Tobi Hill-Meyer

Isn't Oppression Bad and Calling it Out Good?

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | November 24, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: bigot, class warfare, homophobic behavior, prejudice, racist, reverse discrimination, sexist, transphobic

Or did I get it backwards.

In an LGBT online support community I participate in a few participants were purposefully using the wrong pronouns for a trans person in the media who they did not like. When several people pointed out that that's a very transphobic tactic and the discussion got heated the moderator stepped in - and told them to stop throwing around "transphobic" because it is an ad hominem attack that only derails conversation.

It's a tactic of shifting focus and blame in a lot of places. It's the kind of logic that allows people to claim that calling someone racist is a "low blow" and off limits. Considering how often it is employed, this tactic deserves a little more attention.

The thinking behind this tactic relies on a world view where we are "past all that." Whatever "ism" you're looking at is no longer institutional, structural, or societal - if it ever was - and is only an issue of individual prejudices. From this supposedly even ground we are starting on, prejudices against minority and majority groups have equal weight.

A perfect example of this occurred in the comments section of a Bilerico reposting of an open letter addressing racist post-prop-8 behavior of white gay and lesbian activists. The letter writer, Alette Kendrick, complained about racist statements made at a post-prop-8 rally and all the white activists there who cheered for it. Instead of recognizing the power, pain, and impact that such a situation has on people of color in this movement, several commenters decided to focus on a statement that "dumb white people at large" could benefit from listening to this experience.

Several people suggested that calling white people dumb was the exact same (racist) thing that she was complaining about - that her acknowledgment of a widespread lack of awareness and understanding of racism in white populations was the equivalent of the rally speaker who ranted about the horrible African-American community and "all but outrightly called Black people ignorant and foolish." Yet when we remove the central assumptions of this tactic, the argument falls apart.

First off, issues of racism are more than just prejudice. You don't have to burn crosses or wear a white hood in order to be racist. Too often people who don't want to deal with racism relegate it to the realm of the fantastic. It's what those horrible people do, I'm not a horrible person, so it has nothing to do with me. Yet we all live in a racist society. We all hear racist messages our whole lives. We all internalize it to some degree. It's impossible not to let it influence your behavior in at least minor ways. Claiming that most, if not all, white people are influenced by racism is not a baseless attack on white people, it's not prejudicial generalization, it's a fact supported by academia, sociology, not to mention the collective personal experiences of people of color.

Secondly, we're not starting on equal ground here. It's not just the prejudicial statement that hurts, but the societal validation of that statement that gives it weight. Claiming that people of color are uneducated, that women are bitchy, that gays flaunt their sexuality, that trans folk are irrational and unstable, that poor people steal, can have real impact on people's lives. But no one will take you seriously if you say the reverse. Claiming that whites are uneducated won't cost someone a job, claiming that men are bitchy won't get someone's perspective dismissed, claiming that straights flaunt their sexuality won't get someone fired. Claiming that cis folk are irrational won't get someone assaulted. Claiming that the rich steal won't get cab drivers to refuse to go to Wall Street. That, incidentally, is why reverse discrimination doesn't work.

It's true that in liberal circles with a general anti-oppression value, labels like racist, homophobe, or transphobe, can tarnish your reputation. But it's clear that this tactic is more about reputation than reality. Those who buy into this world view will get up in arms about an accusation of oppressive behavior and turn the focus of the discussion from the inappropriate behavior to the "inappropriate" accusations they face.

In the recent clamor around Julie Bindel, one of her main tactics was to refocus the issue around all the mean and angry trannies* who are unfairly calling her transphobic -- as if calling her transphobic was a low blow as bad or worse than anything she had done. She might as well have been saying "I called you mutilated freaks and you called me transphobic, I suppose we're even now."

I'm sorry, but being called transphobic, sexist, homophobic, racist, etc may hurt but it's nothing like the impact that sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, etc behavior can have. The discomfort of being called out for oppressive behavior does not make up for the pain that behavior caused. Being called out for an -ism is not about revenge, punishment, or public shaming. The purpose of calling someone out is to interrupt and change the behavior, and in the best case scenarios, become an opportunity for educating others to be more careful and aware of their behavior. That's where the discussion needs to be, and that's what we need to be doing more of.

We could all improve the quality of our communication by learning better ally skills here. Everyone one of us has privilege in one area or another, and people who we could be better allies to. Being able to be called out gracefully, internalize the criticism you are getting, and learn from the experience without getting defensive is one of the best ally skills to learn. Because being called out might feel like being attacked, but in reality it's a gift. When someone says something perpetuating the oppression about a community we belong too, we don't have to say anything about it. Often getting involved in the drama around calling out oppression is itself laborious and frustrating. And usually, the more frustrating the experience, the less tact and civility people are willing to put into their attempts to call someone out.

When people are willing to tell you how you screwed up and what you should have done -- especially when they do so in a calm and respectful manner, but even when they don't -- try to restrain the defensive knee-jerk reaction. Because they are spending effort that they don't have to in the hope that you (or others around) might be able to listen, learn, and grow. The best thing you can do is just that.

* Considering that I wrote an article that goes into detail about the derogatory use of the word "tranny", I feel I should comment on my use of it here. This is an example of the rare circumstances where I personally use the term -- as a way to reference transphobic attitudes. You can read my article to see more about why I think it can be useful in this circumstance. Note that this is different from an attempt to reclaim the term.

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Well said.

Far too many times, in what i thought of as "safe" or "enlightened" spaces, i have pointed out that someone was relying on biphobic stereotypes with language they were using. The inevitable response? "They are just jokes". Trying to point out that stereotypical "jokes" help perpetuate all kinds of -isms tends to result in just what you described, turning it around to frame me as a censor or language police when i was actually trying to encourage dialogue - not suppress it.

Hopefully some will read this with a little distance from one of these unfortunate exchanges and take it to heart.

