How Dare You Call Me A *ist

Where “*ist” stands for racist/sexist/ableist/transphobe/elitist/homophobe etc.

I see it all the time, both online and off – Person X writes/says something, Person Y says “gee, what you just said/did was kinda *ist” and Person X comes back with “how dare you call me a *ist” (or Person Z butts in with “how dare you call X a *ist”).

But behaviour is never a fully accurate reflection of character. None of us is perfectly enlightened. We all have unexamined and not fully examined attitudes which pepper our vocabularies with cliched phrases and gestures we use from habit rather than deep consideration. Bad habits we engage in unthinkingly don’t necessarily make us generally bad people or even generally thoughtless people, but this tends to be the reaction to having those bad habits challenged as marginalising behaviours – that the challenger is calling us a bad person.

Background: 8 piece pie style color split with red and teal alternating. Foreground: White guy with glasses and light shadow wearing a sweat shirt over a button down and short black hair. Has a smug, arrogant facial expression and crossed arms.

Privilege Denying Dude:
Top text: “Racists are bad people.”
Bottom text: “I’m not a bad person, therefore what I said can’t possibly be racist.”

This defensive conflation of behaviour and character tends to mean that the debate gets derailed onto whether the person is or is not, intentionally/ideologically *ist, when what the person believes/means generally is simply not the point.  The point is that this one particular act that is being criticised has problematic cultural assumptions embedded within it, and those problematic cultural assumptions are what need to be challenged.

Every one of us has internalised a whole bunch of toxic judgmental attitudes from our toxic judgmental culture which privileges certain behaviours/ identities/conventions/associations above others as part of the mechanisms for maintaining the status quo. Every one of us has absorbed bigoted tropes via sociocultural osmosis, because we wade through a world saturated by bigoted tropes, and those tropes are still floating around in our heads, no matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise and no matter how hard we work on suppressing them because we’re working towards improving the status quo.

Denying that toxic tropes could possibly be lurking in the corners of our consciousness only gives them more power to undermine our best intentions.

(n.b. this post is an expanded/clarified version of a comment left on another blog)

Categories: ethics & philosophy, language, social justice

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. I love this tedx by Jay Smooth on the topic of racism – what he calls the “dental hygiene” model could equally be applied to other *isms.
    <a href="</a&gt;

  2. I was also going to mention Jay Smooth, although I live back in the era of the classic youtube vid “how to tell people they sound racist”.
    I’ve found that the problem either boils down to, as you mention, thinking it is a moral evaluation of character (rather than “oops! A booboo!”); or a refusal to believe that one carries opinions and attitudes and biases of which one may be only dimly aware, if at all. This second situation is much harder to deal with, because the person needs to be dragged through most twentieth-century knowledge of psychology, sociology, anthropology etc. It’s closely related to “the view from nowhere” (which I used to be guilty of), but also I believe the Rational Agent beloved by some economists, and I think is a fundamental underpinning of Libertarianism. (So you are particularly likely to run into it when arguing on the Internet.)

  3. My off-the-cuff response to “I’m not an X-ist” is “well, then why are you doing these X-ist things?”
    And, no, “what I’m doing can’t be X-ist because I’m not an X-ist” won’t fly, any more than “I’m not a murderer, so my cutting Y’s head off can’t be murder” would.
    Probably too snarky to be constructive, but at some point, I get tired of being patient and understanding. At some point, we have to come to terms with the fact that we all contain a lot of stuff we’re not proud of (or wouldn’t want people to know about) and work on it, rather than just sailing that river in Egypt.

  4. I read a comment somewhere yesterday that I can’t find again now, but xe had a pithy summary: changing the “what you did” conversation to a “what you are” conversation.
    It’s a deflection mechanism, pure and simple. It’s often deployed in reflexive/defensive denial rather than malicious/hostile manipulation, but just as intent is not magic when it comes to “what you did” in the first place, intent is not magic when it comes to persisting with deflecting/derailing either.

