“I’m not [fill in the blank] but…”

By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I tweeted this:

Just so we’re clear, there is never a good time to open a comment with “I’m not homophobic, but…”

and got this agreement in reply:

the same applies to ‘I’m not racist/sexist but…’ and ‘I’m not being funny/rude but…’ #badsentencestarters

Right.  Exactly.

There really isn’t a good excuse for starting a sentence that way.  It is invariably followed by something that ranges from merely ignorant to blatantly racist/sexist/homophobic/etc.  If you feel you need to justify your words by trying to explain them away, then please, for the love of all things holy, just keep your mouth shut.

I tend to push back when I see the above.  My reactions depend on both how the person phrased it and on whether the sentiment is expressed unthinkingly or deliberately.  The response I get is usually immediate and defensive.  I’ve heard everything from “you’re a complete idiot” to “you misread my [anti-whatever] remark!  I actually meant this [anti-whatever] sentiment instead!”  It absolutely never seems to make any difference whether I call out privilege and/or hate speech nicely or whether I do it in ALL CAPITALS LIKE I’M SHOUTING.

I hear all the freakin’ time that the only way to change anyone’s mind on an issue is to be polite, nice, grace-filled, understanding, and kind.  I’ve heard the phrase “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” more times than I care to count.  You know what I say to that?

Who the hell wants to catch flies?

What I mean by that is that I don’t want to merely make people stop saying hateful things.  Extending grace and being polite might momentarily make a person reconsider their words or their joke or the picture they put on Facebook (though not usually, in my experience).  It does nothing to change the underlying attitude that caused the person’s initial action.  If a person is unwilling to step aside and acknowledge their own privilege, fear, ignorance, or distrust, then it doesn’t matter at all how I phrase things.

There’s a genuine belief that if we are just gracious enough, eventually people will see the error of their ways and come around.  I’m putting this here for all to see: That is a lie.  I don’t think it’s a deliberate misleading.  I think that people with naturally “nice” personalities tell themselves (and often others) that in order to justify their approach.  The truth is, it doesn’t work any better than yelling and being angry.

But yelling and being angry don’t really work either.

Because the problem is not in our approach to confronting privilege, ignorance, and hate.  The problem lies exclusively with those who are intolerant.  It isn’t my job–or yours–to change someone else’s heart.  That change must come from the inside.  But if we want to see any genuine progress, we need to stop tolerating intolerance, particularly in the name of “friendship.”

There’s an attitude on both more liberal and more conservative sides that says if we liberals/progressives don’t put up with hate speech, then we are guilty of “intolerance” ourselves.  It’s the same stupidity behind “reverse racism,” “misandry,” “and “heterophobia.”  There are no such institutions, but the minute we call someone out on their words we get an earful of how we’re hypocrites.

I’m done with that.  I’m done listening to white, straight, cisgender people (particularly men, but lots of women, too) moan about how they are somehow losing out and how they’re not allowed to have their “opinions” anymore.  Because you know what?  If your opinion includes believing that someone else is in any way less than you, you are absolutely not entitled to your opinion.  If your opinion includes ignorance of basic facts, you are absolutely not entitled to your opinion.  If your opinion includes the attitude that you are marginalized despite your obvious privilege, you are absolutely not entitled to your opinion.  There are still some things that are wrong at their core.

What I’d like to see is real, deep change in the fabric of our society as a whole.  I want more than figuring out what approach to take when confronting privilege.  I want to stop putting out both the honey and the vinegar.

I want to stop catching flies.



17 thoughts on ““I’m not [fill in the blank] but…”

  1. A couple thoughts here…

    First, when I read the title, my initial thought was when I say something like, “I’m not a doctor, but I think that cut looks infected.” Obviously, that’s not what you were talking about, but I found it funny (ok, my sense of humor is… unique), so I thought I’d share.

    Second, I’m generally with you, but I’m not sure what you mean by “privilege” and “obvious privilege.” Do you mean people who are born into money? With extreme talents (like Olympians)? People who aren’t part of an obvious minority? Something else?

