To those who believe that all Muslims are terrorists, all blacks are criminals and gay people don’t belong in civilized society, I’ve got one thing to say to you: I get it.

You’re a bunch of selfish, narrow-minded, bigoted assholes, but when you open your mouths and say things like “Homosexuality is a condition” or “Islam is a cult,” I can genuinely understand how you could see it that way.

I get it. I don’t support it, I don’t agree with it, but I get it. So if you haven’t already thrown Thursday’s edition into the lagoon and pulled up the MultiCultural Center’s contact information on your smartphone, I’ll tell you why.

Gay, black, transsexual, Jewish, French, Indie or all of the above, there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who see the forest, and those who see the trees. Let’s call these types A and B, respectively. As a society we operate under the assumption that bigoted and racist behavior is type A, while sensitive, intellectual behavior is type B. A racist, after all, is someone who groups and generalizes, who is incapable of discerning subtle differences between ethnicities and races — by all means, a forest kind of guy. Right?

Well, not exactly. While it’s true that racists are usually lacking on the details (you probably won’t hear any white supremacists saying they hate Nigerians), racism is not so much the failure to specify as it is the failure to contextualize.

This is why we have stereotypes — acute and unflattering characterizations that may describe a few members of a group but not the whole. And for those to whom the stereotypes do not apply, discrimination is both wrong and unjust.

For those to whom the stereotypes do apply, however, it is totally, 100 percent warranted.

Take homosexual men. As a group, gay men are often characterized as a troupe of spandex-clad cowboys gyrating on the stage of a penis-shaped parade float. If this were actually indicative of the entire gay male population, you wouldn’t be able to walk down a city street in America without seeing them waltzing by. In reality, most gay men are much more reserved than the few who choose to act outrageously.

But those few do exist, and by using their sexual orientation as the pretext for inappropriate behavior, they validate their stereotype in the eyes of their persecutors. These outliers perpetuate misconceptions about the gay community as a whole and convey an air of exceptionality that is directly opposed to equality.

It’s ironic.

What’s more, it’s avoidable. There will always be narrow-minded and bigoted people in the world, but minorities don’t have to play into their game. What we’re seeing in certain sects of the gay community is a sort of defiant antagonism — an intentional reflection of the popular stereotype as if to say, “You expect the worst? You get the worst.” And it’s not confined to gays.

Exceptional flamboyance has done to the gay community what fundamentalism has done to the Islamic community. In September 2012, massive protests erupted in Libya and Egypt over a poorly produced anti-Islamic video uploaded to YouTube featuring rioters torching buildings and fighting authorities. When a Florida pastor threatened to burn copies of the Quran in 2010, similar riots resulted in 12 deaths. In light of such disproportionate reactions, the claim that Islam is a violent religion gains a lot of credence.

Rap in the African-American community is a less dramatic but equally relevant example. The persona adopted by many popular black rappers embodies some of the worst aspects of the black stereotype: lawless, uneducated and violent. And while it succeeds in scaring the shit out of old, conservative white men (the desired reaction), it simultaneously reaffirms their prejudices and misconceptions.

Civil rights advocates love to quote the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to remind us not to judge people “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It’s unfortunate that for all their praise and idolization of King, they usually fail to grasp the second half of his message. We’ve become so neurotically absorbed in our struggle to avoid making irrational judgments that we’ve neglected our duty as a society to make rational ones.

Racists will be racists. Bigots will be bigots. But as long as they base their judgments on the color of your skin, or the name of your God or whom you choose to love, their words are ultimately meritless. The only thing that can give these people credibility is the implication of your character. And whether you’re black or white, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, character is yours to define.

Don’t compromise your character. Don’t yield to the culture of spite that has done so much more harm than good.

Exude respect, and you will receive it in turn.

Mark Strong: it’s not about what kind of trees make up the forest, it’s how they hold themselves.


Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted by primarily by students.

A version of this article appeared on page 16 of the April 11, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.