A while back I wrote some Thoughts from a Privileged Person Writing About Privilege and noted how difficult it can be to use perfectly inclusive language 100% of the time, and how I don't want to completely dismiss or label someone if their writing betrays ignorance or a privileged viewpoint. I want to create space for new allies to screw things up initially without attacking them.
I still believe what I wrote in that post, but I feel I need to make an addendum: While I want to preach grace for those who genuinely want to be allies and haven't learned all the right words yet, I have a much lower tolerance for someone who reacts badly to being called out for offensive language.
I feel this is an extremely important distinction to make. In my journey as an ally to the LGBTQ community, I am grateful to the people who are willing to look past the blunders I make to hear the passion in my heart, and who are willing to gently correct my misunderstandings. In return, I have tried to do the following:
- Continue to educate myself on my own time, so I make fewer mistakes
- Apologize sincerely when someone tells me I've said something offensive
- Ask for clarification if absolutely necessary, and not in a "Please justify that this is actually offensive" way but in a "Please help me not make this mistake again" way
- NOT DO IT AGAIN
This, of course, is the ideal. I'm as susceptible to privileged distress as the next person, and my first reaction may be defensiveness coupled with a strong dose of ugly guilt for having offended other people, feelings that I will want to get rid of.
What I do with those feelings is on me, though. And I now recognize that inappropriate responses look like the following:
- Trying to explain to the person why the thing isn't actually offensive
- Trying to force the other person to justify feeling offended
- Comparing their negative experiences to my own negative experiences
- Explaining that I didn't intend to be offensive, so they should be less offended
- Telling them they're overreacting or being mean to me by telling me I'm being offensive
What prompted me to think about this was a recent post from Dianna E. Anderson explaining why she's skeptical of male feminists, particularly those who are white, cisgender, and heterosexual. (Warning: The link contains disturbing language, used by one of these self-proclaimed male feminists.)
She explains that she has had too many experiences with these men who calls themselves feminists and talk about understanding their own privilege, but when it's pointed out to them that they've done something offensive, they get angry and defensive.
I posted Dianna's link in a feminist Facebook group I'm part of and immediately got a multitude of responses from both men and women with examples of when this exact situation has occurred (men who self-identify as feminists but refuse to act in a way affirming to women).
Then what do you think happened?
A (white, heterosexual) man commented that the example in Dianna's article (a "Save Second Base" T-shirt her boyfriend wore) was not actually offensive. Keep in mind that this commenter is someone who is voluntarily a member of this feminist group.
When people responded explaining why it was offensive, he insisted that saying it was offensive was infringing on the right of women who would want to wear the shirt.
When people tried to explain again why it was problematic, he asked for someone to provide him a link explaining what they were talking about.
When people told him there was plenty of information out there he could find himself if he actually wanted to learn more, he said he was just asking and it was unfair to be so hostile to him.
Using the links in those last three paragraphs, I pointed out that he was basically going through the Derailing for Dummies manual point by point and that it was therefore not exactly surprising that people were getting frustrated with him.
At which point, of course, he said that it wasn't his intent to derail or offend anyone.
So basically: Thank you, Internet man, for proving Dianna's point.
If you want to be an ally of any kind, I say awesome. But the test of whether you genuinely want to be an ally, for me, is less about your ability to instantly understand all the inclusive and inoffensive language you should use, and more about how you react when called out on your own language and privilege. Calling other people out on their language does not make you an ally if you don't believe the people who call you out.