    To be clear, what I mean by “obvious” is stuff you can identify without knowing a person & from 20 feet away. So, being left-handed or color blind wouldn’t count, for example, but being in a wheelchair would. I’m not sure if that’s how you mean it, so that’s why I’m giving my working definition.

    Like I said, I don’t really have any problems with what you wrote. I am a tad concerned about the idea of “obvious privilege.” Not that I don’t believe it exists or causes problems, but I am always tentative about assuming things about people I don’t know. Maybe they are a white heterosexual businessman, but grew up in a predominantly non-white area (or in a different country, or were extremely poor, etc). I don’t know, so I try (but often fail) to not assume.

    • Or “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” 🙂

      Privilege refers not to economics but the social advantages that some people have by virtue if not being (usually) minorities (but men have privilege even though they aren’t a majority of humans). I should dig out the link that explains it, which I’ve linked before. You can also do a search for “invisible backpack.” Growing up in poverty does not negate white, straight, het, or cis privilege.

      What is needed is not merely for the less privileged to keep pointing it out, but for those with privilege to begin recognizing when they are benefiting. For example, when someone calls feminists “man-haters” the fallacy is in thinking the playing field is level. Many women do not trust men because men have abused them or those they love, or have taken advantage of their power. Contrast that with men who simply hold the view that women are incapable of certain tasks/jobs/positions *because they are women* rather than because they have proven themselves incapable.

      The “obvious” about privilege is that people who have it don’t even realize they do, unless called on it.

    • Actually, I’m not sure I answered the question of obvious, so here’s maybe something that will help. Here are examples of things we might take for granted if we have privilege and that some people may scoff at when those without privilege complain:

      -a white person can walk around at night without fear of being stopped by police

      -a straight person can hold hands with a significant other in public without being told they are “flaunting it”

      -a cis (non-trans) person can automatically use the restroom that matches his/her gender without fearing harassment

      -a man can take public transportation without fear of stalkers or creepers

      -a thin person can eat whatever he/she likes without being asked “are you sure you need that”

      So generally things identifiable on sight, but also identifiable through actions. Some people can’t be identified on sight, but only because social norms force them to remain unseen.

      • Thanks for explaining what you mean.

        Now, for full honesty, I might be a bigot. I’d like to think I’m not, but heck I’m not infallible, so I’ll put it on the table. Here’s my two cents…

        I don’t think you are entirely wrong, but I think the problem is not privilege, so much as that there are rude/obnoxious/creepy individuals. I DO know of men who have been stalked, for instance, but that is the minority (while nerdy looking guys have problems that even tiny women don’t have, for instance).

        The problem (in my mind) isn’t that some people generally don’t have to worry about such things while others do, but that there are assholes (pardon my language please, as there really isn’t a polite term for these sorts of folks) and mentally ill (I put stalkers/harassers in this category) who DO the problematic behavior such as harassment or making rude comments.

        So, being thin is just as much a problem (“are you sure you don’t want more food?”) as being heavy, because there are assholes of every variety. Some people (minorities in particular) seem to be asshole-fodder, which totally sucks, but if assholes were suddenly all struck dead, it just wouldn’t be a problem. Yeah, people who don’t have certain problems don’t understand those who do, but I can’t fault them for it.

        Everyone has issues that somebody else doesn’t have (maybe a non-visible disability, uncommon religion, a name that marked them for years of harassment growing up). Trials are part of life, but as a society if we all worked on treating each other with dignity, those trials would be much much less odious. Over time and life experience, I have become much much more aware of how life looks to other people. I don’t think I was a bad person for my lack of awareness before, I was young and inexperienced. Similarly, I can’t find it in myself to blame others who are totally ignorant of my hardships.

        Does any of that make sense, or do I need more caffeine before I try to communicate?

