My beliefs are based on firm convictions about hegemonic discourse in general and even more on some theoretical precepts about what discourse actually is: It’s an associational linguistic structure that we all inhabit—specifically the one that constitutes the world. If we didn’t inhabit the same discourse, we couldn’t understand racist jokes when we heard them nor could we find others’ use of them offensive when the contradiction with our own situation is too painful to allow us to laugh. While the part of us that we consider our “self” may each be positioned differently within it, none of us is outside it. That is particularly true for those of us who are black, or disabled, or overweight, or Asian, or women, or gay, or part of whatever group we have been socially assigned to, because if we didn’t know that discourse down in our bones, we’d be dead.
People have noted for years how fast racism or sexism or classism reasserts itself as soon as a certain vigilance is allowed to relax. That’s because they don’t come in from outside. They are a necessary underlying factor within the egalitarian behavioral structure itself. Such a behavioral structure is not about ignoring differences. It’s about noticing them, valuing them, realizing that there are certain situations, cultural and defined, when these differences are important—and realizing that they are crashingly irrelevant in others. (That’s what valuing means.) If the structure of when and where they are relevant and irrelevant gets loose or generalized, you have racism, classism, and sexism all over again. If you’re lucky, you can enlist habit on your side, especially with the young. But (to put it in Lacanian terms) you’re still fighting the Imaginary—and history is always settling the Symbolic into the Imaginary, even as theory is always untangling the Imaginary into the Symbolic. Until the properly stabilizing Symbolic discourse is in place, you’re particularly vulnerable.