Saturday, February 6, 2010

think they get to decide what's racist

This is a guest post by Per, who writes of himself, "I'm an able-bodied straight white cismale substitute teacher from Chicago.  I blog at Some Sections of the Middle Class, which is broadly speaking about radicalism and privilege, and might specialize somewhat as it grows up."

I never thought I'd be siding with Sarah Palin against Matt Taibbi, but, well . . .

Here's what she said:

The Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff scolded participants, calling them, “F---ing retarded,” according to several participants, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities -- and the people who love them -- is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Here's what he said:

[W]e’re going to have to get another soap opera over somebody using a naughty word. 

I think we ought to get it over with once and for all and ask all the people who are interested in banning words to get together and form their inevitable committee on word propriety. I think it would be a great thing if we could just get the list together ahead of time, along with what the committee feels the appropriate sanction is for each word. “Ho” we know is a fireable word, as is "niggardly," but what about “snapper”? How about “curry muncher”? What is the appropriate punishment for a “What’s wrong, do you have sand in your vagina?” joke? I mean there are so many unknowns right now, nobody knows where he or she stands.

One of the first, most obvious problems here is the “naughty-words” argument -- that, since the objections are to use of language, objections to slurs based on race, sexual orientation, disability status, etc., must be the same sort of thing as objections to obscenity. This, of course, denies the cultural context of these words -- they're not objected to on a puritanical basis, but on the basis of their position in a tradition of intimidation and oppression. Hate speech has a performative component, in that it serves to further marginalize oppressed groups.

There's also a weird element where Taibbi seems not to be able to tell the difference between objecting to something and wanting it banned. I obviously can't (and wouldn't want to) speak for Sarah Palin here, but it seems like what she's doing is objecting to someone's use of a word that serves to further the marginalization of disenfranchised communities -- and arguing that we shouldn't give more power to people who use those opportunities to do this. There's all the difference in the world between that and saying that ordinary people should be punished for using such words, or that the machinery of law and order should get involved in such a case.

More fundamentally, though, the “They're just words, people” attitude reflects Taibbi's belief that this isn't really a serious problem -- and implied in this is the belief that he gets to decide whether it's a serious problem. This idea that rich, white, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied men should be able to decide when and how we should worry about classism, racism, sexism and gender oppression, heterosexism, and ableism is, of course, preposterous, but it seems remarkably prevalent.

Look at Chris Matthews. Most aspects of this have been covered well by others. One thing I haven't seen many people talk about, though, is that Chris Matthews implicitly admitted that his primary experience of racism was his inability to listen to a black person talk without constantly thinking about race. But yet, somehow, when he stops getting that “uh-oh, there's a Negro talking” feeling -- even for a moment -- that qualifies him to usher in the post-racial era in American history.

I really shouldn't have to say this, guys. When you're talking about any kind of oppression, the oppressors don't get to decide when it's over.


  1. His comments are indeed related to how white people tend to think they are the authority on what's racism and what isn't, but this post wasn't really about racism, it was about ableism. Some mention of how it's related to racism is attached, but I really don't think this was a proper post considering the title and the blog.

  2. I appreciate the point being made here; it's a good reminder, of the often unwitting arrogance of oppressors, be they white or otherwise on top of a hierarchy. They often fail to realize they're group's self-appointed role as the definers, and yeah, it gets really ridiculous when they think they get to define when oppression, such as racism, is over. i see white folks do that all that time, even nice liberal ones.

  3. Macon, I wrote of this already.

    It is arrogance. Arguing for the right to offend just because you can, and failing to recognize, intentionally or not, that cultural and racial slur mean something to the people they're being used against.

  4. nekokonneko:

    This is just another example of a member of a dominant group thinking they're the expert on what's offensive and what's not.

    Unfortunately I was at jezebel the other day talking about this, and multiple people were saying that it's ok to say "retarded", because they aren't actually talking about mentally retarded people. But I know that, as the sister of a mentally disabled individual, the effect is the same.

  5. "When you're talking about any kind of oppression, the oppressors don't get to decide when it's over."


    Coming from Taibbi this kind of thing isn't surprising. While I usually find his political writing to be on point, I also find that he has a tendency to traffic in sexist and racist language.

