I recently had a fight with someone I consider a friend, and day three after the event, I am still trying to deconstruct how it all went so wrong. This ordinarily would not be blog material, except that the situation is all too familiar, for me, and no doubt for many others.
I think these situations can come about in three different ways:
- Someone says something she or he knows is offensive, with the intent to offend (honest bigotry).
- Someone says something he or she is pretty sure is offensive, but feels that others will understand because it really wasn’t meant that way (dishonest “no offense but” bigotry).
- Someone says something she or he honestly doesn’t know is offensive (unaware bigotry).
Let me state for the record, that being a bigot is not an incurable disease. It is not everything you are. It doesn’t necessarily move you from the ‘good’ column into the ‘bad’ column. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this that I want to shift the dialogue a little, in order to focus on people’s behaviours which are bigoted, rather on them as bigots.
To me, a bigot is someone who has consciously chosen to remain prejudiced, either by omission (not trying to learn more) or by commission (learning, rejecting, rooting).
Someone who is unaware that there is any problem with their behaviours is not necessarily a bigot, imo. Their behaviours are bigoted, yes…but the magical alchemy that changes someone from a person who does/says bigoted things into A Bigot, happens after their attention is drawn to to problem. It happens when that person either decides not to do anything about it (omission) or decides to learn more and then chooses to continue doing and saying those things (commission).
You can rant and rail all you want (I’ll be your willing chorus line) about systemic bigotry and how it is perpetuated in socio-political structures. But I honestly believe on the individual level, people can change if they are given the opportunity…or else I wouldn’t even put the kind of effort into this blog that I do. Nonetheless, I absolutely need to stress that it is not the job of the targets of bigotry to change minds. The commitment has to come from within.
Short version? Don’t be a bigot.
I’m a lover, not a fighter
Breaking bigoted behaviours into categories is useful for me, because it helps me determine my approach. Dealing with full on bigots is something I try to avoid. It’s too scary, honestly. I shouldn’t be expected to try to ‘educate’ someone who straight up hates me because of the group I am a part of. No one should be expected to expose themselves to that level of psychological, emotional and even physical violence. That’s ‘last resort’ stuff, in my opinion.
It’s shocking how often people do expect us to confront these kinds of people, however. As though a failure to do so is the cause of the bigotry. No lie. And if it’s unclear here, this expectation is not restricted to indigenous peoples.
We are also expected to address bigoted behaviours, often for the same reason (if you don’t, it’s kind of your fault that they keep believing that). This can actually be more traumatising, because rational people will understand why I’m loathe to go toe to toe with a swastika-tattooed woman in a “I hate Indians” t-shirt…but they might not understand why I’m pulling away from a discussion with a friend.
I feel that lack of understanding is at the root of ‘how things went so wrong’ recently.
So because I’m calmer today, I’m going to try to explain this, and hopefully when someone out there experiences the same sort of thing, they can avoid the anger and guilt and read this and go…I’m glad it’s not just me!
I can’t believe you just said that!
Here’s where it begins. You’re blithely going about your day (or perhaps you’re even being a bit bitchy on an online forum) and then boom. Someone says or does something that stops you in your tracks. Fight or flight response, the adrenaline surges! And maybe you don’t deal with it well. You give into the anger and you attack, because it hurts.
Now let’s talk about spaces and armour. Because there are certain spaces which aren’t safe, and you go into those spaces knowing this. You prepare for what feels inevitable sometimes…you prepare for the thoughtless and incredibly discriminatory statements or actions. It can be exhausting to be in these spaces, but maintaining your armour also becomes a bit of a habit. When people say or do heinous shit in those spaces, it might still trigger you, but you’ve probably got a battle plan.
Then there are spaces which ought to be safe. Even if intellectually you recognise they aren’t guaranteed to be. The classroom for example. You want it to be a safe space, but often it is anything but. Or being around friends. Even when you know that they aren’t the kind to pussy-foot around their opinions (and neither are you).
