With backlash becoming such a strong counter-force to all sorts of anti-discrimination movements, I feel it’s time to talk about various types of actions which feed into discriminatory narratives- that is, things we’d usually discuss as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on.
There seems to me to be four essential levels of discrimination:
- Insensitive – casual ignorance, poorly phrased statements, or minor dismissal, devaluing, or trifling objectification is insensitive.
- Insulting – gross mischaracterisation or stereotying, heavy dismissal, devaluing, or objectification is the sort of thing that’s likely to insult minorities- the difference between insensitivity and insultingness is a matter of degree or frequency.
- Problematic – a narrative or psychological bias, especially one which people aren’t conscious of, is problematic. Unlike being insensitive or insulting, being problematic is more a matter of how wrong what you’re saying is and how badly it needs correcting, rather than the sort of reaction it might provoke.
- Open – discrimination to the point that even if it isn’t necessarily open and deliberate, it’s so problematic and ignorant that it can’t be regarded as innocent.
Obviously as you climb this ladder, elements from below may also be present in several different frustrating combinations. Things that are problematic are often also insensitive, for example.
The problem we’re running into is that when we say words like “racist”, people automatically escalate that word to level #4- even if you hedge a bit more and say “you did or said something homophobic”, they read that as them having accidentally engaged in fourth-degree discrimination. Feminism has been a bit more successful in gradating misogyny, but it still suffers from this problem sometimes. Likewise “problematic” is an adjective that’s already caught on in communities, and we need to expand on that.
We need to start using those other three words- what you’re saying has (or creates) problems. What you’re doing? That’s insulting to me. The way you’re acting around me? That’s not sensitive to who I am, or these other people in our community. Describing discrimination by degree or type is really important, as it reinforces that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types aren’t just a binary, with a person being intrinsically a bigot, but rather a continuum that people fall on based on how much privilege they’ve assimilated.