Retraction

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Winston Churchill

Over a year ago, I made this post about the word retarded and why I used it.  In all but one way, I stand by everything I said in that post.  I hate that “retarded” is used as an insult, and wish it could be used in a neutral (or even downright positive) way.  I still think that if we get people to stop using the word “retarded,” if we cede it as an unacceptable insult, people will just move along to something even more offensive and unacceptable (“Downsy,” anyone?).  The problem isn’t that people call other people retarded, the problem is that people think that retarded people are worthless.

I still think all that.

I’m going to stop using the word anyway.

I committed one fantastic, fatal, and essential error, and for that I apologize to everyone (neurotypical or not) who has ever been offended by anything I’ve written on the internet stemming from my use of the word (unfortunately, there’s no way for me to retrace my steps and delete all my offensiveness).

The error was that in this instance, it doesn’t matter how I feel about the word retarded.  The fact that I have a sister with Down syndrome doesn’t make my feelings on this matter important or even material.  I have been told–repeatedly, and by many people with cognitive disabilities (as well as by people who don’t have cognitive disabilities but have been labeled retarded anyway) that the word is offensive and they don’t like it.  I might feel that the word is offensive not just because it’s offensive, but because people have decided it’s offensive (which I think are two different things), but it doesn’t matter.  It’s not my right to offend legions people with disabilities in the name of educating people without them.  People with disabilities have enough to worry about without me piling on.  I can find other ways to educate.  An essential part of advocacy, of allyship, is listening to what the group I’m allied with wants from me, and in this particular area, I failed spectacularly.  I’m sorry.  I will stop using the word.

Ironically (and in the interest of full disclosure), this whole revelation transpired from an internet discussion in which I unapologetically (and still unapologetically, at least so far) defended my use of the word “handicapped” when describing a restroom stall (maybe I would have been less impatient if I had used the word to characterize a person, and not a bathroom).  In the course of the discussion, I mentioned I had a sister with special needs (not to justify myself, but just to clarify that I’m not a total newbie when it came to disability issues), and was subsequently called out for using the term special needs.  I pointed out that the term (which I consider to be an entirely different term and with different connotation than “special,” which I agree is condescending and defensive) is widely used both in professional circles and by parent groups, and was told that just because a term is in wide use, that doesn’t make it not offensive to the people being described (point being that the group in question should be able to choose the words they want to be called).

Fair point.

My defense of myself (other than my repeated insistence that I do not speak of people in the same way that I speak of toilets) is that handicapped doesn’t have the same consensus of offense that retarded has.  I know people (both on the internet and off) who don’t care about the word handicapped one way or the other, and some who use it positively.  Similarly, I know of very few people–no, strike that, I know NO people–outside of this particular person that the term “special needs” is offensive.  If the disabled community demonstrated the same cohesiveness about “handicapped” as about “retarded,” then I would be more inclined to stop using it.  Same with “special needs.” I want to listen to people about how they want to be labeled, but I admit to having trouble being able to tell (and, honestly, I think sometimes the people themselves have trouble telling) when I am listening to one person speak for themselves, and when I’m hearing one person articulate a position that represents a fair majority of a population.  So, this person called me out for using a handicapped stall, and ended up swearing me off the use of the word retarded, even though that word never came up in conversation.  Funny, that.

I try to be flexible.  My default adjectives for minorities tend to be queer, black, hispanic, etc.  I have gay friends who describe themselves as fags or dykes.  But if I’m with a gay person who doesn’t like the word fag?  I don’t use it.  All they have to do is tell me.   If I’m with a person of color who identifies as African-American?  I will say African-American around them, not black.  If I’m with a person of color who identifies as black, I’ll call them black.  It’s easy.  It’s not hard.  I should be able to do the same when describing non-neurotypical folk.  It gets hairy on the internet, though, because I may be speaking about or to a person without having any idea what sort of adjectives they prefer.  But still, I’ll try to improve in the future.

Also, I’m aware this post has a self-apologetic and defensive tone; I will simply admit I’m a self-apologetic and defensive person.