I agree... Thanks for bringing this up. It's something which trans people have to put up with all the time: Not all LGBT spaces are trans-friendly and whenever we enter them, we have to try to work out if it is a safe space or a dangerous one.

Those simple misuses of the gender, dropping the odd 'ladyboy' or 'shemale' in and the more direct attacks (such as the 'joke' or the 'freak') are all too common, and cripes do they hurt.

If an LGBT space calls someone out for using the word 'transphobic' to someone who is using these words/tactics, it isn't an LGBT space, it's an LGB space. The T in these spaces is as safe as it would be in the Westboro Baptist Church.

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While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Are you referring to my posts neat Cat's?

I posted my above comment at 8:05 last night and it got deleted 18 hrs later. Not bad. The question is, did any of it sink in to those in charge? I have my doubts.

Next time, try being a white man and post. It does wonders for being taken seriously.
fwiw,.. ((hugs))

white = stupid is an extremely fair statement. and Mija, the mythical creature isn't the black queer woman for some of us. The myth is the white queer who Gets It. Other than that, fine article. Keep speaking your truth. Just talk real slow, white people are not the sharpest shovels in the shed, ya'know.

Any comment?

You can break it down into two things along what I'm saying here. First, what does stupid mean in this context? It appears to be about white people who are being influenced by or unable to discern racism (i.e. don't get it).

If that's the case, then I'd agree that white = influenced by racism, and in many cases unable to discern racism. I doubt I'd ever toss it out there as in "white = stupid" but I can understand where this is coming from. Especially that it seems reasonable to me to bemoan the lack of white queers who get it. Let's also not forget that was said after an increasingly heated discussion that included things like requiring that women of color meet a standard of respect to white people before having earned a right to be listened to. We're not talking about a context for the most well reasoned and diplomatic response.

But secondly, what is really the impact there. If you're taking that to mean "white people are mentally deficient", what is the impact here? Will anyone decide not to hire white people anymore because of their mental deficiencies? Do you fear mistreatment or discrimination because of this statement? Do you think you'll be denied anything? Or are you simply dealing with hurt feelings of being insulted?

Not to say that your feelings are unimportant, I'm very woo-woo-feelings oriented myself. Nonetheless, that's a very different impact than what happens when someone asserts something like "black = stupid." In white privilege 101 terms, prejudice + power = oppression. A prejudicial statement without systemic power isn't going to have the same impact. And personally, I prefer to give some leeway to folks who are dealing with oppression and expressing anger about their oppressors. Especially when they are dealing with oppression stuff around them in that moment, as was the case here.

Yes. That is my experience, and it may not be yours.

Which is why MY reputation is on the line, and I took the risk of exposing it to the world for critique.

Somehow, I seriously doubt white nontrans America is going to crumble over one lone transwoman on the Interwebz speaking her mind.

Reformed Ascetic | November 25, 2008 3:38 AM


Communication requires projecting yourself to some extent into the other person’s position even when you strongly disagree.

Your point that racism (etc.) hinges on institutional power has some validity at a population level. But on a personal level it breaks down.

For instance, it is clear that men can be sexually abused in the workplace. This has even been held true in the courts. Men have been the victims of both women and other men. Should we deny all men the right to claims of sexual abuse because to some extent (and clearly historically) they hold the reins of institutional power and were therefore as a group the largest perpetrators of such abuse.

If someone posted that “poor = ignorant,” would we need to read into it that economically disadvantaged people typically have less access to educational opportunities, are often required to spend their time developing means of survival rather than finishing their public personas, et cetera, or could we just point out that in most situations that isn’t productive language? What if poor was replaced with black? Would we start interpreting it by saying historically black people in America were at an economic disadvantage, and economically disadvantaged people…. Or would we expect people to quickly point out that it wasn’t appropriate language.

Tobi, with a lot of respect intended, I believe you hurt your own argument by going to such lengths to defend a blanket statement as white=stupid. Understanding, even sympathizing with, why someone might say it is one thing, but arguing for appropriateness?

One of the complaints in the letter was that the white people at the rally didn’t decry the language that offended the author. Certainly understandable. But then why are we ganging up on people who are upset at characterizing (all) white people as stupid, as wealthy, as racist? Didn’t we just assert that people should speak up when such things happen?

I counted 10 commenters who in some way disagreed with something in the letter or comments. Only two of those identified themselves as white. Some don’t even identify their gender, even by name. Yet everyone seems pretty happy assuming that they are dumb white men who don’t get it. That’s not a safe assumption, and it could be argued that it betrays something about the mindset of those making the assumption.

I’m willing to assume the author of this letter is a very talented writer (the only other choice appears to be that she got very lucky) and that as a talented writer she said exactly what she wanted to say. That with the tools of a talented writer she manipulated her audience to create the experience for which she was aiming. If I saw a person get slapped I wouldn’t think anything about them launching into an angry tirade, I would even ignore many statements and actions that I would consider inappropriate in other situations. But if it was a trained boxer who got slapped I would expect the boxer to be able to act in a more controlled manner. The author of this letter tried to capture her audience’s attention at the beginning. Not a bad strategy. She tried to do this by suggesting her pain and raising her issues in a compelling manner. Unfortunately one of the ways she chose to do it was through language which directly parallels the racist and insulting behavior she wants to speak out against. Often not the most effective tactic, especially when ostensibly trying to address the people you are insulting.

It is true that people commonly have to say things that are unpleasant to the audience when trying to deal with things like racism and homophobia. And that they may even be angry or confrontational when doing so. But it is patronizing to extend that to the point of saying that none of their statements or actions can ever be criticized.

From your line of reasoning, I guess I should not decry the author characterizing white people as dumb or “ignoramus maximus” or gobblers of bullshit [my personal favorite] or characterizing them all as wealthy because the author is black and therefore has no effective ability to hurt those people (which sounds a little patronizing and racist doesn’t it). Let's even ignore that characterizing all white people as wealthy marginalizes those who aren't. However the author also called the female speaker a “dinosaur, les-biatch.” I detect ageist, misogynistic and homophobic tones in that statement. Both the author and the speaker are women. Both are queer or lesbian. Should my interpretation of this statement come down to weighing being black versus being old? Or should I just stand up for a general level of civility?