Being in places where you feel ought to be safe, you end up not necessarily as prepared. Less armour. Things can get to you in a way they might not when you’re expecting it. Your reaction may be less ‘smooth’. You might just fly off the handle.
You know. Not that I’ve ever done this. Repeatedly. *innocent eyes*
That’s so messed up, I can’t even talk to you about it.
So what do you do? Different responses flood your mind. Generally I have a burning need to be very clear that whatever was done or said isn’t okay.
But you also might be too shocked, and too angry to deal with the incredibly long and complex process I described in bullet form in the last post. Or you might not have the opportunity to get into it (e.g. you’re in class or at work). Or you might resent the fact that just pointing out that something was not okay too often means you are the ‘bad guy’ until you convince everyone otherwise. And if you have anything like the burning need for vindication that drove me through high-school, a degree in Education and then a degree in Law, you’ll understand why it’s hard for some of us to ‘let it go’.
Sometimes these considerations cause you to remain silent and fester about it for a while.
Sometimes you blurt out the equivalent of “I can’t believe you just said that” and then you run, for all the reasons listed above.
That’s not my argument!
Almost invariably in these situations, someone makes your argument for you, either in their heads, or out loud. And almost invariably, it’s completely and utterly divorced from your actual concerns.
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about certain topics. A lot of those misconceptions centre around what people believe you (as a group and as an individual) want/think/advocate.
Not understanding our concerns is a root cause of bigotry.
The difficult in addressing this is one of the big reasons so many of us choose to disengage…because this is freaking HUGE. Someone makes a comic or a statement or an argument that is bigoted, and instead of just being able to bring that to the person’s attention, you now have to also address the argument they’ve assigned to you.
It goes like this. Someone disagrees that indigenous people have any more right to the land than someone who has been born there. That’s a pretty fundamental issue for indigenous people, but the person saying this probably isn’t aware of just how fundamental it is.
So if you wanted to take on the monumental task of straightening out this confusion, you already would have to go into a lot of background about what land means to indigenous peoples, and about the plethora of ways in which people deny indigenous rights to land (any one of which could be motivating this person’s rejection of indigenous rights to land). That’s a big task, right there.
Except you can’t even get to that part yet, because you have to wade through the things the other person thinks are ‘inherent to your position/argument’ first…because quite often, the person in question is going to throw these things in your face like facts, and then base their argument on your supposed position.
Maybe they think you want to kick all non-aboriginal people off the land and go back to living like we did pre-Contact (a fucking ridiculously common assumption that drives me up the wall every time). And this is where things so often get turned around, and you get called the bigot. That’s right. This person doesn’t even actually know what your position is, but they think they do, and now if you don’t want to look like a bigot, you have to refute their false assumptions.
*throws hands up in air*
Sure, you win, whatever.
I’ve gotten good at spotting this problem, so I don’t get confused anymore when it comes to:
- recognising that someone has constructed a strawman argument (often without even realising it) and,
- fundamentally does not understand the initial position.
And I can basically say, sorry, that’s not my argument and you don’t actually understand the situation…
But that isn’t going to satisfy the other person. They’re going to want you to prove it. Both that this is not your argument (by presenting what is often a complex argument) AND by refuting the initial statement/whatever.
If you can, walking away from this crap is a good idea. The person you are dealing with does not understand what they are asking you to do, and just how much work would have to go into fulfilling that expectation. Even explaining to them what is involved in addressing their accusations requires you to deconstruct the power dynamic involved in this confrontation.
Not understanding how hard it is to deconstruct bigotry, and expecting the targets of it to do this for you, is an exercise in privilege.
This matters to me.
The issue in question is probably just an idle thought in the other person’s mind. For you, it might be central to who you are. And if it’s one of those ‘common beliefs’ people have about you and the the group you are a part of, you’ve probably had to go through this same dance so many times that your feet are just plain sore.