  6. What's really getting to me about the "retarded" flap is that it's yet another case where people are fixating on the word, instead of the entire concept/notion. Totally missing the forest for the trees. The word itself is not the problem. Taibbi's basically saying, "what is the word I should use there?" Like if you just say "fucking autistic!" it's okay.

    Then there are those people (usually in fail-filled comment threads) who helpfully— and repeatedly— point out that "'retarded' is a perfectly valid, neutral word! [*spreads hands and shrugs, while adopting wide-eyed "whaaat?! it is!" expression*]"

    I don't even have words.
    Just: *tired facepalm*

  7. i'm not clear on just HOW mr. emmanuel expressed himself; was it verbally, like in an off-the-cuff tirade?(he sounds mad)...or in writing, perhaps a quick memo? or a more formal statement?

    if it was verbally, i'd say give him a pass. who here has not at some point called some policy 'retarded' or referrd to a person as 'that retard'? i surely have. that doesn't make it right. one Shouldn't Do It. but it happens bbecause in vernacular everyday speech, 'retarded' means 'stupid'. i've seen it used like so on this blog, for that matter.

    taibbi seems to be saying-rather facetiously perhaps-that the whole phenonmenon of offense-taking at damn near ANY slightly off-color comment has gotten out of hand. and i tend to agree.

    now i say that as a Disabled Person. i'm not developmentally-disabled(but my aunt sure is), but i am physically disabled. i can't walk at all-not for ovr 5 years now.

    i'd hate to think that folks felt they had to really watch their words around me-like i'd flip out if they talked of 'crippling debt' or something...

    to me, intent is what's important. it's more than possible for someone to express utter contempt and disgust for me as a disabled man WITHOUT USING ONE SINGLE 'OFFENSIVE' WORD, indeed while seeming to be complimentary.

    in honesty, what bothers me most about what emmanuel said(and which NOBODY else seems to care about)is the gratuitous profanity. i'm as bad as anyone about this, but i grow more and more convinced that the free use of these words is just Really Bad; leading to worsening crudeness and oafishnness in the society at large.

  8. @randy,
    "in vernacular everyday speech, 'retarded' means 'stupid'."

    I think this is essentially the problem, no?
    We have a word for "stupid." It's... "stupid." [Side note: the whole notion of "stupidity" is arguably problematic due to its history. See the spotty-but-interesting documentary film by that name. Still, in the vernacular, "stupid" is distinct from "retarded."]

    FYI, Emanuel's outburst was verbal; he said it in a private meeting. In context, I think he was trying to evoke something like "backward," which again, is totally unrelated to "retarded."

  9. excellent post!

    I'm just wondering, what's the next step? How do we confront or approach Taibbi's response? What do we say to try and broaden his ignorant perspective into a more inclusive (not sure that's the right word) perspective?

    I think if we can train ourselves for a level headed response, conversations like this that occur face to face or on a comment thread will become much more effective because I can't tell you how many times I've felt like I was either ignored or dismissed like Palin did

  10. While I do think this is something worth talking about and noting, I am not sure this post is really about racism, other ism's yes.

    "FYI, Emanuel's outburst was verbal; he said it in a private meeting. In context, I think he was trying to evoke something like "backward," which again, is totally unrelated to "retarded."

    @karinova (this is only part aimed at you, most of it is just gerneral) - The word itself holds more meaning then the one we tend to use it for. It literally means to slow down, impede, delay or even run backwards. If you retard something you are slowing it down or hampering its progress. It is fairly easy to see how the word got used for its current purpose but it is not limited to that.

    The problem is that he is using it in a more derogatory sounding way then this.

    I have a love/hate relationship with words like this. I don't mind such words used in their proper form but I don't like them when they are used as slurs or tossed about carelessly even though I am guilty of such things myself as far as this word goes. The thing is to also understand that English is not a static language. There are words that were once innocent that you can not use in current everyday conversation. On the flip side, there are words that were once taboo or obscene that we find being used more and more without the same meaning or sting they once had.

    Over the years it seemed to me that 'retard' was one of the words that was taking on a more mainstream or watered down meaning that was a step away from the term it had once been. It's not really moving back to the way it was origionally used but it seems do be pushing passed what it was turned into. Does that mean it can not be used as a slur? No it does not. Can it still be used to hurt people? Yes it can. However many younger people seem not to know or understand what it had been turned into and now us it as a harmless slap at each other. That doesn't mean we all are going to like hearing it but at the same time I don't think we should ignore that a new way of using it is being formed. Given time it would likely become watered down enough that this term would not be used in the same vindictive state that so many of us know it as.

