Discriminating Tastes: What People Who Are Not Normal Might Know That You Don’t Know

October 2, 2009, 10:57 am

One of the things that prompting my last post about the restructuring of institutional benefits during a period of budget cutting was not, as some people assumed, that I think cutting faculty compensation is a viable way to save higher education. I don’t. Rather, my concern was that the failure to address compensation inequities already in place means that in a period where we might potentially rethink and repair such inequities, many people, in the name of radical opposition to The Man, can only draw the wagons closer around what already exists. More progressive change, they argue, is unrealistic in a crisis, and must be put off to a distant future, when utopia will be possible. This is the pattern of debates over national health care, and it is a belief currently prevalent at private institutions that have done for the select few what the state refuses to do for everyone (hence supporting the following equation: salaried labor = health care = virtue.) Worse, in my view, is that periods of “reform” enshrine prejudices that, in turn, become the standard for what is “normal.” This, as I discuss in that post, is one of the lessons of the New Deal.

That the current crisis might be related to structural inequities, and the skewed ethics that support such inequities, is hard for people to focus on (unless they are thinking about Wall Street) because they know best the world they already live in and take for granted. So imagine my delight when I discovered Richard Thompson Ford’s excellent piece in Slate las Wednesday, A Primer on Racism: The Many Uses Of The Word And How Legit They Are. It is a must-read for anyone who enters the thorny waters of trying to talk openly about the question of bias, a conversation few people wish to have. (This is the vast majority of people, in my experience, progressive and conservative.) Ford usefully points out that the form of racism where someone will simply state, categorically, that white people are smarter, better, cleaner, more capable, or more law-abiding than people of color is rarely apparent nowadays, even though that is the stereotype invoked when the term “racist” is used. Being stereotyped, and stigmatized, is why people so resent and fear being labeled as racist, sexist or homophobic, and why, in turn they don’t like to risk discussing discrimination at all.

So what, according to Ford, are we not talking about when we are not talking about racism? Most dominant, he argues, is institutional racism “when often the racial inequity is unintended” but the injustice is contained in “practices that contain built-in headwinds for minority candidates.” Or we might be talking about environmental racism, in which the “headwinds” are toxic living conditions that are descended from segregationist practices and are perpetuated by the lack of political power that poor and working class people have. Ford also notes the importance of cultural bias and misunderstanding that is largely class-based and can function as an intra-group dynamic. He debunks the notion, loudly touted on the right, that “reverse racism” — prejudice against white people – is an equally serious problem. Rather, he argues, bias against white people, as a group, is the property of the isolated cultural nationalist, and has only become imagined as a pervasive issue because of the political machinations of right-wingers seeking to mobilize white voters through fear.

While I would argue with or elaborate on some of these points, I thought this essay deserved attention for its clarity and thoughtfulness. It also caused me to think about encounters I have had in which people that I do and do not know well have felt the need to assert (for no apparent reason) that they are without prejudice and regard everyone as similar. However, the fact that I see race, gender and sexuality as live dynamics in our contemporary world demonstrates that I, myself, am bigoted or that any mention of these dynamics contains an implicit accusation of bigotry.

One underlying difficulty, from my point of view, is that people rarely speak honestly about the differences among us, actual and perceived. They like to discuss even less the power relations structured by differences, so they become hysterical very quickly, often lobbing defenses prematurely when no accusation of any kind has been made. For example, very few of the people I know are “homophobic” in the strictest sense of the term, even though they fear that I think they are. They do not fear what I am, they don’t think that I am a sicko, they aren’t worried about leaving the kiddies or wife alone with me, and many are actively educating their children to understand that queer people populate their world and need to be valued. I very rarely accuse someone of being homophobic, in part because people find it deeply shaming and it is a real conversation stopper, but mostly because what is going on is usually a great deal more complex in the way Ford points out.

And yet, when I come to a real difference of opinion with a person, s/he often finds it necessary to assert not only that s/he is not homophobic, but that s/he believes that I am just the “same” as s/he is.

This is where things start to break down. To my mind, one pernicious legacy of the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s is the notion that the opposite of invidious hierarchy is the equality of similarity. Corollaries to this are the assumption of those in the dominant group that:

a) People in subordinate groups want to be similar to “normal” people in the dominant group;
b) That having technical access to certain privileges means that those privileges (and the institutions that grant those privileges) are consonant with broader notions of social, economic and cultural justice;
c) That equality exists when “we” all accept the notion, theoretically, that we are all the same and want the same things;
d) That a continuing suspicion of the dominant group by historically subordinate groups is unreasoning and without foundation.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s much-discussed pronouncement about the insights of “a wise Latina woman” coming from the “richness of her experiences” were not misguided. A racial perspective does matter, not because it is information other people don;t have, but because it is a way of knowing the world that other people can acquire if they try. Instead of being derided and suppressed, Sotomayor’s insight needed to be amplified to take into account a peculiar modern condition where inequalities in the law have been, in many cases, overturned and exposed, but the society and belief systems that these old laws created has not.

