Beyond pride and prejudice
Growing up in the Bermuda of the 1980s and 1990s was to grow up on an island that was racist, sexist, homophobic and Christian-supremacist — not to mention the caricatured glorification of empire despite the profound influence of Americana. In many important ways, the Bermuda of today is still all the above, albeit perhaps less overtly than before. To paraphrase, less Jim Crow and more James Crow Esq III.
Of course, growing up one was largely ignorant of these features of society. One generally absorbs through osmosis the prejudices that dominate one’s society. I imagine that, for many, they remain unaware of these prejudices, to the same degree that one is largely unaware of the air one is breathing. This isn’t to say at all that there has not been progress. It is only to say that we should not kid ourselves about the need to still roll up our collective sleeves to continue the work of building a better society for all, one rooted in the principles of social, economic and environmental justice.
Naturally, how the various prejudices of one’s society are internalised by any one individual is mediated not just by one’s family, school and church, but also by one’s own particular characteristics. In a de facto White-supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal, ableist, classist and Christian-supremacist society, a White, heterosexual, able, male upper-class Christian will internalise these prejudices fundamentally differently than a Black, homosexual, differently abled, working-class non-Christian woman.
There are, of course, a myriad of other social prejudices one could throw in here, but I hope the reader will forgive me for just highlighting some of the more prominent. Others may include such things as height, weight, dietary restrictions, politics, drinking, private or public education, and so on. And this doesn’t mean both individuals cannot come to the same “enlightenment” on these issues, just that the paths to this will be radically different for each.
I am essentially speaking about what is otherwise called “intersectionality” — that is, how the various prejudices intersect with each other in our social stratification and perceptions. Importantly, one also needs to see this in the inverse — in the sense of privilege and what the intersection of one’s various privileges means for oneself socially.
While I don’t feel that understanding this is fully explanatory for the various phenomena we see in both our politics/society and others, I do feel that is, nonetheless, a powerful explanatory tool for understanding certain aspects of it.
For example, one need only look at our American neighbours. The Tea Party, and its subsequent evolution into Trumpism, has drawn much of its energy from this general source. It is, essentially, an identity movement and the politics of identity, but unlike the identity-movement politics more closely associated with the Left, such as feminism, antiracist action — the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter — and LGBTQ+, it is one fuelled by resentment. The left-wing movements have been motivated from a position of deprivation – that is, those involved are coming from a deprived position and simply advocating for equal rights. The identity politics of the Right is instead motivated by fear of dispossession, of resenting the potential loss of their privilege. In the American sense, a fear of the loss of primarily White privilege (in reaction to a Black president) and male privilege (Hillary Clinton being a clear catalyst) is clear.
When it comes to intersectionality, the number of privileges one has can also impact one’s sensitivity to potential perceived threats to any one privilege. For example, if one’s only “privilege” is being male in our society, the potential for one to be overly defensive over said privilege is greater than if being male is only one dimension of one’s privileges. One need only look at the tendency towards an extreme, almost comic, toxic masculinity, complete with fetishisation of phallic idols such as guns or knives, that one finds in the more deprived sections of our society versus the more “secure” masculinity in more affluent sections of our society.
To a degree, this explains the phenomena we see in our politics, I think first properly analysed in Frank Manning’s Bermudian Politics in Transition – Race, Voting and Public Opinion, which found that degrees of social liberalism (such as attitudes towards abortion, “traditional” family values, divorce and such) correlates largely with class (and, inasmuch as race and class are conflated in Bermuda, race). That is, the more accumulative privilege one has in our society, the more freedom one has to not be bound by potential threats to any one privilege. Or, rather, economic wealth essentially allows one to “buy” freedom from the chains of social prejudice — wealth of course being a privilege, and, seemingly, the key one.
We see this with the issue of LGBTQ+ activism. While it is perhaps too trite to say all homophobes are motivated by closet homosexuality, I do feel a good degree is motivated by fear about loss of privilege, inasmuch as nonconformity to social prejudices relating to male and heterosexual privilege poses a potential threat to those privileges. A factor is, quite frankly, a fear of difference, where nonconformity threatens to challenge one’s internalised prejudices and sense of self in terms of privilege. Naturally, those in the LGBTQ+ community only challenge one’s concept of self-worth if one feels one’s worth is largely — or even partly — determined based on one’s masculinity, heterosexism or patriarchal concepts of women.
The result? Reactionary fear, hate and, at the extremes, the use of violence to dispose of the threat to one’s sense of self, to the threats to one’s perceived privileges. This is far easier than the hard work of critical introspection and confrontation of one’s internalised privileges. Fear is far easier than the hard work of confronting oneself, understanding the basis of and overcoming one’s prejudices to realise one’s true authentic self and join the struggle for a better world for all.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University