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Racism, sexism and homophobia: Which prejudice is worse?

By Matthew Beetar

Racism is more of a problem than sexism. But sexism is more of a problem than xenophobia, which is less of a problem — occasionally — than homophobia. Transphobia we deal with sometimes, and ageism — what is that even? And dealing with ableism — let’s not take this “reconciliation” thing too far.

Ordering which form of prejudice is worse is repulsive and ridiculous — from an ethical perspective and from a practical perspective. But unfortunately it’s something that I often see, read, and experience. It’s a disturbing trend that shapes strategies of debate, engagement and action, which has a direct impact on what we experience in everyday life.

I have a problem with how we speak about and act on issues about privilege, power, “transformation” and “reconciliation” in South Africa.

Yes, racism and white privilege are real problems. We need to deal with these urgently.

Yes, sexism and male privilege are real problems. We need to deal with these urgently.

But coming up with interventions that focus on making (individual) people “less racist” or “less sexist”, or implementing national solutions that promote specific identity categories over others in the name of progress, acts to effectively privilege some experiences over others and risks pushing already marginalised realities further into the peripheries of society.

The issue, for me, is that we’re unwilling to have the difficult discussion that people with privilege can simultaneously be disprivileged; that people who are the targets of social discrimination can also be discriminators themselves.

That someone can be the victim of daily racist assaults and can also be a perpetrator of homophobia is often ignored. That someone who has internalised sexism as a shocking norm can be in a position of social power and exert that power in the form of transphobia or xenophobia makes us uncomfortable to think about. That an individual who is the recipient of regular homophobic abuse can be misogynistic and racist makes “rights movements” uneasy.

But surely if our shared goal is a truly democratic society, where equality and mutual respect are enshrined values, all instances of prejudice are pressing?

So while we’re rightly concerned with addressing racism or sexism in the country, because these are widespread and frequent, and while we need to have priorities and focuses, this cannot come at the expense of the lives of other citizens.

Central to this, then, is that when we address racism, sexism, homophobia etc we need actions and strategies that focus on both personal interactions as well as the underlying reasons discriminatory interactions occur.

That is, we need a shift in approach to recognise that the social structures that give our shared and individual lives coherency underlie multiple relationships of power and privilege.

Our schools, churches, traditions, institutions, forces, systems can shape us to have both privilege and power — and be disprivileged and disempowered. This isn’t a blame game: it’s a recognition of the reality that these all groom us to behave, act, think and react in certain ways.

This isn’t something abstract or vague. I went to an all-boys’ high school where middle-class values were often fundamentally linked to a macho, sexist culture of entitlement riddled with explicit lessons in homophobia and implicit schooling in language privileging. My school, the syllabus, and the entire system: a socialisation in the “correct” views and actions on class, race, gender, sexuality, language and nationality.

The danger, of course, is that linking power and privilege to social systems is frequently misunderstood and misapplied as an excuse to absolve oneself of all responsibility — to blame an abstract thing called a “social structure” and to claim an uncritical state of victimhood (those sort of statements like “Why don’t we have straight pride? I feel marginalised by these gays” or “This is just reverse sexism – men can’t do anything right these days”, which don’t consider deeper social relationships at all).

This, however, is lazy, misguided, and disingenuous. Yes, we can all begin to consider how our schools, places of worship, businesses or families have instilled certain values and actions in us — but at the same time as recognising this privilege and power we need to recognise that we act in our own capacities. We need to take responsibility for making choices based on views that we are superior to others by virtue of some random identity category.

Transformation, reconciliation, change — call it what you like — will only come about when we stop trying to bring about such change using identity politics based on inherently discriminatory systems of organisation.

Change is more likely to occur when we shift away from a victim/perpetrator binary and work towards politics based on collective coalitions of shared goals, rather than identities.

To paraphrase Professor Catherine MacKinnon, identities and categories are entrenched tools of inequality — but they’re the results of systems and hierarchies. They’re “not the dynamic that creates” such systems.

Focusing on identities and selective experiences belies the reality that oppressions intersect one another, that power and dispower intersect, that privilege and disprivilege intersect, and that we should be simultaneously focusing on changing the underlying social structures that enable, facilitate and encourage prejudicial actions and beliefs.

Strategies that are based on identity politics perpetuate structures inherently geared towards forms of discrimination. (As an aside, this has implications, too, for the project of “nation building”).

This isn’t radical thinking. It’s not new. Intersectionality theory has its roots in 1970s black feminism, critical race theory and law, and was given a name by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. It’s a model for thinking and action that underpins many local organisations and projects. But it’s a perspective that is often lacking both in wider discussions and in day-to-day reflections on our own lives.

