There’s a game radicals, progressives, and liberals like to play. We are always looking for the turncoat in our midst. Did you catch someone confusing transsexual with transgender? Five points for you. Someone ignorantly, but not sarcastically, asks “what’s wrong with the phrase All Lives Matter,” 10 points for you. Sexist blonde joke? 4 points. We collect these points when we call out what we see for what it is: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. And what do you get for all these points? You get to hide behind your accusations, behind your pointing finger. This is classic projection. If we can prove how racist someone else is, we will prove our own knowledge and superiority and no one will notice our own racist thoughts.
Perhaps you are thinking, “I am not racist.” This is a dangerous thought. It immediately makes me suspicious.
But my intent is not to wag my finger and shame you for your dirty, dirty -isms. No, I’m here to tell you to keep your wagging fingers to yourself.
My approach to racism is based on the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum, who compared race to smog: if you’re around it every day, you’re bound to get polluted. Like the puppets in Avenue Q sing, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” We can apply Tatum’s logic to all the -isms. Sexism and the rules of gender are a collection of memes that people on the left are bombarded with relentlessly. A Kindergartener knows not to describe her friend by race; she knows that the princess is supposed to be rescued. By Tatum’s logic, though I’m a woman, I’m indoctrinated with sexist thoughts. Like when I catch myself assuming that a stranger on the Internet is a man, or how I enjoy objectifying women in movies. It’s harder to examine these tendencies in ourselves, so easy to call it out in others. Easier to deflect, deny. The Gotcha Game is seldom solitaire.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t call people on their bullshit. The examples above are offensive. But is your intent to help them grow, or is it to prove your own righteousness? If you acknowledge that ignorance is like smog, then you acknowledge that we all have to do work to become better people. Having faced our own imperfections, we will be gentle with the feelings of someone else who messes up. We are asking them to confront themselves. That’s hard enough.
I am a social justice warrior, because I am fighting for social justice. I’m not ashamed of that. Fighting for social justice sometimes means uncomfortable conversations. I want people to say these offensive things in my presence, because I want to have dialog. Dialog is only possible when people feel safe to express their view or ask questions.
For example, I once met a punk who opposed affirmative action because, as a white man with a mohawk, he too faced discrimination. Gotcha! It would have been easy to call him out for his racism, put him on the defensive as no doubt he expected. Instead I asked if he knew that most affirmative action jobs go to women, not minorities. I told him about how the first skinhead punks shaved their heads in solidarity with the unemployed Rastafarians who had to shave their locks. And without malice I pointed out that he could shave his hawk, but a minority can’t shed her skin. He admitted that he hadn’t thought it through, and I commended him for being so open-minded.
You might be thinking, “I’m not here to educate dumb racists. They need to educate themselves.” I get it. I run out of patience too, but we must fight this inclination. The Gotcha Game has real consequences, dangerous ones, as this election has shown.
The first is that people are turned away from our movements because they don’t feel safe asking questions. I’m not talking about allowing harassment or discrimination, people play the Gotcha Game around even the most innocent mistakes. Like the young white punk, these are allies who are just trying to sort through the smog of xenophobia and misogyny we’re all breathing in. But that can’t happen if we make him too uncomfortable to ask questions. .
Second, there is backlash to the Gotcha Game. Yes, we want to create safe spaces for marginalized people. But Reddit, Tumblr, and Facebook aren’t safe spaces. We shouldn’t want to enforce a strict no-offense policy in the world, because the world isn’t fucking safe. Like smog, shitty discrimination is lurking everywhere. It doesn’t help to hide it.
You can’t convince fascists to believe in human rights. They believe that the world is cruel and therefore any kind of rights are a lie to give a leg up to those who are currently winning. The fascists believe that might makes right, so being oppressed makes you inherently inferior. But most people aren’t fascist. Most people want very much want to believe that humans are good, that they themselves can be good. Yet there is a huge backlash against anything left-wing because people think that progressives are judgmental.
With real, sustained, open dialog people can be swayed. But no one listens when they are being chastised. Telling people what language they’re allowed to use doesn’t make anyone safe. It just makes them angry, and drives them into the arms of the fascists.
This article is one example of the sort of delightfully offensive, post-utopian smack talk you can find at the new website, reth.ink, edited by two of your favorite Slingshot-wielding women.