Why “I Know I’m not Supposed to Say This” Doesn’t Excuse What You Say

So I received the most unsavoury compliment today.

I was at work at the time, and my current job involves working in customer service. So, essentially, I smile at people, I talk to them, I help them out, and I’m super polite about the whole thing. And, considering politeness comes naturally to me, I find that aspect of the job fairly easy.

A customer comes in, and I offer her my services. Lots of “please”s and “thank you”s are passed between us; it’s all fairly ordinary.

And then the customer turns to leave.

And then she turns back.

“I just wanted to say thank you for saying ‘thank you’,” she says to me. “I just got into an argument with a girl working at another location, because she was so rude – she didn’t say ‘thank you’ or anything. And I know that I’m not supposed to say this because it’s racist or whatever, but I just wanted to say to her, ‘go back to your country, because here, we know how to be polite’.”

In a split second, a thousand potential responses went through my mind. The part of me that identifies as an intersectional feminist wanted to start a discussion with her right then and there, but the part of me that was acutely aware of the fact that I was currently working in customer service told me that I should just laugh and move on. Not wanting to betray my beliefs but also not wanting to lose my job, I wound up doing something that was between a polite smile and a grimace, and she walked right out of the store, going back to her day like nothing happened.

But her weird, back-handed compliment stayed with me throughout the day – particularly the part where she said, “I know I’m not supposed to say this”.

Well then, I thought, why did she say it if she knows she shouldn’t?

Did she expect me to agree with her? I mean, I am visibly white, so did she take that as the indicator that I would agree with her beliefs? That she would say something risque that I would clearly understand, and we would be united in our little moment of hatred? Was it meant to be a bonding experience for the both of us?

Because that isn’t what ended up happening. To me, what she said was about the equivalent of her turning around to look at me, giving a great, big, smelly fart, and then walking out of the store without a word of apology or understanding for what just happened.

And she had to know that that was a risk when she said it. She said, “I know I’m not supposed to say this”, which means that she was aware that it was a controversial statement that she was about to make and I may or may not agree with it.

Was I supposed to feel good about what she was saying? She did precede it with a compliment toward me, so maybe I was supposed to feel flattered at the expense of some other woman who I don’t even know. I’m supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that I, a white, North American girl, know how to say “thank you”, unlike those ‘awful’ immigrants. Except, I’ve never really been the sort to find my own confidence at the expense of other women.

And, as I have already stated, I don’t even know the woman who my customer was referring to. I don’t know her name, her background, where she works, or why she works there. I don’t know if she was having a busy morning, and thus forgot to say “thank you”. I don’t know if she intentionally avoided any “thank you”s because this customer was being overtly racist, demeaning, or dismissive toward her. I don’t know if her mom, her dad, her spouse, her three kids, and her new puppy just died in a horrible, fiery car accident, thus putting the word “thank you” out of her mind completely. I don’t know nearly enough about her to find comfort in the knowledge that I’m more polite than her. But, more importantly, this customer doesn’t know nearly enough about her to judge her, or an entire group of people, because of one missed “thank you”.

Or was the comment “I know I’m not supposed to say this” meant to serve an entirely different purpose, one that has absolutely nothing to do with me or the situation or even the woman from the other location? Maybe the comment was, very simply, intended to excuse the customer from what she was saying.

After all, she knew that what she was saying was racist – she couldn’t not know it. But she wanted to say it anyway, because she still believes it nonetheless. So how do you get away with saying awful, hateful, racist things about people? You precede it by acknowledging that what you are about to say is racist, of course.

She knew that what she was about to say was controversial, but she didn’t want to face the consequences of making a controversial statement. She wasn’t looking for a fair discussion or a debate about immigration. If she had been, then she wouldn’t have made the statement to someone who is literally paid to smile despite all pain and constantly remind themselves “the customer is always right”.

But the thing is, just because one acknowledges that what they are about to say is racist and hateful, that doesn’t make it any less racist or hateful. Had the wrong person heard what she said to me, then regardless of how she preceded her comment, she still would have succeeded in alienating and insulting someone who our society is already pretty good at making feel alienated and insulted.

There is a time and a place to discuss these matters, but that place is not a mall, and that time is not when the person you are talking to is working. These are matters that someone should sit down and discuss, in detail, with a wide group of people, coming from many different backgrounds. These are concerns that require research and reading and understanding. I am not saying that, if you believe something that is controversial like this, then you should never, ever voice your opinion, because sometimes, voicing your opinion is the best way to expand your understanding of the issue.