Yes, the author of this letter is technically addressing a subset of the white gay population, but part of her skill as a writer is shown in her choice to do this while appearing to address all white gay people in general (even more clearly at the end of her letter). It’s a little unclear from the context whether she actually believes all white gay people are wealthy or just those she wishes to talk about. In another context, I would just assume that of course she knows that most white people are not wealthy, but she chose to create a context where I’m not fully comfortable making that assumption.

It is entirely possible for a writer to say nothing at all even remotely offensive on a word by word level and yet create a piece which is clearly offensive in tone and intent. Now I don’t read this letter as trying to be offensive, per se. I think she found what she was saying somewhat humorous. But she clearly knew everyone wouldn’t. To argue that those who found it offensive are merely trying to keep a black woman in her place, or just trying to force a black woman to treat white people with proper politeness is frankly ridiculous if not insulting. She chose to use words that are offensive in almost any context, that she clearly knew would be incendiary. There are rules for civil conversations. There may be times when it is more than appropriate to violate those rules, but to then act shocked when people get offended is disingenuous at best. There are large parts of her letter that are compelling, but to act surprised that for large parts of her audience they get buried by the conscious choice to use incendiary language is, again, disingenuous at best. Especially when she chose to open the letter with such language.

It could easily be argued that there is another distinction between what the speaker said and what the author said. The author’s argument appears to be that the speaker suggested that black= homophobic, and didn’t provide any room for non-homophobes or even queer black people. She appears to be suggesting that to some extent she felt she was being forced to choose between being black or queer, or even forcibly ejected from the queer community. But the author never provides evidence of any purposefully, consciously racist statements. The author in fact says that the speaker didn’t call black people ignorant or foolish. That it was “us” versus “they” statements which made her feel rejected. She may well have even have interpreted those statements accurately. But most likely her characterizations of such things as “stupid” is also reasonably accurate. While not excusing the speaker’s failure to be both inclusive and understanding, it is reasonable to suppose that she was probably not intending to behave inappropriately. The author of this letter even appears to make that assumption. The letter’s author however clearly and consciously chose to be insulting to a number of people. I think a lot of people interpret that conscious choice as worthy of rejection.

And before anyone says it, I know that many people are arguing that it is exactly that unconscious racism which needs to be addressed. And I don’t disagree. I harbor no resentment towards the author of the letter under discussion. I both have sympathy for her situation and agree with some of her broader points. I don’t reject aggressive rhetoric out of hand. I do however think she violated the bounds of civil public discourse, not by being out-of-hand as it were, but by purposefully insulting others. But frankly, I don’t find even those insults especially greater than the kind of emotional language people often use when upset (and hopefully at least later apologize for). Though I have no desire to excuse inclinations to racism, homophobia, ageism, etc.

I am as deeply troubled by the attempts to silence those who were upset by the letter's tone as I am by the circumstances that made the author feel rejected at the rally. Regardless of which if either reflect larger systematic abuses (if either) within the queer community.

It is entirely possible to discuss voting patterns without being racist. And it is entirely possible to discuss where power lies in the LGBT community without destroying the ties that bind us together.

Tobi, I agree with your statements about being good allies. I agree with your statement that we are all privileged in some ways. But I do disagree with suggesting that it is improper to call out racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ethnocentrism, etc. no matter who does it. I would argue that basic civility’s standards are most effectively applied to everyone.

Why is the burden of making woc protest palatable to white people always placed on woc?
Are whites so fragile in their privilege that they cannot hear us unless we are "articulate" enough?
Demanding that woc subjugate our concerns for your comfort is matter what lame ass justifications you fling at us.
Which has been the point of this woman's letter, and I might add my posts.
But keep it up.
Keep criticizing the messenger instead of actually doing some work trying to hear the message.
Keep misinterpreting speaking out as "attacking."
Listen to me carefully:
It is a racist action for a white person to call a Black woman "uncivilized" for her tone. Note I am speaking about the action and not yourself, lest you have a white privilege hissy fit.
More to the point, you are incompetent to judge the tone of woc, and you are creating deep diviisions for your refusal to accept her rhetoric for wwhat it is.
A woman speaking her mind. The tone is just an excuse to deny her her due.

So, keep it up. And see what it gets you in the end.

Because, this is a big part of why so many feel alienated from LGBToken circles.

And it will ultimately slow the LGBToken movement down, if not grind it to a hale outright.

White gay special rights or social justice. Not hearing woc authors gets you the first, not the second.

@ Karen: Nezua has some worthy concepts there. The readers here would be well advised to go there and learn. Hopefuly, they will stop having a white privilege hissy fit whenever the other person's "tone" doesn't make 'em all comfy while they slam woc.

Reformed Ascetic | November 25, 2008 11:37 AM

I promise I will try not to have a hissy fit, whether it is of white privilege or otherwise.

And I will point out that you assume that I am white (and possibly privileged in ways besides being white?) because you feel that I am disagreeing with you. Because you don't like the way my comment reads. That I am incompetent to judge a woman of color when you don't even know if I am a woman of color. In the interest of fairness I will say that your assumption happens to have some degree of accuracy, but I choose to withhold in what ways. But I will ask if you told those people in the original post who identified themselves as white males and who categorically agreed with your position that they were completely unqualified to judge the words of a woman of color. I don't remember you doing so.

Should I suggest you are completely unqualified to judge my words because you are not even aware of what I am, much less of the same status.

All conversation requires judgment. Am I unqualified for any judgment, or just when I happen to disagree. What if, like this case, I partially agree and partially disagree?

And by the way, should I accuse you of homophobia for suggesting that I might have a hissy fit?

