I’ll say it again.
The typical middle-class U.S. white person—yes, even liberals and progressives and feminists and liberally progressively feminist ones—has an understanding of social justice and race that comes from a very immature place.
We can only imagine the harm that a word does in terms of bad feelings. I’m going to stick an * here because I’m going to come back to those bad feelings in a few paragraphs, but that’s a point for another asterisk.
We think that racism is about hurt feelings, and we think that justice is about fairness in the “Tommy gets to stay up and it’s not even dark yet so why do we have to go to bed now?” sense. We can get all fired up that a mother of four is going to spend a decade in prison for a crime that teenaged-us might have gotten a “You’re a good kid, go do something with your life.” lecture and community service because we know that’s not fair. We can think that we’re in the same boat as a man lynched by the state because we know that’s not fair.
We hate apartheid and Jim Crow laws because they’re not fair. We’re horrified by the idea of housing covenants and sundown towns because they’re not fair.
And when we hear that there’s a space where we’re not welcome and we think that’s equally not fair. We read someone talking about their problems with white people and we think “This hurts our feelings. It would be unfair to treat this as less of a big deal than when anyone else’s feelings are hurt by racism.”
And hoo boy, do not get us started on how not fair it is that there are certain words we’re not allowed to say that others are. Sure, we understand that this word might hurt feelings* (again, I’m coming back to that) but at the end of the day feelings are just feelings and words are just words and how can we fight for fairness if we ignore this glaring example of unfairness? The very basis for our opposition to all those evil and icky racist things is on the line here!
Of course, to think about racism in terms of hurt feelings* is missing the boat entirely. Racism doesn’t just hurt, it harms, it holds back, it destroys, it kills. That word is part of that. That word is used to attack, to marginalize, to dehumanize. It’s a reminder to the oppressed and a rallying cry to the oppressors. It isn’t a nasty looking relic on display in a museum of a bygone era that only injures people who stumble into it, it actively harms.
Now, let’s come back to that asterisk I’ve used three times now.
You know what?
Racism does hurt feelings. When we say that word, when we throw it out there to prove that we can, because we think we’re making some trenchant point, because we think we’ve earned enough Ally PointsTM to be able to say it without harm, for whatever reason… yes, that also hurts feelings.
And when someone finds doors shut in their face (or failing to open, which amounts to the same thing) because of their race or the markers thereof that show up on applications and forms, that’s got to hurt their feelings. When justice (not a juvenile sense of fairness but justice) is denied to a person… yes, it hurts.
This is not the extent of the harm being caused… this is not the reason that Racism Is A Bad Thing… but it’s demoralizing, it’s depressing. How could it not be?
Those bad feelings are not the thing that anti-racist work exists to fight. But that doesn’t mean they’re not a problem. Every time someone even has to point out that it’s not just hurt feelings… well, imagine if it were. Would that make it okay?
Try to imagine that Racism Is Over (don’t strain yourself here, white folks) and the only negative consequence of a white woman slapping a word from the Long-Past Era Of Racism on a poster for a feminist demonstration is that it reminds people of that Long-Past Era Of Racism and makes them feel bad.
Why are we going to do that? Why do we want to do that? Why do we need to do that? Say the whole world pats us on the head and says “Yes, fair is fair, absolutely. If anyone can say this word, everyone can say this word.”**
What do we do then? Do we throw back our head and sing it as a merry song like a kindergartener who just learned a new part of the anatomy just because we can? Or knowing that it hurts feelings… knowing nothing more about its impact on people and the world that it hurts feelings… do we keep our mouths shut?
If you want to call yourself an “ally” to POC or claim to be engaged in “anti-racist work”, if you want to believe you’re a proponent of “social justice” or even if you just want to believe you’re a decent human being and that you’re making the world a better place for your fellow human beings and not a worse one, the answer is clear.
Decent people don’t hurt others just because they can.
That’s what we’re fighting for the right to do when we insist that we should be able to say whatever we want.
My interpretation of social-justice-as-five-year-old-tantrum-about-bed-time is actually pretty generous here. Because the alternative is that we just are that darn entitled about everything and that we are, yes, that racist. Because there’s something ugly at work here when so movements and people that are otherwise so very savvy about words and how they can be used as weapons and tools of oppression can’t get past this. I’ve seen people that I know will wax poetic about the Mythic Power of Words turn around and do the sing-song thing to show little this word should matter and prove they should be allowed to say it.
Do you know what a mature definition of fairness means? I can’t claim to know the entirty of what’s fair, but it starts with everybody having what they need. Fair doesn’t mean that no one gets a lifejacket unless everyone in the world has a lifejacket. Fair means everyone who needs a lifejacket gets a lifejacket, everyone who needs a parachute gets a parachute, everyone who needs shelter gets shelter.
Fair doesn’t mean that I get to go everywhere I want without restriction. Fair means everyone has free access to public accommodations and necessary resources, fair means that everyone is able to participate in public life and walk around without being made to feel like they don’t belong in this world in their own skin yes, but that doesn’t mean that we can bust up into any private conversation we feel like busting into.
Everyone who needs shelter gets shelter. People who need space to breathe get space to breathe.
And that ** up there? Is because that situation… minus the head-patting… is basically the reality we’re in. Because at the end of the day nobody’s going to stop you from saying a word. Oh, they might say words back at you. If you’re a media personality they might say words to your advertisers, if you’re a politician they might say words at the polls, and sometimes their words will end up hurting your standing in a meaningful sort of way. Because words do have weight… weight and heft, like weapons do.
If nothing else, those words might hurt your feelings. And if you’re still using the five-year-old definition of fairness you might think that everything’s Even Steven. But you know what? Even hurt feelings aren’t all equal. A cramp in your leg while you’re sitting comfortably in your favorite chair isn’t the same thing as a cramped leg when you’re running for your life or trying to tread water. If somebody shoots a bullet that grazes your arm and hits another person square in the chest, you’ve both been shot but you don’t need the same attention.
But even if nothing in the world is more important to you than hurt feelings… well, you know how to avoid hurting others’. Fair’s fair, right?