It would make me ashamed to live in a society where we said that our only goal was to make it safe and equal for all [insert identity category] at the expense of other experiences: that in dealing with racism, for example, it’s not “as important” that we deal with the fact that it’s not safe to walk hand-in-hand with a same-sex partner in every city in the country.

It’s not “as important” that we eradicate the fear that thousands of “foreigners” face when they are forced to reveal their nationality.

It’s not “as important” that we deal with children being cast aside in the education system because they’re not privileged enough to know the “right” language.

It’s not “as important” as — the list goes on.

It’s a re-hash of a liberation debate from the 1980s. “Minority experiences”, I’ve heard it argued.

And? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summarises, “the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority — otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic”. Trying to focus on who is “most oppressed” is counterproductive and leads only to Oppression Olympics.

This complaining is easy. Moving forward is the uncomfortable bit, because it involves us taking a moment to question and think about the positions of power we occupy — and the acts of discrimination we perpetuate. It involves taking responsibility for those, and looking at the (often comfortable, familiar) structures that enable and encourage this discrimination — and then breaking them down to change them.

Because as long as we refuse to deal with the underlying, real, everyday systems that create and enable and encourage multiple forms of oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia etc will continue to be problems. Our laments about how terrible this attack or this outburst was will continue in a spiral of repetition.

It’s easier to point fingers and categorise society as “us” vs “them”: discriminators, racists, misogynists vs US, the enlightened ones. It’s much easier than looking at ourselves and considering how social structures afford us power and how we may unconsciously act to exercise that power and be discriminators ourselves.

Racism is real, and it is a problem. It’s not that we don’t need to speak about race and racism — we do. But other forms of oppression are real, too. They all have roots in the same institutions which shape all of our lives.

Until we start changing those institutions in ways that consider how oppression has multiple faces and intersects with power in multiple ways, and until we start facing up to the reality that we often enable day-to-day oppression, discrimination and privilege will continue to be the order of the day.

Matthew Beetar is a 2008 Mandela Rhodes alumnus. He is pursuing a PhD in cultural studies at the University of Sussex in the UK on a Chancellor’s International Research Scholarship, which he occasionally writes about.

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  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]

15 Comments

  1. Bongani Bongani 19 December 2014

    Matthew, I think your sentiments are noble but impractical. Not everyone considers all forms of oppression to be equally problematic. And not all forms of oppression arise from the same or even similar institutions of power. Racism, in South Africa, is at the top of the oppression lists, because of our history. You may want to join that fight and later repurpose it to focus on other forms of oppression. But if you think that you will convince a populace that is daily striving against racism that the resources for that fight should be shared with the fight against transphobia, you will be disappointed at how ‘unimportant’ they consider transphobia to be.

  2. Matthew Matthew 19 December 2014

    Thanks, Bongani. I share some of your concerns. This is, of course, an idealised piece. But I suppose ideals are needed for change.

    Of course not everyone considers all forms of prejudice to be equally problematic – recognising this is a part of the intention of the piece. But many forms of oppression do arise from the same institutions of power, and many local and international projects realise this with enormous success. Joining a fight purely against racism will, I believe, only lead to further issues in the future. As I say, it’s not that racism isn’t important: it is, and anyone who suggests otherwise is utterly deluded. But the fight I fight is one against oppression in general.

    To the majority of cisgendered folk I’m sure transphobia is unimportant – but to those trans individuals it’s as important as any other form of social hatred. And so why should these experiences be ignored? At what point do we say “racism isn’t too much of a problem any more, let’s focus on other identities”? Even looking it at a macro ideological/constitutional level the principles to which we align ourselves speak to equality and dignity for all – even if some citizens disagree with this.

    Any sense of impracticality stems from a lack of innovation in thinking and practice in broader society – if you’re interested I can give you details of numerous creative endeavours which combat multi-sited prejudice on a day-to-day basis.

    A society which is unwilling to face its own faults and work together to combat hatred in general – to achieve instead an illusion of stability and prosperity at the expense of other equal citizens – is but a surface democracy and one which I do not strive to be a part of. Sometimes it’s not even about sharing resources, but instead about shifting strategies and realising that in challenging racism we can challenge other prejudices at the same time. It doesn’t need to get reduced back to identity politics.

  3. Bernpm Bernpm 19 December 2014

    “Racism, sexism and homophobia: Which prejudice is worse?…………..”
    Interesting topic but in my simple opinion, the writer has started a discussion that lead to no solution or compromise and never will.
    If we are prepared to accept that the whole world is on all fronts loaded with in-equalities, be they of a physical or material or intellectual or “you name one” nature.
    The problems can than be simplified to “how do we as an individual deal with the in-equalities we meet in our lives”. One of the more serious global attempts to deal with this is “democracy”, but in a wider context than simply political.