        • Hm, yes and no. Of course there are assholes who perpetrate hate speech/hate crimes. The difference, though, is that privilege is an institution based on historical context. I would agree that there are segments of the population that are vulnerable to jerks, but it’s the reason they are vulnerable that concerns me. African Americans are vulnerable not because of being a minority or because they look different from white people, but because racism is in the very fabric of our history. The country was literally built on the backs of African slaves. Women, though we are not a minority, are vulnerable not because we look different or act different from men but because women throughout history have been at the mercy of men and have not been seen as people in our own right–we were the “property” of our husbands, traded like livestock to make the most profitable union. (That’s not to say men haven’t loved their wives, only that it wasn’t the primary reason for marriage.) Thin people may have others criticize them for not eating enough, but they will never have the problem of not being able to fly in an airplane or sit at a conference table because of their size, with ignorant people assuming that everyone can fit. The same is true for disabled people–the world is not built for them; accommodations must be made for them, not for the able-bodied. There are places disabled people can’t go because the assumption is that only the able-bodied need to go there. So what it boils down to is the structures in place that make the jerks able to do what they do, but that also enable less-jerky people to simply exist without considering what they have that others don’t.

          A good example is the meme that went around a few months ago that had a picture of President Obama with a crude joke about a Muslim/illegal alien walking into a bar. When I pointed out the racism, I was told that it was “just a joke” and that “no one will ever know if Obama is a Muslim or a natural citizen.” And this was from a person who is generally very sweet and gentle! But what’s inherently racist in it is that a non-Christian white man would absolutely never be subjected to either conjecture–and in fact McCain (who was born on a military base in a US territory) was NEVER questioned on his citizenship. Romney was never questioned on his faith, despite the fact that evangelical Christians usually consider Mormons to be heretics–unless, of course, they are running against a “Muslim” who “isn’t a citizen.”

          Sorry that got a bit long. This is an interesting discussion!

          • No problems with length, I wasn’t stingy with my own! 🙂 I am enjoying this discussion very much, especially since it is civil even though we aren’t quite on the same page (and really, isn’t that rare these days??).

            I do feel that I should point out that people of African origin aren’t the only slaves in the US history. Many white people came here as “indentured servants” who were never “let go” at the end of their term. Of course, once people who were easily distinguished by skin color came along as slaves, it was much easier to “get out” as a white(ish) person. (I add “ish” because I dislike the term “white” for the same reason I think many dislike the term “black” outside of art class).

            I also recall learning that there was a big to-do about JFK (I think it was him) because he was Catholic (would he put the Vatican’s needs about the US’s?).

            As for our current President, and interesting thing. My understanding is that in Islam, your “Muslimness” is inherited from your father. So, you could believe in everything in, say, Catholic doctrine with all your heart, but Muslims would still consider you Muslim (just a heretical one). Similarly, a person born to a Jewish mother is considered by Jews, to be Jewish. They could covert to Christianity, but would be considered Jewish (Jews identify as a people/race, so this can get kinda weird if you’re not used to it). So, from that perspective, I kinda see what people might mean by their remarks, but they are still done rudely. I prefer to have a more… academic discussion. (and frankly, I don’t care what Mr. Obama believes in his heart, it’s his behavior that matters).

            One more little bugaboo… I was once on a full flight and the man next to me was very very large. I wouldn’t have cared, except he took up half my seat and I was VERY uncomfortable. I didn’t say anything to him, and he was obviously trying to not be in anyone’s way (he was in the middle seat), but I can imagine that others probably have. The whole thing was sad.

            I do see where you are coming from, but I still disagree slightly. I think that thinking of it as privilege lends people toward an “us versus them” mentality and that encourages bitterness and resentment (or maybe I’ve just been hit over the head a few too many times with those supposed privileges that I don’t really have). I think people should try to be sympathetic and understanding, to learn to see the world from the eyes of others, and to be grateful for what they have, whatever it may be. I also think people should strive to make the world better for themselves and for everyone else. Maybe I’m a bit idealistic, but I think it is more constructive than blaming people who are simply ignorant since they haven’t had a chance to see the world from a particular place. However, I respect your opinion and you stated it nicely. 🙂

            • I think the comment about the POTUS is far more than rude. When a person repeatedly states what his or her religion is, continuing to argue the point and call that person a liar goes well beyond inappropriate. The people doing so largely don’t do it because they understand Muslim culture/inherited religion; it’s because they are intentionally choosing not to believe the President’s statements.