    I don't know if we could see that progression as good or bad as far as the word goes. I would tend to like to see a word such as it loose the extra power that it has been granted outside of it's previous use. As it is right now you can't even say retard in a manner that is not a derogatory due to the fact that hardly anyone seems to recall that it is not just a slur.

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that this word doesn't just hold negative meaning and it will never get past the negative if people keep the stigmata on it. The problem is that at the same time we should not give people a free pass to use it as a term of hate, which creates some very interesting growing pains on the part of the word.

    All that said, I do firmly believe that a man in his position should know better. I do wish the people in power would learn to use a little common sense.

    I know I rambled a bit but I hope this made some sort of sense.

  11. @ Macon

    I hate your comment box. It won't let me paste, it won't let me use the arrow keys, and it's generally making a nuisance of itself. Is any of that fixable (I realize the last may be hard to pin down) or is it innherent in this commenting format?

    @ Angel

    Do you have a mental disability? Because if you don't, I think this goes back to it not being up to you to decide what is and isn't offensive. Sarah Palin is the parent of a child with a developmental delay. though he's probably not old enough to be care about this yet, he will be at some point. You say that it's turned into a harmless slap: while I know that it's a harmless slap to children without disabilities, you can hardly claim it's universally harmless to children with developmental delays. If it were, websites like []this[/url] wouldn't exist. Obviously not everyone thinks it's harmless.


    using the word verbally, while not thinking about his language, he might get a pass. Making excuses for himself and arguing that people are being mean by expecting him not to discriminate is a different issue.

  12. @ Angel

    >> "this word doesn't just hold negative meaning and it will never get past the negative if people keep the stigmata on it."

    Stigmata? Really? I mean, I know Jesus was the Word Incarnate and all, but don't you think that suggesting a regular word can have stigmata is extrapolating a bit far?

    Oh, and yes, I'm being snide, because you just did exactly what the OP points out *not* to do: the oppressors don't get to decide when the oppression is over. YOU do not get to decide when the word "retarded" has lost the negative stigma (that, by the way, is the word that you're looking for). Just because YOU do not feel the sting of a particular word does not mean that nobody feels it. And YOU do not get to tell us to "get over it already."

  13. Sady, at <a href=">Tiger Beatdown</a> has an interesting take on this. I don't know that I can do better than that.

    But, too, I'm glad that you bring up the Chris Matthews mess. It reminded me that, funnily enough, I've only ever heard white people declare that we live in a post-racial society ever since the election of President Obama.

    Can we make the term "post-racial" off limits to white people?

  14. @willow - Thanks for pointing out the correct term. I was honestly having trouble trying to find words to fit what I meant to say in a few parts.

    As for the sting of that word I don't think I get to decide when it is over. I do not like it when it is used in the derogatory form. I was only trying to point out that, to me, there are a few words that are troublesome in the regards to the fact that they do have legit meanings to them that have nothing to do with the hatred they can be used for. The word being pointed out here is one of them.

    The paragraph you referenced has more to do with the fact that I get aggravated that the word has become so corrupted that we can not even use the word for it's regular form. I do not like it used as a derogatory term but again the word has value to it outside of that one way of using it. I personally feel it is too tricky to try and use in relation people and have it not hold that negative meaning and it shouldn't be used that way, but there are other legit ways to apply it.

    @Kelly - I do not have a mental disability myself. My friend of 10 years has a son that has a sever mental disability and they were what made me aware of how negative an impact that word can have. I had never really thought about it before until I seen the damage first hand when their neighbor used the term about him and to his face. That is the main reason why I don't like the duality of that word. I can understand and respect using it for the other meanings it has but I don't like seeing it used in the way it most often is. I know full good and well the damage it can cause when thrown around.

    It took me longer then I would like to admit to become aware of the harm of that word I am glad I did. I would not want to do to anyone what I seen that neighbor do to him.

    As far as claiming that the word is universally harmless, I don't think I did. I said:
    "Does that mean it can not be used as a slur? No, it does not. Can it still be used to hurt people? Yes it can. However many younger people seem not to know or understand what it had been turned into and now us it as a harmless slap at each other."

