“If racism is the punchline, I don’t get the joke.” — Julian Bond
I had a really frustrating afternoon today: It was an ignorant comment (the fourth or fifth in succession over the course of a week), one of those off-hand, throwaway remarks that might be a joke, but just really isn’t funny. Earlier in the day, I’d had another discussion about not using a slur as an insult, and the person I was talking to actually defended the comment by saying it might have been an accurate description of the people she was talking about.
I am seldom at a loss for words. (People who know me IRL, back me up.) But I was just, like, “I can’t even, what … no.” And then I was upset with myself, because, you know, teaching moments, environments of inclusivity, social justice and public education, etc. But also, take some responsibilty. I was describing this incident at home during a TN meeting, and Chris asked, “Was it racism by choice?” by which he meant, was it deliberate racism, or did someone just not know better? I think once you’re old enough to think for yourself (moving target for some people, true), all of it is by choice. It doesn’t matter how you were brought up or what you were told as a child — take some responsibility.*
In any case, I’ve been meaning to write commentary about this fairly excellent article for a few weeks, and now I just want to post huge chunks of it because it contextualizes a lot of today’s angst really well. You know, racism, privilege, oppression, etc. I think the commentary post was delayed by by not having much to add other than, “Yes, I think you argued that point excellently.” Sometimes we need to write things, and sometimes someone else gets there first, and I think you can just go ahead and be happy that at least it’s been articulated.
To that end, I am happy that this has been articulated, by Social Justice League: “Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a ‘nicer’ world. … [T]he conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.”
I’m going to take some liberties and bullet-point summarize/excerpt some of the highlights, but I really would rather that you read the whole thing in its entirety.
- “Several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.”
- Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!).
- “An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they havefundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people.”
- Conflating nice + good –> control over marginalized people, by demanding that people asking for rights from the people oppressing them behave in a certain way
I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.
“So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people.”
*I have more thoughts about education and critical thinking, obviously, but that’s a topic for another post, or five, or twenty. Just started reading bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress.” Get me through this, Gloria!
** Including one of the most confusing tactics, accusing homophobic commenters of being secret closet gays. Which, I guess, yeah that makes sense to call them something they find morally repugnant, but your use of sexual orientation as an insult is reifying the norm that homosexuality is the worst thing ever.