Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Marginalized folks shouldn't always have to be "the bigger persons"

Teaching moments are wonderful, but I think that no marginalized person is obligated to swallow justified hurt and anger to better "teach" the privileged or "squash" the mess or racism. That people of color are nearly always asked to do so in the face of prejudice is spiritually wearying and a tyranny.
I wrote this over on Anti-Racist Parent in response to a parent who wondered how to address the impact of his aunt's racism on his mixed-race family. But, you know, it's not just people of color who are constantly expected to show extraordinary compassion when faced with bias. It is women, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. It is the disabled, the obese, immigrants and the poor. Ask any marginalized person and it is a safe bet that they have been told "have a sense a humor," "don't be so PC," "that's just how so-and-so was raised," "here's a great teaching moment, "you have to understand some people won't be comfortable with x, y, z," "he didn't really mean it."
Today, when an "ism" shows its face, too much public sympathy rests with the offender and not the offended. As I've written before, in these times, hearing someone branded a racist is likely to upset more folks than encountered racism. Stick any bias in there--sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia...and the result is the same. It is, I think, the way the status quo defends itself when it gets tired of treating certain people equally.
Certainly, the point of calling out bias is to make people more aware of it and to reduce it. And, as the old adage goes, one catches more flies with honey than vinegar. Cajoling and gentle prodding is often more effective than angry shouting. And women, people of color and other groups learn early to pick their battles, lest they be branded bitter, angry or over-sensitive. There are just some dull aches that have to be swallowed. We try to pick our battles strategically, but it is stressful and ultimately soul-destroying to have to work so hard to ignore so much--to constantly be forced to show benevolence in the face of rude and dehumanizing treatment.
This notion of "being the bigger person" and handling bias gently has popped up around my Google Reader this week. In a response to the ARP post, one commenter suggested the man whose white aunt had forwarded a racist "joke" to his Puerto Rican/black wife respond as follows:

I'd say, "Aunt Mary, I know you didn't mean that the way it came across, but that e-mail hurt my wife's feelings and she felt it was kind of derogatory. I'd like you to meet my wife and son and be a part of our lives, but do you think you could not send us jokes like that or make comments like that?" The end. Give her the benefit of the doubt. She doesn't know better, she didn't mean to hurt you, and she is part of your family. If she keeps doing it, you can always limit contact.

I responded to this commenter that statements like "kind of derogatory," "do you think you could..." soften what was an ugly offense. And she said:

In this situation, I'd give her a graceful way to save face while also letting her know that it offended the wife and would probably be offensive to other people. "I know you didn't mean it that way, but this is the way my wife saw it …" If Aunt Mary has any sensitivity, that's enough to make her think, "Boy. Maybe I SHOULDN'T make jokes like that. I'm so embarrassed.

See, it is important that the offender be able to "save face" even if it means implying that the person of color took the joke in the wrong spirit or maybe is extra sensitive and maybe it wasn't all that bad, but hey other people might find it offensive, so...
Over on Los Angelista's Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness, Liz is wrestling with how we discuss racism productively online. In a response to "No, You Cannot Touch My Hair," which was crossposted here, about a woman who went on a racist tirade after Liz refused to let her touch her hair, a commenter suggested that Liz show some consideration:
She may have mental health problems and bad issues? Who knows? Suppose this interaction made her relapse or slip into depression?

It is our calling and duty to educate the ignorant on matters of race and history, she probably was sent as a potential angel that was looking for direction and love- this was probably her only way of establishing connection and conversation? Supposing she had never spoken to a "black" person before and this is her only contact. Perhaps a lesson was missed, she could have been enlightened with love and understanding?

We all possess amazing powers of compassion, fairness, judgement and forgiveness." Read more...
It is the duty of marginalized people to educate. The duty sounds almost spiritual--God-given--in this comment. No word on what this commenter believes God says about people who arrogantly dehumanize others by attempting to paw them like a petting zoo resident.
Anna N. at Jezebel analyzes an article by Janet Turner in the London Times and writes about silence in the face of misogyny--the idea that women should "lighten up" and hold their tongues, lest they be seen as humorless "ranty-pants."
...It's a lot more fun to be the person uttering snide jabs (i.e. "So - Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober.") than the one getting mad about them, and the allegation of humorlessness is a pretty hard one to defend against. Saying, "I do too have a sense of humor, just not about this" is pretty unfunny, and in my experience tends to prove my opponent's point. Making feminism even harder to sell is the fact that it often attacks things that men are supposed to find hot — the pursuit of ever-younger partners, for instance, or surgically enhanced breasts, or mainstream pornography. I've had more than one depressing conversation with a man in which it's clear that he thinks I'm "against" anything sexy. I turn into the fun police, and whatever I'm supposedly forbidding becomes taboo — and thus even more exciting.

In elementary school, I learned that the best way to deal with someone who's bothering you is to ignore them. And indeed, some feminist-baiters, especially on the vast fringes of the Internet, are best left alone. But as Turner points out, silence is also implicit permission. And since many of the engines of misogyny aren't individual people who depend on reactions for their continued existence, but big corporations with a stake in female insecurity, this is a big problem. Read more...