But if you are going to voice your opinion, then expect responses. Except discussion. Except disagreement, even, and accept that that’s okay. Because these aren’t simple matters, and we cannot expect simple responses.

If we reduce these matters to something simple, then we ignore whole sides of them. And, worse, we miss out on our chance to expand our minds when we don’t actually, genuinely discuss them. I wish that I could have had the opportunity to explain to that woman the potential harm that her comment could have on someone, because she still doesn’t know. The way she sees it, what she’s saying is merely something that people aren’t allowed to say because of crazy, over-the-top, politically correct social justice warriors (you know, people like me). She’s going to go out into the world, not understanding that what she’s saying is harmful, and she could make a good person feel extremely alienated from their own country and their fellow citizens with what she says.

So anytime that we precede a comment with “I know I’m not supposed to say this”, we need to take a moment to consider that there might be a reason why people get upset when we make statements like these. And if we don’t understand why people get upset, then we need to talk about it in a calm, non-confrontational sort of way, just so that we can understand. I’m not trying to call anyone wrong or evil or anything like that. All that I am trying to say is that, if people get upset when we make statements like these, then we need to treat these statements with a certain sort of weight and open-minded understanding. These are not the easy, closing statements that we make to just anyone.

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Why White Pride Does Not Exist

I am white. I am a white person, with white parents, and I spent my teenage years in a town that was predominately white.

And as a white person, I am here to tell something to my fellow white people: white pride does not exist.

But let’s backtrack a little bit here: why am I saying this? Well, there’s this idea that I have seen tossed around from time to time, on social media sites and the like, that states that white people should be allowed to go out and express their pride for being white.

When this opinion is raised, I often see it equated to other varieties of racial pride, most predominately, black pride. Black people in America are, to a certain degree, allowed to express their pride in their own race, through such methods as art, fashion, and music. And, in response, some white people have gone out and said, “well, why can’t I do that too?”

And in answer to these question, there have been some who say, “because that isn’t simple pride in being white. That is white supremacy.”

And yet, from what I’ve seen on certain social media sites, I’m pretty sure that there are many white people who still do not understand why they cannot be proud of being white, or why being proud automatically equates to white supremacy.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being white, right? Your race isn’t really one of those things that you can control, and nobody should ever feel self-conscious about the way that they were born, regardless of who they are. So if that’s the case, then what’s wrong with being proud of who you are? What’s wrong with learning about and cultivating your cultural background?

Well, there are a few points that I can talk about here, and most of them involve comparing what black pride is as opposed to white pride.

First of all, what is black pride? Why did it start? Well, to put it quite simply, black pride began in the United States as “a direct response to white racism especially during the Civil Rights Movement”. In other words, black pride was born out of a society that told people that it wasn’t okay to be black. Its intention is to regain power that was taken away, to empower people who were made to feel like they weren’t cared for or wanted. In that way, the black pride movement is similar to such things as the gay pride parade (something which has similarly made straight people wonder where their pride parade is).

So one of the many, many problems with white pride is the same problem that arises with this idea of the ‘straight pride parade’: white people are not being told that they are wrong or lesser than because of their race. In fact, ‘whiteness’ is simply considered the default in North America: the majority of our most successful celebrities and politicians are white, black people face a certain level of hiring bias, and even despite that, black people tend to be paid less than their white counterparts. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way that white privilege affects us all.

So, essentially, what I’m getting at here is, black pride is a reaction against racism toward black people. White pride is a reaction against nothing, except for black pride. This might be part of the reason why so many people point at white pride as being, in and of itself, racist. The way that this idea of white pride has come about is not, quite simply, pride in being white; it is pride in being not black, or not Asian, or, quite simply, not a person of colour.

But, again, we are returning to this question of, what is wrong with being proud of who you are? I mean, so long as you aren’t being a jerk about it, why can’t you be proud of your cultural heritage?

Well, the thing is – you can.

Black pride is, by nature, a very different creature from white pride, because the history of black people in America is very, very different from the history of white people in America.

I’m going to assume that the majority of readers here have at least a passing knowledge of the history of slavery in America. This history is extensive and it continues to affect us, even to this day, but what I specifically want to focus on right now is that this history means that many black people were, quite literally, kidnapped from their country of origin and forced to come to America. Because of this, there are many black people living today who have no idea where their ancestors originated from. They might have a general idea of somewhere in Africa, but which part of Africa? What is their cultural heritage? What practices did their ancestors engage in? It’s really difficult to know for sure, when white slave owners quite literally forced their ancestors to forget these practices.