If you will look back at my comment, I did not in any way say the author was inarticulate. In fact, I said she was a gifted writer. In fact, I made my perception that she was a talented writer part of my argument. Not only that but I said I agreed with her on most, if not all, of her arguments.

What I said was that when you start off by insulting people, you have to know that you are going to lose part of the audience, especially if you are a gifted speaker. More, I said that there were times when that might well be the choice to make. But for people to act surprised that some felt insulted when they were insulted is disingenuous. And lastly that all voices should be heard.

I am not trying to silence her voice, but I don't think it's fair to silence others either.

Is calling someone stupid the same as making someone feel rejected. In this case, I would tend not to think so. I even said so above. But pain is relative, and those feeling insulted deserve a chance to speak. Given a chance maybe they will make a great argument. And there are good arguments to be made.

I'm not personally offended by her letter. I personally do feel that if she really wanted to address the dumb white people of which she speaks, that some of her artistic choices got in her way. But that's my personal opinion. I often voice my personal opinion on a variety of subjects here at Bilerico. I kind of thought that was a piece of the process (together with reading other's opinions).

I'm far less concerned about the letter than the choices many people on here made to silence those who were offended. Or simply found her choices to display inappropriate racist, homophobic, ageist, or whatever attitudes. I do strongly believe those things are inappropriate no matter who says them. I can be convinced that the examples from the letter were not terribly disturbing (I'm pretty much there already), but you will be hard pressed to convince me that it's OK for some people to engage in those activities in any manner whatsoever. And you will have an even harder time convincing me that others not only can't do the same, but can't even speak to it when they see people doing it.

More, quite frankly many people say things on here that I find questionable. I do not however go around policing everyone's comments. And I wouldn't have said anything negative about this letter either. My problem was that when I read the comments people were being attacked, fairly personally, for giving voice to an opinion of dissent. If I had been at the rally with the author, I would have been happy to support any attempt she made to voice dissent. Even if I hadn't agreed with her interpretation, I would have even been happy to support her efforts to make her point. And I was happy to support those in the comments who were being attacked for a minority opinion.

Give people a space to speak and listen to their arguments. All people. No one gets to say that some people simply don't get a voice.

I'll use the rules for Bilerico regarding conversation as a case in point. Basically it's just asking people not to use slurs or be abusive. The idea being that people need to be able to voice unpopular opinions without being personally attacked.

I found the way Tobi opened this essay pretty interesting. I constantly see signs of transphobia within and without the LGBT community. Describing her frustration at people trying to address the transphobia and getting attacked just for the word set a beautifully clear example.

But I'm don't accept that her example and this letter are exactly the same. The only inflammatory language Tobi described was used by the people acting in a transphobic manner. And the only punishment went to the people acting in the most becoming manner. I certainly understand her argument for similarity, and I know that most real world examples not usually that clear, but I don't believe the cases are the absolutely equivalent. I don't believe most of those people who dissented wanted to silence the author, consciously or unconsciously, for example.

It is entirely possible for poc to internalize white privilege.

An viewing an article, and judging it for its tone is most definitely doing that.

Your choice to examine the "tone" at the expense of examining this woman's concerns reflects this.

The particulars of whatever meatsack you are wearing are not relevant here, are they?

Reformed Ascetic | November 25, 2008 12:40 PM


15. a particular style or manner, as of writing or speech; mood: the macabre tone of Poe's stories

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 25, 2008 1:33 PM

Demanding that woc subjugate our concerns for your comfort is wrong.

Yes! Likewise, always asking people of color to educate whites on issues of racism. It's tiresome. Whites need to do the work ourselves. That's one of the reasons the commenters on the other thread pissed me off so much. Here they were, offered an opportunity to learn something as a result of someone in the know going to the trouble to share her insights, and instead they throw a hissy fit.

Tobi, this is an excellent piece!!!

Renée at Womanist Musings wrote this magnificent post about owning privilege:

It's a very simple idea, really. We should each own the privilege that we have and the vast majority of us have some that we can own, accept and try to build into a less biaes world-view.

Whilst I'm a transsexual woman which leaves me prone to certain transphobic and discriminatory behaviours, I have some very strong privileges which I need to own and accept:

- I am white
- I come from a fairly affluent background
- I am university educated
- I did benefit from not being treated as a second class citizen in the earlier parts of my career
- I am healthy
- I have no disabilities

What this means is that when I talk to a person of colour, I need to try to take my white privilege into account. In comparison to someone who hasn't finished secondary school, I have a huge advantage because of my degree.

It's not that difficult and it is quite liberating when one tries to think this way (it's not easy, though, with so many knee-jerk reactions needing to be re-evaluated).

Thank you Bryan!

I believe we have a "drowning maestro" in the house.

One of the ways privilege makes the playing field unlevel is in the raw amount of effort that goes into challenging the dominant paradigms. It means we swim against the current, and the oppressor type swims with it.

Arguing that white people are stupid, with precious few exceptions, will get you keel hauled in a public forum.
White guys will storm the castle, scream reverse racism, attempt to medicalize it, as bil did by suggesting that I would be better served by anger management than coming here to speak out.
And...when white or white identified folks do this, society backs them up.
I'm on my own. And that is why calling whites stupid just ain't the same.
So, no our arguments are already on a tilted against my favor slope.
ra is attemting too whitewash that away, by claiming equivalency and talking down to me.
Even quoting the dictionary... like I was too stupid to use HIS(?) definition of "tone."
I may not be able to pump out close to 3,000 words like him, but I am not too stupid to know what "tone" means.

ra is also claiming that woc oppression is equivalent to white oppression. He (?) is trying to obscure this fact. To an oppressor's benefit. His(?)

I am also inviting two friends over for drinks tonight, and we are going to play White Magix Attax Bingo on ra's post.

Because, sometimes argument just doesn't work.

And at that point, friends, booze and support is the order of the day.

