Afflict the comfortable: Don’t tolerate -isms

In the last few years, there’s a been a huge conservative backlash against safer spaces — environments where people strive to avoid perpetuating -isms and engaging in other practices that make people feel fundamentally unwelcome, and by extension, unsafe. The idea being that perhaps we should be decent human beings and treat each other with respect. In the screaming about free speech and whiny special snowflakes and any number of other things, what people seem to miss is that for some, all the world’s a safe space.

There are no unsafe spaces for white, cis, straight, nondisabled men, for example. Everywhere they go, they can expect to have their needs and concerns centred, for people to take care not to offend them. They can expect to be supported, and if they express concerns about something, people will likely leap to address it. The entire world is constructed for their personal convenience and often a clublike attitude prevails, one that makes that environment a safe space for them by making it unsafe for other people.

I was thinking about this recently when I was in a room at a conference with a lot of white people (a common situation) and someone made a comment that didn’t quite sit right with me. It wasn’t an example of an overtly racist comment, something you could definitively point to and say: ‘That, my good sir, is racist.’ But it reinforced some troubling attitudes around race and culture, and I faced, at that moment, a divide.

I was in a room full of white people. It’s not like a person of colour heard it, right? So why would it matter? I could just let it slide.

Or I could be a decent human being and acknowledge that -isms aren’t just about whether anyone is there to hear them. They are about structural attitudes that are repeatedly casually reinforced, and one of the places where they are most reinforced is in spaces where the targets of those -isms are not present. It’s one thing for people to internalise the message that they shouldn’t say racist things to people of colour. It is another for people to acknowledge that those things are still racist even if there are no people of colour around. The problem is not just the words coming out of your mouth, but the attitude behind them, and when that attitude goes unquestioned, the fundamental racism is internalised.

So I said something.

And immediately became very unpopular, because I started an uncomfortable conversation that people didn’t want to have because they were in their white safe space and why did I have to ruin things by talking about racism. (Perhaps, good sir, because you ruined things by being racist?) I said something because this is a thing that people should do — when people are not present and other people are saying inappropriate things about them, we should say something. That applies where someone is making comments about a specific individual, or a broad group of people.

I said it because I like to think that when people say things about me the person or me the member of several underrepresented groups in rooms where none of us are around, someone would say something. I said it because sometimes people assume things about me and then say terrible things about, for example, disabled people or queer people, not realising that I am sitting right there, and it feels awful and is really difficult to deal with, because I have to decide whether to disclose something about myself when saying something, or just awkwardly say something on general principle and try to skate over whether I do or don’t belong to the group in question.

I said it because when I am in a group of people and I say something thoughtless, or poorly considered, or just outright discriminatory, I expect someone to say something. (Not that I go around making a point of doing this, but we all on occasion say things that reflect attitudes that may have gone unexamined.) To me, a ‘yo, that’s racist’ is akin to ‘fyi, there’s toilet paper on your shoe.’ I think people ought to know about it, and while it may embarrass them, better now than after they’ve wondered through an entire art exhibit/privileged life trailing toilet paper/racism.

The thing is that being that person isn’t very fun. It’s kind of exhausting. And I say this not because I want a shiny ‘you tried’ star for the occasions when I speak up, but because it is upon all people in positions of privilege to be that person. Your status with respect to privilege may fluctuate depending on context and setting, but when you are occupying a position of power by virtue of representing the cultural, social, and sometimes literal majority in a room, you need to occupy that position responsibly. When I’m in a room full of white people, I need to engage with that, not just shrug and say it doesn’t matter to facilitate the mistaken belief that there’s a safe, cozy space to be white where no one will bother you about your racism. There shouldn’t be. It is our job to afflict the comfortable, no matter who is around to see it.

Image: racism, Johnnie, Flickr