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."

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