And Tobi, thank you for posting this. We will know when white people and nontrans people stop being stupid when queer spaces become safe for qwoc and transfolk of all stripes.
Until then, claiming that white and nontrans people are stupid simply makes good safety sense, regardless of any "correctness" arguments.

Karen Collett | November 25, 2008 8:05 AM

As an FYI, for an excellent summary of non-argument arguments, see Wite-Magik Attax. They don't all apply directly to transphobia, but they are worth reading nonetheless.

Reformed Ascetic,

I wish I had more time to address every point you bring up, but you just wrote 2,500 words in response to my 1,000 word piece. Anyway, let me just pick out some that caught my attention.

First off, I'm talking about speech, generalizations, and stereotypes. Of course physical violence can be turned around. Of course men can be sexually assaulted. My point that you seem to be trying to address is that generalizations and stereotypes, when turned around against a privilege category of people, don't hold the same weight. Your points about physical violence or discussing whether or not a statement holds some validity don't actually address my point that generalized statements and stereotypes against oppressor groups don't have the same impact as those directed at oppressed groups.

(as a side note, I'll mention that there certainly is a correlation between race and class and access to education, but a further assumption is made when people assume that those with credentialed education are automatically smart -- and ivy league means smarter -- and that those without formal educations are dumb. You can easily have an intelligent conversation about that, but that's a very different thing than claiming that poor and/or poc folks shouldn't be listened to because they are dumb.)

Yelling at someone can be hurtful regardless of the circumstances. But yelling at white people that they are being racist (and dumb about their racism) is in no way an equivalent situation as yelling stereotypes about people of color. And calling white people out for racism is not being racist.

And I think you misinterpret me re: "white = dumb." I'm not saying that it's a reasonable and respectable thing to say. I'm saying that I understand people dealing with their oppressors who might say unreasonable and disrespectful things. I also said that if what was meant was white = racist, then I'd agree, as I explained above. I'm also saying that the reason I care about it less is because it doesn't hold the same impact as statements about an oppressed group.

My referencing this previous discussion was not just to respond to the fact that commenters were insulted, but that there was a strong attempt to change the focus of the discussion away from critically engaging the racist behavior of white people in our movement, and to the inappropriateness of a woman of color who was insulting white people. Going beyond that, a few people were saying that they wouldn't read it, others wouldn't read it, essentially that it didn't deserve to be read, so long as it was being disrespectful to white people, which as I'm pointing out is racist.

I've noticed that there will always be white people who become insulted when faced with a discussion about racist behavior that they can identify with or have participated in. Whether they believe (or even if a few people of color believe) that the accusation of racism is unjustified is irrelevant. Shifting the focus to the supposedly disrespectful behavior of the person pointing out the racism is an inappropriate tactic to avoid discussing the racism, even if it is alleged racism it needs to be discussed not dismissed.

Reformed Ascetic | November 25, 2008 8:59 PM


I know I wrote a little bit. I can get carried away. And since I'm in the middle of a lot of writing in my "real" life, I think I'm currently entrained to pounding the keyboards.

Thanks for responding to me by they way. As is often the case in these kind of situations, I suspect we are not that far opposed.

Although I did say it almost in passing, I understand and agree with your argument that when examining institutions and populations it is the people who wield the power whose words can have the most negative consequences.

Besides that, not all insults are the same, at a personal or institutional level. And it can even be argued that sometimes it is necessary to directly insult people, as a population or as individuals.

I really liked the part of your argument where you addressed the word racism as being an insult versus being technical. Somehow it had slipped past me that the connotations of the word racism have changed in ways that I don't think others like homophobia, biphobia and transphobia have yet. You made that pop into my attention and I appreciate that.

I said that to say no of course calling someone racist (or homophobic or transphobic or whatever) is not necessarily an insult. I'm hard pressed to think of when calling strangers stupid isn't, but there may be times. You used calling someone a bitch as an example of misogyny so I assume you agree that it is generally an insult.

But I never said the acts under discussion were equivalent in effect. Certainly I agree and have said repeatedly that I agree that her points were valid. More I've said that she should be heard even if her points were later judged invalid. Some of the language she used fell into the category of racism (other into homophobia, misogyny, classism and ageism). The same category of actions she is speaking out against. Does that necessarily mean that they are equivalent in power, scope, effect or intent. Absolutely not. They are equivalent by general category however. People of all races and ethnicities say racist/ethnocentric things all the time. Does that mean that they are all functionally equivalent (or somehow justified by ubiquity)? Absolutely not.

But I personally think that the smaller the scope gets the more attention needs to be paid to each individuals intentions and effects. Do I find calling straight people breeders the equivalent of calling gay people faggots at an institutional level? Absolutely not. Does any individual have the right to object to being called a breeder? Absolutely, Can you then turn around and argue, but it's OK for me to call you a breeder? No, no you can't. You can choose to do it anyway. You can even argue that crossing the line and using the insult will advance your point. It may even be true at times. But those people who were insulted (even if it didn't rise to oppression) have the right to say something about it.

Some of the readers of that reposted letter had objections to it. Some of those objections were based on feeling insulted by language they felt was inappropriate because it hinged on racist, sexist and homophobic concepts. They certainly have the right to address that insult. That does not necessarily mean that they are trying to silence the author, or even purposefully stealing focus. Attacking them in a knee-jerk manner was an unfair act for those who chose to do so.

Using hateful or racist or sexist language to silence them is worse than unfair. That is what stole my focus away from the incidents at the rally, not the insults or even the response to the insults.

Without going back, I only remember one person who said that they stopped reading at the beginning when first encountering an insult. But more directly, if I walked into a crowded room of strangers and announced, "you're all a bunch of homophobic bastards," would it really be shocking if some of them then chose not to listen to me, or even tried to argue against me? Wouldn't it be disingenuous if I then acted surprised at people being upset? Would it really be convincing if I then said that anyone who felt insulted had only proven their homophobia? If I chose to open a dialog in this manner, wouldn't it be reasonable to suppose that I should expect a furor after the announcement regardless of the actual nature of the people in the room?