Talking about this stuff is hard. No matter how safe the space. Don’t understand why? Go read the comments on any of the Huffington Post articles I’ve submitted, and you’ll see the level of evil shit people hurl at us all the time. Someone suggested that maybe this was making me sensitive, and I had to laugh. That statement assumes this is a recent thing I’ve been exposed to, rather than something I have spent my entire life immersed in. Does it get to me more at some times than other times? Sure. But it is always there. A background of hatred.
Not understanding how deeply these issues impact our daily lives is an exercise in privilege.
Not understanding how often we are called upon to defend ourselves on these issues, is an exercise in privilege.
I am willing to talk to people about these things. I am willing to spend a lot of time doing it. But I am not willing to have someone waste my energy when they don’t actually care about the issue; they just like arguing. I am not willing to talk to someone who disrespects me by telling me what my argument is, rather than asking me.
I am not willing to go through all this effort with someone who demands I do so according to settler rules of adversarial debate. Particularly not when that person is a friend.
Requiring us to speak to you on your terms (or risk being dismissed), is an exercise in colonialism.
And there is another layer you might feel you need to point out to the person in question…but at that point, it’s often easier to just give up.
You have to want to understand.
Not everyone cares about your issues. Some have never really encountered them before, so their behaviour falls into the ‘unaware bigotry’ category.
Others want to piss you off and make no bones about it. These are the ones with behaviours that are in the ‘honest bigotry’ category…but encounters like these tend to be pretty rare, because it’s often the full on bigots that do this.
Some don’t understand the issues and perhaps haven’t made much effort to learn more because these things do not impact them personally. A lot of these people have behaviours that fall into the ‘dishonest “no offense but..” bigotry’ category. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that they have some sort of special exemption that absolves them of their bigoted behaviour. Sometimes they think they have this exemption, because they are close to you and you know them better than that. Broaching these subjects with friends can be even more stressful than bringing it up with a stranger.
Demanding that the targets of bigotry convince you to care about their situation, is oppressive.
I like to believe that people don’t want to be assholes all their lives, so when they find out they’re doing something bigoted, they will work to figure out how not to do that anymore.
It doesn’t always work this way, I get it. But I can only do so much to persuade people to engage in the work necessary. The rest of my energy must be spent on those who are trying already.
If you just don’t care about what matters to me, I’m not necessarily going to hold it against you. I don’t need the whole world to be as interested in these issues as I necessarily am.
But I will not accept that not engaging immediately in all of the above work with someone who just made a bigoted comment, means I am just being a bitch for no reason.
I do expect others to learn enough to avoid engaging in active bigotry. That may require learning something about the topic…or it may just mean not saying things about the situation when you don’t know anything about it.
Sometimes, silence is golden, people.
One last thing, before I present you with a little review. There have been some excellent things written about solidarity movements, which by definition are made up of people who are not part of the group they are in solidarity with. I bring this up, because some of the principles (such as decolonisation) involved in solidarity movements might help people understand what is involved in engaging actively in deconstructing bigotry.
Being supportive, or going further and being in solidarity with other people, requires that you do a lot of internal work. That isn’t something you can expect other people to lead you through. There are many resources out there for those interested in anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-sexism, etc etc etc. Find them. Learn from them.
Some things to think about.
So let’s review:
- It is not the job of the targets of bigotry to change minds.
- Not understanding our concerns is a root cause of bigotry.
- Not understanding how hard it is to deconstruct bigotry, and expecting the targets of it to do this for you, is an exercise in privilege.
- Not understanding how deeply these issues impact our daily lives is an exercise in privilege.
- Not understanding how often we are called upon to defend ourselves on these issues, is an exercise in privilege.
- Requiring us to speak to you on your terms or be dismissed, is an exercise in colonialism/oppression.
- Demanding that the targets of bigotry convince you to care about their situation, is oppressive.
For more detailed information on how conversations get derailed into being about what the person exhibiting bigoted behaviours feels and wants, please check out Derailing for Dummies.
Thanks for your time, nitôtêmitik.