Prejudice is a broad social phenomenon and area of research, complicated by the fact that intolerance exists in internal cognitions but is manifest in symbol usage (verbal, nonverbal, mediated), law and policy, and social and organizational practice. It is based on group identification (i.e., perceiving and treating a person or people in terms of outgroup membership); but that outgroup can range from the more commonly known outgroups based on race, sex/gender, nationality, or sexual orientation to more specific intolerances of others based on political party, fan status, or membership in some perceived group such as “blonde” or “athlete.” This article begins with the link of culture to prejudice, noting specific culture-based prejudices of ethnocentrism and xenophobia. It then explores the levels at which prejudice might be manifest, finally arriving at a specific focus of prejudice—racism; however, what applies to racism may also apply to other intolerances such as sexism, heterosexism, classism, or ageism.
The discussion and analysis of prejudice becomes complicated when we approach a specific topic like racism, though the tensions surrounding this phenomenon extend to other intolerances such as sexism or heterosexism. Complications include determining the influences that might lead to individual racism or an atmosphere of racism, but also include the very definition of what racism is: Is it an individual phenomenon, or does it refer to an intolerance that is supported by a dominant social structure? Because overt intolerance has become unpopular in many societies, researchers have explored how racism and sexism might be expressed in subtle terms; others investigate how racism intersects with other forms of oppression, including those based on sex/gender, sexual orientation, or colonialism; and still others consider how one might express intolerance “benevolently,” with good intentions though still based on problematic racist or sexist ideologies.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.
Sexual orientation is a private matter that individuals can decide to disclose or conceal. Nevertheless, when interacting with others, people seek for cues of sexual orientation. Hence, the person’s face, voice, or non-verbal behavior is taken as a cue of gayness. As research on gaydar has shown, inferences about others’ sexual orientation are at times accurate, at times driven by stereotypes. Sometimes, gay and lesbian people intentionally reveal their sexual identity explicitly or through subtle cues. Whether intentional or not, several cues are interpreted as communicating sexual orientation with tangible consequences for interpersonal interactions.
Identifying someone as gay or lesbian has several implications. On one hand, it leads straight men and women to behave differently than when they interact with other straight individuals (e.g., more physical distance, more anxiety). On the other hand, it affects verbal communication (e.g., conversation topics, questions, and statements). The harshest consequence of this categorization is hate speech and homophobic language. Researchers have demonstrated that being labeled as “faggot” or “dyke” negatively affects those who are targets of such verbal derogation and negatively impacts straight bystanders. Indeed, gay and lesbian targets of homophobic language report lower well-being and self-acceptance, while being exposed to such language increases prejudice toward gays and lesbians among straight people. In the case of straight men, the use of homophobic language often reflects the attempt to publically affirm one’s heterosexual identity.
Interestingly, a recent trend among gay people is to use homophobic labels within the community as a form of “reclaimed language,” meaning that these derogatory terms are used and reframed in a more positive way. Moreover, slang and labeling is very common among gays as it allows them to identify as a group and to highlight differences between sub-categories.
Finally, communicating sexual orientation can increase self-acceptance, social support, and positive social comparison with peers among gays and lesbians and can also increase positive attitudes toward gay people, especially when communicating with friends and family members.