    The term “discrimination” refers mostly to the non-acceptance of such in-equality as expressed in a “negative” or even “accusing” way or manner to point out the observed or perceived inequality.
    Reading the article with the above in mind, might help in finding solutions to some of the mentioned behaviors. However this might take a book to complete.

  4. Andrew O'Gorman Andrew O'Gorman 20 December 2014

    Well thought out response and I agree.

    Here is my two penny’s worth:

    Prejudice is born from a lack of knowledge of that said prejudice… and all are equally problematic… as they feed off each other!

    In other words, it is my experience that a homophobe is probably a racist, sexist, and anyone of the plethora of hate phobias.

    One cannot nitpick which has more relevance – either they all are or none are.

    One embraces the whole of humanity, without exception.

    As a caveat, I would concede that there are cultural practices that are considered unacceptable (not necessarily by the majority or me), but by an accumulation of knowledge that the are unnecessary, destructive and in many cases cruel – in this zeitgeist.

    We are still evolving – well I hope so! Otherwise we will forever be at each others throat.

  5. SarahH SarahH 21 December 2014

    Thanks Matthew, Bongani, Andrew & Bernpm for the different angles on this discussion. For what its worth, I think the headline for this discussion does the very notion of intersectionality a disservice. What becomes ‘important’ at a given time, depends on context and salience.

    Matthew, your comment to Bongani should have been shaped into a headline: i.e. being ‘… against oppression in general’! That is what lies at the heart of intersectionality theory and with respect, I think the focus on a hierarchy of importance has diluted the potential impact this piece could have.

    I guess part of the intersectional struggle is to find the language, or an image with which to convey the core message. (PS, not that I have succeeded but I have certainly tried and continue to do so). Cheers. SarahH

  6. Matthew Matthew 22 December 2014

    Thanks, Andrew! I agree – it’s a constant process

  7. Matthew Matthew 22 December 2014

    Thanks, Sarah. I agree whole-heartedly about the title – not my choice; edited to be catchier/more accessible than something involving “intersectionality”! I originally titled it “Facing up to prejudice”. So we’re on the same page!

  8. Matthew Matthew 22 December 2014

    A whole book, indeed! I certainly don’t claim to be the solution-maker – and I don’t think the M&G TL space is the right place to form solutions. But I do sincerely believe discussions are the first steps in finding solutions. Thanks for your input, Bernpm – you raise a crucial point in the questioning of what it essentially means to be “democratic”.

  9. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 23 December 2014

    It is ‘bigotry’. They are all part of the exact same thing – bigotry. You can call it by any name you like or sub divide it into as many categories as you like, but it is still bigotry. A rose by any other name …

    You have finally explained modern day ‘feminism’. The use of victim status to justify victimising others. Once the ‘us vs them’ mentality takes over, you have bigotry raising its ugly head. The ‘them’ is now no longer human and the ‘us’ is morally superior. The various justifications then come out to reinforce the right of ‘us’ to subjugate ‘them’ to our belief system or thought pattern (on both sides of the fence) and before we know it, we have become fundamentalist bigots.

    This is most definitely a Thought Leader line of discussion that I will be most interested to see developing further. It is a conversation that our country needs to have if we are ever going to grow up. We have to see people as humans, not as ‘them’

  10. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 23 December 2014

    Inequalities are a fact of life. Using those inequalities to further marginalise our fellow humans, is something I hope that we some day grow past. It is like the kid with the magnifying glass by the ant hill – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

  11. jesusmary jesusmary 24 December 2014

    South Africans suffer from a cocktail of prejudices…they are ALL worse.

  12. Stacy Amos Stacy Amos 28 December 2014

    all prejudice are evil its not in the quantity but the essence or underlying principle of thinking yourself bettwe than another that is wrong in all prejudice

  13. WA WA 3 January 2015

    Why Sir are you studying in the UK? Surely pot kettle is being used here?

  14. WA WA 3 January 2015

    Mr Beetar, have you ever had a proper job? The politicians in the UK haven’t hence there crass and stupid comments

  15. Larsen Bjorn Larsen Bjorn 26 March 2015

    Based purely on the quantum of suffering inflicted by humans, the most widespread and repressive practice by a long stretch is none of the above. It’s human speciecism, and we need to something about that urgently. Peter Singer states
    it thus: “Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality
    by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the
    interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of
    other species. The pattern is identical in each case”

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