    I was trying to use that part to say that it still can be and is used to cause harm to others and that I don't think those who use it as a harmless slap understand the weight the word has. That in itself is a problem but because of that there may be a time sooner or later when the word may take on a new life. If those most likely to use it now are already forgetting, there is a chance that a new standard will be set for that word.

    I can think of several words being thrown around casually, being more and more accepted in those forms that I would rather not be in common use. I don't know if in the end we will be better off for it and these word cause a lot of damage along the way.

    Maybe it is a naive way of thinking but I can hope for a silver lining to this trend. If a word looses its power then sooner or later it can no longer hurt people. Again I am not trying to say this is what will happen. Even if it did how great will the cost be along the way? Another downside is that if this word is seen as harmless then how bad a meaning will the word that takes it's place have.

    I am trying to explain the best I can and I know it hasn't all come across the way I have intended. I do believe that for good or bad people can change the way a word is viewed and I think that may be what is happening to this word again. (I say again because this word hasn't always been used maliciously) I think there is a current struggle over the word and how it will be viewed. I understand the point of the post and I do agree. I just feel that the word has been allowed and pushed too frequently as a way to describe everyone to a point that there is now a haze over it's use. I think for most the lines have been blurred as to how it can be used it and that removing its casual use when used to describe people may not be possible at this point.

  15. This is my overarching question: What is so bad about not being about to use ONE FRELLING WORD? Is it really that threatening to your power?

    Even barring the fact that no one has said we can't use "to retard" in its classical sense (go pick up a JAMA or Nature), really, what's so bad about not being about to use it? How does that negatively affect your life?

    This is not just a rhetorical question. This is the fundamental problem. Using words like 'niggardly', (ahem) 'denigrate'*, 'retarded', 'lame' even when you have been asked not to is an exertion not just of privilege but of power: it is a way to say, "It doesn't matter what you think; my societal power to say whatever I want is more important than your feelings or security."

    * literally: 'to make black'

  16. @ Izumi

    Related to my above comment, what has generally worked for me in the past in terms of 'broadening someone's perspective' is to point out the actual scope of the situation. Once the person is calmed down (I let zir finish the rant, or things will inevitably end badly), I say what is actually going on:
    "I am asking you not to say one little word. That will protect people's feelings. Aren't you always looking for little, easy ways to make the world a better place?"

    That frames the issue as 'how to save the world in a day' rather than "you're A Racist."

    Also, randomly @ everyone, it would be cool to have a post on the intersection of racism and developmental disabilities (I don't have time to research and write one ATM, but I'd *love* to read one, if anyone has the knowledge).

  17. Did anyone catch this?
    Keith Olbermann: Sarah Palin Hypocritical On Use Of Retarded 02/04/10

    Seems to me she is outraged only when she needs to be politically; whereas, it is a needful thing for a politician to present more than just one face to the people. I'm still waiting for her to voice her outrage at Mr. Beck's slur-laden discourse.


    "When Limbaugh repeatedly used the term on his radio show, Palin did nothing. Then, after being goaded by commentators, she had her spokesperson offer a generic criticism of "demeaning name calling," never mentioning Limbaugh by name -- and even had her spokesperson phone Rush to assure him she hadn't used his name. Then, in an interview with Fox that aired this morning, Palin defended Limbaugh's use of "retards" as "satire." Which it wasn't -- unless I'm missing the humor in calling a meeting of advocates for the mentally handicapped "a retard summit."

    See? Only appalled when she needs to be for political gain, it seems the word hath not the sting when someone from her own party uses it; then she defends the man.

  19. Two things!

    1. language is important to examine for bias. words are not just words.

    '“…the language of oppression and cruelty becomes normalized, removed from the sphere of criticism and the culture of questioning. Such a language does more than normalize ignorance, illiteracy and irrationality; it also produces a kind of psychic hardening and deep-rooted pathology in a society increasingly willing to eliminate the policies that enable social bonds and protections necessary for a substantive democracy.' -Henry Giroux

    2. All this aside, language is always evolving, the use of some offensive words has idiosyncratic meaning instead of offensive meaning. I know this may seem to defeat the purpose of this post-which I agree w/- but bear w/ me.

    See the South Park episode about the use of f*g. Colloquially, the word is used to assert homophobia, but sometimes not so much. Some words are transitioning from being oppressive, to losing their oppressive meaning. I think retarded is one of them.