As a result, many African American people do not have a cultural history outside of America. They have the black culture that has been created in America since the end of slavery. That is all.

Not that I, the white woman, can speak for every African American person, but from what I have observed, I gather that black pride is mostly about two things: it is about reclaiming pride in a skin colour that their society tells them that they are lesser for, but it is also about a pride in their culture. For most white people, on the other hand, white pride is about nothing more than pride in their skin colour – a skin colour that they are, in fact, privileged for.

Because, the thing is, most white people know where their ancestors come from. They know the culture that their ancestors practiced, and because they have that knowledge, they can continue learning about it and practicing it and being proud of it.

White pride might not exist, but national pride does.

You can be proud of being British, or French, or Italian, or whatever the case may be. That is allowed, and I sincerely hope that pride in that culture is what many people who are seeking white pride are actually looking for. But pride in whiteness, in and of itself, is an entirely different matter. That is not a pride of culture or heritage; that is a pride of not being a person of colour. And nobody should ever be proud to not be someone else, because that sends the message that there is something wrong with the other person in question.

And there is nothing wrong with us, no matter the colour of our skin.

Is It Okay To Like A Narrative That Is Problematic?

Let’s talk about something that I know everyone enjoys: the media and politics.

More specifically, let’s talk about narratives – whether that be movies, television, or written stories – and their connection to social justice, representation, and politics.

It’s become more and more common lately for people to point it out if something in a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or whatever. And whenever something like this because common, we’re always going to see a counter-reaction. For example, you might see an exchange similar to this one somewhere on the internet:

Person One: I found this recently released movie to be very sexist/racist/homophobic.

Person Two: Oh my god, how dare you, I can’t like anything anymore!

Now, the reason that I bring this up is not because I want to make fun of either side of the argument. Rather, I’m sort of interested in this idea that a piece of media is inherently unlikeable because it includes questionable politics. I mean, if this was true, then what media could we consume? Is there any media? Would we have no other choice than to reject media altogether – stop buying books, stop going out to movies, all to avoid media that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever the case may be?

Because, after all, all narratives are written by human beings, and they are not written in a vacuum. We exist in a society where ideas that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc., are sometimes considered the norm. Sometimes writers internalize these ideas. Sometimes, by the time that a writer sits down to write a particular story, they haven’t yet thought critically about every last social justice movement that exists out there. And, not only that, but there are many common, historical tropes in writing that rely upon certain sexist ideals – like the trope of the persecuted heroine, or the hero (who is usually characterized not only as male, but as hyper-masculine as well). So chances are, nearly every narrative, even the ones that go out of their way to be inclusive, fail to live up to one standard or another of being inclusive. Maybe they’re very feminist, but they’re also kind of racist. Maybe they’re very pro-gay, but they’re simultaneously kind of classist.

So what does this mean? Can we not enjoy any story because of this?

Well, while different people might have different opinions on this, I’m personally a huge fan of stories. And I don’t think that someone pointing out that a narrative isn’t inclusive enough means that you can’t enjoy it.

For example, I kind of like the 2006 action movie 300. It isn’t my favourite movie or anything, but I like it. I’ll watch it whenever someone says, “hey, let’s go watch us some 300.” And I am also very aware that it isn’t inclusive toward… anybody. At all. 300 is a very sexist movie that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test (which, for those of you who aren’t aware, is the absolute lowest standard to prove that a movie includes women as active agents in the text). 300 is also a very racist movie, portraying all of the villains as dark skinned while all of the heroes are light skinned, playing on America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia. And, as the cherry on top of this sundae, 300 is also very, very, very homophobic. “Boy-lover” is used repeatedly throughout the film as an insult toward men (something which is not at all historically accurate for the Spartans, I might add). The villains are all designed to look rather feminine while the heroes are designed to look very, very masculine. And, perhaps worst of all, director Zack Snyder also admitted to playing with homophobia as a tool to make the lead villain seem more foreign and more intimidating to the presumed audience, claiming that he intentionally coded the villain as gay because “what’s more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?”

So, yeah, this movie is a political nightmare, but I still kind of like it. And why? Because I also think of it as sort of the definitive action movie. It won’t make you think (and if you do, you won’t like what you think), but it does have some good fight scenes, some super macho tough dudes, and visually speaking, the movie is stunning. There’s enough in the movie that, as much as I’m aware of its political faults and I’m not going to forget them, I still manage to leave the movie feeling like I got what I wanted out of it.