  5. I obviously can’t know where you found the comment,tigtog, but this actually sounds a lot like what Jay Smooth is saying in the video which Aqua of the Questioners recommended above. Maybe that is where you saw it?
    On the article: I only recently became somewhat more sensitive to the underlying issues – not in the least thanks to this and like-minded blogs – and while I can relate to the fact that having your flaws spelled out to you (even if it is anonymously on a blog you are reading by your own choice when the other person doesn’t even know they are educating you) can be unsettling and put you on the defensive, and may need some time to think through. I definitely used to – and probably in some ways still am – guilty of ‘colorblindness’ and the ‘I am a humanist’-trope. So in a way, I kind of sort of understand the reaction you talk about here.
    On the other hand, if a politely stated ‘hey what you said there is offensive (to me), please don’t say that’ prompts you to a knee-jerking of really saying, out loud ‘How dare you call me a *ist’, rather than an at least perfunctory apology just for hurting someone else, followed by some thinking and maybe a more sincere apology later, I would wager a guess that there actually IS a pretty big underlying problem with you in that area.
    However, the point still stands in the other direction, that is if it is your goal to educate people, it is important to take a certain defensiveness into account and also to always stick to the things they said, rather than ‘accusing’ there whole sense of self.
    To end on a positive note, I really think this goal is accomplished very well here and I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank you for educating me.

    • I didn’t rewatch the video this time around, Sioury – although perhaps I should if I forgot that this was a key piece of phrasing. It has been awhile.
      I’m glad you found this article useful. I’m wary of the “that was offensive” wording myself, because not only does “offensive/offended” tend to specifically trigger defensiveness amongst many/most of the merely unthinking reiterators of *ist tropes, it also gives the ideologically anti-PC backlashers a wedge to plug in the “nobody has a right to not be offended” soundbite (which of course is trivially true but also unhelpful, irrelevant and pointless – nobody has a right to make others be silent about being offended either, and around we go in circles about who gets to exercise competing rights and how the exercise of a right is not exempt from criticism of one’s choice of how to exercise that right).
      So dealing with the anti-PC ideologues is different from dealing with the inadvertant reitorators, and it’s important to realise that the different groups require different approaches – objecting to the deliberately transgressive “edgy” backlashers may require taking a strong stand as a public protest (which is an effective method of educating some of the observers even if the ideologues easily shrug it off).

  6. Oh, of course!
    I didn’t think that far. I just meant that IF you do phrase it in a way that clearly is of the ‘what you said’-kind, and the reaction is that hostile, I would be more inclined to suspect deeper problems than thoughtlessness, which as you said can happen to everyone sometimes. But then again, you already pointed out it really isn’t about intent, so I guess my thought process wasn’t too helpful here.
    In any case, I understand your objections to the ‘offensive’ -phrasing (and here I thought I’d found a cautious way to say stuff – still pretty naive I guess 🙂 )
    Well, I guess thanks again for helping me learn, and I will try and make a more useful comment next time around.
    Also, just watched the Tedx video, the dental hygiene metaphor is awesome! Thanks, Y!

  7. TW: Ableist, racist language ahead (just a little bit)
    There’s also the possibility that the thing you said is *ist in ways you were utterly unaware of. That you haven’t internalised the tropes, but were actually completely oblivious to them. It’s clearly an example of privilege, but it should, in principle, be easy to deal with. For example, a friend of mine used to regularly use the word “mong”. I took an opportunity (not immediately after she’d used it) to point out that it was a particularly special word, managing to be racist and ableist all in one. She was stunned and amazed when I explained the origin of the word – she’d never known there was a connection. She doesn’t use it any more. This is the way it should be. It always amazes me when people get really defensive on this one – when I find out a word I thought had no baggage, has in fact a whole cargo hold’s worth, I just stop using it. (Or perhaps stop using it in certain contexts – some tropes are highly culturally specific.) I don’t really get why people take finding out something they didn’t know before as a personal attack.

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