    HOWEVER, as the post states, it is not up to oppressive groups to decide what is acceptable. I just mean to say, our discourse is subject to discourse.

    8 Racist Words You Use Everyday

  20. For those who think that this isn't really about racism, I'm curious as to how much of Taibbi's response was white. How likely is it for him to respond in that "get over it" way if he weren't white? Because that's where I see race playing a role.

    I feel like Taibbi responded out of frustration that yet someone else called him out on his language and he has to constantly watch what he says. While I understand his frustration, I wonder if he would have such a difficult time understanding why words are important if he were say homosexual and the word was "fag" or if he were black and the term in question was the n-word.

    While the specific issue might be having to do with able-ism, I'm not so sure that that's all it is.

  21. @Willow,
    I did some quick Googling, and oh yeah, it's out there. (Unfortunately, a lot of the good stuff is in subscription-only journals.) There have been several MSM reports in recent years about the huge racial disparity in early diagnoses for autism. For example, this article quoting from Newsday notes: "many poor, minority youngsters might not be getting the same extensive, state-mandated services available to those identified as autistic. Such services include parent training, along with home therapy for children" and

    "Across the board, wealthier whiter Americans receive better health care than anyone else. It is, of course, an issue of money and race. But it's also an issue of culture and perspective. As Newsday goes on to say: Educators say the problem appears to be compounded by differences in racial perspectives. Many white parents actively seek special-education classifications for their children, educators add, for advantages such as extended testing time. Black and Hispanic parents tend to be warier of special-education programs that, historically, placed many minority children in classes beneath their ability levels.
    It is interesting to note that the vast majority of autism advocates (including adults on the autism spectrum) are white. Authors writing about autism, celebrities speaking about autism, and fundraisers pounding the pavements for autism are also largely white. And even while a few major voices from the AA community— including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Toni Braxton— are speaking out about autism, there are good reasons for parents to avoid that "special" diagnosis if they can."

    Here's a more in-depth article on that same subject from Autism Today. Sample quote: "Merva Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, said she believes that many African-American children with autism-spectrum disorders are misdiagnosed as having disorders involving defiant, oppositional or behavioral problems."

    I remembered that Racialicous had a post about "The Soloist" that (very) briefly touched on race/mental illness— the main character is a musically talented black man who has schizophrenia ("Among the voices that haunt Ayers’s mind is a woman telling him: 'They’re white, heartless aren’t they? . . . Turn you white . . . Whiteness, whiteness, whiteness,' which not-too-subtlety reminds the viewers that Ayers is one of very few students of color (and the only African American student that we see) at Julliard."). There might be more out there on that aspect of the film...?

    I'll keep looking; I'm interested.

  22. @Willow,
    Oh my god. Do a Google for "race and special education."

    Also. This paper [PDF] has a few interesting references (do a Ctrl-F for "developmental"), but they're all in sub-only journals, so...
    Anyway, plugging those titles back into Google yields some good results— I've got like 20 tabs open.

    'kay. I'll zip it on that.
    Back to the topic at hand!

  23. well, as i see it, there's rather a difference between using 'denigrate' or 'niggardly' and words under discussion here like 'retard' or even-as you say, willow-'lame'(and as an IRL disabled man i've personally never had a problem w/someone saying 'that's Lame')...denigrate and niggardly have NEVER, ever meant anything remotely racial in an etymological sense.

    they've just got that syllable 'nig', which has become problematic of late. ban them and must you not also ban Nigeria, Niger, 'niggling'..? even arnold schwarzeNEGER becomes a worry, no? see, at this point you lose the average person. it all starts to become too much; the self-policing, the umbrage at instances of 'offense', the atmosphere of suspicion, the whole deal.

    plus, there should be some sense of degree of transgression. if every little instance of using a Banned word meets w/the same blast of outrage, then when something really, TRULY offensive comes along(such as the Nike print ad advising the public to wear their special trail shoes or risk falling off a cliff and ending up as a crippled geek in a power wheelchair w/'one of those little license plates with your name on it hanging from the back.' funnee, guys)there won't be near the proper impact when one complains/protests about it.

    i mean, i can see SUGGESTING that people refrain from using words that even sound off-color; that's not unreasonable, i suppose; making your case that these words do indeed cause harm...then letting folks choose. but getting all exercized about every time someone uses a 'banned' word? making it a big auto-da-fe'/which-side-are-you-on thing? i just don't see that as productive.