And, end of day, I think that’s what we should mostly be striving for when we say that a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.: awareness. You can still like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even if you know it’s sexist. You can look fondly on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even knowing that it’s kind of racist. But end of day, it’s important that you are aware that it is, because if you aren’t, then the entire context of the narrative changes. Instead of accepting that this is wrong, that this is just for the purposes of a narrative and the narrative is entirely fantasy, you run the risk of taking that into the real world, of believing that this is actually how people are. If I didn’t know that 300 was sexist, then I might just assume that women were all passive agents who didn’t really contribute all that much to anything… unless they happened to be Lena Headey. If I didn’t know that 300 was homophobic, I might assume that all gay men were inherently threats to straight men. These are the lessons that the narrative is teaching me, so if I’m not questioning them, then I run the risk of accepting them instead.

And more than that, we seem to be at a big of a turning point for a lot of media. The most recent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was about a gay black man (Moonlight). One of 2017’s highest grossing movies was about a female superhero (Wonder Woman), but it wasn’t very long ago that movie studios were refusing to put female superheroes in their own solo movies because they tended to flop when compared to their male counterparts. People are getting more and more interested in seeing diversity in our media, and this is awesome. This gives so many more people the opportunity to see themselves represented, rather than just the same straight, middle-to-upper-class, young-to-middle-age white dude that keeps getting catered to over and over again. And as people get more and more interested in diversity, it becomes more important for us to talk about what kind of diversity. We might see a movie about women and say, “that’s great, but the writing was kind of sexist. Can you give us more of this instead?” and if there are enough people demanding, the media will eventually supply.

We point out that there wasn’t enough racial diversity in something because we want to see more racial diversity in something else; not necessarily because we think that you shouldn’t like the original narrative. You can like the original narrative all you want; just be aware that it can be improved in the future. And hopefully, if enough people can keep talking about it, it will be improved in the future.

Is Representation Important?

Representation is a popular issue right now – something that people have begun talking about more and more frequently. And it is a multi-faceted issue, one that can be discussed from several different angles: what kind of representation is good representation? How much representation is enough? When it comes to fiction, can we represent minorities through villains, secondary characters, or stereotypes?

But there’s another question that I see come up again and again when it comes to representation: quite simply, is it important? I mean, I don’t think that there are very many people out there who would argue that people don’t deserve to feel empowered, or to look up to someone. But when I see this question discussed, I often see the same response come up: that things like gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. shouldn’t matter. That a young Chinese lesbian should have the ability to look at a straight white man and still see herself in him, because at the end of the day, we are all people and we all share a basic human experience.

Now, I won’t deny that there is some truth to this statement. Some. To use my personal experience as an example, I am blessed enough to say that my career goals are such that I have been able to see my gender represented in it – not perfectly, mind you. When I was a little girl, I still grew up with the story of J.K. Rowling being forced to abbreviate her name by her publisher because they were concerned that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman, but nonetheless, there were plenty of women writers that I could look up to. I saw myself represented in that industry, and so I never had a doubt that I could exist in this industry. And therefore, I had no problem looking up to female and male writers alike. Because end of day, a good writer is a good writer, and there are plenty of male writers who explore themes and issues that I understand and relate to.

But in this specific instance, I saw myself represented. I knew that women could be writers. There are plenty of industries wherein this isn’t the case. Although women in the United States hold approximately half of all jobs, they represent less than 25% of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math. In 2015-2016, women made up only 16.3% of CEO positions and 28.5% of key management personnel positions. In the United States, there has literally never been a female president (and only one non-white president). So when we’re talking about young girls aspiring to enter into these roles, representation suddenly becomes much more important – not just so that you can know that it’s possible for you to enter into that field, but so you can know that you will be accepted and taken seriously in it as well.

Representation matters more and more in areas where people aren’t generally represented. And how do I know this? Well, because, while I’m a writer, I also happen to fall under another label, one that I very rarely see represented in the media, or represented well for that matter: I am a bisexual woman.

And growing up, I rarely saw myself in the media. I saw gay and lesbian people, sure, but their experiences didn’t always match up with my own. I saw straight people all the time, but their experiences didn’t align with mine either. And because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, I began to wonder what was wrong with me. Was I the weird one? Did I even truly exist, or was the way I felt some sort of elaborate lie I was telling myself so that I could feel unique and different?

