Not Offended, Oppressed
So, you know I’m a fan of you. Really and truly; I think we should always be friends. But lately, we’ve been falling into this pattern. And it just isn’t working for me. So I thought maybe we could put it on the table and come up with something better. Because we’re cool like that.
So here’s the pattern: Somebody — a person, a company, an organization — does something. They create an advertisement, maybe, or they write a blog. They tell a joke or they release a product. Suffice it to say that somebody out there puts something out into the world. Something that is racist or sexist or sizeist or ableist or otherwise oppressive. Then, a second somebody — a person, a company, an organization — responds. Maybe the second somebody spearheads a petition. Maybe they start an international protest movement. Maybe they form their own Twitter hashtag and just repeatedly tweet WTF, WTF, WTF until someone starts paying attention. The point is, there’s this first group that missteps, and this second group that’s all, “social justice, you’re doing it wrong.” Ok? With me so far?
So, around the time the second somebody’s WTF hits its critical mass, the conversation becomes mainstream. This is to say that big-name media picks up on the story and starts “covering” it and suddenly the entire conversation — in the blogs, on the Twitter feeds, on the radio, etc — shifts. The links to the story become, “Do you think this is racist?” (or sexist or fatphobic or ableist.) Because this is what we think unbiased coverage looks like: Here, Internetz, I’ll present to you this Controversial Thing Someone Created, and you can decide for yourself whether Person Two Overreacted.
To recap: First person does. Second person [over?]reacts. Third person says, “Do you think this is an overreaction?”
And poof! — the whole thing becomes subjective.
Now, here’s the thing about me: I’m not a huge believer in objective truth. Like basically at all. I’m not saying that it’s easy, always, to look at something and say, “that is so clearly, clearly racist/ sexist/ fatphobic.” I mean, not everything is that Psychology Today article, you know? Meaning isn’t static. It has nuance and it’s confusing and sometimes we aren’t sure what we’re dealing with. But that’s not the conversation we have when we ask the question, “Do you think this is worth all the controversy?”
The conversation we’re having, inevitably, is “do you find this offensive?”
Do you find it offensive if someone suggests that girls suck at math but are good at boys? Do you find it offensive if someone suggests Black women simply can’t be pretty? Do you find it offensive if someone uses the word “lame“? Do you?
Don’t get me wrong. “Offensive” is an important conversation to have in certain contexts. In terms of interpersonal relationships, for instance — “offensive” is a key point to consider. It’s important for me, your pal, to discuss with you, my bud, whether I find the things you’re saying, stuff you’re doing, or way you’re treating me offensive. But it’s those relationships — relationships among friends, family members, coworkers, and so forth — in which “offensive” matters. Because when we’re talking about taking offense, we’re automatically talking about a personal, subjective experience of what took place. This is how I felt about what you did. And that “this is how I felt about what you did” — is a very different thing than “what you’re doing is racist/ sexist/ fatphobic” etc.
In the wake of “political correctness” (and the demonizing thereof) — we’ve managed to water down “racist” and its correlaries to “offensive,” “controversial,”and “politically incorrect.” But that is not actually what these words mean.
When I say, “that’s racist/ sexist/ ableist” etc — what I’m saying is that what you’re doing supports a system of oppression. A system. Meaning something at the social level, something that we are creating as a culture. So, it’s not about whether you meant for me to have my feelings hurt. It’s not even about whether my feelings were hurt. I don’t actually give two shits, on a personal level, about whether JCPenney recognizes my math aptitude or whether some dude thinks it’s a good idea for small children to diet. When I say, “this is sexist” or “this is sizeist” I’m not actually saying, “you rubbed me the wrong way.” I’m saying, “you are shoring up a system that does harm.”
This is, by the by, also why it doesn’t matter if your Latin@/ trans/ fat/ disabled friend told you that zie’s okay with whatever that thing is that you did. Because it’s not about whether it hurts a person’s feelings. It’s not about how you intend it to affect someone. It’s about whether it reinforces systems that privilege certain groups of people by oppressing others. And if it reinforces systems like racism, sexism, and ableism? Then, frankly, I am going to have a problem with it.
And I am going to have a problem with you turning my “STOP BEING RACIST” critique into “Is she right to be upset about this?” Because I am not talking about my feelings. I am talking about our culture. And, while there’s some subjectivity in whether this particular act reifies racism, there’s a lot less than there is in “is this over the line?” I don’t care about the line, particularly. I care about the oppression. And there are standards by which we can measure whether certain actions support an oppressive status quo. There are ways we can decide to opt out of them.
And, for the record, when I call you out on an -ism, that is what I’m hoping you’ll do.