I have great respect for people who are willing to call a spade a spade, particularly when they are willing to do so in situations where the status quo rules supreme. But I’ve become frustrated with what seems to me a tendency among some to call anything that even vaguely resembles a spade a spade (“it has a handle and you can dig with it, therefore it is a spade; the fact that you insist that it is in fact a hoe is a sign that you are not really with us.”) My main complaint with this lately has been in the area of racism, but it’s a danger in all anti-oppression work. Yes, I said a danger. I think that calling things that are not clearly instances of the racism (or other ism) racism (or other ism) weakens an anti-racist (or anti- other ist) movement. Why? Because it reduces your credibility, and because it makes you appear angry, reactionary, and fundamentally impossible to work with. At it’s worse I think it is equivalent to crying wolf.
Let’s step away from racism for a moment and talk about sexism, since that’s something that I’ve thought deeply about for a longer time (and an area where I’m less likely to be hit with “well it’s your privilege causing you to make that argument; if you were of the oppressed group you wouldn’t feel that way”). I once read (or perhaps it was a conversation) a sort of parody of feminist analysis that argued that ketchup is an element of the patriarchy? Why? Start with round tomatoes, clearly symbol of that which is feminine. Boil these tomatoes down and force them into a bottle. Not just any bottle but a bottle that is higher than it is wide (well, I guess that’s the definition of bottle, otherwise it would be a jar). Don’t you see, you’re taking the feminine round essence of the tomato and forcing it into the phallic masculine mold?! We must protest the patriarchal ketchup. Clearly this is satirical right? And you’d probably find yourself taken aback by anyone who seriously argued that ketchup is a tool of the patriarchy used to keep women down right? Indeed, you might even find yourself questioning whether this person could be trusted to ever cogently analyze what is and is not patriarchal, right?
In most cases the sorts of things that annoy me are not as full blown ridiculous as claiming that ketchup bottles reinforce patriarchy. (I’m sorry, I realize ridiculous is a judgmental term, but since I came up with the original argument in the first place I think I am justified in labeling it as patently ridiculous.) And as a result these things aren’t as damaging to the credibility of the analyses they are associated with, but still I find myself looking at a lot of things that seem very dangerous to credibility.
I’m going to cite an example that is contentious among the Unitarian Universalist community (or at least the online community, for various reasons I haven’t talked to anyone in my immediate UU community about the issue), but I think gets right to the core of my frustration. At the end of June there is an annual assembly of UUs called General Assembly or GA (UUs like acronyms). GA this year was in Fort Worth, Texas. Unsurprisingly there were some incidents of racism at GA. I say unsurprisingly not because I think racism is ok, but because as long as we live in a racist society some incidents of racism are inevitable, even among progressive religious people (who, incidentally, I often feel are much better at denying their racism than actually avoiding racist behavior). There was apparently a great deal of hurt surrounding some of these incidents, and a lot of processing went on around them as well, causing the cancellation of one of the social events in favor of time to process.
In the aftermath the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association issued an open letter of apology. The letter doesn’t give much clue about what really happened or what the nature of any of the incidents really was. The discussions I have seen online about the issue have focused almost entirely on an incident that took place during the closing ceremonies. This incident involved some young people outside the hall. Apparently the young people in question did not have their badges that let the ushers know that they were in fact registered for GA. Thus the young people were not admitted to the closing ceremonies. This made them angry and there were unpleasant words exchanged between the youth and the minister who spoke up in the ushers’ defense.
As you can guess the young people in question were not white. And the incident was labeled racist. In the absence of other information that seemed like a potentially accurate analysis. ChaliceChick brought up another perfectly reasonable analysis, suggesting that the youth might have been asked for their badges not because they were black, but because they were youth. Indeed, she suggests that all the ensuing chaos might have had more to do with their age than their color. If you happen to be a UU you probably won’t be horribly surprised to find out that she was quite quickly attacked in a number of places for suggesting that just because an incident involved people of color does not automatically mean the incident was racist. Yes, for a faith that claims to be non-dogmatic, we are awfully vicious in enforcing the accepted group-think when it comes to racism.
And then, the first actual eye-witness account of what occurred appeared (it appeared first on the anti-racist white allies email list, but I’m linking the article on fuuse). According to the usher (who herself happens to not be white) who was present, the kids were not escorted out because they were black. Indeed they were not even escorted out because they didn’t have their badges. They were escorted out because they were rude and disruptive.
At this point, some people began to acknowledge that while racism is a problem within the UU community, this particular incident might not actually have been primarily about race. Many others, though, dug their heels in and continued to insist that this was racist. And maybe it was. We don’t all the details. But given the details that we do have, I have a really hard time with people saying unequivocably that this was racism. To me it’s like standing in a garden looking at a bit of handle poking out of the ground with the rest of the instrument hidden in the dirt and yelling “look, look, it’s a spade.” Much worse than the continued insistence that this is a spade is the names and insults being leveled at the people who reply “well, I suppose it could be a spade, but we can’t really tell so maybe it’s something else entirely.” This accomplishes nothing. It alienates those who are calling into question whether the implement is in fact a spade. And it may make them much less likely to believe someone when they say “I saw a spade lying out by the garden.” I know for me if you tell me that a little bit of handle poking out of the ground is definitely a spade and ridicule me when I say “it actually kind of looks like the handle to the garden weasel I left out here last fall” I’m going to be very hesitant to ever believe you when you tell me you’ve seen a spade.
I believe language is important. And I believe misusing it is detrimental. When you call everything used to dig a spade it lessens the precision of your analysis. When you call every negative incident that involves people of color racist you are undermining the term racism. You are weakening your position opposing racism. And potentially you are putting yourself in a position when people won’t hear you when you do see something that is racist.
I know that a lot of times it feels like incidents are because of the categories we live in. And often they are. But sometimes a jerk is just a jerk. And I think moving forward in our analyses and our actions requires that we be able to not only call a spade a spade but also stop and ask ourselves and others whether it really is a spade at all.
I’ve spent the past two years of my congregational life calling attention to structures and incidents that I feel are racist. And that’s important work and we should all do it. But for one thing it needs to be done in ways that aren’t confrontational or people’s feelings get hurt and they stop listening (and even if you don’t give a flying f*** if people’s feelings are hurt, if you want to get anything done you better care whether they keep listening). And it also needs to be done in a spirit that recognizes that if we think the people around us are wrong, they also might think we are. The minute we stop being able to question and analyze our own perceptions of things we are lost. If we cannot question everything including ourselves we run the very real risk of becoming a source of the very types of oppression we seek to root out.