On Bigotry & Ignorance

I used to be homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and racist in ways that would shock you.

If you read my work nowadays, you might assume I grew up with a liberal family in a diverse community that cultivated my progressive values, but in truth it was the exact opposite.

I come from a right-wing family, my hometown was practically all conservative/religious white folks, and the diversity in my high school amounted to one girl who was out as bisexual.

I grew up with a complete lack of diversity and exposure. Instead there was just ignorance and small-town patriotism, and a vague sense that “we” the hard-working poor white folks of upstate NY were the oppressed Americans whose stolen tax money paid for free-loading welfare folks to have babies while illegal immigrants stole our jobs.

I’m not proud of this part of my history, but I learned what I learned.

There was plenty of lip service paid to concepts like “not seeing color,” and “judging everyone based on their merit and behavior, not the color of their skin,” but there was also a fuck-ton of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and racism that I took for granted (having never met anyone in any of those categories) as truth.

In seventh grade I learned that my friend’s older sister was a lesbian, and was horrified. I didn’t consider myself homophobic or anything (just like how bad guys in movies never think they’re the bad guys lol) but I found this fact disgusting and wrong. I remember vividly the day I turned around in chorus, and told my friend “I don’t agree with your sister’s lifestyle, because it’s unnatural.”

The memory is especially embarrassing and sharp in my mind, because that same dear friend of mine went on to date women.

Years later, I did too.

I’m very uncomfortable telling you this, but I’ve decided to for two reasons:

  1. I’ve worked very hard to root out this ignorant bullshit I learned growing up, and

  2. I want to remove the stigma to admitting shit like this because (as you’ll see) bigotry and ignorance aren’t connected to morality the way we’ve been taught they are.

See the thing is, when you’ve never met a person from a group which is culturally labeled as “other,” and you hear a bunch of bad things about that group of people, it’s very easy to be bigoted. Ignorance is tricky like that.

After all, if most of the white people you know are reasonably smart and cool, and you’ve never met a Black person but you see them displayed as stupid, lazy, and violent on tv and in the news, well… your racism won’t even feel bigoted.

This is my history.

I met a Black person for the first time when I was fourteen years old, and I remember being shocked at how cool, and nice, and normal he was. He was flamboyant and funny and smart; he made me laugh while we rehearsed a play, and I went home that day with my reality turned completely upside down.

Black men were supposed to be dangerous and scary, I thought. If they could be like this dude, then what the fuck was everyone talking about?

This was the first glitch in the matrix, the first time I realized reality didn’t line up with what I’d been taught, and that what I’d been taught wasn’t just inaccurate, it was fucked up. Looking back it was also the beginning of my realization that exposure is a powerful antidote to ignorance.

Over the years I sought out exposure in the wider world as much as I could. I studied abroad for six months in high school, and discovered that most people in Chile are just regular, cool people. One of my best friends came out as gay at eighteen, and I instantly realized gay people are just regular cool people too.

I moved to NYC and met people of all walks of life, and my walls of ignorance toppled with every new experience. My Thai roommates? Gay and transgender classmates? Acting school friends from all over the world? Fitness friends from different religions and races and backgrounds?

All cool. All normal.

The more I traveled and met people, the more my internal -isms and -phobias dissolved. Exposure (paired with the ferocious self-reflection I brought to these experiences) blew my mind wide open—and these are still two tools I consider pretty damn unbeatable when it comes to bigotry born of ignorance.

Eventually, I started using exposure and self-examination more consciously to tackle the deep layers of internalized bigotry I was actively committed to uprooting.

When I began my journey to body positivity and fat acceptance I realized I didn’t have many fat friends, and my stereotypes about them were born of ignorance, so I started following, listening to, and reading the stories and books of fat folks.

When I discovered transphobic resistance to gender non-conforming folks I followed dozens of gender-non-conforming individuals, bought their books, and connected to their stories. With exposure came a blooming of compassion and empathy, and the realization that I had always been jealous of their “freedom” to express their gender differently, because of my own complex and uncomfortable relationship to my gender.

There’s an idea out there that if a person is racist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic, they must be an inherently “bad person,” with no heart and a fucked up moral compass… but I hope you’ll see from all my transparent (and mortifying) story-telling so far that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s the classic Maya Angelou quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I didn’t realize I was being bigoted until I met people from the “othered” groups and realized that they weren’t so “other” after all, and the stereotypes I had learned didn’t hold up.

But if I had stayed in my hometown and not been exposed to anything on my travels and in NYC, odds are pretty good that I would still be bigoted as fuck. Not because I’m a bad person who is morally corrupt with a heart full of hate, but because… that’s just what I learned.

This perspective gives me a lot of patience and compassion when planting seeds in conversation with folks whose bigotry also comes from ignorance. They’re not bad or hateful people, they just… don’t see the truth yet. (Note that I am talking about ignorance, not willful hate.)

Also, if I had discovered my own bigotry and gone down a shame-spiral of feeling like a “bad person”, I’d never have done the courageous work of letting my entire reality crumble around me as I searched for the truth. Letting go of ignorance is scary, and we humans simply don’t do brave shit and step up into the best parts of who we can become when we’re bogged down by shame.

Of course the other option would be to ignore, deny, and shove down any bigotry I discovered inside myself, instead of acknowledging its existence, so as to protect my ego and identity as a “good person.”

If we want to be able to do the important work of liberation and anti-oppression work inside ourselves and in our communities, we need to get rid of the idea that all the -isms and -phobias are a moral judgement on someone’s inherent character.

After all, if bigotry is always an indictment of someone’s moral character, then there would have been no hope for me, there would be no hope for you, and there would sure as hell be no hope for anyone else.

I’ve worked very hard to uproot all the bigotry I found inside myself, but there are endless layers, and the work will undoubtedly continue forever.

Personally I’m committed to doing that work, not because I’m a good person who cares about other people, but because I value Truth above all else. And bigotry is never the Truth.

I wonder how this essay will land with you. Will you judge me for my history and think less of me? Will you celebrate my growth and evolution and find comfort and hope in it, or will you think me a fraud?

Will you separate yourself from my story and say to yourself “I’m glad I was never ignorant like that,” or will you let me hold up the mirror so you can see some areas in which you have been, or are currently still, sitting in ignorance?

Even if you grew up with liberal parents and a diverse community, you have undoubtedly learned some things which are rooted in bigotry, ignorance, and lack of exposure. We all have.

What if, instead of judging yourself for judging other people (or suppressing those thoughts to maintain an identity as a “good person,”) you simply acknowledged, named, and dealt with what you found inside yourself?

What if instead of letting those thoughts or beliefs mean something about you, you acknowledged that your bigotry is born of a lack of exposure and connection, and went about immersing yourself in the voices, images, teaching, and stories of the exact people, cultures, races, or lifestyles which you find yourself judging? And what if instead of writing off or attacking those in your life whose bigotry you condemn, you set about holding them accountable to their highest values, and exposing them to the truth?

This is true liberation work.

It doesn’t happen by calling out and canceling people on social media, it happens by looking inside yourself and having both compassion and accountability for what you discover there, and then approaching the people around you with that same compassion and accountability as you both seek and spread the Truth.

Yours in liberation,

<3
Jessi

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