We need to talk

So I’m in Chicago for a pair of Diversity-related events this week, and I sat down for a very quick debrief and catch-up with a teammate after one of them concluded tonight.

The conversation was thought provoking, but the living, breathing, cliché example of disparate treatment we experienced really drove home the impact of the subject.

Following our event, my colleague (who has become a friend) and I had a wide-ranging conversation addressing work, volunteerism, career paths, and raising families… But perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion was about racism and prejudice, and specifically about the importance of language when discussing sensitive subjects.

You might assume that this friend (who is a black woman) and I (a Diversity practitioner and researcher) would by default be very sensitive to the “correct” language to use when discussing sensitive subjects related to diversity. And yes, our discussion did address some of that:

  • It’s generally unwise to say “you people” to a group of black folks (which people, exactly, do you mean?)
  • …or to compliment a black person on being “articulate” (why the tone of surprise? did you assume he/she would sound like an uneducated bafoon, or was there perhaps another assumption there?)
  • …or to refer to LGBT peoples’ “lifestyle choices” (I am gay whether I like it or not, and I don’t talk about your “straight lifestyle” because outside of sexual practices, that’s far too broad a stereotype to be valid)
  • …and a person is transgender, not transgendered (I’m not gayed; she is not lesbianed).

Sure, sure, language is important, and some phrases are so rife with historical baggage or hidden implications as to warrant being avoided. However, it’s also important to remember the person you’re speaking with. If a well intentioned ally says the wrong thing, but you know his/her heart is in the right place, let’s please agree to assume good intent, offer a gentle correction, and move on.

With complicated and heated discussions of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and politics commonplace these days, particularly via social media (and traditional media, for that matter), we have got to agree to have civil conversation without freaking out over unintentional mistakes. If activists and allies cause such a fuss over the language in a dialogue that people who aren’t prejudiced to begin with simply refused to engage for fear of being attacked, we inhibit the possibility of building common understanding and changing hearts and minds.

This is not to say that there aren’t real issues of disparate treatment to folks out there. Racism is still very much alive, as are sexism, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, religious intolerance, and so on. My friend and I had a lively discussion about how  people of color can often be treated differently in retail stores, etc. And just to punctuate the discussion, we had a laughable but sad example play out right in front of us.

We both needed taxis, and she’s a local here, so she stepped out to hail the first of two cabs. One approached but didn’t slow. My friend quietly said to me, “Let’s see if he even stops.”

He was about to pass us when I took a few steps away from my friend and raised my arm. Sure enough, he immediately stopped and pulled over to me. The black woman – who was, if it makes a difference, dressed professionally and hailing a taxi outside of an office building – may as well have been invisible. But the white guy got the driver’s attention in less than a second, with the barest of gestures.

At the time, she and I both laughed at the timing of that act… But it stuck with me. More than an hour later, I’m still thinking about it.

And I hope that my readers, friends, and colleagues will indulge me in bringing the subject up. I’m a white person from a well educated middle class family, so I’m teeming with privilege here (though I arguably get some oppression points for being gay, right?), and I may not always say things with the full sensitivity or correct language that they deserve… But I still think that I should try.

Here’s why: things will never really change until well intentioned allies and advocates, who are not directly affected by prejudice and “isms”, take a stand. Without a variety of people standing up for what’s right, bringing up injustice is too easy to write off as self-promoting opportunism or so-called “playing the victim”. We’ve got to stand together to effect change.

To do that, we need to be able to talk about it. So let’s talk, shall we?

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