Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 1: Whose Ignorance/Who’s Ignorant?

February 5, 2010

This is the first in a three four part series. The second is here and the third here. When the fourth is posted and written, I’ll link it here.

“Ignorance.” It’s one of the most commonly cited “roots” of homophobia and transphobia*, and other “prejudices”/-isms/stigmas as well.

But what does it mean that this–”ending ‘ignorance’”–is our battle cry?

“Ignorance” calls up two images. The first image is of homophobia and transphobia, hate, bigotry, etc.–the one intentionally referenced by HRC, NGLTF, GLAAD, et al. OK. But what about the other image, or other part of the image, raised by the word–of the uneducated, elderly, rural or working class, poor, people of color or (to use the busted, racist and classist logic of the image) “white trash,” Fox-News watching Red-staters or people from the “third world” who need to be “civilized” (to, again, use the logic of the image).

Huh. What about that?

These are, of course, the people hegemonic liberal discourse teaches us to assume are homophobic, transphobic, racist, etc.–not health insurance executives, doctors, therapists, the police, Women’s Studies PhD’s, queer theorists, anthropologists, biologists, journalists, cis LGB folks, or (to be US-centric) policy wonks writing the REAL ID act, the FDA, the Social Security Administration, the State Department (in charge of passports), etc. Not the people with a lot of knowledge, education, and power. That is to say, not the people in charge, not the “good people,” not, oh say, you.

I’ll be honest–the people who transphobically harass me on the street are, by an overwhelming margin, young cis black men culturally pre-defined as “ignorant”. I’m not making that up, I can give you numbers if I have to. But the people who’ve harassed me at work, the people who’ve trans bashed me, and the people who’ve groped me (because I’m trans and female, not those who presume I’m cis) are all white (and cis) to a person–not all male, not all straight, of varied educational, class, and regional backgrounds, but all white (and that’s not representative of the demographics where I’ve worked). Any number of people from my educational institution have said highly transphobic shit to me or in my hearing–that is, all highly educated, socially pre-defined as knowledgeable, generally middle/upper class–and who does that is not strongly distributed by race, age, or whether they’re prof or student.** But the people who make the decisions and form the arguments that fuck with my life the most have a disproportionate amount of privilege, education, and power.

Targeting the ones that get culturally pre-defined as “ignorant” might be tempting, because their offenses are frequently the most highly visible, and (relatedly) least culturally sanctioned, but it’s those culturally pre-defined as “knowledgeable” that do me the most damage, and thus, through a privilege+power rubric, are most transphobic. Who’s worse, the most “ignorant” “redneck” (supposedly) embodying every awful anti-rural stereotype, or J Michael Bailey, who has a PhD and sits in the halls of knowledge?

So when we construe transphobia as about “ignorance,” not only have we engaged with classism, racism, and colonialism, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and let the worst offenders off the hook.

Up Next:
Part 2: How Could You Have Known? –You Already Did.

Part 3: Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims

*Interestingly, NCTE seems to mostly eschew the use of this word–a google site search turned up only 5 results, compared to 94 for HRC, 96 for NGLTF, and 46 from GLAAD. Good for them.

**My program is so overwhelmingly female that an accounting by gender is impossible; the majority of the comments come from (cis) women, but that’s who’s in the program.

EDIT 2-24-10 to account for addition of a fourth part to series.

11 Responses to “Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 1: Whose Ignorance/Who’s Ignorant?”

  1. Valarissa said

    You are nearly 100% correct. The worst offenses against trans identified individuals are perpetuated by those who dictate policy. However, I think the main images when discussing transphobia and homophobia are those of violent acts, which, though I don’t have the numbers on hand, are typically perpetuated by those who would be perceived as uneducated about trans and homosexual realities.

    To that end, disseminating lived experiences to “educate” could serve to sow empathy for our experiences, thus reducing THAT form of phobic action. Unseating those in power who determine policy is by and far the more difficult task. I would however say that certain individuals in those seats of power could be ignorant to the fact that their decisions and actions have such deeply scarring ramifications in our communities. However, due to the actions of many organizations, I doubt this is often the case (We are really rather vocal when something occurs that could hurt our ability to exist unmolested).

    I look forward to reading the next pieces of this series!

    • Cedar said

      1)I was trans bashed by middle-class-looking white gay men. It’s hard to know how well the media images conform to reality–after all, the vast majority of murders of trans people (trans women) go unsolved, and a large portion undocumented.

      2)Parts two and three should address most of your second paragraph.

      3)The point is more about the implications and limitations of using the concept of ignorance than its accuracy.

  2. DavidC said

    Trans identified?

    I hate to feel nitpicky. It’s just that I know I’ve said ‘___-itentified’ or ‘does/doesn’t identify as ___’ in ways that were problematic (more often ‘___’ is ‘woman’ or ‘man’ than ‘trans’, and that’s what Cedar talks about in the post about that, but I see similar problems) and I felt like reading that post was good for me, so I thought I’d link back to it here.

  3. DavidC said

    Also: Thanks, Cedar! Your blog frequently has me thinking: “Yeah, I do that. Yeah, I should stop doing that.”

  4. [...] last time I talked about the ways that using the concept of “ignorance” furthers racism, [...]

  5. Rebecca said

    I’m looking forward to reading the next piece (which I’ll do right after I leave this comment). Thinking out loud, I imagine “ending ignorance” seems easier, more approachable, and less scary than “ending bigotry.” Bigotry, it seems, is the real problem; Its solution? Much less clear than solving “ignorance.”

    When someone is ignorant, there’s an implication you can educate their ignorance away. “If only they knew facts A, B, and C! Then they wouldn’t be ignorant, and we could all live in a liberal, intellectual wonderland.”

    Obviously, I’m being intentionally facetious, but I’m as attracted to that worldview as anyone. It’s simplistic, and speaks to my own inherent desire to believe that education and knowledge can solve problems; that knowing about people is enough to sympathize with people. And, I would argue, for some people, it is. For some people, learning more about $GROUP_X is enough for them to stop hating or fearing that population.

    For others, obviously, that’s not the case. And you’re right – the ones who already have knowledge about a particular group, and still remain bigots, are usually the ones with the power or privilege to do more than one-on-one street harassment: to guide policy or institutions or organizations that have wide-ranging effects.

    And (again, thinking out loud) I assume it’s harder for those same educated populations to say “there is an issue here that is larger than mere ignorance,” because it somehow seems to lessen the power or effectiveness of ‘pure’ knowledge. It indicates people aren’t ideal, rational beings who will change their action when presented with just the right information. And, again, it presents a much more difficult and fundamental question: how do you change the mind of someone who has all the information you do, but still disagrees?

  6. [...] 24, 2010 This is the third in a three four part series. See the first and second posts. I’ll link to the fourth here once it’s [...]

  7. [...] wrote up a great, 4 part (3 now, 4 to come) series called Combatting “Combatting Ignorance”. The premise of it is not just that ignorance isn’t an excuse- it’s not true.  Cedar [...]

  8. [...] wrote up a great, 4 part (3 now, 4 to come) series called Combatting “Combatting Ignorance”. The premise of it is not just that ignorance isn’t an excuse- it’s not true.  Cedar [...]

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