And when I wasn’t feeling this way, I was feeling like I was something gross, something unlovable. Because when I did see myself represented, I saw myself in hugely unfavourable ways. Bisexuals in the media were manipulative, or they were serial-cheaters, or they were just used as one-night-stands and nothing more. One of my first exposures to the existence of bisexual people was through a talk show that I saw when I was really young – maybe four or five, where a man was trying to decide if he should leave his wife because he found out that, before they were married, she had dated a girl, and he didn’t think he could handle that. At the time, I thought this was stupid, because who she had dated before shouldn’t have any bearing on what their relationship was like now, but I was still young, still forming my identity, and I won’t deny that it sort of made me internalize this idea that I could never have a fulfilling and healthy relationship because of how I was born.

And none of this is to say that I couldn’t relate to straight or gay characters in the media. I could. There are plenty of characters on either side of the spectrum that I respected, looked up to, wanted to emulate, but in this specific issue, none of them were helpful. They couldn’t help me feel better about myself because they weren’t like me.

It took me a long time to undo the damage that a lack of representation had done to my self-esteem, and the way that I managed to start doing this was actually by seeking out what little good representation there was to be found out there. I found blogs and websites dedicated to real bisexual people discussing their experiences, which helped me to understand that I existed, that my feelings were valid. And, as stupid as it might sound, I found encouragement from looking up celebrities that identified proudly as bisexual – celebrities like David Bowie and Alan Cumming and Angelina Jolie, because they proved to me that I could be bisexual and successful and accepted and loved. The ideas were not mutually exclusive.

Especially when you’re young, when you don’t see yourself represented very often, you tend not to question the media that you’re seeing, but yourself. When you’re an overweight girl and all the beautiful women are represented as thin, you began to wonder if you’re ugly. When you are not white, but the majority of people in positions of power are, you began to feel very powerless. When you get a little bit older, you develop the ability to question these ideas, but by then the damage is often done already. By then, you’ve already internalized that you’re ugly, that you’re powerless, that you’re unlovable, that you don’t exist.

So, yes, a black boy can see a white character in a movie and relate to his internal, human struggle, but he cannot relate to his racial experience, and his existence is not validated by him. That is the difference between relating to a character based on their narrative or a figure based on their achievements, and relating to a character or a figure because they share a common experience with you.

That is why representation is important: because when you don’t see people like you doing what you want to do, you began to wonder if you even can do it, whether that be something as difficult as pursuing a certain career, or something as simple as being who you truly are. And regardless of who you are or how you were born, you deserve to be told that you are powerful, you are capable, and you are loveable.

I Don’t Understand

I always try to understand people. I think that it’s important to understand one another, because if we don’t, then we can’t ever enact change. If we refuse to see anything from the perspective of another, then we are eternally stuck within our own heads, unable to acknowledge that things exist even if we don’t personally experience them, unable to grow or learn or make the world a better place.

But I have to admit, when it comes to all this, I don’t understand.

I don’t understand how you can hear a fellow human being begging to be taken seriously, begging for equality and the chance to live safely, and just shut them out.

I don’t understand how you can tell other people that the way they feel is wrong, just because you don’t feel the same way.

I don’t understand how you can look at superficial things like skin colour or background or birth and think that that makes you better than them.

I don’t understand how, on August 12 2017, a man got into his car and looked down at a group of people who had done nothing more than defend what they believed in, and he decided that he would run them down. I don’t understand what led him to that decision, to accepting that he wouldn’t know who this would injure or even kill, and he didn’t care. I don’t understand how he could accept that a child might lose her mother, a father might lose his son, and yet he thought that that was an acceptable price to pay for an attempt to silence them, to scare them out of their fight for equality.

I don’t understand how you can look at a group of people, any people, and think that they are inherently lesser than you. I don’t understand hating some that much, especially not for something like their race.

And I want to understand, not because I agree with what they did but because I want to be able to say something that they might understand, that might stop this from happening again. But I don’t think I can. All I can say is that I am sorry to the families of the deceased, and I am sorry to those who were injured. All I can say is that the anti-racist protestors should have been there, needed to be there, and they should continue to be there even after this; do not allow violence like this to silence a worthwhile fight. Do not allow them to win like this. All I can say is that the boy who did this was a terrorist, and his actions should be treated accordingly.

And to those whose ideologies supported this boy’s way of thinking, the white supremacists and the Nazi sympathizers, all that I can say is that, while I do not understand you, I feel sorry for you, because I cannot imagine how much you suffer by choosing a life so filled with hate.