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.