              I don’t see discussions on privilege as fostering us/them. The idea is to stop having us/them not by being “color-blind” (again, only a term I’ve ever heard white people use) but by recognizing where we have advantages. It also helps me in fighting for social justice to know what I’m up against. How can I argue as a writer, for example, that it’s hard for women to achieve mainstream success unless I understand the reasoning behind women publishing under just their initials (e.g., J. K. Rowling)?

              I don’t have much more to say on this, as I’m fairly new to the topic myself (within the last few years). But here are a few of my favorite bloggers who write a lot about it and say things better than I do:


              • Just one more question…

                I was thinking about our conversation the other day and it occurred to me (as in, I hadn’t noticed or thought about it before) but some of my friends and neighbors are people of color (a term I use because I believe it is now the appropriate one, but I’m not sure). I really, truly had never thought about it or noticed… and we’re covering quite a spectrum (coming from India, Central America, Africa, Asia, Polynesia, etc). Does that make me somehow a bad person or bigot (or something else), that I never “noticed” until I had this conversation?

                Similarly, does it make me a bad person that I wouldn’t think twice about offering, for instance, a person of African descent watermelon in the summer (unless I had just had one of these conversations) because I think it’s really yummy & cooling in the heat? (and I’m serious here – I had no CLUE it was a negative association until about two years ago – I just associate watermelon w/summer & barbeques).

                OK. Sorry, that was 2 questions. 🙂

                Thank you for talking this out with me. Frankly, this is an entirely new concept to me (although I have to say it’s hard to explain Christmas carols in school to my kids – we aren’t Christian & they don’t know any of the words – so I’m not totally in the dark about what you’re talking about). This has been a really calm & civil discussion, where so many are not. Refreshing 🙂

                • You’ve made a good point, actually. While this problem isn’t exclusive to Christians, Christians in general seem to have much more of a problem with hidden privilege than non-Christians. That might actually explain some of the confusion–not having seen what, say, male privilege looks like in the church, it can be hard to absorb what’s going on–much like the kids and Christmas carols.

                  It’s great that your neighborhood is so diverse. I wish ours were. Fortunately, my kids have a much wider circle of friends than just the neighbors.

                  I honestly don’t think it’s so much about things like not offering watermelon but about treating people with respect. If you intentionally take a watermelon to the neighbor because “people of color like that kind of thing,” that’s bad. It’s also bad if someone has said specifically, “Never give me watermelon because it offends me” and you do it anyway. But if you’re having a picnic and serving some to all your guests, it’s good. Just boils down to respect for all people and where they’re coming from. I find that for me personally, I need to adjust my thinking when I write so I don’t inadvertently do several racist tropey things in my work (like including a token person of color or inadvertently glorifying non-consensual sex).

                  Thanks for the respectful discussion–it’s definitely refreshing!

            • Shannon,

              Amy fails to admit that slavery was an economic issue and not an issue of one race or group being privileged. As discussed in the link below, a large number of free Negroes owned black slaves. According to the U.S. census report (1860) for that last year before the Civil War, there were nearly 27 million whites in the country. Some eight million of them lived in the slave holding states. The census also determined that there were fewer than 385,000 individuals who owned slaves. Even if all slaveholders had been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves. In 1860 there were at least six Negroes in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves. The largest number, 152 slaves, were owned by the widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards, who owned a large sugar cane plantation. Another Negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with over 100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at (in 1860 dollars) $264,000. That year, the mean wealth of southern white men was $3,978.


  2. I think for a lot of us “nice” people being “mean” or “rude” seems just as inherently wrong as holding attitudes that marginalize people does to you. No good comes from either set of things so why do them. You said yourself that expressing this justified moral outrage in mean ways is no more effective than expressing it in “nice” wasy. So why not choose the less offensive ways? Who knows you might just win over some people who are on the fence. Someone who was raised to see a particular people group as “less” and never really stopped to consider if this idea was justified might be more likely to listen. You will never get through to the hard core haters. But being polite might allow you to reach people who have never really been taught better.

