Hetero Guilt and Narcissistic Groping

I don't think this Beenie Man's apology, which you can see above, is much of one. I'm in sympathy with the point about being young--especially for artists. A lot of us come from a place where being out is hazardous to your health. Then you go out into a world where gays are integrated into everyday life and you feel a little ignorant. Of course Beenie didn't say that. I don't even think he actually apologized. But I do think, taken with T.I.'s statement last week, you are actually seeing something new here--shame. People are becoming ashamed of being labeled homophobic.

When you think about bigotry there's a point where folks will just out and out express the most hateful thoughts--think Ben Tillman advocating lynching from the Senate floor. They usually do this because they have a crowd behind them. Sometimes they deeply believe what they're saying, and other times are simply looking for someone weaker to smack down.

So it's fine to use gay slurs, to urge violence against gays as long as there's a crowd that finds this either acceptable, or not particularly lamentable. The black past is filled with incidents of violence perpetrated by whites--not as racial terrorism--but simply as hedonistic malevolence.

It's Friday night and you've been drinking. You're looking for some amusement. You don't really have much in the way of political thoughts. But there are certain groups which the crowd views as outside of society. When they are victimized, the crowd may not always cheer you on, but you can count on them looking the other way.

This spirit of "looking the other way" is so insidious that it often goes unnoticed and is only revealed in our expressions of sympathy and skepticism. Even as a young person, hip-hop's attitude toward women bothered me. It's attitude toward gays did not. Biggie saying "All you heard was Poppa don't hit me no more," bothered me in a way that Eazy E's "this is one faggot that I had to hurt" did not.

There's a lot more misogyny in rap than homophobia, simply because women are a more common topic. But I didn't even bat an eye when Eazy said that. That the verse was basically an expression of open season on gays never occurred to me. It wasn't even a moral dilemma to be considered. If you'd asked me about that line I probably would said, "Yes it's awful" and then denied any real collective import at work.

What you now see happening is that the crowd is shifting. People are being forced to think a little more about what they're saying and have said in the past. Their words are being brought to account, and a kind of shame is coming to view as the crowd, which once gave us haven, is daily melting away. What you are left with is not the end of homophobia and new era of all loving all, but a self-centered discomfort, a narcissistic groping, a revulsion--not so much at being a homophobe--but being labeled as one. The hallmark of narcissistic groping is a deep concern with how one is seen, versus one's actual impact on others.

But narcissistic groping is progress. In a democracy, movements succeed when they can convince the masses that it is in their interest--not simply a minority's interest--to change. Nations rarely, if ever, enact policy simply because it is the right thing to do.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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