I am all for humor and compassion, but I reject the notion that, as a woman and a black person, I need be extra compassionate and jovial in a society that often affords people like me neither of those things. I reject the notion that we ought to spare more empathy for the homophobe than the gay men and women her bias hurts. I believe in using the most effective means to change, but I also believe in calling "isms" for what they are and not coating them in equivocations and wishy-washy language that lets oppressors feel good about themselves.
Sometimes, someone else needs to be the "bigger person."


Amanda said...

This is an amazing piece. Thank you.

Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

Yes, yes, yes!!! I completely agree.

Monica Roberts said...

Amen Tami. Timely post.

Aron said...

Another good one. Thanks.

Post-Modern Sex Geek said...

Oh god this is so good and so right on. Today I held my tongue while someone else whined about how unfair and hurtful it was that someone could tell him he would never understand what it was like to be a woman because we had already gone a few rounds about that exact subject. 2 weeks ago I let an argument drop when someone compared all we Latinos to the guys who mugged him years ago. It feels like a cop out to say I am tired of fighting with people but it's true. I am plain fucking done with it especially when it comes to people who are supposed to be my friends.

Parker said...

Thank you.

Lucy said...

Thank you for this.

beatfreak said...

I hate the "have a sense of humor" line. As I commented to a friend: "I have a sense of humor; your joke wasn't funny."

Isn't the listener who gets to determine if something is funny?

Moira said...

Oh yes this. My wife was just saying how her parents always told her she had to be twice as good to be thought half what a white man was.

Which while not untrue doesn't give the white folks any reason to change their behavior.

And whoever said that about flies doesn't know from flies. If you want to catch flies, use shit. If you want to get privileged humans to change their ways, get organized and demand it. (Not a criticism of anyone who feels they can't in safety -- I suck up a lot of hateful bullshit in silence during the day too.) They ain't gonna do it out of niceness.

Brandon Blatcher said...


I have a question for you, which I'm genuinely curious about, as your experiences do not match my own as a black male. I'm asking strictly for my own enlightenment, not to attack, discount or disparage your own experiences.

Here's the question:
Regarding this line of thought: "Today, when an "ism" shows its face, too much public sympathy rests with the offender and not the offended", what has lead you to that conclusion? Is it just your general experience? If so, can you cite any examples?

In my own experiences, the trend seems be roughly half and half, where the offender is usually told the error of their ways or at least asked to not do that in mixed company. The offended is asked to excuse or at least understand that the offender isn't all bad. It also tends to vary based on situations, it seems. Work environments tend to be fairly harsh toward the offender, while social environments work towards keeping the peace by asking something of both.

Moira said...

Just two days ago at the place I work, Brandon, I overheard the white director of the department I'm working in talking with another employee about lunch. "Chicken like always, right?" he said, in a jokey tone of voice. The employee chuckled and agreed.


Now, to someone else that might look like no offense was given or taken but thing is? That's probably not true. There was a huge power differential between the two men in that conversation: the director is much higher ranked in the company and much better connected whether he is officially above the other employee in the org chart or not. The director is almost certainly of a higher socioeconomic class than the employee. And then there's the race thing. The employee is in no position to express any offense and be thus labeled as Playing The Race Card, Being Too Sensitive, Not Being Able To Take A Joke, Taking Things Too Personally, or, heavens forfend, being an Angry Black Man.

That's just one of the most recent. Maybe it's a regional thing -- I live in Texas. But I've lived in enough other parts of the country to doubt it highly. We live in a racist society; we all have internalized racism of some kind.

Restructure! said...

And, as the old adage goes, one catches more flies with honey than vinegar. Cajoling and gentle prodding is often more effective than angry shouting. And women, people of color and other groups learn early to pick their battles, lest they be branded bitter, angry or over-sensitive.

Actually, you can catch more flies with vinegar than honey!

From past experience, I have found that sugar-coating criticisms against isms leads to the political centre subtly shifting to the right. It simply doesn't work. I would rather be called angry and over-sensitive while giving them the whole truth than giving them the sugar-coated version while still being called angry and over-sensitive for even saying anything.

Anonymous said...

The irony is that if you started making 9/11 jokes, botched investigation jokes, or jokes about Pearl Harbor or the Vietnam War, or about the failing economy, white people wouldn't want to 'be the bigger person' and would deny that they're over-sensitive as well. In fact, they'd probably be so enraged they'd follow you for months after making some false justification for it, just to harass you.

~*~Kaya K~*~ said...

OMW out the door but taking a minute to say

1) YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Morgan said...

The only thing that I'd like to add is that gay men and women are not the only ones harmed by homophobes. I'm bisexual, and I've been told some rather nasty things by people active in the gay community and by homophobes as well. Constantly being excluded from the 'gay' and 'straight' communities starts to weigh a person down after a while.

Other than that, this is a very well done piece. Thank you for writing.

Szarka said...

awesome blog!!!!

Anonymous said...

love this, thank you.


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