By: Surita Parmar
The “accidental” bigot is educated and informed. His or her social circle is comprised of diverse individuals who represent many ethnicities, and who are members of the LGBT community. “Accidental” bigots are pro-choice, refer to themselves as feminists or supporters of feminism, and boycott television shows, movies, and comedy acts that promote rape culture. They attend the local Gay Pride parade every year, and frequently announce their support for gay marriage through Facebook status updates and Twitter posts.
In their mind, it’s acceptable for them to refer to other women as bitches, c–ts, sluts, and whores every now and then—not in a misogynistic way of course (or so they think). They would never, ever say anything “really” racist like the N-word, but feel comfortable referring to their friends as “n—as” as they flash gang signs. And while they know that the homophobic slur “f—-t” is never acceptable, they have no issue throwing around pejoratives like “homo”, “dyke”, “tranny”, and even “f-g”. They feel that because they are first generation Westerners, or the children or grandchildren of first generation Westerners, they can’t be prejudiced—they incorporate slurs into their vernacular to sound “funny” and “edgy”, not promote hatred. All things considered, they should have free rein to say the odd politically incorrect jibe without being taken to task, right?
Wrong. There is no such thing as “accidental” bigotry—hence the quotation marks. Pejoratives are hurtful and offensive, and it’s never okay to use them.
Well…never say never. I’m not sure that television series like Roots, that take place during antebellum era America, or Joy Kogawa’s critically acclaimed novel Obasan, about the ghettoization of Japanese Canadians during World War 2, would be so accurate in conveying their respective historical settings if they were devoid of racial slurs. The movie Mean Girls effectively depicts bullying and inherentsexism through its young characters slut-shaming each other with insults
like “skank” and “whore”. Comedian Louis CK was recently criticized for a series of tweets insulting Sarah Palin, but his typical brand of humour incorporates sexism, racism, and homophobia into comedy routines in a manner that lampoons bigotry. The South Park
Apologies to Jesse Jackson, and The F Word, which feature racist and homophobic pejoratives, are controversial but clear in their objective to open constructive discussion about slurs and hate mongering. Context is key in that non-hurtful intent must be clearly delineated.
On the flip side, “accidental” bigots expect others to know that they don’t mean to be offensive. Their provocative comments are often inside jokes directed at friends of a certain gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, who understand that they don’t intend to be hurtful. But others who overhear their remarks, who aren’t aware of the history and relationship they share with their acquaintances, could construe the things they say as hate mongering and discriminatory. Moreover, phrases like “that’s retarded” or “that’s so gay”, that “accidental” bigots don’t mean in a literal sense and employ to convey general frustration, propagate the association of marginalized demographics with negative connotations. Another “accidental” bigot tendency is to maintain that slurs like “cracker” and “redneck” aren’t racist because they don’t share the same historical significance as the N-word. Which, of course, isn’t true. It doesn’t matter where a pejorative sits on a sliding scale of offensiveness—any term rooted in labelling a specific demographic with contempt and hostility is egregious, and cultivates an environment of barriers and tension.
Many of us are guilty of being “accidental”
bigots from time to time, and probably don’t even realize it. It likely explains why “accidental” bigots who are confronted for their behaviour typically respond with disbelief, bewilderment, frustration, and the assumption that they are being unfairly targeted. Why come down on people who mean no harm when far more dangerous individuals like David
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Duke continue to actively disseminate hatred? Perhaps because “accidental” bigots have the potential to grow and better themselves, where the David Dukes of the world seem beyond hope. Nobody should ever use the misconduct of others as positive reinforcement for their own actions, as it’s a slippery slope that can lead to worse behaviour. It’s also important for everyone to be aware of the things they say and how they are interpreted, and take accountability if they are misconstrued.
So what else can be done to combat bigotry? Films and television shows could be encouraged to increase the portrayal of marginalized members of society as real people instead of caricatures and punch lines. And above all, we should all continue to encourage positive dialogue about combating slurs, prejudice, and discrimination.
Surita Parmar is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. In 2011, she graduated from the Canadian Film Centre.