Bigotry Is Taught

“Some men want to kiss on other men and some women want to kiss on other women. Isn’t that gross?!?

This is, quite simply, how I was introduced to the existence of gay people. I was only seven or eight at the time. And no, it wasn’t another kid who said this to me – it was an adult and a relative.

In contrast to this, a friend recently asked my preschool-age daughter Sally who she wants to marry when she grows up. She responded by stating emphatically that she plans to marry her friend Alice.

Bigotry – homophobia – is taught. It’s not something we’re born with.

The same, incidentally, is true of racism. I remember seeing a picture of a group of young children, black and white, walking hand in hand. The caption explained that the parents of the white children in the picture were deeply opposed to school desegregation, to the point of participating in angry protests, but that the children didn’t seem to mind their new schoolmates at all. For her part, Sally doesn’t even seem aware of race yet. She told me once that she was white, but then she told me that her friend was purple and I was blue.

Sexism, took, is not innate.

Homophobia, racism, sexism – these things aren’t natural and universal. They are taught.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • abra1

    My daughter (early grade school) came home very upset about someone calling someone else’s dad “gay.” After talking her through it, I determined this child was referring to a classmate’s parents who are actually gay. Apparently, it had been made clear to them that calling someone “gay” was not acceptable instead of “gay” as slur not being acceptable — of course, that is not exactly the easiest message to get across to 5-8 year olds.

    I was recounting this to a cousin who is a school counselor but had some more conservative cousins listening in. They were disgusted for me that I would have to explain to my daughter any part of that. I was more than happy to be able to tell them that it was a rather easy fix because she has had a handful of classmates with parents in same-sex couples and we’ve already covered that families come in all shapes and sizes, including sometimes having 2 moms or 2 dads who love each just like her mom and dad love each other. She has never been grossed or weirded out by it… and she knows the birds and the bees.

    My son was the only white child as a daycare for a while and while I eventually pulled him from it for cultural reasons (the hyper-masculinity that was coming home was not welcome) but I loved it when my blond haired, blue eyed little boy would greet his very dark-skinned African American classmate as “brother” and that he described himself as beige and his friend as very dark brown.

  • Karen

    My parents strove to teach me bigotry, but then they kept undermining themselves. Blacks were all lazy and out to get what they could from the government… except for my mother’s black friends, who were all hardworking and admirable people. Latinos were all illegals… except for some dear friends, and their families, and extended families… etc. Looking back, I’m not sure if it was intentional bigotry or just parroting what they’d been taught. I learned from example, not from words, and didn’t have too much bigotry baggage to shed when I grew up.

  • Mike

    I’m afraid I disagree on this one and I do so because I think the answer has real implications. If the “bigotry is taught” crowd is correct, all we have to do to get rid of racism is keep out external racist influences, but I think the reality is that humans have a tendency to categorize and overgeneralize. Although I agree that specific bigotry can be passed between generations I think the tendency to bigotry is innate.
    For instance, although I support gay rights I was not directly introduced to what being gay by anyone. I came upon it and at the age of 12 (I think) had an immediate sense of revulsion for whatever reason. Of course I realized that, as with eating lima beans, personal revulsion in and of itself is a personal preference not a moral mandate.
    As a result I think actively making your child a critical thinker who is aware of the mental traps we build for ourselves is important even if you aren’t indoctrinating them with actively bigoted ideas.

    • Libby Anne

      Interesting point. I would absolutely say that tribalism is innate, though even then I don’t think that the feeling will be strong or pervasive if it’s not being fed. I also don’t think tribalism being innate is identical to the idea of racism, sexism, or homophobia being innate. As for what you say about being introduced to what “gay” was at age twelve, had people beforehand so normalized heterosexuality that anything outside of that seemed repulsive? Because like I said, my daughter doesn’t see anything wrong or weird about two guys being together or two girls being together. I’m just trying to think what would make the difference.

      • Lumiere

        I read an article somewhere that claimed that being ‘colour-blind’ can cause some degree of racism; denying something that is plainly true creates distrust in children, apparently. “Mummy? Why are those people different?” “Oh, they’re not different, honey.” “…What are you hiding?”

      • Joy

        Your daughter doesn’t see anything wrong with it because she’s a preschooler. Kids those age don’t see anything weird about wanting to marry their parents and have little to no concept of what an adult sexual relationship is really like. You’re right that older kids have internalized society’s norms, but preschoolers are in the process of learning those norms and their knowledge of sexuality is very limited, much more than, say, an 8-year-old.

    • Jayn

      I think part of the problem is communities that are too homogenous. If you’re not used to being around black people, or gay people, or whatever, then it’s going to have a different effect on you than if being around those people was part of your ‘normal’.

      Of course, never underestimate the ability of some people to compartmentalise into ‘people I know’ and ‘those people’.

      • Charlotte

        As a woman of color, I find that people taught to be “color blind” are very hard to talk to sometimes. They’re taught that race doesn’t matter so they’re much more likely to deny that racism still exists. Because they’re not racist no one else is, and all the injustices in this country (in my case the U.S.) either are no longer a problem or those silly minorities are just making them all up. In a weird way sometimes teaching kids to ignore race makes them more likely to hold some seriously racist viewpoints.

