The Privilege of Politeness
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Posted by: Naamen Gobert Tilahun
One item that comes up over and over in discussions of racism is that of tone/attitude. People of Color (POC) are very often called on their tone when they bring up racism, the idea being that if POC were just more polite about the whole thing the offending person would have listened and apologized right away. This not only derails the discussion but also tries to turn the insults/race issues into the fault of POC and their tone. Many POC have come to the realization that the expectation of politeness when saying something insulting is a form of privilege. At the core of this expectation of politeness is the idea that the POC in question should teach the offender what was wrong with their statement. Because in my experience what is meant by “be polite” is “teach me”, teach me why you’re offended by this, teach me how to be racially sensitive and the bottom line is that it is no one’s responsibility to teach anyone else. And even when POC are as polite as possible there is still hostility read into the words because people are so afraid of being called racist that they would rather go on offending than deal with the hard road of confronting their own prejudices.
When someone is accused of racism/prejudice and they don’t want to address the concern or even think about it, well then the POC accusing is too loud, too angry. But that ignores the fact that we have every right to be loud and angry. If I were to say something sexist/classist/racist/ablist/etc. I would not expect my friends to say “Well I’m offended by what you said and let’s have a calm discussion of why.” (especially with my friends) I would expect their first and most visceral reaction to be “Listen up, what you just said is fucked up and you better research and correct yourself!” Hell, I’d expect the same response from strangers because I don’t expect them to teach me or help me work through my unconscious prejudices. If I have some fucked up unconscious thoughts it’s my job to break it down and deal with it, no one else’s. Sure there are friends I could turn to but I don’t expect people to help me. For clarifications sake in my mind asking friends for help is not the same as expecting people to teach you. A white friend coming up to me and saying ‘Hey I’m writing this story with a black main character can you read it over?’ is completely different from putting some prejudiced writing/thoughts/beliefs out there and expecting me to be nice and teach you when I run across it. It’s the expectation not the asking that is privilege.
So if you say something racist I may write a detailed reply pointing it out and teaching a bit. I may also go off. Or I may just ignore it. It all depends. Depends on if I just spent the whole day dealing with racism, if I know you, if I think you can learn, if it’s something that’s been repeated over and over and I’m tired of dealing with it and think that you as an (assumed) intelligent person should know better. But you know what they say “If if was a fifth we’d all be drunk.” The point is I should not be expected to respond to racism with a happy-go-lucky smile and a will to teach. I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.
See this post has been brewing a long time which is maybe why I seem so “angry” or “rude”. I’ve noticed that when discussions of racism happen online the posts that go up in the aftermath, even some of the ones that address and acknowledge the issues of racism in the incident still say “They didn’t have to be rude about it. There was no call for it.” or “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened.” or some other variation (they of course referring to POC). What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and fucked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.
The question I always ask in these situations and no one ever answers: Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended? If someone offends me with racism (either unconscious or deliberate) why should I be nice while confronting them? No one has given an answer to me yet because the answer is for the accused’s comfort level, which brings me back around to the title of this post. It is a privilege to expect someone to confront you on any kind of prejudice politely! I go through every day knowing that I will be offended and there is no politeness when it happens but in return I have to be nice? I have to be polite? I have to be willing to teach you is what is really being said.
Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a creative writer and blogger based in San Francisco. You can visit him at Words From The Center, Words From The Edge, where he discusses writing, science-fiction, movies, and more.