    as for the use of Retarded; it's ALREADY banned, even when used in a clinical sense. what used to be Mentally Retarded is now Developementally Disabled, if i'm not mistaken. but you know what? in a few years people(kids at first, surely) will be jeeringly calling each other 'Deev', 'Deev-o', etc, something of that nature. 'developementally disabled' will ITSELF have become an insult.

    and the reason should be clear-it isnt the word that's important, but rather what it refers to; in this case a person who bears the burdens of very low intelligence... and whatever other unfortunate sequalae arise therefrom. since NO ONE wishes to be mistaken for one of these unfortunates, to call someone who's NOT developementally disabled, developementally disabled is an INSULT. the word itself is not insulting; it's the intention to compare the subject to the ontologically real entity signified by the word 'retard', or whatever the word happens to be.

  24. @Rosa

    Thank you for the link. An important piece of our response to people like Taibbi has to be to explain the difference between "dirty words" and "words that reflect oppressive attitudes/cultures/practices," which that piece does well.


    Exactly. Part of whiteness is the privilege to think words are just words.

    @the several suggestions that it's not the language that counts, but the intent (including the Tiger Beatdown post):

    I'm not sure I buy this. I agree that intent is important, and the source of the problem in cases like "gay" and "retarded" is that comparison to actually-existing gay or developmentally disabled people is being used to insult someone. I also agree that it's important to change these attitudes, and that restricting our focus to the language alone and ignoring the attitudes that create the language isn't addressing the whole problem

    I do think, though, that arguments such as Randy's and Angel's that the use of these words can be justified by the absence of that intent/comparison don't work. My disagreement goes back to discussions here and elsewhere about white people's tendency to derail conversations about what they said by talking about what they meant.

    In addition to the attitudes underlying speech, we need to pay attention to the effect of that speech on its audience. If words like "denigrate" make black people feel that a connection is drawn between blackness (either directly as race or as darkness of color) and inferiority, that matters -- even if no such connection is intended, and even if the white speaker had no idea there was an etymological connection to blackness.

    Similarly, even if you're not intending to draw on the cultural associations of gayness with grossness when you call something gay -- even in the unrealistic situation that you don't know "gay" has anything to do with sexuality -- the fact that gay people feel that such a connection is being drawn, and feel intimidated and unwelcome because of it, matters.

    So there are two competing things that matter -- the feelings of the (often privileged) person who said it and the feelings of the oppressed person who heard it. And I think we must give precedence the feelings of the oppressed person who heard it, because I'm not, generally, that worried about being unfair to privileged folks.

    @Everyone who's mentioned that Palin's comments were cynical:

    That's neither here nor there, but I will say that my opinion of Sarah Palin has not improved at all because of this.

  25. per, i find your statement that you're not 'that worried about being unfair to privileged folks' to be potentially pretty chilling. as i recall, pol pot had a similar view.

    maybe you'd care to expand on that a bit? just to allay my fears that i'll be taken out into the countryside and bludgeoned to death by your teenage revolutionary followers?

    since reading this blog i've really become aware of this privileged/oppressed dichotomy world view a lot of you all seem to hold. as someone who fits the Privileged mode, it's not surprising i've got my own opinion on this sort of thing... but i don't want to get into all that right now.

    but there is an aspect of it that DOES seem relevant because it keeps coming up. this is what might be called Intent vs. Effect with respect to language. could it be that people from a relatively UN-privileged background tend to see Effect as most important and those from privilege see Intent as key?

    i can say for sure that in the middle-class/upper middle class environment in which i was raised, except for instances of gross negligence(that is, you can't just blithely do or say whatever you want, you do have to exercise reasonable care), intent was EVERYTHING.

    here's an example from my own life; some time ago(ahem, a long, long time ago!)i happened to be at a strip club. one of the dancers (white, as am i)started talking to me-not hustling me or anything. and she wasnt my 'type' so i wasnt trying to get w/her. we were just having a nice convo. i had thought i'd heard the dj say her name was 'roxanne' i asked; 'say, is your name roxanne?'

    oh boy. she goes 'roxanne!? like in the Police song@!!?do you think i'm a PROSTITUTE!?' and i'm like 'no! no, i didnt mean that!!' and she storms off, terribly insulted. i couldnt catch up to her either cause i was on crutches.

