Where Logic Meets Love

Thoughts from a Privileged Person, Part 2

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

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One summer I had an editing internship at a publishing company, which was a dream come true for an editing nerd like me. The first day I was given a house style guide, which I read carefully and then kept on my desk for reference. For those not familiar, there are standard style guides (like AP, APA, MLA, Chicago), and then each organization will create its own in-house style guide to deal with exceptions to the standard style and with issues that arise commonly in their particular publications.

I was assigned to work with the senior copy editor, and things quickly went downhill. When she gave me a practice editing test, I dutifully followed the house style guide by changing each instance of "might" to "may." The senior editor marked this incorrect and changed all instance of "may" to "might." When I confusedly showed her the style guide, she said that was outdated and not how they did things anymore. So on the next piece she gave me, I carefully changed all instances of "may" to "might," as she had done. Again, she told me I did it wrong.

This was a pattern that repeated itself for most of the rest of the summer. She'd correct my editing and tell me we always did things one way, but if I did it that way, she'd mark it wrong. If I asked her to clarify why this instance was different than the last time, she'd get angry and tell me to stop questioning her judgment.

As you can imagine, this was incredibly frustrating for me because 1) good editing values consistency above almost anything else and 2) I was there to learn, which was hard to do when the rules kept changing.

I wrote previously asking for grace when wannabe allies initially use wrong language. (I followed this up by explaining that how you react to accidentally offending someone says more about whether you're an ally than the language you originally use.) But as I educate myself more and more and get deeper into the feminist/activist community, I'm sometimes running up against contradictory advice about how to be an ally from the people I'm wanting to be an ally to.

For example, it's been drilled into me that person-first language is vital to avoid being offensive to people with disabilities. But now I'm learning that some people find person-first language problematic or offensive. Michael Scott Monje, Jr. even goes so far as to say, "I don't think it's productive to respect the wishes of parents or autistic adults that want to use person-first language."

So now I feel stuck; if I refer to "autistic people" I'm going to offend people and if I refer to "people with autism" I'm going to offend people.

I'm hesitant to even write about this because I know some people are going to say, "Well, boohoo, this isn't about you and your privileged feelings." So I want to make it clear that my point is not, "Oh, poor me, using inclusive language is so difficult." My point is this: I am here, I genuinely want to be an ally and learn the rules and use whatever language is appropriate, and I legitimately don't know how to navigate this situation. And all the research I've done on my own has turned up these contradictions but no guidance for handling them.

Whenever I've brought up situations like this before ("black" vs. "African American" vs. "person of color" is another case where I've heard strong arguments from offended people on all sides), the response I get is usually, "Just ask the person what they prefer." And I agree, if you're talking/writing about a particular person, that it's incredibly important to respect their personal identity choices.

The problem is that there's not always "a person" in the situation. Sometimes out of necessity you're writing about a group of people who share some common characteristic, and there's no way to account for every person's particular preference. This is particularly true for a writer like me who wants to use my platform to educate people like me about their privilege and thus has to refer to broad groups of people by their particular characteristics.

For example, on a recent Radiolab podcast they interviewed a woman who identifies as "Negro" and does not like the term "black"; one of her daughters identifies as black and one as white. But when talking generally about people who identify with or are perceived as a particular racial identity, the host used the term "black." He was talking about a large group of people and had to choose one word to describe them, and he (I think rightly) decided that using the word "Negro" would be more likely to offend people, even though that is how the particular woman who was interviewed identifies.

So while I understand the impulse, I don't think "Just ask the person" works in every situation, which brings me back to trying to navigate this as someone who wants to be an ally.

Perhaps even trickier to navigate (and where the "just ask the person" really doesn't apply) is when it comes to taking action, as I cannot simultaneously do and not do something.

Another example: When Trayvon Martin was killed, I saw a lot of messages on Twitter and Facebook from people of color (there's that necessary collective descriptor again) who were angry that white people (ditto) did not seem to be speaking out about the situation very much. They said they saw only other people of color talking about it and that the most any white person was doing was retweeting those people, not using their own position of privilege to condemn the killing. Although personally I felt that I'd seen a lot of white people speaking out about it, I followed my own rules and listened and believed the people who were saying that more white people needed to speak out about it.

When the "not guilty" verdict was handed down to Trayvon's killer on Saturday, I got on Twitter ready to express how outraged I was about it. Then I saw Captain Awkward had retweeted a tweet from @SnarkysMachine that said, "White 'allies' if you're doing anything but quietly signal boosting voices of color you're doing it wrong. Tonite is not about you."

Again, I felt like I'd been handed a pop quiz I was doomed to fail: "You want to be an ally to people of color! What do you do in this situation?"

