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voicing your triggers

April 21, 2010

Today I helped to host a discussion about LGBTQ allies and how they fit into Pride Month (Carleton celebrates in April) and one of the discussion topics that came up was how we communicate with our families about gender and sexuality as allies. One student said that with her really conservative relatives, she simply voices which words she will not accept and will leave if they speak them. I think this could be a really powerful method, especially for extreme cases – no one should have to tolerate hate speech at the dinner table.

But this discussion made me think of the type of language that makes me shut off dialogue, even though I don’t voice it. I notice these particularly when I’m reading an article or book – certain language makes me believe that I probably am not going to agree with the author at all, but I’m guessing it’s also largely true in person. Here are some of my triggers, beyond slurs directed at particular identities:

  • “Playing the race card”: This idea is so pervasive and so angering. It came up recently in a book I was reading for class in which an author dismissed some criticisms of his work because the reviewers were “playing the race card”. He then did not explain the nature of their critiques and moved on the other reviewers. To me this ideology is absolutely a silencing mechanism. Renee of Womanist Musings wrote last year:

    POC are often accused of playing the “race card,” when we speak critically about Whiteness and yet it is Whiteness, that continually overvalues itself and seeks to ensure that race is constantly spoken about on its terms. Controlling the conversation is just one of the many ways in which Whiteness manifests its powers.

    Because “playing the race card” is used so often, it has become a particularly powerful form of controlling the conversation on race. When I hear or read someone use the term, I just see it as so indicative of a larger attitude towards people of color, that I find it really hard to continue to engage in a conversation about race.

  • “Homosexuals” in place of “LGBTQ”: I know that there are a lot of people who identify as homosexual and many people who were raised on this as the “PC” term. However, it just describes SO FEW people in the LGBTQ community in a way that leaves out so many’s experiences. To me, it shuts downs the conversation because I feel it reveals that the person I’m talking to hasn’t made an effort to read any literature coming from LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the U.S. or from community members themselves. While the letters in and the order of the acronym is still debated and changing, I am hard pressed to find anyone arguing that “homosexuals” should be an umbrella term for anyone other than people who identify as such.
  • “Had sex with” in place of “raped”: The Philadelphia Weekly had a great editorial about this recently,

    “The language used… is even more dangerous because it’s like a new breed of euphemism hidden in plain sight. The language exists already. It’s the language of the perpetrator—and his defense team. It’s language that takes the point of view of the attacker—it was consensual; we had sex but I didn’t rape her, man.”

  • “The obesity crisis”, “____ is making you fat”, etc.: Maybe because this is language that I feel more personally demeaned by, I normally am so exhausted by the idea of the process I’d have to go through to change their attitude that just I want to send them to Shapely Prose and out of my face.

So I’m voicing these hear not to defend or uphold my dismissal, but as an exercise in voicing your triggers, and to get feedback: Do you think it’s valuable to make any strict delineations in language? Can voicing triggers be a tool of advocacy or is it merely self preservation?

What are your triggers? How do you respond when you hear or read them?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:59 AM

    Oh god, anytime anyone says, “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted, but…” I can be pretty sure whatever comes next will not be good.

  2. April 21, 2010 6:21 PM

    It’s not so much a trigger in the reliving trauma sense, but I’m sensitive to the way journalists handle sexual dysfunctions. It’s not so funny to me & it’s worse when people call it fake. I hate the fake bit because it’s like calling me a liar or gullible to marketing.

  3. April 21, 2010 6:23 PM

    Also, “that’s just the way it is/things are” causes me to like foam at the mouth with rage & frustration. I am so sick of hearing that expression.

    • Jill permalink
      April 21, 2010 6:48 PM

      Oh, yeah, and “Well, life’s not fair!” definitely makes me see red.

  4. April 21, 2010 7:08 PM

    “ARE YOU CALLING ME A RACIST!?!?!11?!” (generally used when no, they haven’t, as a way of pivoting to “race card”).

    A dormant professional dream of mine is to write an article entitled “Dealing with Cards” (it’s a pun!) on how to respond to the “you’re playing the X card” argument. The problem is I don’t actually know what the response should be, because the “card” argument is so perfect at closing off discussion. It’s very structure closes off critique of it, and that makes it dangerous. A: “You’re playing the race card”; B: “That’s racist!” A: “Oh, here we go again!” Tremendously effective. So far, the best I’ve got is “the race card is nearly always trumped by the ‘race card’ card”, but that’s not really satisfactory (though it’s true).