    now, i felt bad. and i dearly wanted to explain because i HAD NOT meant it that way at all. not one little bit.

    so even tho she'd been deeply hurt by my words, i felt then and feel now no guilt, no remorse for it, because there was NO INTENT to harm on my part.

    but judging by some of the commentary here, i'm getting that maybe some people on this blog would say that since someone was hurt-the RESULT...then someone; me, must be at fault, intent or not, since i spoke the words that caused the pain.

    is this true? if so, it could explain some of the problems PoC encounter w/regard to White Apologetics, as in last months post. this could be-if valid-an example of the deep differences in background and culture which separate the races but aren't easily seen.

  26. @randy,

    I don't know if that's a difference between privileged/oppressed, but I'm curious about that. Personally, here's how I see the difference between intent and effect. When it comes to the victims or the oppressed, intent doesn't matter. The effect is the same. It doesn't matter if you didn't mean to run over my dog, my dog is still dead. It doesn't matter if you were trying to protect your way of life and your family's way of life so you hate the immigrants who come and take your job. Whatever the reasons are, the victims and the oppressed are still affected in a negative way. Maybe the victims can take solace in the fact that the intent wasn't malicious but careless or accidental, but that's up to the victim and not the offender. I think the attitude and the expectation that "I didn't mean it so you should just get over it" invalidates a lot of the anguish and anger that the victims feel.

    If you didn't know how your actions might have affected someone else, you know when it's pointed out to you. It seems to me then that the proper thing is to apologize. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you" would suffice for me personally. Too often though the response is similar to Matt Taibbi: indignation at someone for having pointed out what they might have done wrong.

    On the flip side, I don't think vengeance solves anything. Personally, when it comes to dealing out punishment for the offender themselves, I think intentions should matter. Malicious intent should be punished more harshly than a non-malicious one. Assuming that we believe in punishment at all, but that's a different story.

    In this case with Taibbi, I'm not sure anybody is demanding any sort of repercussions for Taibbi. I think most people are just looking for a sincere apology.

  27. Huh! I thought that not being able to paste anymore was an issue with my browser or something. Now that Kelly's said zie experiences it as well, I'll have to second the question: is there anything that can be done about it?

    @karinova, who said Like if you just say "fucking autistic!" it'd be okay: are you implying that autistic is equivalent to mentally disabled? I have an autistic son and know a lot of autistic people, and I assure you that autism does not necessarily equal mentally disabled.

  28. @Randy

    Really? A Pol Pot comparison? Telling someone it's inappropriate to say "gay" to mean "uncool" even if they're not thinking about actual gay people when they do it... is like beating them to death?

    "so even tho she'd been deeply hurt by my words, i felt then and feel now no guilt, no remorse for it, because there was NO INTENT to harm on my part."

    I think this is a key passage in understanding what is actually going on with the difference between the "privileged" and "oppressed" viewpoints (I use the scare quotes because I take the "oppressed" viewpoint despite massive privilege).

    I don't think it's about valuing intent vs. effect. I think both are tremendously important.

    Here's what I think happens: Privileged people, often without intent to offend, say things that are hurtful. Others respond by saying, e.g., "'Denigrate' associates blackness with badness. Let's not use that word anymore." The white speaker then takes this -- perhaps partly due to the way it's phrased, perhaps not -- as an accusation of intentional offense, or of actual belief that black = bad. In responding to these accusations -- which are not the ones that were made -- the conversation turns to being one about guilt, rather than one about reform.

    If someone uses the word "gay" to mean "bad" without intent, and offends an actual queer person, our focus should not be on whether that person should feel guilty. It should be on how that person can repair their relationship with the person who's been hurt, and stop hurting people in that way in the future.

    If you've been told that something is offensive, and continue to use it anyway because you don't believe people should be offended by it, that is a problem.

    But until then, it's not always about you. It's about us, as a community, trying to figure out standards of discourse that aren't going to make people feel intimidated. If you didn't know it was inappropriate, don't feel guilty about it if you don't want to -- just don't do it anymore, and don't (as Taibbi did) get mad when people tell you it's not appropriate.

