Every time members of a minority group identify something offensive—in media, in pop culture, in some other context—they’re pretty much immediately told not to be offended by people who don’t belong to that given group. The format changes from situation to situation but it usually goes like this: someone expresses offense, articulating why something is a problem, and then someone from another group explains that she wasn’t offended, and thus the minority group shouldn’t be offended. For added points, the friend who belongs to that minority group and didn’t find it offensive either will be brought up. And then members of the minority group shake their heads and ponder going into the back yard to dig a hole. Okay, maybe it’s just me who digs holes when frustrated.
So here’s the thing. Stop doing this, okay?
No I mean really. Just. Stop.
When minority groups express offense about something that’s happening, and when they join forces in large enough numbers to make their voices heard over the din of the majority, that takes courage, and it takes organising, and it takes anger, and it takes solidarity. And that means that members of the majority should probably be listening to what is going on, rather than attempting to crush the voices of the minority under their heels because the conversation makes them uncomfortable. This holds especially true for people who occupy positions of power in social justice movements; they, I would argue, have an obligation to practice what they preach.
What may seem like ‘productive discussion’ or ‘lively debate’ feels like an attack on your identity and validity as a human being when it comes from a person in a position of power who is telling you how to react to something that upset you. When a disabled woman, for example, expresses anger about something that is going on in the news and nondisabled people tell her there’s nothing to get upset about, or she doesn’t know the whole story, or she doesn’t know how hard caregivers have it, what she’s hearing is that disabled people aren’t human beings. That not only does she not have the right to be angry about, say, a case of horrific abuse of a disabled person by a ‘caregiver,’ but that she’s so unimportant that her voice, her opinions, and her experiences don’t matter.
When the Black community is told to stop being so angry about a ‘joke’ cracked at the expense of a young Black child, what they’re hearing is not discussion, or debate, or a lively intellectual conversation. What they’re hearing is that they aren’t human beings, that their voices should be silent, that they should accept subjugation. That the white elite knows what’s going on and knows how the Black community should feel, and that the words of the community don’t matter in discussions about said joke; that placing a ‘joke’ in context and confronting the racist attitudes about it is undesirable and unwarranted.
Every time people tell members of a minority group who are angry about something that they need to calm down, or that there’s nothing to be angry about, or that they’re being unreasonable, or that they’re making a mountain out of a molehill, what they’re getting is a reminder that they are lesser. They do not belong. Their outrage is not important, and in fact should be actively suppressed, because they have no reason to be angry. What matters in the processing of public events, they hear, is not how these events affect actual living people in the community under discussion, but how they affect the majority.
Was the ‘joke’ funny by the standards of the majority? Well, then, it must not have been offensive, and if the minority would just sit still long enough, a nice representative of the majority could explain it all to them and they could see how they were wrong. Members of the majority appear genuinely perplexed and outraged when the people they’re lecturing appear resistant to the idea of being told how to feel, and unappreciative of the generous efforts on the part of the majority to remind them yet again that they are not full human beings with an active role to play in society.
People often knee-jerk in defensiveness when they don’t see a problem with something but someone else does. The instinctive reaction is to negate the assertion made by the person who sees something you did not, because then you don’t have to feel guilty about not seeing it; you really enjoyed that episode of that one show and thought it was hilarious, especially the part with the thing, and here comes someone to ruin your fun by saying she found that part deeply hurtful because it was extremely sexist and offensive. Naturally, to go on with your life, you need to make her ‘perspective’ wrong, because then you can go back to enjoying it like you did before—and surely, you can explain to her why she is wrong and have things return to normal.
That even people who should know better do this is an illustration of how pervasive the desire to be right is, and how pressing the need to live in a world where you always catch everything, every time, can be. Everyone wants to live in a bubble where things go perfectly and nothing they consume ever contains problems or causes harm, because hearing that something you enjoy hurts someone else is painful. Shockingly, though, the solution to this problem isn’t telling people to stop being hurt, but to listen to them when they tell you why something is harmful, and when they tell you how to prevent it from happening again.