    • That’s going to depend on the definition of “mean.” A lot of people label even politeness as “mean” when they don’t like the message–as has happened to a number of bloggers lately (especially women). All I meant is that there is no “right” way to handle prejudice and privilege. Often my response depends on the person, but I’ve learned that no matter how I handle myself, people generally believe what they want. I have yet to meet even one person who genuinely believed prejudiced ideas who changed as a result of my use of politeness. The last specific time I can recall, I very politely said that a joke a friend made could be taken as hurtful but that I was sure that wasn’t her intent. Her response? Name-calling, racist slurs, and general rudeness. On the flip side, when I’ve called out a general attitude–not a specific person–I’ve been called passive-aggressive and “reverse” racist, sexist, and homophobic.

      There is no way to come out ahead with most prejudice, so I’m not going to try to have personality traits not natural to me. Prejudice pisses me off no end, so Im not going to pretend otherwise. On this blog, I feel pretty free to express that righteous anger.

  3. Pingback: Thursday Threads, 2/21 ¶ The Registered Runaway

  4. Hi Amy,

    Back in the early 80s, when corporate diversity training reared it’s ugly head, I was assigned the task of being the diversity coordinator in my department — as the only person of color in the room. I was uncomfortable with that role from the start. People can debate whether the effort was well-intentioned or not, but in practice it was ludicrous. Advocating tolerance seemed to me to be a meaningless and extremely low bar to set for how people should interact with one another. “I hate you because ____, but I’ll tolerate your existence.” Gee, thanks.

    I’m not a “more flies with honey” type of person, as I’ve always believed in speaking out rather than shying away when I come face-to-face with the absurd, but I do tend to keep my cool while doing it. I can be angry and still state what is obvious to me in a calm way — most of the time. If I meet rant with rant of my own, the exchange spirals toward pointlessness and I’m left fuming over it for days.

    Even though I try, I know that minds aren’t changed easily or often — if at all. The bigotry and bias that we rail against is only a fraction of what exists. We hear from those who are proud to espouse their hateful views and we hear the slip-ups from those who unthinkingly start their sentences with “that phase”. It follows that there are many others who are more guarded in what they say even though they share those beliefs. That’s what stopping the conversation at “tolerance” has gotten us. That’s why I believe that we need to continue to use our voices to do more.

    • Your experience reminds me of the post at Homebrewed Christianity this week on Mumford & Sons and whiteness (can’t link it, the link isn’t working at the moment). It was on the problems with tokenism and the ways in which things like conferences would be different if instead of inviting a token PoC, there were more PoCs involved in the planning stages giving input on what they need and want to see happen. Among progressives, it’s usually a bunch of white men sitting around discussing how to have more women & PoCs involved, but no actually women or PoCs participating in the discussion–and forget about asking LGBT people, as well as forgetting that there is any such thing as intersectionality. (Or they remember it to the exclusion of all else and they wind up with a biracial lesbian as their token. Ugh.)

      I don’t mince words. What I choose to say and how I say it depends on the audience, though. Sadly, I’ve often met with vitriol even when being gentle about saying, “Excuse me, that comment might offend people. Is there a better way to phrase it?” I’m usually just told I’m too “politically correct” or I’m “oversensitive.” Sigh.

      • Yes, Amy, that’s exactly right. Even though I was charged with leading the diversity committee’s efforts, the “talking points” were provided by the company, so there was very little, if any, latitude in what we could present to employees. Often it felt like the narrative morphed into one of pleading for acceptance. Just horrible.

        I arrived at your blog a couple of days ago via a comment you left on Registered Runway. Today, I commented, but I have read a number of your posts before this one. Your voice is strong, direct, and informed, so I don’t want you to think that I was suggesting that you moderate it. I was simply relating how I’ve come to handle the give-and-take as a matter of self-preservation — knowing that when I allow my anger to drive the narrative, I’m stuck with having the encounter replay in my head long after the other party has forgotten about the exchange.

        • Oops…I realized what I wrote could have been taken to mean that I thought your comment was a criticism; I didn’t take it that way at all. I’m glad you found this blog! 🙂

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