What we talk about when we talk about bigotry

Racism, misogyny, and the poverty of language

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Like just about everyone else in the U.S., I’m heartbroken and horrified by the murders of eight people, six of them Asian, in Georgia — just the latest in a spate of attacks against Asian-Americans, and the latest in a steady forever-stream of violence against women. There’s already been a lot written about the intersection of racism and misogyny, so much of it crucial. But what strikes me here is how simplistic our grasp of these dynamics are. The story of these shootings is fundamentally one of how racism and misogyny are so often not about cartoonish hate — they’re also tied up in fetishization and desire, intimacy and shame, entitlement and rage. They often don’t look like what we imagine when we think of the terms “hate crime” or “bigotry” or even “hate” all by itself.

Most violent acts against women happen in intimate relationships, whether those relationships are romantic or familial. There’s an (important and valuable) line about domestic violence that “love doesn’t hurt,” and that if a partner physically or emotionally harms you, then you’re not in a loving relationship. And that’s true; it’s also not true, isn’t it? A lot of men (and it’s mostly but not always men) who hit their partners would not only say that they love the women they abuse, but I am certain do genuinely experience the love and desire they claim. The relationship isn’t loving when it’s abusive, but abusive men certainly do experience love, even as they’re cruel and violent. This has always been one oddity of misogyny: Male hatred of women is pervasive, and yet men and women live closely together, love each other, build families, and know each other intimately. Child abuse is different, and also not: Parents who abuse their children — often mothers, let’s be honest about it — also usually say they love their kids. And I think most of them do. And yet the relationship isn’t a loving, functional, positive one. Unlike misogynist violence, the power dynamic that allows that child abuse to happen is unchangeable — children are dependent and need adults to take care of them, and parents are legally in charge of, and legally responsible for, their children. When it comes to misogynist violence, the power dynamic is social — just as real, but far more moveable if we chose to move it.

In any event, what I am trying to say is this: Words like “hatred” and “bigotry” and “racism” and “misogyny” only reveal a sliver of what we’re actually talking about. They’re accurate, and they’re insufficient.

In the case of the Atlanta murders, there was intimacy and there wasn’t. The shooter, a 21-year-old white man, frequented massage parlors for sex. He’s religious, an active member in the very conservative Southern Baptist church, and felt deep shame about paying women for sex (and presumably about sex generally). He claims to have a “sexual addiction,” and the killings he carried out, he said, were about reducing temptation.

“Racially motivated violence should be called out for exactly what it is and we must stop making excuses and rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland of Washington State. According to the New York Times, “Investigators said they had not ruled out a racial motive, even as the suspect, a 21-year-old white man from the Atlanta suburbs, denied being driven by such bigotry.”

This is where we have an incredible poverty of language when it comes to concepts like bigotry, racism, and misogyny. We think about them as purely malicious, as red-hot hatred — a man hates Asians so much he shoots and kills them. Violence was racially motived or it wasn’t, and talking about “sexual addiction” is making excuses, goes one argument. Goes another: The man himself denied being driven by bigotry because, presumably, how could bigotry drive a crime that was about sexual desire and temptation? He didn’t hate the Asian women he killed; he found them irresistible.

None of this gets it quite right (and the latter argument gets it way wrong). For so many men, including, presumably, this shooter, sex is tied up in dominance and dehumanization and shame — a shame that then gets projected onto the women they have sex with, for whom sex is treated as a degradation and a humiliation. Peggy Orenstein has written about this brokenness of American boyhood: the mixed messages boys get about what makes a man. For boys who grow into men who are raised in conservative Christian households, like it seems this shooter was, it’s arguably even more confounding. The ideal American man is aggressive and sexually voracious, but in control of his own life and his urges; the ideal Christian man is the head of the household, while women are the moral center, those charged with taming the naturally more sexually desirous male. Women are dangerous in part because women are sexually tempting. Men want women sexually, women want men for protection and stability, and so therefore women must manage men’s sexual desires by withholding sex so it might be channeled into its rightful place (within a marriage and for childbearing). Sex workers break this bargain. For a man raised in a culture that puts the onus of sexual regulation on women, and tells men that of course they should control themselves but also they are men, you can see how desire and contempt begin to weave into each other, and after a while integrate so thoroughly that you can’t pull one from the other.

There is also the particular dynamic of male fetishization and eroticization of women who are “other,” something I’ve personally observed to perhaps the greatest degree among white men fetishizing Asian women. That comes in many forms, whether it’s the very obvious like a robust sex tourism economy in Southeast Asia, or more subtle and intimate, wending into very real romantic relationships between two individuals. It certainly shows up in male writers and academics who insist, for example, that women in “the east” simply don’t have the same sexual hangups as Western women, that culturally sex has never carried the same moral weight as it does in Christian societies, that Asian women are simply more liberated and less complicated; or, on the flip side, that Asian women are more subservient and more feminine, that they take better care of themselves than American women, that they’re grateful for a white man who treats them so much better than their own countrymen do (go to any airport in Thailand and you’ll find a rack of books for sale that say exactly this).

This is racism. But it’s not hatred, exactly, the way we think of racist hate as cross-burnings and segregated buses and race-based immigration policies. It’s racism that intersects with desire, that is also bound up in contempt for women — the idea that women should be a certain way, should put male pleasure first, should be slightly less human than men, and certainly much less complicated, messy, or powerful.

The shooter’s language of “sexual addiction” is also telling: The women he shot are sex; they’re things you can be addicted to, like drugs. There’s no individualization, no sense that the women he shot are each unique people. They’re interchangeable temptations, objects — not even objects of desire, but representations of his own desire and sin and lack of control, things that represent bigger things.

How do you talk about a crime like this one with words like “racially motivated” or “misogynist” that are so limited by what we understand them to mean? Can we understand that racism and misogyny are broad and complex systems, infecting so many of our interactions from the intimate to the personal to the large-scale, and often not interpersonal at all? In the criminal justice system, we understand hate crimes or racially motivated crimes to be crimes springing from malice, prejudice, and hostility; a hate crime is homophobic men killing a gay man, or white racists killing a Black man, or an incel shooting an attractive woman. And of course those are hate crimes. But we don’t as often identify racism or misogyny in those crimes where desire, intimacy, and power come along with contempt. If we did, every act of domestic violence would be seen as a hate crime, wouldn’t it?

If we want to understand how racism and misogyny made crimes like the Atlanta murders possible, we have to understand the layers of racism and misogyny. If we’re looking for evidence that this shooter posted hateful and malicious comments about Asian women on the internet, we are, I suspect, unlikely find it. But if we are more honest and layered than our language sometimes allows, we can pull back and see that hunting for abject bigotry is not sufficient for understanding male contempt for women, and this particular man’s contempt for Asian women, even as it was expressed in what we often think of as the positive language of desire.

But here’s the thing about going there: It doesn’t just implicate him. It implicates his church, his community, his country. It implicates all of those who prop up this particular vision of sex as a vice and as an addictive substance, of women’s bodies as stand-ins for sex itself, of women as society’s natural sexual regulators and men as naturally less controlled, of the moral failing of women who break from social obligation and turn sex transparently and publicly transactional instead of implicitly and privately. It pulls from America’s long history of classifying Asians as a class of other, to be banned for bringing vice and competing with American workers, or lauded as model minorities and held up as examples of what other others could do if only they would try as hard.

It’s an individual decision to pick up a gun and go on a murder spree. But the question of why, especially when we see patterns of who picks up guns, and who they kill — that’s social. And if we want to understand it, we need to better understand what we talk about when we talk about bigotry.

xx Jill

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By Thayne Tuason - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85795034