Hence, people fear being called racist or homophobic both because it stigmatizes and mischaracterizes them as someone who is actively bigoted (as opposed to still learning), and because it makes them feel misunderstood: they sincerely believe in justice and equality. But what they often fail to understand is how the institutions they hold dear are, in their own minds, synonymous with what also constitutes a natural and normal world. And this causes them to miss what some of us believe are structural inequalities.

Take marriage. One of the things that worries me about gay marriage is not that a lot of
gay people long to be more similar to, or even appear to be exactly the same as, straight people. That has always been true in one way or another. It’s that gay marriage reinforces the falsehood that everyone has access to the same privileges if they are willing to make the “same” commitments. That marriage delivers only a simulacrum of similarity, even to straight people, and that there is no logical reason to make it a gateway to privilege, is a conversation that gay marriage has made it more difficult to have. Consequently, that marriage represents the pinnacle of ethical commitment to another person is an assumption by which the unmarried are stigmatized.

One might also point to loving commitments between children and adults, in which legal custody of a child is firmly viewed by most Americans as the greatest ethical commitment possible. Commitments outside that legal and/or biological relation, however deeply felt, are viewed as a degraded version of this bond. Again, let us look to gay and lesbian people who now parent. In this case, technical inclusion of non-traditional parents has allowed the institution itself to remain a socially, legally and economically privileged site. It used to be that gay people were all perceived as potential child molesters (that was homophobia); now we seem to all be, in the eyes of our friends, potential parents. This is not homophobia, but it’s not progressive either: it means that queer people who do not own children are now subject to similar stigma that child free heterosexuals are, and their relations to children they love are not taken seriously as an ethical commitment.

What is really peculiar is that neither institution — marriage or parenting — is as accessible or as stable as straight people seem to think, much as economic mobility for people of color is not as simple as white people think. The great publicity attendant to lesbian parenting, and the great visibility of gay men and lesbians parenting in a few places, has somehow delivered the misimpression that the only reason many older queers didn’t have children was that we were barred from doing so. Now that we are not, the reasoning goes, we can freely exercise what is a natural and normal desire for all (wo)men. Now this is a problem, in part because it leaves intact the notion that all normal people like children, and that wanting to parent is the natural way that all human beings will want to establish an intimate bond with a child. But it also occludes two facts of life for queer people who do wish to parent. One is that that there are huge hurdles — medical, fiscal and legal –that face lesbians and gays when it comes to obtaining children, either by gestation or by adoption. These hurdles are faced by some heterosexual couples, but not by the vast majority of them. Second, many parents still lose custody of and access to their children because they are gay, lesbian and/or transsexual; and legally, a child can only have two parents, so that if all parties to the conception are known to each other, at least one person in the deal must agree to terminate and/or not seek custody. Furthermore, as my attorney recently explained, no adoption agency will knowingly and officially deliver a child into the hands of a queer person, although many agencies, domestic and foreign, operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, and individual judges will perform these and second party adoptions in jurisdictions that permit them.

The privileging of parenting has another effect that few people are aware of: discrimination in health benefits. In health plans such as mine, operated by Cigna, there are substantial allowances made for the conception and bearing of children. One of these is for fertility treatments, which are time-consuming, painful and expensive, and I am sure entirely worth it for people who wish to have children and have had trouble conceiving on their own. But what is explicitly excluded from our health plan is gender reassignment. Nominally, this is because there is some dispute as to whether wanting to change your gender is a “medical” condition. But I would also ask, if being infertile is the normal condition of your body, and you are otherwise perfectly healthy, what makes that a medical condition?

This kind of dispute is not about money, and it is not about personal prejudice, although such claims are easily made and believed. But the reason that is so is because of how institutions recognize the grounds for legitimate personal happiness, reward what they perceive as good decisions and by doing so, enshrine them as normal. And yet, just as one might argue that no one needs gender reassignment, it could be argued that no one needs a child. Now that we no longer farm the soil to sustain ourselves, saying that one “needs” a child expresses a complex set of desires that are social and emotional. In fact, much as a person born a man might wish to fulfill her felt destiny by becoming a woman, people born as children seek to live out a particular narrative of fulfillment and happiness by transforming themselves into parents.

How much more progressive and rational it might be to frame all of these things as desires that offer happiness and fulfillment, not to mention the possibility that one might be truly loved. For some people, it might be produced by having a child; for others, it might be surgical gender reassignment, the first stages of which are actually less expensive than a round of in vitro treatments. And for others, it might be getting their teeth straightened in middle age, anti-psychotic medication, or having a poorly repaired cleft palate remodeled by a skilled plastic surgeon.

I compare these things not to be absurd, but to provide graphic examples of how institutions structure inequities by judging some desires legitimate, figuring them as “normal,” and persuading all of us that if we adhere to these values, and not ask for anything else, we can all be normal and happy. As Ford argues in his piece, old inequities have not disappeared, but we are in an era in which discrimination often presents as the absence of inclusion rather than the active determination to exclude. Hence, racism and homophobia, as concepts, no longer do the work we want them to do, particularly in progressive communities that have gotten the message — but not quite.

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