I am not surprised that the churches currently being picketed are upset. Picket lines are designed to cause discomfort. But if I insist that those people must just remain silent and take it, I lose many things. I lose opportunities for discussion for instance. I lose feedback and learning of things like white powder being mailed out. And I increase the odds that I will become abusive myself. Their speaking out doesn't shift focus. Their speaking out is part of the intended consequence of the picket.

And yes I agree that people get upset for being called out. And that then concentrating on their feelings is shifting focus. But being upset and being upset for being called out are not necessarily the same thing.

Dear Reformed Ascetic,

While of course this is your space to speak your mind, it seems a bit disingenuous to frame it as simply what someone else should have said in order to be heard better - or at best presumptuous, assuming that women of color need your unasked-for editing advice.

In addition, it's advice that, personally, I would probably politely disregard. Readers are often drawn in by surprising openers, even if they are upset by them. Yes, some people will just cover their ears and scream. Others will keep reading, whether because they can tell the difference between oppression and a sudden momentary lessening of privilege, because they realize that anger is a freakin' reasonable response to racism and sometimes anger doesn't come out all sweet and nice, or just because they're so shocked they can't take their eyes off the page. And if they feel terribly hurt, sure they might not instantaneously unlearn racism - but you know what? They're not going to instantaneously unlearn racism if they're not hurt, either. It's a life-long process, and it hurts sometimes. White people can be pro-active about that by self-educating and keeping an open mind (even when it gets a little scary), or be totally passive (except to freak out every time a person of color calls out racism in a not-completely-diplomatic way) and probably never learn anything.

I still think you're missing the point on the difference between generalizations made about white people and generalizations made about people of color. Like Tobi explained, oppression = discrimination + power. There are differing definitions of racism - some people define racism simply as any kind of discrimination based on race, which is where people get the idea that if anyone says anything bad about white people they're being racist (given the lack of impact saying "white people are stupid" actually has, I have a really hard time calling it discrimination, but I want to acknowledge where this perspective comes from). There's an obvious problem with this definition: it uses the same word to refer to actions that are backed up by the institutional power of widespread social norms and therefore have the power to hurt large numbers of people *and* actions that have no impact whatsoever except making people who have constant access to privilege (the opposite of oppression, more or less - the power to enforce discrimination, and simply benefiting from the way that power backs up discrimination towards others) feel uncomfortable. Defining racism without considering power dynamics leads people into the logical trap you seem to have wandered into - that even if generalizations about people of color are categorically different from generalizations about white people due to society's huge power differentials and vastly different real-life impacts, they are called the same thing and therefore they must be equally bad. I suggest that rather than co-opting the word "racism," which originally was meant to refer to oppression targeting people of color, white people use different words when they feel they are being hurt by a generalization - many of which, like "but *I'm* not a dumb white person, am I?" are better said silently, and thoughtfully, inside one's head.

Reformed Ascetic | November 26, 2008 5:23 AM


It's late for me. it's been a really long day amid a much longer couple of weeks, and my eyes are tired. I will sincerely try to respond to your comment thoughtfully and accurately. But I have to admit I'm having some trouble focusing so if I misread something I'm hoping you'll understand.

Regarding your 2nd paragraph. I think I basically agree with everything you said. And I think for most of that paragraph I have said similar myself.

As to your 1st paragraph. I'm actually not very comfortable analyzing the letter since the author isn't participating in these discussions. Even though she chose to make it public it seems a little unfair. It may well even be that my discomfort at in this is leading me not to be clear enough about my feelings of the letter. But I couldn't think of a better way of defending those that in some way questioned the letter than to point out that the author chose to use language that people of any color, gender or sexual orientation could be offended by. I have in fact defended her right to make that choice several times. I have in fact defended the right to be offensive in general several times. What I have questioned is attacking people for then feeling offended. The letter's author didn't do that. People here did. Pointing out that certain language in the letter made it explicitly reasonable for some to be offended seems like a reasonable place to start that argument.

I can only guess at the author's goals or motivations or emotional conditions while writing that letter. All I know of her is that letter. What I do know is that I have written similar things myself on occasion. Usually when I was angry and upset. And that later I, personally, regretted being offensive in ways that I believe are generally inappropriate. That later I, personally, decided that I could have said all the same things without being any less aggressive and reached more people. That I probably could have been even more challenging, upsetting and offensive if I had slightly altered my tactics, and still reached more people. I even decided in my personal case that what I was actually doing wasn't reaching out to others, but speaking only to those already on my side. And while that at times has value, it certainly wasn’t what I intended overtly or covertly. But as I have said repeatedly that's my opinion and my experience. If she's happy with her choices and the results thereof more power to her. Other than positive comments I generally try not to comment on people's artistic choices and the only reason I did here was to be able to argue that its not shocking for people to feel insulted when they have been insulted. I have no desire to silence her voice. I believe I have repeatedly said that it needs to be heard. But just as I would be troubled by attempts to silence her (at the rally or here), I am troubled by attempts to silence those who in some fashion dissented from her choices. I'm not even necessarily saying those would be equivalent in all cases, but I felt some of the actions here on Bilerico (not the letter) warranted comment.

I believe in the transformative power of free speech. I probably feel about free speech something similar to what those who religiously believe in free trade feel. And I believe quite strongly that it applies to everyone.

To your 3rd paragraph. I don't think I am missing the point. Not only have I repeatedly stated that I agreed with it, but I have reiterated it myself.

Here's my point. Not all of the struggle for equality and/or social harmony is top-down. Individual people exist as well as institutions. The other half of the struggle is bottom-up. I have said explicitly and repeatedly not all insults rise to the level of discrimination. And that not all discrimination is the same. In intent or effect. In my perspective, reality is characterized by nuance and even firm rules can be temporarily overturned by actual circumstances.

