“The Better Person” Standard For Marginalized Peoples

Posted on 30 Aug 2010 at 6:44am

Teaching moments are wonderful, but I think that no marginalized person is obligated to swallow justified hurt and anger to better “teach” the privileged or “squash” the mess or racism. That people of color are nearly always asked to do so in the face of prejudice is spiritually wearying and a tyranny.

I wrote this over on Love Isn’t Enough in response to a parent who wondered how to address the impact of his aunt’s racism on his mixed-race family. But, you know, it’s not just people of color who are constantly expected to show extraordinary compassion when faced with bias. It is women, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. It is the disabled, the obese, immigrants and the poor. Ask any marginalized person and it is a safe bet that they have been told “have a sense a humor,” “don’t be so PC,” “that’s just how so-and-so was raised,” “here’s a great teaching moment, “you have to understand some people won’t be comfortable with x, y, z,” “he didn’t really mean it.”

Today, when an “ism” shows its face, too much public sympathy rests with the offender and not the offended. As I’ve written before, in these times, hearing someone branded a racist is likely to upset more folks than encountered racism. Stick any bias in there-sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia…and the result is the same. It is, I think, the way the status quo defends itself when it gets tired of treating certain people equally.

That’s how Tami at Feministe began Marginalized Folks Shouldn’t Always Have To Be “The Bigger Persons”. It’s a smart piece that’s well worth the read.

How many of us have experienced the arguments that in essence are designed to silence or derail. The Derailing For Dummies website lists several ways that marginalized people experience silencing and derailment:

If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn

If You Cared About These Matters You’d Be Willing To Educate Me

You’re Being Hostile

But That Happens To Me Too!

You’re Being Overemotional

You’re Just Oversensitive

You Just Enjoy Being Offended

Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About

You’re Taking Things Too Personally

You’re Not Being Intellectual Enough/You’re Being Overly Intellectual

You’re Interrogating From The Wrong Perspective

You’re Arguing With Opinions Not Fact

Your Experience Is Not Representative Of Everyone

Unless You Can Prove Your Experience Is Widespread I Won’t Believe It

I Don’t Think You’re As Marginalised As You Claim

Aren’t You Treating Each Other Worse Anyway

But You’re Different To The Others

Well I Know Another Person From Your Group Who Disagrees!

A In B Situation Is Not Equivalent To X In Y Situation

Who Wins Gold in the Oppression Olympics?

You Have A False Consciousness

You’re Not Being A Team Player

You’ve Lost Your Temper So I Don’t Have To Listen To You Anymore

You Are Damaging Your Cause By Being Angry

You’re As Bad As They Are

Surprise! I Was Playing “Devil’s Advocate” All Along!

Tami ended her piece this way:

I am all for humor and compassion, but I reject the notion that, as a woman and a black person, I need be extra compassionate and jovial in a society that often affords people like me neither of those things. I reject the notion that we ought to spare more empathy for the homophobe than the gay men and women her bias hurts. I believe in using the most effective means to change, but I also believe in calling “isms” for what they are and not coating them in equivocations and wishy-washy language that lets oppressors feel good about themselves.

Sometimes, someone else needs to be the “bigger person.”

Image: Bayard Rustin; Link: Bayard Rustin's Book 'Time On Two Crosses'Which leads me back to the Bayard Rustin quote from From Montgomery To Stonewall I’m so fond of quoting:

[T]he job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That’s our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.

To which I’d add another Bayard Rustin quote:

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Sometimes being the better person doesn’t mean being stolid and unemotional; unwilling to point out inequalities and injustices in a tone-filled voice. Sometimes being the better person does mean standing up and being emotional about freedom, justice, and equality.

And, not just for one’s own freedom, equality, and justice, but for the freedom, equality and justice of a community of one’s peers, and for the future generations of that community of one’s peers as well.  
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