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Examples of Bigotry in American Culture: Past and Present

Our research discovered 10 additional examples of bigotry in American culture. Most of these examples either continue to present day, or have legacy effects that continue to present day. Many examples originate in the 19th century. Examples include:
- racism in common language,
- historic redlining,
- the 'pink' tax,
- historic racism in the candy industry,
- the medical research gender gap,
- whiteout at the Oscars,
- high levels of toxicity in cosmetics for women of color,
- minority mascotting in food products,
- the antisemitic origins of collegiate legacy admissions,
- and the relationship between the DSM and diagnostic bias in the psychiatric evaluation of women.

Below you'll find our methodology and a list of 10 examples. If you'd like an additional 10, please let us know; we'll be happy to work on that as a separate request.


We defined 'hidden in plain sight' to include examples which affect everyday culture and life for the average American, but which would not be obvious to someone who is unfamiliar with anti-oppression work or who has not studied the particular example. For objective support of our assessment of 'hidden' examples, we have endeavored to use sources that include some variant of 'here's something you might not know..,' but not all sources included this disclaimer, either explicitly or implicitly. For those that do not, we chose examples which have received no extensive media coverage and can therefore be assumed to be outside common knowledge. Our research uncovered 10 examples in the time available for a single request, though some of the general examples include multiple individual examples.

Please note that we have assumed that 'bigotry' refers to the motivation behind the racism, classism, sexism, and able-ism demonstrated in the examples below; and that bigotry is assumed in the context of institutionally oppressive actions or policies. Please also note that some older sources were used, both because the information therein continues to be highly relevant, and the relevant information was not adequately addressed in more recent sources.


There is a multitude of common phrases in English that either have racist origins, or have non-racist origins but were converted to racist slurs at some point in American history. Some of these phrases date to antiquity, while others can be dated to the late 19th or early 20th century. Phrases of this nature that are commonly used in the US include:
- 'Call a spade a spade': racist slur against African-Americans
- Paddy wagon: racist slur against Irish
- Peanut gallery: racist or classist slur which references the poorest seats in the theatre or other public space
- 'No can do': racist slur against Chinese
- Being 'gypped:' racist slur against the Roma
- The 'itis:' racist slur against African-Americans

Additionally, code phrases called 'dog whistles' are commonly used in American political discourse. These phrases are designed to resonate with particular segments of the listening population, but they largely pass by other segments undetected. Examples include the use of 'welfare queens' during the Reagan administration, which was intended to disparage African-Americans without directly referencing them; and the more general use of 'international banks,' which is intended to inspire antisemitic sentiment.


The practice of redlining is common knowledge in the banking industry, but is less well-known outside of the industry. Redlining refers to the practice of applying discriminatory map codes to African-American neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were labeled 'hazardous,' which made houses in those neighborhoods ineligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans or for bank mortgages. Between the 1930s and 1960s, most African-Americans were unable to get mortgages, due to this and other practices. The effects of redlining still have a significant impact today: in 2015, "about 73 percent of whites owned homes, compared to just 43 percent of blacks."


The 'pink tax' refers to the practice of charging more for products that are marketed to females, even when a given product is exactly the same as the one marketed to males. In 2015, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs surveyed 800 products, including baby items, children's toys, body care products, and clothing. The study found that women pay more for products 42% of the time. A California study a decade earlier (1994) found that women pay an "annual 'gender tax' of approximately $1,351 for the same services as men."


After WWI, sugar became an inexpensive commodity in the US for a variety of reasons. The candy market employed racist and classist tactics both in advertising and in production. Cheap candy was marketed to non-white children, often with racist advertising; expensive candies were marketed to white women and children. White women were exclusively hired for production of expensive, hand-dipped chocolate-covered candies, as this process was considered too 'intimate' for African-American workers. Additionally, the rise of sugar-laden processed foods has been associated as a factor in the debt load of African-American sharecroppers, though it is likely that it contributed to the debt load of non-African-American sharecroppers as well.


Until 2015, the vast majority of medical research was "conducted exclusively on male cells, male mice, and men, and what doctors know about preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease continues to be pulled from such studies." The medical research gender gap means that women's symptoms, which are often divergent from male symptoms for the same condition, are frequently misdiagnosed or disregarded. Women - especially minority women - are still heavily under-represented in medical research. In 2000, a "study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged mid-heart-attack...[and] cardiovascular disease is more common and deadlier in both black and Hispanic women."


In both 2014 and 2015, there were no nominations of actors of color for the Oscars. This generated the hashtag-marked outrage, #OscarsSoWhite. For the first 15 years of the 21st century, whites received 36% more nominations than would be expected if the nominations matched the demographics of the eligible population. In 2016, African-Americans received a more proportionate percentage of nominations, but Asians and Hispanics still remain grossly under-represented. This bias is attributed to multiple factors, including the preference for white actors and story lines in both the production and white consumer segments, and the strength of legacy ties in the entertainment industry.


Cosmetics for women of color often contain high levels of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde and mercury. Hair-straightening products and skin lighteners are two of the products most likely to contain highly toxic ingredients; they are also two products most likely to be used by women of color. Long-term use of hair relaxers has been associated with gynecological problems, breast cancer and early onset of puberty and menstruation. This toxicity is partly due to the fact that the FDA exercises minimal regulation over the cosmetics industry, but also due to the fact that women of color tend to be part of the less-wealthy demographics, and current trends in 'organic' cosmetics are targeted specifically to wealthier consumers.

Since African-American women have been subjected in the US to associations with being dirty, they are significantly more likely than white women to use perfumed talc powder to "to mask normal vaginal smell," which has been associated with an increased risk for cancer.


The use of 'minority mascots' in the CPG food industry is ongoing in the US. Brands like 'Aunt Jemima' and 'Uncle Ben's' have upgraded their mascot image, but others continue to market with racist, derogatory or whitewashed mascots, including the Land o' Lakes butter maiden and Miss Chiquita of Chiquita bananas. This practice has been standard in the industry since prior to the 20th century.


Legacy admissions are not exclusive to the collegiate segment, but legacy admissions in universities were put in place in the 1920s to prevent Jewish applicants from being accepted. Other population segments were also targeted, including immigrants; but the Jewish population seems to have been a particular target of this practice, likely because of their collective financial success as compared to other 'immigrant' groups.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is based primarily on clinical and 'expert' observations, and has changed significantly over the past 50 years. Diagnosis is based on a checklist of symptoms, and critics assert that there is considerable sexism, "racism, classism, ageism, and homophobia in diagnosis." Homosexuality was included for the first 30 years of the manual, from 1968-1987. Both historically and currently, women have been, and are, much more likely than men to be diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and to be prescribed psychotropic medications. Research conducted on pharmaceutical advertising between 1985 to 2000 found "evidence of 'gendered diagnostic bracket creep' a widening of gender-specific criteria for depression which legitimated the use of SSRIs for women." Interestingly, original clinical testing of SSRIs was performed only on male test subjects.


To wrap it up: our research discovered 10 examples of institutional and cultural racism in the US which may not be obvious to the average observer. Examples include minority mascotting, high toxicity in cosmetics for women of color, and the 'pink tax.'

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