Burbling Through White Privilege (part one of many) (orig. published Feb. 2, 2011)

On a recent visit to Denver, I led a workshop on allyship in the context of racism and white privilege.  In the past, I have been annoyed at the idea of racism and white privilege workshops that are attended/led by entirely or primarily white people (whites, in general, not having the best history of self-awareness when it comes to race issues), so for me to lead a workshop was…kind of crazy.  Also not having a whole lot of experience or wisdom in the particular sphere of allyship?  Kind of crazy.  I think it went well, at least, I hope it did, though I don’t know if everyone who attended felt it was worthwhile or if they learned something they didn’t know before.  I tried to make the discussion practical, and not theoretical (because one of the problems of having a discussion about institutional racism is that it pits individuals against a giant faceless system and leaves them feeling powerless.  I’m tired of feeling powerless).  I tried to make it seem like allyship was not something that is hard—it’s intricate, definitely; it requires constant self-checking, definitely; but hard it does not necessarily have to be.

The Quaker term for elders whose opinions or spiritual gifts are most highly valued is Weighty Friend.  One of the best parts about planning this whole racism and white privilege series has been getting to hang out with M-, one of the Weightiest, and one of the only African-American folks in Meeting.  Her patience and grace and intelligence and compassion have turned her into one of my favorite people.  Our Meeting is so lucky to have her; I’m so lucky to have been able to make friends with her.

One of the things that M- talked about, to our small group, was how long it’s taken her—as a black woman who believes in the importance of interracial conversations about race; as a black woman who married a white man; as a black woman who worked in diversity training for much of her professional life—to be able to call out a white person for saying something racist or insensitive and then be able to walk away from that encounter and not let it bother her further.  To not feel like she has to change the mind of every white person she meets.  To not feel attached to the outcome of a discussion.  It struck me that, if the challenge for folk of color is to lay race down and not let it take over their lives, then the challenge for white folk is to pick it up a little more often, and be more aware.

One Friend came up to me after the workshop and told me that I have a gift for facilitating groups (my father came up to me to give me tips on how I can improve my facilitation skills in the future.  This is somehow indicative both of the Meeting as a whole and of my father in particular), and that he hopes that I will keep such things in mind for the future as I move through my career at Columbia and beyond.  It’s weird that, though I am generally quiet and uncomfortable in loud, disorganized, chaotic settings (ie, a party), I don’t have a whole lot of fear when it comes to leading a group activity or facilitating a group discussion.  Granted, most of the groups I’ve led have been Quaker ones where I’ve known everyone or most everyone.  Maybe I would feel different in a group full of strangers.  But I think I have a pretty good background in consensus process and listening to a group, which is an important part of leading a group.  Something to keep in mind.  Maybe I could be a teacher after all—always assuming that I get to teach things that I find interesting, which is, of course, a total fallacy.  I don’t know what direction to go in when I have total faith in myself but absolutely none in the system I’m thinking about entering—usually it’s the other way around, and I do my best to try and make myself fit into the situation in question.  But this is one of those instances where I have total confidence in my own integrity, and I’m not interested in compromising that to fit into a broken system.

One of the activities I led during the workshop was called “I could do that if…”  I adapted it from a similar workshop I found at http://turning-the-tide.org/  The basic idea is that for each statement of action, you decide either “I could do that,” “I couldn’t do that,” or “I could do that if…” and then elaborate on the circumstances under which you could take a particular plan of action.  Because my goals in this workshop was to make allyship seem accessible and do-able, I think, in retrospect, that must of the list I made was perhaps too easy.  Working on your privilege is hard—really hard.  Finding mentors is essential.  But here is the list I came up with, if you’re curious.

 

I could confront a co-worker who makes a racist joke.

I could be comfortable being the only white person in a room full of people of color.

I could boycott a business if a person of color told me that they had been discriminated against by employees or owners of the business.

I could sit next to a person of color on the bus.

I could confront a family member who says something racist.

I could listen to a person of color tell a story about racism in their own lives with an open heart.

I could admit that I do not know everything in a discussion about racism, or that I do not know what racism feels like.

I could vote for a black political candidate.

I could take a day and make it a project to notice, throughout the day, moments when I am either benefitting from or denied privilege.

