People respond to being “called out” for prejudice, ableism, sexism, bigotry, etc, in many different ways. I won’t pretend to know why – I don’t. But I do know that in my life, I’ve seen many reactions. The least common, sadly, was recognition of the problem along with correction of the problem.
Note that all of these can apply to organizations as well as individuals – and that organizations are even more likely to do one of the wrong things. Here’s what I’ve seen when people are “called out” on bigotry:
1. I’ll call these the “appeasers”. These people do as little as they believe necessary just to get the person who called them out to shut up. So the person might make a small, token apology and promise to do better next time – without any hard action – hoping that by the time next time comes up, you will be long gone.
2. I’ll call this group the “hurt toes”. A lot of time, the first response to being told that a person is bigoted is a complaint about the way they were told they were bigoted. Now there probably already was some sort of harm, or someone was really concerned about a deep harm that the person was about to do – but this isn’t important. What’s important is that you didn’t tell them they were a bigot in a nice way. This leads to either ignoring the request completely or digging in deeper, while blaming the person who made the request and their “rudeness” for their new, more bigoted, position.
3. The next group is the “under appreciated”. This group feels that they have already went out of their way to include others, so any additional requests or comments is too much. Can’t people be happy with what they already did? This is particularly common with ADA requests, such as a person asking for a sign language interpreter and getting a response along the lines of “We already have wheelchair entrances that cost $500,000 to build. We allow service animals at the meeting. We had to turn off our strobe lights for you people. We hired a cripple to greet people. What the fuck else do you want us to do? Are you people never happy?” Note that most commonly the things they feel under appreciated for are things that perhaps nobody involved even needed, or which are basic legal requirements.
4. Then there is the “I’m only human”. In this group, people respond to any comment about bigotry by essentially saying they are powerless to prevent it. It might be something like a change in language (“I’ve been using that term forever.”) or something that more complex (“we can’t be responsible for only having stairs to access the meeting, it’s not our facility”). Regardless, it’s likely something that is within the power of the person, either directly (such as using respectful language) or indirectly (such as caring and finding solutions when a facility is inaccessible).
5. The “sliders” are people who fear the future, usually with an absurd, extreme twist. This is exceedingly common in disability accommodation requests – “I know giving you the option to take that test using a pencil instead of a pen is a small thing, but if we let you get that without making you jump through tons of hoops, then someone might come in and want hundreds of thousands of dollars of building modifications we can’t be sure they need.” It’s also very common with immigrant and LGBT issues – typically a fear that in twenty years, they won’t be able to speak their own language, marry an opposite-sex partner, or simply be the majority. Usually the fears are unfounded and illogical.
6. Another group is the “litigaphobic”. These people fear litigation above all. Now, you would think that would encourage them to follow the law, but typically not. Typically they are a subtype of slider who is fearful that if they do the right thing for you, they won’t be able to not do what everyone else wants without fear of a lawsuit. Or, they’ll develop complex worries, such as, “If we let that developmentally disabled older child participate in this program, we’re opening ourselves up for lawsuits if a younger child gets hurt.” Typically these complex worries have no basis in reality. They will ironically violate laws to avoid being sued.
7. The “equalitarians” want everyone to be equal, or so they say (and often believe). That means the rules should be the same for everyone, even when that is hardly equality. They love the phrase “Special Rights.” They will enforce rules that prevent equality, while claiming anything else would be unequal. For instance, they might tell a mother, “If I let you pump breast milk a couple times a week, then I’m essentially penalizing others who don’t do that, since they have to take their breaks at different times. So it’s not right to do this.” This group is also very opposed to disability rights, since they see a disability accommodation not as a way of allowing equal participation from everyone, but rather as something the disabled person gets that others didn’t (even though the others very likely wouldn’t want or need it).
8. The “historians” seek a continuity with their idea of the past (which is not always what the past was). So, if they or their organization always did something a certain way, that proves that change is unnecessary to them. After all, if it was necessary, they would have done it from, apparently, day one.
9. The “I have satisfied customers” can’t see how what they did is bigoted or discriminatory. So it isn’t, and that’s final. For instance, a store owner might say, “I don’t know what you mean by saying that my store discriminates. None of the frequent customers to my second floor location say they can’t get up the stairs. I asked them.” The people they don’t discriminate are happy, so they don’t see any problems.
10. The “it’s not bigoted to…” people are probably the most intellectually honest of the people listed so far. They are the only ones so far who don’t try to justify doing the wrong thing for reasons other than just “I don’t want to.” We see these people in our political discorse – “It’s not bigoted to say that gays are child molesters and that they can’t raise kids well.” At least you know where you stand with these people – you know they are bigots, and they are in fact happy in their bigotry, without the need to justify their bigotry. Ironically, they are the easiest to deal with, but they are also the group that groups 1 through 9 above fear being lumped into more than anything else. When you tell a slider they are a bigot, they immediately hear “You’re telling me I’m like that crazy pastor from Kansas who protests soldiers funerals!” No, we’re not. We know your motivation, though still wrong, is different.
11. So that gives us the 11th group – the “how dare you call me a bigots!” This group believes the greatest wrong that can be done to someone is to say they are a bigot. And, like the “hurt toes,” they now focus on the offense you’ve caused them rather then the wrong they’ve done.
12. The “justifier.” This person justifies what they did, based on some attribute of the victim or society. They typically say that anyone could have done what they did, so it wasn’t really bad after all. Rather than seeing ignorance of something as a mistake that they can correct, they respond that, essentially, you shouldn’t expect someone to change since there are ignorant people. You might hear phrases such as “lots of people use that term” or “if a blind person can’t access this business, they shouldn’t be going out without help.”
13. Finally, we have the “repentant.” The repentant is a group of people who “turned from their wicked ways.” This typically involves both a real, actual apology (without conditions, justifications, or explanations of why it wasn’t that bad). Unlike the “appeasers”, the apology is then followed by clear action. Through the whole process, the involvement of people hurt is sought (as someone to learn from, not someone to convince not to sue them, or to convince that bigotry/discrimination didn’t really take place). This is a rare breed of person and should be cherished when found.
Did I miss any?