So You’ve Been Called Out for Something Problematic…
This began with a pattern I saw of white people who’d been accused of racism asking for and getting reassurance from their white friends that they weren’t really racist. It’s not a new phenomenon, but I saw a lot of it earlier in the month, and talked about it on Facebook.
During the ensuing conversation, someone asked how I’d respond if someone accused me of being racist or sexist or bigoted or whatever. Another friend said they’d never seen anyone accuse me of such things, and that I was a feminist and a good person.
I genuinely appreciate this person’s faith in me, but … no. Whether or not they’ve seen such things, I can assure you that I’ve screwed up many times, and that in many of those instances, people called me on it.
- One of the more memorable examples was a woman who came up to me after a panel to criticize my portrayal of a particular character in the Princess series. (She was right, and her comments led to a small addition in the final book.)
- Another example that still makes me cringe is from almost twenty years ago, making a joke to my officemate that was so not okay. (I want to go back in time and smack younger Jim upside the head.)
- Several people called me on a joke about mansplaining a few years back, because the joke erased transgender people.
- I was asked to do an impromptu talk about men and rape at a Take Back the Night rally in college. A woman came up afterward to thank me, but also to point out that one of the phrases I’d used was sexist.
I could go on, but the point is, it happens. We grow up in a world steeped in systemic inequality, in racism and sexism and discrimination and bigotry. Do you really think it’s possible to grow up in such a world and not have these things affect you? That you’re somehow magically immune to these things?
None of us are perfect. The question is, what do we do about our imperfections? Do we work to be better, or do we lash out against anyone who dares suggest we might be flawed? That we might be … human?
It’s not pleasant. I still tense up when someone confronts me. I feel defensive. My mind runs through the whole, “But I’m a good person!” script.
The thing is, when someone confronts me on this stuff, they’re not saying I’m a horrible person. Those examples I gave earlier? For the most part, I’m friends with the people who called me out. (In one case, it’s so long ago I don’t even remember who it was that came up to me.) These people didn’t write me out of their lives or proclaim me Lord Evil McEvilson of Evil Manor.
And as unpleasant as it is to be confronted about this stuff? It’s usually hard for the person doing the confronting, too. They’re probably tense and anxious and bracing themselves for anger and defensiveness and mockery and attack.
“But I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc!”
It’s not a binary thing. Humanity isn’t split into two groups, one of which is 100% pure and never says or does anything problematic, while the other is all-bigotry, all-the-time.
Foot-stepping is a useful metaphor here. If someone says you stepped on their foot, they’re not accusing you of being an Evil Foot-Stomper. They’re not saying you deliberately tried to break their metatarsals and phalanges and minotaurs and whatever other bones make up the foot. (I’m not a bone specialist.) They’re just pointing out that you stepped on their foot, and asking you to remove your foot and be a little more careful in the future.
It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. (See also, “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes.”)
“But I didn’t step on their foot!”
I hear this one a lot, in comments like, “People play the race card so often it’s lost all meaning!” Often, it’s because people are clinging to that binary all-or-nothing view. Racism has to be full-blown, intentional and deliberate, with KKK robes and nooses and burning crosses. Anything less is just people looking to be offended.
Yeah, no. Maybe I didn’t stomp on your foot while wearing cleats, causing compound fractures and the eventual amputation of your lower leg. Maybe it was just a small bruise, utterly unintentional. Maybe I didn’t even notice when I did it.
But it still hurt. Especially if that foot is tender from being stepped on so often.
That last part is key. People who are constantly being trod on are a lot more aware of when it happens. If someone tells me I stepped on them, I really need to listen.
“But what if they’re wrong?”
All right, sure. There are exceptions. There’s a troll in SF/F and comics who likes to claim everyone’s racist against him. Kicked out of Worldcon? It’s because he’s Hispanic. A big name author doesn’t like him? Accuse that BNA of being racist against Hispanics! I’m pretty sure we can all recognize this kind of blatant and unimaginative trolling for what it is.
There’s another author who occasionally writes angry blog posts about how I’m a racist because I wouldn’t publish his essay in one of my Invisible anthologies. The fact is, that essay was a one-sided hit piece on an individual editor, and was inappropriate for the anthology. I definitely made mistakes in my handling of the situation. Was I racist in making those mistakes? I don’t believe so, no.
These are outliers. Exceptions.
They’re not an excuse to dismiss any and all accusations anyone might make in my direction.
None of us are perfect. We all screw up. It’s not the end of the world, and nobody’s asking or expecting you to be perfect. Just listen and try to be better.
September 13, 2018 @ 10:53 am
For that matter, being human, even with all this in mind, most of us will still screw up responding to being called out at least once. And have to go back later, and say “You know what, you were right, and I got defensive and made it worse. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do it again.” Because ALL if this is much easier to discuss in the abstract than to actually do in the moment.
Jim C. Hines
September 13, 2018 @ 10:56 am
SMQ – Totally. One thing I’ve tried is telling people, “I hear what you’re telling me, but I need time to process it,” because I needed to give myself a chance to get through that initial wave of defensiveness.
September 13, 2018 @ 11:04 am
Yep. And even when we’re trying not to stomp on toes, our feet have historically been given more room on the dance floor than others, and so we misjudge our steps. The only civilized response is to move away, apologize, and try to have better spatial awareness, going on.
(we might be cranky that we can’t do our wild dance floor moves, but it’s time to get over it, and honestly, nobody thought they were impressive before, either.)
September 13, 2018 @ 4:35 pm
I love love love this metaphor and will try hard to incorporate it into my reactions when I find myself in this kind of situation.
September 13, 2018 @ 10:13 pm
Thank you for recognizing how hard it can be to do the calling out.I know there are too many times I’ve stayed silent because of fear of the reaction if I said anything, and how much I appreciated it when I did say something and the person I called out apologized and thanked me for saying something.
Also, thank you for sharing one way you deal with it when you’re the one who is called out, and a good metaphor for reframing things.
Eleanor C Ray
September 14, 2018 @ 12:06 am
I like the metaphor, too. I step on toes that I *never* realize I did. I have found out from someone literally thirty years later that I had done it to her. I *still* didn’t consider it something I shouldn’t have said, up until the time she mentioned it to me, thirty years later. (Damn, I am sorry, Beth!)
Learning new dance steps is hard–and sometimes it is because I was getting rewards for dancing the way all my friends were.
September 17, 2018 @ 11:52 am
I just read White Fragility and I found that really helpful. I also have found some of my best and biggest learning experiences have been when I said something kinda crumby and was called out for it. I’d just recommend when someone does call you out to take it and then decide how you want to proceed – don’t be busy writing your rebuttal when they are talking to you.
I will say, though, that especially in online spaces, I often don’t see an attitude of forgiveness for missteps. I see a lot of “so and so said something racist/sexist/transphobic and so is garbage.” I see a lot of calling other people out as problematic as a way to deflect attention from oneself. I see a lot of using a problematic statement or action from someone to totally discredit them, or using the concept of intersectionality as a bludgeon to discredit people who might be good on one issue but are silent or less great on others. So I’m also trying not to be part of that culture either, because I think it can just become kind of toxic.