    Jews get our own special iteration of the card-player argument in the guise of the Livingstone Formulation, named for London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who wrote “‘for far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government.” The need for the target to actually be “criticizing Israel” in any way, shape or form when they engage in allegedly anti-Semitic behavior is optional; Mayor Livingstone coined this defense after he called a Jewish newspaper reporter a Nazi after the latter attempted to ask him questions regarding a dinner party he had just attended (i.e., something that didn’t involve Israel at all). In general, though, the form is effectively the same: If Jews allege something is anti-Semitic, we get a Livingstone eyeroll and dismissal as “silencers”; if we don’t allege something is anti-Semitic but is otherwise bad or problematic in a way uncomfortable to the dominant group, it gets repackaged as an accusation of anti-Semitism and gets the Livingstone treatment anyway.

    The broader family of argument here is that a group, whose presence in political deliberations is typically considered to be somehow exceptional or suspect, uses some form of supposedly illegitimate power they possess (be it the moral suasion of “past” discrimination, or conspiratorial domination of global affairs, or something else entirely) to silence the ability of others to argue. Since the putatively “silencing” act is nearly invariably their mere participation in the discussion as advocates for their own cause and interests, the card-playing argument is effectively an effort to maintain the ability of the dominant caste to discuss the issues only in frames comfortable to them (as Renee puts it quite eloquently above).

  5. Hal Edmonson permalink
    April 22, 2010 3:11 AM

    The old variation I’ve heard quite a bit recently that makes me twitch is “I have [Insert Identity Here] friends, so it’s not a [Insert Identity Here] thing, but…” Yet another reminder that one of the dangers of thinking about racism and privilege in such episodic, anecdotal terms is that by touting the extremes, we create too easy of a denial mechanism. As soon as a person can assure themselves that they don’t ‘hate’ a certain group–as clearly evidenced by the fact that they’re willing to interact people of other races/sexual identities/genders on a somewhat level playing field– they’re off the hook, so to speak, and can indulge their prejudices undisturbed by their conscience or others’ accusations. It’s a bit like saying that all one need do to be an opponent of racism is to avoid membership in the KKK…

  6. Fnord Prefect permalink
    May 2, 2010 10:11 PM

    Hi! I come over from Feministe every Sunday; first-time commenter here.

    I have so many. It would be good and healthy for me to sit and write them down. But the one that has been on my mind lately is “politically correct”*. I find that folks who actually care about anti-oppression pro-liberation social change do not use this term. (Sometimes fence-sitters who have the potential to beome allies use it due to an absence of more precise vocabulary, which I can tolerate.) But I usually hear it used as a derogatory term–e.g. “why do you have to be so PC? lighten up!” or as a prelude to some real head-stabby deliberate ignorance–e.g., “I know it’s not ‘PC’ but I just think that [insert horrible prejudice here].”

    I always go back to Les Feinberg’s rebuttal: “Right now, much of the sensitive language that was won by the liberation movements in the United States during the sixties and seventies is bearing the brunt of a right-wing backlash against being ‘politically correct’. Where I come from, being ‘politically correct’ means using language that respects other peoples’ oppressions and wounds. This chosen language needs to be defended.”

    *I am aware that the OP uses this term, but its use here did not have any of the meaning I associate with its misuse. Just clarifying that I am not trying to call anybody out on anything or start any fires. Context is key.

    • May 3, 2010 1:16 PM

      Thanks for finally commenting Fnord!

      And great quote. I also recoil when I hear things like “let’s not restrict ourselves to being PC”, because it gives people a pass to NOT have to think about how language can be hurtful. Instead, I think we need to start allowing ourselves to call others out on language. There is a great video from IllDoctrine: about how to tell people they sound racist instead of calling them racist, which I think is an effective strategy.

  7. konkonsn permalink
    May 3, 2010 12:35 AM

    The homosexual one has really cropped up for me lately because I’ve been reading more and more Republican and conservative articles (usually as context for a post that’s against that article), and they all use the term homosexual. And when you hear the homophobes speak in internet ads or on television, they say, “the homosexuals.” The way that it is said is very derogatory as well. Might as well say, “Those people.”

    Also, the moment I see, “That’s racist” on a humor site under a picture making fun of white people, especially when said sites often have stereotypes of POC and nothing is said.

    • May 3, 2010 1:19 PM

      I agree! For me, when I hear the term “homosexuals” it mostly makes me think that they have never really talked to many people in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ people aren’t calling themselves “the homosexuals” it’s a term that, currently, seems to be coming mostly from conservative groups.

  8. Fnord Prefect permalink
    May 4, 2010 8:26 PM

    Becky: my pleasure! Jay Smooth rocks my world; that video has been really helpful for me in conversation with well-meaning but oblivious folk.

    “Homosexuals” seemed bizarre and archaic when I was a teen waaaayyyy back in the 90s. It also speaks from a very square binary model of thinking about sex (practice) and gender (expression). It basically proposes that everybody is a man or a woman who is exclusively sexually active with men or with women. What’s behind door number 3?

    Yeah, and basically anytime someone pulls out the “That’s racist against white people!” I know the conversation is going no. where. fast.

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