The truth, of course, is that there is no right answer because every community I could want to be an ally to is made up of diverse people who each have their own beliefs about what they most need.

Because of this, I know (from what I've been told) that it's wrong to ask any one person to speak for their entire community. But then I get frustrated when people do try to speak for their entire community. Like Monje, Jr. saying that I should listen only to him and not respect the people who want to be called "people with autism." Or SnarkysMachine telling me I'm "doing it wrong" if I listen to other people of color telling me they want to hear more white voices speaking out.

In most cases, the right thing to do is more clear-cut -- when 95% or 100% of people in a community tell me that doing or saying something is offensive, you can believe I'm not going to do or say that. But I'm struggling with how to navigate the situations where the right thing, the "ally thing" to do, is not as straightforward.

Again, I want to be clear that this is not about me and my feelings. I am not looking for people to say, "You're right, this is super-hard, so just do your best and try not to feel too bad about it." I want to know, how do you suggest I best navigate this situation?

I am particularly interested in hearing from people who identify a certain way or want allied support in a way that they know other people in their particular group do not. Other than saying, "Follow my advice and not this other person's advice," what suggestions do you have for how someone can navigate this situation in a way that respects you and others?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Well, I guess that was not appreciated, or at least badly communicated.

      To summarize:

      1. You can't please everyone all the time.
      2. Some people you can never please, like your boss.
      3. To think that you have to "walk on eggshells" because of privilege is a bit privileged in itself.

      Listen, be sensitive to others, and do your best.

    2. James,

      A direct quote from my post:
      I am not looking for people to say, "You're right, this is super-hard, so just do your best and try not to feel too bad about it."

      See Rachel's comment below for a more helpful response.

      And yes, I recognize my boss at that internship was on a power trip, but I left that out because the point was not to imply that underprivileged people are on a power trip when they say something is offensive to them. It was intended solely to be an analogy about how I struggle when I don't have a clear set of "rules" to follow, and how I therefore need additional tools in this situation. I don't feel I have to walk on eggshells, which would be a defense mechanism and more about my feelings, which as I said that I'm not concerned about here. I am genuinely concerned about hurting other people and want to know how best to do that when the guidelines are unclear. And I'm specifically looking for guidance from people who lack privilege in a particular area to share their thoughts.

    3. My point about "walking on eggshells" is that thinking one needs guidelines to avoid offending certain people (and that guidelines are what is needed) is a form of privilege.

      There is no substitute for relationship. Relationship with individuals is obvious, but groups are more tricky. Offhand, I would say when dealing with a community, to respect the existing structures within the community that you are interacting. This also involves learning who NOT to listen to—who doesn't speak for the community. But you can't forget that any community is made up of individuals with unique and different opinions and experiences.

      Yes, it is complicated and there are no easy answers.

  2. Honestly, I think one of the most important things you can do is to realize there are no easy answers. It would be so much easier if there were nice, clear-cut guidelines for never offending people, but in the real world, as you've noted, groups are not homogenous. Inevitably, sometimes the best of intentions are not enough.

    It's tempting to respond by not even trying to engage people anymore when you might end up unintentionally offending them (not that I'm saying you personally would do this). It's much more difficult, but so valuable, to continue to remain open-minded, keep listening and learning, acknowledge people's feelings in all their complexity, and humbly submit to correction when necessary.

    In writing, when you have to choose between one term and another, it may be helpful to add a note explaining that you realize the term you've chosen may be problematic for some of your readers and inviting comments and dialogue. That will show people you are thinking about it and keep communication open.

    This is definitely something I'll continually be working on. I want to thank you for so consciously keeping this about others and not about finding the "right" answer solely so you can feel comfortable. In my experience, that's often the last and hardest attitude to rid oneself of as a person of privilege. Thanks for being a good example.

    1. Some great points! Thank you. I agree that it can be tempting to disengage when you're too worried about offending people (especially when, as I've written about before, some people respond very angrily to others using improper language). And I don't want to do that, so I think I do need to reach a point, not where I'm OK with offending some people, but where I realize that it's inevitable and I need to be prepared not to be defensive about it.

      I like the suggestion to note when a conscious decision has been made about which term to use so people know that it's an informed decision (even if, in their opinion, it's the wrong one) and not one made simply out of ignorance. Thanks :)

  3. Thanks for writing this.

  4. Judge what you want and the best way to provide it yourself, and use all of your available information to make that judgement.

    If most of a group agrees that the use of a particular term is harmful to them, it's probably because it is. If they are split on whether a term is harmful to them, it probably isn't. In either case, it's the harm being done that is important, not the wishes of any individual that it not be used.

    Monje is either accurate or inaccurate when he says "it isn't productive to use use person-first language", and it's your responsibility to evaluate whether it is true or false and act accordingly.


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