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The On-going Justification of Casual Bigotry

Updated on March 23, 2012

Do you ever wonder how people can say insanely bigoted stuff with a straight face? If you ever find yourself defending a racist, sexist, or homophobic 'joke' with any of these justifications, you should probably stop and really examine your attitudes and how you're coming across. Who are you making comfortable with your remarks? Bigots, or victims?


Excuse: "It's just a joke"

Also heard in iterations such as:

  • Don't be so sensitive
  • You're over-reacting!
  • What, you don't have a sense of humor?
  • It's not (racist/ sexist/ homophobic), it's a joke!

In feminist circles, the repeated use of this excuse is is called gaslighting, which is defined as:

“Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. This is done by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.”

"It's just a joke," is the type of excuse that can only be used from a position of privilege. Why? Because if a discriminated group uses terms or jokes normally used to deride or "other" them, then they are reclaiming and owning such terms, and would likely not have to defend the use. They are usually easily and inherently recognized as part of the group, as being able to identify with the reclamation of a discriminatory term.

Someone speaking from a place of privilege, though, does not have that ability to own and reclaim the term. Derogative terminology is applied from a place of privilege, and the reclaiming of such language is a form of taking power away from that privilege. To use blatantly sexist, racist, or homophobic terminology from a place of privilege and claim you're "just joking" not only highlights your bigotry, it highlights your ignorance. If you're curious about the privilege in your life, check out these checklists:

Coming from a place of privilege is not intrinsically bad, by the way. It just means there are certain things you are able to take for granted; so for granted that you often don't realize the effect privilege has on your life.

Excuse: "It's not me!"

Also heard in iterations such as:

  • I'm just repeating this; I don't believe it.
  • Someone told me this joke, it's not me.
  • I just found it and thought it was cute/ funny/ clever.
  • It was forwarded to me, but it's not mine.

These are pretty clear examples of shifting the blame. It's the old, "The devil made me do it!" argument, or pointing the finger at your sister and hoping no-one will remember that you didn't have to repeat it.

Some things just don't need to be shared. If someone tells you a racist/ sexist/ homophobic joke, and you know it's socially unacceptable and insulting . . . don't repeat it. If you see an offensively racist bumper sticker and decide to sell it, don't prevaricate and try to place the blame on someone else. Sure, somebody else may have come up with the awful idea, but you spread it further.

Basically, this argument doesn't fool anyone. We all know you had a choice in whether or not to perpetuate the bigotry, and you chose to. Lying about your motives only serves to make you look like a dishonest bigot who's ashamed of your bigotry. You have two options:

  • Proudly announce you're a hateful bigot, Westboro Baptist Church-style
  • Stop forwarding/ repeating/ distributing bigotry and hate

Excuse: The dictionary definition is . . .

Also heard in iterations such as:

  • The dictionary defines (offensive term) as . . .
  • Originally, the term derived from the word . . .
  • Technically, (offensive term) means (obsolete definition), not (popular definition), so I'm just calling you (obsolete definition). example: "Technically, 'faggot' means 'bundle of sticks', not homosexual, so I'm just calling you a bunch of sticks. How's that an insult?"

This one could also be termed the "you're misinterpreting" defense. Basically the claim is that anyone offended by the terminology and/ or joke is just ignorant. They don't understand the technical meaning of the term under question, and it's really all just a big misunderstanding. This is a particularly convenient excuse, given that most words (at least in the English language) have multiple definitions. Why, calling someone a very nice person can be meant as an insult, according to an older definition!

"late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see un-) + stem of scire "to know."" -- Online Etymology Dictionary

It's all linguistic wordplay that opts to ignore the current popular definition. It's a particularly annoying excuse because linguistically and technically, they may be correct about a specific definition -- they're just ignoring all other usages, and if you point out that they've chosen to use an obsolete or rare definition, the common response is a unique form of gaslighting and shifting the blame: claiming it is merely your ignorance that has caused you to be offended.

Excuse: The Special Snowflake

Also heard in iterations such as:

  • S/he's not even black! S/he's got a mixture of races; s/he chose his/her nationality!
  • Oh, well, (subject of joke) isn't like other girls/ gays/ racial minorities, so it's not an insult.
  • (Subject of joke) chose to be (insult), so they can't be upset if we pick on them.

Here, the insulter tries to placate the insulted party or alleviate the impact of the joke by singling them out as unique, special, and different. You've probably experienced it, or heard it, or possibly even perpetuated it, because it's super easy to do -- invoke stereotype, distance yourself/ someone you're talking to from it. It's almost like a backhanded compliment.

  • Wow, you get ready really fast! Most girls take forever doing their hair and make-up, but not you -- and you look fantastic!
  • I never would have guessed you're gay. You seem so straight!
  • I'm glad you're not like most black guys. I don't think I could stand eating KFC every time we went out.
  • Huh, you're actually really polite for an atheist.

The whole idea is that this "special snowflake" shouldn't be offended, and should even agree with you, because they're not like the stereotypes about "their kind" -- complete disregarding, of course, that in order to differentiate this one special snowflake, you're first tearing down an essential aspect of their identity.

Excuse: My friends are _____, so I'm not bigoted!

Also heard in iterations such as:

  • "I have a black roommate/ boyfriend/ girlfriend!"
  • "I've got lots of gay friends, and they know my opinions!"
  • "My (relative) is gay!"
  • "I'm not sexist; I love women!"
  • "My (relative) is dating/ married to a black person!"

This is normally used as the final fallback excuse, the grand defense: I have gay friends, therefore I am not homophobic, and my remarks are not either. They may appear to be homophobic, but I have gay friends so your argument is moot. Here's a classic example of this argument:

"I call them my own kids. I’ve helped black families…to guide them in the right direction. Paintball is one of these things. We like to laugh and have a good time. That’s our way of life.” -- Paula Smith, seller of the "Don't re-nig: 2012" bumper stickers.

It plays out the same in every area of bigotry -- racism, sexism, religious belief, etc. Your bigoted statement may appear to be bigoted, but that's only because they are not aware you have special friends who have signaled their approval for all these statements and are willing to vouch for your good intentions.

Another way to look at it is through this quote about rape jokes and rape culture: If you crack a rape joke, you're perpetuating rape culture. You're making rapists feel comfortable, not rape victims.

In the same way, when you crack a racist joke -- or sexist or homophobic or transphobic joke -- think for a minute about which culture you're perpetuating. You're making the bigots feel comfortable, like their views are normal -- widely accepted and shared. You are perpetuating a culture of bigotry, hatred, and fear.


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    • vimier profile image

      vimier 6 years ago from Chicago, IL, United States

      This is a very well written article. Interesting read to say the least.