  29. @ Randy

    I think the term mentally retarded is still in use in the medical sense. As I said before, my sister is mentally handicapped, and I hear the term often, (when my mom is talking to doctors and programs and schools)

  30. @Randy: if you haven't read Intent! It's Fucking Magic! you probably should. It's sarcasm-heavy, but does an excellent job (IMO) of showing how intent doesn't mitigate effect, and how it's a privileged notion to believe that it does.

  31. @ Angel

    Sorry this is kind of late. looking back, I can see that you didn't intend to imply that it was universally harmless, however, I still think you were underplaying it a little bit.

    You mentioned how you had a revelation experience with your friend's son, seeing the effect that word had on him when someone directed it against him. One of my revelation experiences in moving from viewing that word as "harmless" to "damaging" was reading the account of a mother whose son had come home from school heartbroken, not because someone had called [i]him[/i] a retard, but because it had been used against another child, and he understood that this despised category was one he fell into. It didn't have to be directed against him to hurt.

    I think the big problem here is that, while children without mental disabilities or developmental delays may view it as harmless, they don't view it as divorced from it's original meaning. Witness the physical gesture that often acompanies the word: flapping arms clearly intended to be remeniscent of autistic "stimming" or the awkward movements associated with some nuerological conditions. when a child calls another child a retard, they don't intend any serious harm by it, but they do intend to compare the other child to a developmentally delayed individual, and to use this comparison as an expression of contempt. They may not understand the history of abuse against the mentally challenged that the word might bring up for older people, but they do realize what it refers to, and that the reference is a negative one.

    I don't think it's naive to look for a silver lining; however, I think we need to be careful about assuming that because something is taken casually, particularly if we mean taken casually by those who are not at risk of being harmed by it, then it is not a problem. I know you were not trying to imply that there is no problem with using "retard" or "retarded" as an all purpose insult. However, I do think you were understating the problem.

  32. @Robin,
    "are you implying that autistic is equivalent to mentally disabled?"

    That's exactly how it looked, isn't it. I'm so sorry; I screwed up there. I actually had this whole bit about my discomfort with the way "autistic" has pretty much come to replace "retarded" in casual speech. Not only is it generally not better, I think it's often kind of worse, for exactly the reason you mentioned. But it ended up being longer than my original point, and I worried it might be OT, so I edited it out!* Bad calculus. Brevity is not > accuracy/you or your son's feelings/anyone-reading-this' feelings. Again, I apologize.

    * "Developmentally disabled" has also become more common, but I'm not 100% satisfied with that term either— though I do think it's usually better than uninformed, super-specific medical diagnoses. I'm not sure any of those terms are equivalent to each other, and there's this weird, obfuscatory mix of clinical and vernacular going on. Feels... off. Way off. I mean, other than setting up an "us/those people," "positive/negative" characterization, why, exactly?, is it even useful to group learning disabilities with brain injuries with autism with et cetera? And why does say, Alzheimer's (formerly "dementia") not get lumped in there? I dunno, I'm just not sure "neurotypical" is (or can be) defined cleanly enough for people to be "non." Not the way it's done now, anyway.

    This barely scratches the surface of my issues with the whole thing.

    But then it's like, who am I to say?
    I have no problem expounding on, for example, "black" vs. "AA" vs. "PoC," (I have greater or lesser issues with them all) but who am I to have such strong—and yet inconclusive— feelings on this matter? [So what do I do? I go right ahead and enact the problem. "Ehhhh... oh well they'll know what I mean." Classic. Talk about Privilege 101.
    Workin' on it.]

  33. @karinova: I've so done that myself! (I tend to the tealdeer side of things, so I'm prone to editing stuff out and then I leave out something crucial.) And I couldn't agree more re: the issue with "developmentally disabled". (And oh goodness, even within the autie camp it gets divisive: "autistic person" versus "person with autism", the use of "high-functioning autistic", Asperger's versus non-Aspie autistic, etc.)

    (And let me add: being fresh from an extremely unsatisyfing exchange on Facebook where I called someone on their use of "retard" and had them respond in an extremely privileged fashion, it was SO NICE to read your apology. <3 Excellent timing to cheer me up!)

  34. @karinova~

    Thanks for the links! Much, much appreciated. I know a little bit about race and SPED--I've done SPED advocacy work through [specific disability] organization--and there are a billion zilliom ways race factors into getting kids the help they need (or DON'T need). So, great reading material for me.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code