s claim that Nazism, Shintoism, Communism, and Islamism are all equivalently morally reprehensible, and that all four were morally reprehensible because they lacked Jesus. So much is wrong sociologically, polticially, and religiously with that claim.  Then there’s the equation of “godly” (i.e. Bible-believing) people with “real” people, a common attitude among fundamentalists that is wildly dehumanizing to every other group of people in the world.

Finally, to those who are simply defending Robertson’s right to say whatever he wants with no repercussions: that’s exactly how privilege works.  He says things that are echoing and perpetuating harm and bigotry, and yet we can’t tell him he’s wrong? We can’t talk about why his statements are harmful and downright false? We can’t support his suspension over these statements? Yes, people can believe and say pretty much whatever they damn well please. But the rest of us, people targeted by their statements or people who just don’t think bigotry should run amok, also have a right to push back.  A company has the right to suspend an employee when that employee proudly espouses ridiculously bigoted ideas in a national magazine.

And may I remind everyone, please, that First Amendment rights only mean the government isn’t allowed to restrict your freedom of speech.  The people around you are totally allowed to push back when you reveal yourself to be racist and homophobic. Your company is allowed to not want to be associated with you anymore (exercising their right of freedom of association perhaps?).  People calling you a “bigot” after you say ridiculously bigoted things isn’t persecution or bullying, it’s pretty much just a statement of the truth.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Between The Lines: An Adventure In Privileged Communication

  1. Had a Christian tell me just yesterday that “society” had a right to say something was “wrong.” That “society” had a right to approve or disapprove of other people’s lives or private decisions and that why indeed “society”‘s approval and disapproval were vitally important to the functioning of other people’s private lives. It was almost pathetic that he–a white Christian man–thought “society” meant “white Christian men just like him” and that no other “society” had any validity to him. He was a “love the sin/hate the sinner” dipstick too, and saw absolutely nothing wrong with slicing off huge chunks of people’s humanity and integral facets to make them more acceptable and less troubling to “society”–meaning “people just like him.” He shut up real fast when I reminded him that real society–the real and vibrant society in the real and beautiful real world–was already deciding that people of color deserve a voice, that gay people deserve full human rights, and that women own their bodies rather than “people just like him.” Privilege is all about assuming that “society” is just “people like us.” It cannot hear dissent and it cannot brook disagreement. It especially cannot face reminders of Others who challenge their illusions. That’s why we need to keep talking. So I thank you for writing this. It was amazing to read.

    • Thank you 🙂 And very well said. The good thing is, our society has diversified to the point that no one can credibly plead ignorance anymore. If they are being sexist or homophobic or racist, they can’t hide it from anyone except themselves and people just like them.

      • Yep, same for that “love the sinner/hate the sin” nonsense. Anybody still saying that is just being willfully ignorant. The reality of how that phrase plays out upon the lives of those who get inflicted with it is all around us by now. The reality of that phrase’s indecency and hate isn’t something that can be ignored except with considerable effort. We’re surrounded by people who really want to stay ignorant, though. Their spiritual paychecks depend in a great sense upon their delusions being true. It takes a lot to knock those delusions loose. But hey I’m up for a challenge, and it looks like you are too. Sooner or later there’ll be just too many of us speaking the truth for them to ignore it.

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