Personally when approaching things from the bottom-up perspective I prefer to point out all instances of discriminatory behavior because I think it improves the standards for everyone. Though in practice I tend to question those I respect the most the fastest and first, and others sometimes not at all. But even that was not my point. There are lots of choices when confronted with someone who disagrees with you. Choices in how to respond or whether to respond.

But I am deeply troubled by saying that some people simply have no right to speak. No right even to an opinion.

Part of the reason I choose to frequent Bilerico, and I have been here far longer than I have been commenting, is that I am so impressed that Bil has collected such a plurality of voices in one place. And even more I am deeply impressed by how well the community supports each other even when peaceably disagreeing. It is the very respect for this community that led me to be upset when I saw members of it attacking others and denying them any access to the freedom of speech in which I so deeply believe.

Ignore people. Tell them they're wrong. Try to argue your point. Fuck, maybe even yell at them at times (I remember Sara being pretty upset with Yasmin not too long ago). I am honored to have the chance to speak with the people here that I have such respect for, although that respect never prevents me from disagreeing with them. But I won't support attempts to simply categorically silence people without caveats. To deny them access to the freedom of speech that allows people a chance to convince others of their perspective. I’m not sure if it should matter, but even less so if it's couched in hateful language.

If someone wants to argue that a particular voice or opinion needs to be held temporarily for some reason, I am more than prepared to hear that argument. But I am not comfortable allowing a group of people that I do respect so much to propose an categorical law lacking any nuance that says certain people do not ever deserve to be heard.

Defining racism only on the broadest levels of power inequalities poses a logical trap as well.

I have never understood the argument that when somebody speaks out against oppression, and people coming from a position of privilege get upset at them, and other folks jump in to defend the first person and get upset and the second group of people, somehow that second group of people (the privileged ones who are upset about the person calling out oppression) are being silenced and having their free speech taken away. Speaking out against oppression here requires strength, bravery and access to a computer. Telling someone else not to talk about oppression requires access to a computer. Nobody's free speech goes away when someone else argues with them on the internet - and if it did, then obviously the people who said "don't say that!" upon reading the phrase "dumb white people" would have taken someone else's free speech away too.

I'm also perplexed by your repeated statements about the difference between individual-level versus society-level power dynamics. Not *what* you're saying - I entirely agree that individual relationships and situations do not precisely mirror society. What I don't understand is what possible relevance that has to this discussion. An open letter directed to a whole bunch of relatively non-specific people is about as far from an individual interaction as you can get.

How about, "No, confronting people using transphobic words isn't called 'an ad hominem attack.' It's called 'catching them talking like transphobes.' If you want to write down a list of things you don't want anybody to confront, write down that list. And sign it."

"Calling it out good?"

Um-- well yes. All I'm asking is, do you want to change the state of things or shout in the woods?

Somebody complained about silencing women of color. That's certainly not my agenda. So rather than flapping my gums, I simply want to share a bit of powerful writing that demands personal reflection and change instead of forcing a circling of the wagons.

Washington Post Opinion Column

Reformed Ascetic | November 27, 2008 2:07 AM

I am arguing this point. I will make it one last time.

1. The Abstract Argument

Some are arguing here that certain people be given carte blanche to say and do anything whatsoever universally. And others absolutely not ever. And that the distinction should be made based on certain relative statuses that are in large degree related to circumstances of birth.

I find this patronizing. I find this racist. I find this to be bad for society as whole and for smaller groups.

Everyone who doesn’t fall into that camp is discussing where the line is. Not whether it should be.

2. The Personal Argument

There are people of all colors, ethnicities, sexual orientation, sexes, genders, religious orientations, national origins and any other division you might want to imagine who believe quite strongly in treating everyone around them in as respectfully a manner as possible. Sometimes it is seen as religious duty, sometimes it seen as the first step to a better world, sometimes merely as common sense. Many of these people will at times compromise that value in pursuit of what they see as a higher goal, but compromising does not require abandoning it.

Now the discussion:

I know of a large corporate institution making what I believe are racist and ethnocentric hiring decisions. Many places in this site are split into small workgroups. The HR manager hiring for many of these workgroups consciously hires and places employees based on the most superficial of criteria like race and ethnicity. You can literally walk down the hallway and see a group of middle-aged black workers. A group of young, white, female workers. It is so obvious as to be visually jarring to everyone who experiences it. But the flaw that everyone tended to point out was the group of “Indian” workers. The HR manager placed a group of people together that she thought would work well together because she perceived them all to be Indian. Part of the trouble was that they were not. They were all from the Indian sub-continent, but they belonged to different nationalities and ethnicities and religions (and sexes to the degree it applied) that had a lot of open animosity toward each other. Now even if some feel that particular group of people should have learned to get along, I think that HR manager wielded institutional power in a culturally insensitive and racist manner. Not just with the “Indian” group but with her entire grouping scheme. I don’t care that she was a woman. I don’t care that she happened to be black. I don’t care that she happened to be a quite nice and likeable person. I don’t support that scheme no matter who does it. One of the reasons her decisions stood was because by the time it was recognized internally it was perceived to be too much trouble to change. Another reason they stood was because some people felt her being black justified her decisions. If you think anything other than happening to be black solely justified her choice to do this, you think there are boundaries for everyone. It’s just a matter of when, where and how we apply those boundaries.

Now I will say something personal. I happen to be multi-racial (which shouldn't matter). I also happen to be multi-ethnic (which shouldn't matter). I say it this way because the groups are not the same. One of the racial groups to which I belong by blood heritage utterly rejects me because I’m multi-racial. I am not even considered worthy to speak the language. Some of their reasons for this are base. Some of their reasons for this are respectable. I happen to accept and support their right to make this decision. Even in private conversations if I feel the need to make reference to that part of my heritage, I voice the caveat that I am not a recognized member of that community. But inside when I say it, it hurts. It hurts even when I think about that part of myself.

