Headbloom Blog

Defining the Isms: Looking at the Language of Prejudice and Power

Earlier this year, blogger Sophia Nelson, a straight, Christian, African American woman, wrote an opinion piece called “How to oppose gay marriage without being homophobic” (which you can read here). Her position was that a person could oppose gay marriage but not be considered a hateful person. She personally opposes allowing gay people to marry but claims not to hate gay people. I took issue with her blog for two reasons. First, I found her claim to be similar to a white person claiming to be against full equality for black people yet not be a racist. In other words, she was being hypocritical.

My second reason was with her choice of words. She is not alone in conflating “homophobia” with “heterosexism.” For the record, there is an important difference between the two. Let’s look at definitions.

“Phobia” is a fear of something. For example, Arachnophobia = fear of spiders. Agoraphobia = fear of open spaces. And then, homophobia = fear of homosexuals. Fear, whether rational or not, is a simple concept expressing discomfort.

The “Isms,” on the other hand, are more complex. They involve the practice of exerting power over a less dominant group based on prejudices. Here is the formula: Prejudice + Power = _____-ism. This concept goes beyond simple fear. With this formula, we can say that the use of personal or systemic power of whites over blacks (or other perceived skin tones) is Racism. Use of male power (personally or institutionally) over females is Sexism. The use of Christian imperialism (in the U.S.) over other belief systems has no widely held name, but author Paul Kivel calls it Christian Hegemony. In the wider scope, as we look at abuse of power by one country’s dominant religions over non-dominant religions, we might call it Religism. The ability to discriminate against homosexuals by heterosexuals is Heterosexism. These Isms are evil because they exercise the ability to abuse, discriminate against, and hold down members of less powerful groups.

Ms. Nelson has doubtlessly experienced discrimination and abuses of power against her as a female and as an African American (two historically oppressed groups). What is sad is that she doesn’t acknowledge the privileges she is accorded as a Christian and a heterosexual in American culture. While there is no monolithic Black American Church (or White American Church), there is some self-examination that needs to be done in thousands of congregations across the country. The introspection needs to begin with what the simple message Christianity asks of its followers: to love God and to love one’s neighbor—without judgment, without discrimination, without abuse of power.

Some Useful Definitions:
perceptions = how things seem to be (may or may not be accurate)
race = compilation of physical, genetically determined human features; may include skin color, hair color and texture, facial features, and bone structure
ethnicity = humans having shared racial, religious, linguistic, or other cultural traits
generalization = a statement about a whole group based on one or a few examples (e.g., All German cars are expensive.)
stereotype = a generalization about an entire group of people (e.g., All fat people are lazy.)
prejudice = a judgment (made in advance) against a person or thing, often without accurate knowledge
bias = prejudice (e.g., not liking people from New York, people who smoke, or people with tattoos)
discrimination = an action against a group of people based on prejudice (e.g., not hiring New Yorkers, smokers, or people with tattoos)
power = ability to influence people or organizations through use of money, status, strength, or influence
denial = inability or refusal to accept what is true
equity = the status of having equal status, access, or opportunity
inclusion = making room for people of all backgrounds and abilities
racism = use of power by a dominant race against non-dominant races
sexism = use of power by the historically dominant sex (males) against females
heterosexism = use of power by the historically dominant orientation (heterosexuals) against homosexuals
ableism = use of power by able-bodied people against people with handicaps
classism = use of power by upper classes against lower classes
religism = use of power by historically dominant religions against those of non-dominant religions
ageism = use of power by a dominant age group
hegemony = the dominance of one state over another
phobia = fear
Islamophobia = fear of Muslims
homophobia = fear of homosexuals
xenophobia = fear of foreigners
lesbian = a name of identity for female homosexuals (with a less clinical, less harsh feeling than “homosexual” )
gay (male) = a name of identity for male homosexuals (also less clinical or harsh sounding)
straight = a name of identity for heterosexuals (less clinical or harsh sounding)

This blog was edited from its earlier posting this month after counsel of a wise colleague of mine who has extensive experience in these areas of discrimination. Her insights reminded me that none of us is immune to overgeneralization, nor can we make casual assumptions about another person’s experiences and motivations. On a separate note, a few Isms have nothing to do with power and discrimination, including socialism, deism, and cubism.

Alan Headbloom