I could resolve to count to ten before opening my mouth when I am feeling defensive and angry because somebody has called me out for saying something racist or insensitive.

I could write a letter to a publication that generalizes or stereotypes race or ethnicity.

I can wait for people to self-identify their race or ethnicity and not label them myself.

 

Unhelpful Apology (orig. posted Feb. 2, 2011)

Quakers (of whom I am one) have a long history of social justice.  Many Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad, they generally believed that Indians should be treated justly (though this meant paying them a “fair price” for their land, not keeping off of it entirely).  In 1688, Germantown Friends drafted the first anti-slavery minute, and over the course of the next 100 years, Friends gradually came to consensus around the idea of slavery being wrong.  In the first half of the 1800s, Friends were convinced, by gradual social pressure and other stuff, to free their slaves or not buy new ones (I’d go into details, but I honestly don’t know them very well, and it’s late and I’m kinda tired).

Quakers are proud of our history, and justifiably so.  We’re one of the first organized groups to formally come out against slavery.  Quakers did a lot to contribute to the downfall of slavery in the United States, and aided countless men and women escaping slavery in the South.

But still.  It took us 100 years to get there.

A Friend once told me of an experience she had in a discussion at a Quaker gathering about race.  A (white) man stood up and more or less what I’ve repeated above, the usual self-congratulation at the enlightenment of Quakers.

A (black) woman stood up and asked, “How many of my people had to die in chains while white Quakers sat around and debated what they knew to be true for one hundred years before finally getting off their asses and doing something?”

She was right.  Quakers knew that slavery was a violation of Quaker principles, and a violation against God, and an unjust system long before we managed to come together and get rid of all our slaves.  Like Thomas Jefferson, so against slavery, and yet so beholden to its power as a social system.  We enslave ourselves to habits.  And I’m not saying that Quakers should be ridden with guilt that it took us 100 years to get to a place that, from 20th century perspective, seems self-evident.  I’m just saying that we don’t get to decide whether we were or weren’t (or are or aren’t) effective allies.  But next time the opportunity presents itself, hopefully we learn lessons from our past and don’t take quite so long to do the right thing.

That was what came to my mind when I read this excerpt that Barack Obama did recently with The Advocate:

Yes, and Joe asked me the same question. And since I’ve been making a lot of news over the last several weeks, I’m not going to make more news today. The sentiment I expressed then is still where I am—which is, like a lot of people, I’m wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this. I have always firmly believed in having a robust civil union that provides the rights and benefits under the law that marriage does. I’ve wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.

And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet, but I’m continually asking myself this question and I do think that—I will make this observation, that I notice there is a big generational difference. When you talk to people who are in their 20s, they don’t understand what the holdup is on this, regardless of their own sexual orientation. And obviously when you talk to older folks, then there’s greater resistance.

And so this is an issue that I’m still wrestling with, others are still wrestling with. What I know is that at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples.

 

Now, sure, that Obama would do an interview with a gay magazine is a step forward in and of itself.  But the question still remains: Obama knows that legalizing gay marraige is the right and just thing to do.  I’m sure he knows that it’s basically inevitable–sooner or later, straights-only marraige is going to go the way of anti-misogynation laws.  So what the hell are we waiting for?  How many gays and lesbians have to continue to exist in this unjust system–without partner health care, without wills, without the ability to adopt children, without tax breaks, without the security and safety in their person–while we straights pussyfoot around and “evolve our attitudes”?  How many queer kids have to be bullied to the point of suicide before the outcry against it becomes so deafening that we manage to create safe schools?  How many Pride parades must a man walk in before they call him a man?  Let’s hold hands and sing all together, now.

I just…I’m so sorry, gay America.  I’m sorry you have to put up with this bullshit.  I’m sorry that straight America is so reluctant to do the right thing.  I’m sorry that so many of you have died without ever getting to see what should be a basic civil right granted to you.  That we use the excuses that we do is an example, in and of itself, of the privilege that we have that we’re unaware of.  I haven’t yet figured out how to put my money where my mouth is (sigh, privilege again, sorry), but here’s at least one straight chick who can’t wait for America to get gayer.