The Difference Between What You Say and What You Are
As is often the case during major online blowups of one kind or another, I have lately found myself having to explain more often than I would care to the difference between “You said something racist” and “You are a racist.” Granted, a lot of people, including anti-racist activists, make a step from the first statement to the next with no problem. But it isn’t always the case that someone who says racist or sexist or other oppressive/prejudiced things is themselves a prejudiced, racist, or sexist person. They can be, certainly. And if you give certain people enough time and space to talk, they’ll prove themselves so.
But not always.
I want to try and unpack this in a way that will benefit future discourse because I think this is a very important point. I’m not the only person to point this out, of course. But it helps me to be a better debater in the future if I make posts and put my thoughts in order.
The truth is, everyone can make prejudiced, offensive or oppressive statements. Many people have prejudiced thoughts. And I mean people as in humans as in everyone, not just those whose groups have historical power.
In the case of those who do not belong to the dominant group, those statements can be hurtful, but often do not have the same impact. This is due to power imbalance.1 When someone in the dominant group says something prejudiced or offensive, many people will (perhaps correctly) assume that they said such a thing because they really think and believe it. And if a person really believes that prejudiced thing, they must be prejudiced themselves. This is not illogical.
However, humans often are.
Bias, prejudice, wrong thinking can be the product of conscious thought or unconscious/unexamined thought. It seems to me that a large percentage of people who bust out with really ignorant statements often do so because they have not ever, ever truly thought them through to their logical conclusions. If they did, or if someone challenged them to, their thinking could change.
Most activists realized this about people long ago. And thus many attempt to make a distinction between “You said something X-ist” and “You are a X-ist.”
Doing this is hard. Especially when the words that come out of people’s mouths are so very, very hurtful or very, very ignorant. It also doesn’t help when the person is acting like a jerk, all prejudicial talk aside. That is usually when people make the leap from “you said” to “you are” — I include myself in this.
So, two thoughts. One for those who say things that get them in trouble, one for those who hear/read these things.
First, the guide to How Not To Be Insane When Accused of Racism is very, very useful and I suggest you read it. Also, I urge you to read or listen carefully when someone takes exception to something you said/wrote. Are they saying that you’re an X-ist? Or are they saying that what you said is X-ist? If they say the latter they’re trying to make the distinction I’ve been talking about here, and you will not help the conversation by assuming they’re accusing you of the former.
If you are being accused of X-ism, then it would behoove you to examine what about your statement made people say that about you. Do not attempt to destroy, suppress or otherwise derail the discussion of racism (it’s not helpful either to you or to other arguing against you). And remember that admitting that you were wrong to say that X-ist thing is not the same as admitting you are an X-ist yourself.
Second, for those who see or read offensive, X-ist, prejudicial, or stereotypical things, I suggest attempting to make a distinction between what folks say and what they are. It’s not an easy path to take, and it involves a lot of giving the benefit of the doubt, patience, and tolerance. But I think it does help to start by saying “you said something x-ist/offensive” instead of “you are an x-ist because you said that” unless this person has proven, through past or further statements and actions that they are indeed x-ist.
Then you can have at.
That’s my advice, take it or leave it as you will. I do admit that for the activist, this can be hard. Especially when you run up against the thousandth instance of a particular prejudicial or offensive mindset. I make no claim on being perfect or even halfway decent in this regard at all times. I’m just trying.
I’m hoping for better discourse, but I have little hope of getting it from certain quarters of the population.
- A black person calls a white person a cracker: that’s not cool. But it does not have the same impact, or have the same level of wrongness, as a white person calling a black person a nigger. Still, doing both things is wrong, period. [↩]