And I say that to say that if anyone thinks it matters, that it changes anything I have said, that I suddenly have rights to opinions I didn’t have before then I still think you’re wrong.

I think you may have been tilting at windmills a little here. If anyone is saying that someone should have "carte blanche to say and do anything whatsoever universally," well, they aren't the people you've been arguing with.

It's not that a person of color is free to say anything because of their status as a person of color. I don't hesitate to address issues of racism even if they are being perpetuated by people of color. I think the point that I and others have been trying to make is that anti-white bias is not the same thing as racism. Again, not that it's not a problem, but that the impact isn't the same.

When I see a situation with a person of color expressing anti-white bias as a response to racism they've experienced, it concerns me, but I see it as comparatively harmless -- a spitball versus a bullet. It doesn't concern me nearly as much as the attempts made to redirect focus away from the racism experienced and onto the anti-white bias. Again, this isn't about the race of the person making the statement, but about the statement. In fact, I hear "white = stupid" sentiment coming from white people around me more often than I hear it from people of color.

Your being multi-racial/ethnic doesn't change my perspective on your arguments. Although, I would like to mention that the rejection you describe sounds to me (from the brief description you give) to be more about anti-multiracial prejudice, something that does have an institutional basis behind it. If you haven't already, you might want to read and hear perspectives from multiracial communities. I'll share a bit of my experience, as well as my favorite podcast which really helped me connect to mutliracial community.

That said, you were picking up on the assumption others were making that you are white, but I think you were incorrectly assuming people saw your arguments as inappropriate and perpetuating racism because they thought you were white. In reality, I think it was the other way around, people were assuming you were white because of how your arguments appear to perpetuate racism.

Reformed Ascetic | November 30, 2008 5:05 AM

"I hear "white = stupid" sentiment coming from white people around me more often than I hear it from people of color."

I would have to say that has been my experience as well. When it is used to make a point in an argument I tend not to pay a lot of attention to it. When I perceive it to be used to bully or silence others, it tends to get my attention. I don't really care what race or ethnicity, or combination thereof, the person happens to be in either case. And substituting any identity or any qualifier into that equation doesn't really change my perception of it either.

I agree that in the main, you and I have been addressing different issues. I should probably add that it’s not particularly unusual for people, including me, to bring up correlated but side issues in comments to a post. I may well not have made that, or my point, clear enough. And if so, that’s a failure of skill on my part.

I believe I have even said that at the institutional level which you address with your argument that anti-white bias has different effects than anti-PoC bias. There is no way I can concede that any more than I have repeatedly done already. I do think that even before we get to the entirely personal level that more nuance comes into play as I have tried to show. I think that supports my belief that at the personal level we all have a lot of responsibility to treat each other respectfully. And at a minimum to allow people to speak. I also think that in a community like Bilerico with a plurality of voices, whose life circumstances are often not visible, that becomes even more important.

And no Tobi, I'm not saying you have intended to do that. If you've ever felt the need to insult, much less bully, anyone, justifiably or unjustifiably, I can't recall seeing it. But I do think some on here are arguing that they personally should be able to act indiscriminately without ever being questioned, and frequently demonstrating how they would apply that by insulting a lot of TBP community members in various posts.

On TBP, I have argued that:

the proselytizers who were chased down the street by the angry mob, had a right to occupy public property and the same right to free speech as anyone else

when Serena advocated against protesting Mormon churches, I disagreed with her and argued in part that there was a right to protest, even to upset people, despite as I said then being impressed by Serena personally and sensitize to her feelings on the subject

when I saw someone saying that Serena was part of a "Mormon conspiracy" and shouldn't be allowed to post here I didn't feel it was necessary to formulate an argument but I did submit a show of support for her post

I have taken the incredibly controversial stances of saying that mailing white powder to people is unacceptable, and that I feel that using attacks like “magic underwear” is needlessly insulting

when someone posted on here that the reason he voted for 8 was to protect his pastor(?) from being prosecuted for saying anti-gay rhetoric, part of my reply was that free speech guarantees the right to think or say such things

when Alex posted homophobic ads being used against reportedly closeted GOP candidates I didn't think it was really necessary to add to his argument but I did voice agreement because as he said there were going to be a lot of people who disagreed because his very point was that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to use homophobia against perceived enemies

In some of these selected actions, I "sided" with people I disagreed with and disagreed with people I actually sided with. But the principle I applied remained the same in each case. I applied the same logical rules to people I personally liked and people I didn't.

Now one thing I have noticed in moving around the country is that some people are more comfortable with publicly aggressive/insulting language than others, and that place of birth can often be a reasonable predictor of the relative perceptions. And I say that to suggest that it's not always unreasonable to allow people to say something when they feel insulted because it may well just be the language and not a reactionary attempt to maintain privilege. Even people with the same identity under discussion, whatever it happens to be, should be able to dissent if they wish without immediately having that identity called into question.

I've seen moderators, even in "live" table discussions, say something like, "you may have a point but let's save it to discuss another time." I have even seen people say, “I think you're wrong and I think if you allow the discussion to progress you will see why and how you happen to be wrong.” And I have seen people say, as I believe that some have said here: you have no right to an opinion; by definition you know nothing about, and have nothing to contribute to, the subject at hand [in this case without knowing anything about the people involved]; and you don't even have a right to speak to the rules of the discussion. I think it's not surprising that the last tends to end in failure and anger, especially if there behavior then becomes insulting or bullying. Just to be clear, I’m still talking about some people on here not the author of that letter.

My only disagreement in any of this was that those who aired a voice of dissent shouldn’t automatically be attacked for such. That it’s one thing to assert or demonstrate that you know more about something than another person, and another entirely to say anyone who disagrees with you has no right to speak. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or even whether I happen to like the people do not matter to me when applying that rule.

Wow, this guy absolutely cannot admit error.

Can someone please toss a few extra chlorine tablets in the gene pool?