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Sometimes Bigotry Is Just Bigotry

Claims of white privilege let white people (and other people) off the hook.

White privilege is a Freudian concept. Freudian, you say? Yes, Freudian because it is a concept that’s all about the influence of what’s in a person’s (in this case a group’s) past.

Just because it’s a group’s past doesn’t make it less Freudian. White privilege is Freudian because we are pointing to something from the past that is outside the person’s awareness that we believe they have to face in order to change.

Tell me, has all the talk about white privilege been effective in weakening the attractiveness of President Donald Trump’s anti-group rhetoric toward some of our fellow Americans? Not at all, and you know it.

Why not? It’s simply because the claim of white privilege lets people off the hook. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all know that there are a lot of ways to be privileged in America. For that reason, shouting about white privilege falls on deaf ears. Surely you see that the claim of privilege fits with too many versions of the American dream (that people think are positive). America is a place where you can “…get ahead of, earn more privileges than, other people.” Sure, that ambition is no longer supposed to be racial, but… well…

Look, there are too many problems with the rhetoric of white privilege for it to be effective in addressing the real and pressing intergroup issues of 21st century America. One of those problems is that it is a Freudian claim. We need to address the here and now to manage the new intergroup dynamic of America.

What’s new is neo-diversity; this time and circumstance, this new interpersonal situation in America where all of us have some daily occasion to encounter and interact with people not like us on some dimension; nationality, gender-identity, political-affiliation, mental-health-condition, religion, race, sexual-orientation, age, ethnicity, bodily-condition. From the days of legal, racial segregation to these days of desegregation, there are now unavoidable neo-diverse social encounters at work, on campuses, in the grocery store.

Given our segregated history, those neo-diverse encounters are new and provoke intergroup anxiety in people. And sometimes that neo-diversity anxiety wakes up a hibernating-bigotry that roars into social interaction. That is the new intergroup dynamic of America.

To be productive in that new context, we need to leave the talk of white-privilege and talk instead about the here and now. Let’s address what you just did, not what things in your group’s past made it easy for you to engage in anti-group behavior (bigotry); to do or say something nasty about a person because of their group membership. Not what things that you are not conscious of that let you behave the way you are behaving; that’s Freudian and ineffective in changing that behavior.

What matters is what you are doing in the here and now that is bigotry; nasty, offensive, insensitive, interpersonal behavior that is directed toward a person or person’s because of their group membership. The here and now is what matters; not your group’s past. In the here and now bigotry is what matters.

Here’s the other Freudian problem. People who are relying on the ineffective rhetoric of white privilege to decry bigotry are also trying to distance themselves from the problems of intergroup tensions we face in America. All this talk about white privilege lets white people off the hook but it also lets the non-white person, the gay or lesbian person, the person who uses a wheel chair, feel righteous and innocent. But turns out, there are no innocent.

In today’s neo-diverse America, there are many American groups that individuals can feel prejudice towards—homosexuals, Muslims, transgender persons, Christians, women, persons with visible bodily-conditions, military veterans, persons with mental-health conditions, interracial-couples, and on and on. Neo-diversity gives all of us lots of potential targets for expressions of anti-group feelings (prejudice) that can be expressed in behavior (bigotry). Especially in that neo-diversity context, anyone can be a bigot. There are no innocent; not by skin color, sexual orientation, or religion.

There just are no innocents.

We can’t let anyone off the hook for superficial reasons of group membership. We have to address any anti-group feelings (prejudice) toward any group that comes out in anyone’s behavior (bigotry) in order to slow down the dangerous intergroup tensions about neo-diversity moving across our nation. Bigotry is in the here and now, and that is what we have to address. Bigotry, not privilege extended to us by our groups past.

If people insist on being Freudian, then let's talk about the defense mechanism of projection. Denying your own negative tendencies, but seeing those negative traits in other people; that’s Freud’s idea of projection

More than once in response to my claims about the uselessness of the idea of white-privilege, I have had a white person say something pretty startling to me. In the Spring of 2016, a white student told me of her concern about the same kind of statement.

"Dr. Nacoste," she said. "I was talking to a friend, a white person, about how you taught us that the idea of white privilege isn't really productive because it's just makes young white people feel guilty. My friend responded with a bit of anger and said 'Well, I think they ought to feel guilty.' I was shocked and confused by that statement.”

My student was looking at me with that confusion on her face.

I said: "You see that's my point when I say that the idea is a claim used to attack white people; not to start a dialogue. And you are confused because it came from a white person, but I never said the attack was used only by non-whites."

But why would a white person want to use the idea of white privilege in the hopes of making other whites feel racial guilt; projection, that's why. The particular white person knows that somewhere in the "here and now" of their lifetime, they have had negative racial thoughts (prejudice) and that person knows that they have acted or come close to behaving with racial bigotry.

Rather than admit these negative tendencies in their own life and learn from that awareness, the person wants to say that all white people are guilty or should feel guilty. That projection is a way to avoid self-incrimination. “It’s all of the people like me, so what can I do.” As with any other Freudian defense mechanism, that's the point; to not look at our own behavior and see the mistakes we have made or are making.

Let’s stop doing that. Let's focus on the here and now of our own behavior. That is the only way of dealing with our neo-diversity anxieties, prejudices and bigotry in a productive way; facing the here and now of our own behavior.

Even Sigmund Freud understood the problem of overlooking actual behavior to spend time talking about unconscious motivations for that behavior. It is claimed Freud once said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

To deal with the intergroup tensions in America, we must tackle the thing right in front of us. We must tackle the behaviors. Otherwise, by our approach, we are (inadvertently) making excuses for the behavior; releasing the individual from personal responsibility. As we work toward a more perfect union, we cannot afford to do that.

Sometimes, you see, bigotry is just bigotry.

Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D. is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology and author of “Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect” (Prometheus Books, 2015)

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