      • Libby Anne

        Charlotte – Thank you for that. As someone raised in a “color blind” family who grew up to realize that race plays so much more of a role than I had ever thought and that even “color blind” odes to things like hard work and responsibility could be racially coded, I need to be reminded sometimes of just what you say here. Especially when it comes to doing the best I can to raise caring, aware, progressive children.

      • Christine

        As a white woman, I strive to be aware of race – I see it as being my position of privilege that lets me ignore it. It’s awkward, because I want to mention “yes, that person there has skin of a really different colour, doesn’t he?” to my baby, but I feel really awkward, because we’ve been taught that it’s inappropriate to draw attention to differences. Once she’s old enough to actually notice I’ll try to explain without teaching her that it’s shameful to notice, but I don’t know if it’s possible.

    • Eric D Red

      Ok, if you’ve never had any exposure to the idea of male homosexuality, first hearing about it when you’re a 12 year old straight male (going from Mike’s example) it would seem pretty gross. You’re at an age when you’re just discovery sexuality, and frankly, to a straight male, considering the details of male homosexuality can seem pretty gross.

      So hearing about it in a non-negative way before you’re so engrossed in hormones that your mind isn’t right might defuse that. A little younger and you don’t need the details, or really think much of them.

      I do think that bigotry is mostly taught. There does seem to be some natural tendency to tribalism, and to reject the different, but the tendency seems to be small. My own kids had friends of different ethnicities and colors growing up, and therefore they weren’t “other”. They were “Katie” or “Lisa”.

      And if Mike had known more openly about gays, and maybe known some, that natural tendency to tribalism may have fizzled. Or at least been directed at Maple Leafs fans, which is entirely appropriate.

  • Skjaere

    I was in the third grade, which I guess was pretty late, but I grew up in a small town and was pretty sheltered. I told my best friend that I thought another girl was pretty (not in a crushy way; just a purely objective way). Her response? She laughed and called me a lesbian. I denied it vehemently. I had no idea what a lesbian was, but I could tell from her tone that it was something I definitely did not want to be.

  • kecks

    i don’t think that any complex behavior like “racism” or “bigotry” is innate or learned – this distinction is too simple. the evolutionary biology crowd tells the following tale (and i tend to believe it…): every complex behavior is some combination of some innate disposition, which gets kind of ‘unpacked’ at a certain time in a child’s development and starts to actively search for information in the environment that is relevant to this specific disposition. the disposition then starts to be fully active when the needed information is gathered and fully ingrained in the existing disposition.
    so f.e. every child starts to “seek” sounds and language at a very young age, and around their second birthday they nearly completed the process of getting this sound informations from their environment into their innate disposition for learning to communicate using words. it’s the same for learning about ‘your tribe’ (who is part of the gang and whose not) i think?!

    • Rosa

      not to mention that the way we think of race has changed over historical time, and you can see that in our documented history of trying to classify people by race.

      It’s especially striking for a person like me, who grew up in a midwestern town that was probably a sundown town until the 1950s, where the white and black communities were very separate, to look at photos of historically notable African Americans – the range of skin colors and hair types labeled black in our legal and cultural separatist systems has been very, very wide.

    • jose

      Racism can’t be innate because classical races are a social construct. In order to really classify people objectively by race, you practically would have to create a new race for every population, which isn’t very useful and definitely looks nothing like the classical ones.

      • Eric D Red

        But you’re arguing that something that isn’t rationale can’t be true because it isn’t scientific.

        No scientific definition of race is relevant to racism. It’s enough that a particular group is visibly “other” to be considered not one of us. Bigots don’t do a detailed scientific analysis to say that the other group is somehow lesser or evil. If they did they wouldn’t be bigots for long.

  • Anonymous

    On the otherhand, how much can prejudices be untaught after they are deeply intrenched?

  • J-Rex

    This is something that has really bothered me when I talk to my sister who holds onto a lot of her religious beliefs. Around the time I became an atheist, I started to realize that my feelings didn’t count as proof of anything. I was completely disgusted by gays, but I realized that that didn’t mean there was anything wrong with them. I was obviously taught to be disgusted by gays. I became a supporter of gay rights before I lost that disgusted feeling. Even today, I can’t pretend I’m not grossed out by transgender people, but I know that it’s irrational and that it will take time before I can get used to it. In the meantime, I’ll support their rights and defend them in conversations.
    But people like my sister cannot detach their emotions from the situation. She feels grossed out by gays, so she knows there is something deeply wrong with it. I wish I could convince her that the feelings were taught to us and that they do fade over time, leaving you feeling like an asshole, but I don’t think she gets it.

  • Marta L.

    Libby, can you explain a bit more why the fact that homophobia isn’t natural is morally relevant? I’m genuinely curious because there are lots of things that have to be taught but that most of us think should be taught. I don’t have a lot of experience with kids, but from what I understand “sharing” isn’t a natural concept. (They tend to think of things as theirs and not want to give it up, until they’re taught to share.) But certainly the fact that that a certain behavior or idea is learned doesn’t make it right or wrong?

