(This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.)
In the spring of 2011, 17-year-old Zachery Gray attempted to hang himself in the shed behind his home. Zach had faced months of harassment from other students, who aimed homophobic slurs at him and called him “Zach Gay.” He reported the bullying to a teacher, but she didn’t do anything about it.
But Zachery wasn’t gay. He was straight. He even had a girlfriend. His bullies, it seems, didn’t care much whether he was gay or not: They were simply looking for a slur for their chosen target, or else looking for a target for their chosen slur.
Bigotry is a result of the perceptions the socially dominant group has of other groups, most notably “othering,” or the perception that members of the dominant group are “normal” or “default” human beings, and that everyone else is defined by being different from them. Other demographics — their media, their issues, their prominent members — are seen as “special interests” that are not particularly interesting to anyone except them. As a result, the dominant group has a poor understanding of minority groups, with the curious result that bigotry often gets unleashed against someone who doesn’t actually belong to that group. Naturally, bigotry is wrong and unacceptable no matter who it targets, but this sort of “collateral bigotry” is instructive because of what it tells us about the nature of bigotry as a whole.
Homophobia against straight kids, as seen in the case of Zachery Gray, is one of the most familiar examples. Teenagers can be notorious behavior policers. Boys who act insufficiently masculine are a common target. The sorts of kids who use “that’s gay” as an insult are unlikely to respect someone’s actual sexual orientation. Thus, the scope of the bigotry becomes wider and fuzzier as it encompasses not just the members of the marginalized group, but also anyone else who seemed like they might belong to that group according to someone who knows nothing about it.
The Sikh temple shooting of August 5, 2012 represents another common type of collateral bigotry: A minority group being victimized because it’s mistaken for another minority group. The dominant group’s lack of knowledge about other groups means that many smaller demographics are either completely unknown to the majority (eg, Jainists), not acknowledged as real (eg, trans* people), or not differentiated from other groups thought to be similar (eg, expecting a Brazilian to speak Spanish). The popular consciousness shunts these people into more well-known minorities and then bigotry aimed at that other minority ends up hitting them as well.
This puts the lie to the common racist line that some ethnicities or cultures are simply worse (especially more violent) than others and that we need racial profiling to protect us against those sorts of people: Not only can they not demonstrate that one demographic inherently behaves worse than another, but they can’t even correctly identify members of that group.
The last and by far the most complicated version of collateral bigotry occurs when someone is a minority, but along a different axis. This mostly applies to gender and sexuality. For instance, a trans* man who gets mistaken for a woman and cat-called on the street is suffering from misogyny — he’s only being treated in that fashion because someone thought he was a woman — but he’s suffering from transphobia at the same time, because it’s trans* erasure that leads to him being mistaken for a woman (and thus it’s a notably different situation than if a cis man were mistaken for a woman).
These cases quickly get convoluted because there can be many different factors at play, each of which might exacerbate or diminish the others. In 2010, a couple in Malawi — Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza — were imprisoned under the country’s anti-homosexuality laws. Most sources reported them as a gay couple, but in fact Chimbalanga identifies as a woman. In Western terms, we’d classify her as a trans* woman and the couple as a straight couple. However, the Box Turtle Bulletin points out that African narratives about gender can be different, and often more fluid, than Western ones, and that therefore labeling Chimbalanga as trans* may still not be correctly representing her identity. Thus, the imprisonment is not only a human rights violation, it’s also plowing straight through a whole pile of factors that influence identity in order to place Chimbalanga in the gay-male box.
So there are a variety of situations where someone who isn’t part of a particular marginalized group can nevertheless suffer from bigotry directed at that group. The next obvious question is whether it cuts both ways? That is, can someone benefit from being misidentified as a member of the socially dominant group?
Yes and no. On the one hand, there are many examples of people passing themselves off as members of privileged groups and successfully gaining privileges thereby, such as Nawojka, a legendary 15th-century Polish woman who passed herself off as a man so that she could study at the university. But in practice, there are several serious problems.
The first is that, even if one is mistaken for a member of a socially dominant group, it’s almost never a wholly positive association from the perspective of that group. Social dominance requires constant policing and questioning of others in order to keep the in-group small; thus, there are many ways to perform your role in the group wrong. “White trash” are people who are doing a bad job being white, the “nouveau riche” are people who are doing a bad job being rich, and so on. A minority is very likely to be mistaken for this sort of “bad” member of the majority. For instance, a trans* woman who has been misinterpreted as a man isn’t likely to be seen as a man doing masculinity “right”; she’s much more likely to be labeled “that weird guy who thinks he’s a woman.”
The undertone that virtually guarantees that this will happen is that you’re supposed to want to be part of the dominant class because it’s better. Freud thought women secretly had penis envy because it seemed obvious to him that women would want to be men; they couldn’t possibly like being women, could they? Similar ideas persist today. Therefore, anyone who is categorized with a dominant group but doesn’t want to be (or doesn’t adequately want to perform the role) is automatically suspect.
The second reason people don’t generally benefit from misidentification is that benefits based on a mistaken impression aren’t really benefits at all. At best, the mistake will give the benefit a drastically different — and possibly severely negative — connotation, such as if someone compliments a trans* woman for being masculine. And at worst, the privileges are completely contingent on the falsehood and the individual becomes trapped in a false identity, constantly in danger of losing everything if the secret gets out.
And if the secret got out, things could end up very bad indeed for these people. Privileged groups are often the most vicious of all towards anyone who fools them into allowing someone into their group who doesn’t belong. This was the situation faced by gay men in America and Europe well into the 20th century, when homosexuality was still illegal, and the situation still facing them in many other parts of the world. As seen in the pro-gay Weimar film Anders als die Andern, sodomy laws were de facto blackmail laws. Blackmail is the sort of serious problem that can arise when a member of a marginalized group is taken for a member of a dominant group.
The asymmetry between being mistaken for a dominant group member and being mistaken for a marginalized group member is encapsulated in this rule: It’s always easier to get excluded from the privileged group than to be included. So if you gain an advantage by being mistaken for a member of the privileged group but then it’s revealed that you aren’t, you’re likely to suffer severe repercussions, but if you’re disadvantaged by being mistaken for a member of an underprivileged group, revealing that you aren’t actually part of it is unlikely to help you very much. The same asymmetry exists when there’s no actual mistaken identity: It’s much easier to get “demoted” on the social hierarchy by associating with a less privileged group (think “race traitors”) than it is to get “promoted” by associating with a more privileged group.
Bigotry exists to strengthen the privileged group by disenfranchising everyone else. Since the in-group members grow stronger the smaller it is, it should be no surprise that while it may be carefully policed to keep the “wrong” people out, there’s no guarantee that the “right” people will stay in. People can end up as the targets of hatred against one marginalized group when, in fact, they are part of a different marginalized group or none at all. This confirms something that we already knew: That there was never anything inferior about marginalized groups that made them deserve their treatment. Bigots need targets and who the target is doesn’t really matter to them at all.