    I’m not trying to defend racism or homophobia! But I think you’re relying on an idea here that needs a bit more exploration. Why exactly is untaught better than taught? (Or am I misunderstanding you?)

    • RowanVT

      Actually, sharing IS a natural concept. Have you never been offered something by a toddler that can barely speak? It happens to me all the time at work when dealing with the kids clients bring with them. I always make a point of squatting and saying “Hi!” at eye level and I am frequently offered a toy or bottle or some such object. I’ll accept it, say “Oh, what a nice thing this is! Thankyou and here you go!” and then give it back.

    • Doe

      I can’t speak for Libby, but I think the reason that it matters that homophobia is not innate is because people who belong to bigoted branches of religion tend to use the revulsion that they themselves instill in their children to justify their homophobia. The children are supposed to believe that the feelings of disgust toward gay people are God speaking to you via your conscience and feelings, telling you that homosexuality is Not Okay.

      • Libby Anne

        This. My point wasn’t that everything that has to be taught is somehow bad, but rather that the idea that homosexuality is just naturally repulsive and disgusting is wrong. There are good reasons to teach our kids math, or to teach them that they shouldn’t put their fingers in electrical outlets. There are not, however, good reasons to teach our kids to be homophobic.

  • Carys Birch

    Ugh, the comments on the Huffpost story you link to appalled me. So many people saying the other mother was just teaching her son to respect women. Because you know, if you let your kids play rough, they might grow up to beat their wives. /exasperated YES, men should not be violent to women (or women to men, or anyone to anyone else). But starting out your son’s life by putting up fences around baby girls teaches him that women are vulnerable and other and not equals and that he has power over them (to hurt them) and that he must benevolently protect them (in a noblesse oblige kind of way). Just ew. How how how how is that respect?

    • Christine

      I had an argument with my mother about that. I eventually had to use an emotional appeal. “Mom, imagine if the boys I played soccer with had been taught that.” I also pointed out that with my daughter (she’s off all the growth charts), she’s more likely to be the one doing the hurting, especially when she’s older. While my mom has a point in that it’s useful when they grow up, and the boys get a lot larger than the girls around puberty, that’s easily addressed by being careful with people who are smaller. (And something I have to teach my daughter).

      • Anat

        I was a rather physical kid at some point. Arguments often ended up as a physical fight – with most other kids until I was about 10, with my brother until I was 13. I remember my mother telling me off “how dare you hit your younger cousin, she’s smaller than you” and a while later “don’t hit your older cousin, that’s disrespectful”. And I wondered “so who am I supposed to hit?”, not realizing that perhaps the correct answer was ‘nobody’.

    • Niveau

      I once read an experience from a proud parent whose son had been taught to never hit girls as he was growing up. The son was taking karate lessons. One day, he was at a karate tournament and his assigned opponent was a girl. He refused to fight her, because doing so would involve hitting her. The parent was *so very proud*!
      All I could do was imagine what that experience must have been like for the girl involved. She was entered in the tournament, too, and because this boy’s parent had taught him that girls were super-special precious princesses rather than actual people to be treated differently in different circumstances, *her* participation was limited. How someone could see that as being respectful is something that I just don’t get.

      • Steve

        There was also a case not so long ago of a Christian fundie refusing to wrestle a girl. He said that he was “respecting” her.

      • Carys Birch

        Well wrestling, ye gods, he might, you know, TOUCH her.

        /rolling eyes

  • Rilian

    About racism.
    I wouldn’t say I was ever color blind. But I grew up in a crazy-liberal place, and race was to me literally just a description of the person’s physical appearance. I thought that racism didn’t exist “anymore” because I didn’t experience it. Then I moved to a crazy-conservative place where people fly confederate flags. Yeah, racism definitely does exist, even though there may be pockets of equality scattered around the world.

  • Lana

    I agree that our environment teaches us to be homophobic and racists. I also agree that when you grow up with something as normal, such as gay marriage or communities of other skin colors, then you will probably not grow up repulsed by it. I live overseas, and our kids here never blink over skin color or lady boys or anything else.

    But I have noticed too that here its really easy become numb to sexual sin altogether. I am sure there is a differencing of opinion here on this thread, but being gay is not a choice. But when a grown man falls in love with a minor it is a choice whether he acts upon it or not. I saw an article in the western magazine where a western man noted that when he went home to great britain, his friends were so closed minded between gay marriage, marriages with someone outside the “white” community and marriages between an 80 year old and a 16 year old. In short, he had become numb because its a cultural norm, but numb does not mean healthy.

  • Danielle

    We read “And Tango Makes Three” every now and then. One day, a few months ago, my husband and I were discussing something political and my 5 year old piped in “What are you talking about?” I said that someone was trying to make a law that two mommies or two daddies couldn’t be a family together. His first reaction was this loud disappointed “aaw.” It made me super proud.

    Anyways, I remember growing up being taught that it was a bad unnatural thing but more of a pity than a straight up hatred. I was taught that gay people must have had to go through some kind of terrible trauma in their childhood that turned them toward such a depravity. Now I still have to remind myself not to feel bad for gay people.