Mixed Salad of Thoughts

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The burden of justification and questions that hurt

I've seen quite a few images on FB that speak to a common difficulty: 

It got me thinking about how we treat groups and people outside the dominant culture and the undue burdens placed upon them. In response to my cousin's posting of a similar image and the subsequent conversation I wrote the following:

I think the problem is that people feel it is okay to offer their opinions and question the choices made by vegetarians and vegans when they wouldn't otherwise. It would be exceedingly rare for a stranger or even a friends to confront a meat-eater with nutritional validation questions and yet saying you're vegetarian or vegan makes many people think it's okay. 

It's the same kind of undue burden of self-justification that is put on so many groups that deviate from the perceived norm. While it is natural to be curious about something different, it is inappropriate to ask questions for which the answerer must carry the burden of justifying their actions. So it's okay to say, "Do you find it difficult to eat healthy as a vegan?" or "What made you decide to be a vegan?" but asking questions in which it is made clear the person needs to defend their choices is just rude.

It's the same kind of undue burden of self-justification that is put on so many groups that deviate from the perceived norm. While it is natural to be curious about something different, it is inappropriate to ask questions for which the answerer must carry the burden of justifying their actions. So it's okay to say, "Do you find it difficult to eat healthy as a vegan?" or "What made you decide to be a vegan?" but asking questions in which it is made clear the person needs to defend their choices is just rude.
But I know that the average person asking these questions doesn't intend offense. They are just coming from a place of ignorance, curiosity, and assumptions based on what they know from their own culture. I wanted to write a bit more about the kind of questions in this category, how they hurt, and what people SHOULD be saying instead. (Note: it is difficult to come up with alternatives as many are topics that are simply intrusive and judgemental by nature and should probably not be broached except with those you know well.)

So here are some examples, the biases they come from and alternative questions:

Question: "Why don't you straighten your hair/wear something pretty/dress up a bit?"
Assumptions: Believing this person should conform to a beauty norm set by society
Why is it offensive?: Let's be honest, this is really a rhetorical question that could easily swap out "Why don't you.." for "You should..." pointing at the fault or "potential improvement" the questioner sees. No one should have to change their natural look or personal preferences to conform to an arbitrary standard of beauty. Expecting black women to straighten their hair is in essence asking them to look more white. Telling a woman she should dress up, wear make-up or try to be pretty is in essence telling her that she is not beautiful enough as she is and that  her value and worth is tied to her beauty as set by the standards of our society. Unless the person has come to you seeking your beauty advice it is not your job to judge or evaluate this person based on your own standards.
Alternatives: "What do you think about beauty standards today?"

Question: "Aren't you worried about the risks of dying young/heart disease/ diabetes associated with weight?" 
Assumptions: That a person with a high BMI is necessarily unhealthy and that they choose to be so.
Why is it offensive?  Again this question could be reworded to say "You should be worried..." Which automatically means the questioner feels as if they know more and know the correct response that the listener SHOULD be experiencing. This is both conceited and based on facts that the questioner isn't likely to have. There are very few overweight people that can live oblivious to their weight, the way society sees them, and the health risks surrounding obesity. Additionally there are plenty of overweight people that are in better shape and exercise more than those of average weight. Perhaps they still should concern themselves with health but they don't need to justify those concerns or lack of them to you. Also take into consideration that there are many other health issues that can cause weight gain and your insensitivity may be an even harder hit than just weight prejudice.
Alternatives: "Would you like to...go for a walk/join me for lunch/stop by for dinner/go to the gym with me?"

Care to take one on yourself? How about one of these...

  • "How do you expect to get a job with all of those tattoos/blue hair/ piercings?"
  • "Don't you think your child would be happier if you..."
  • "Do you want your kid to grow up to be _______?"
  • "Don't you think if you were more/less ________ you'd be taken more seriously?"
  • "Don't you want to challenge yourself?"
  • "Don't you want to be able to support your family?"
  • "Don't you think you should be more...for your wife/family's sake?"
  • “Surely, you don’t need those,” she said. “LINK pays for juice for you people.”

On Privilege and Experience Part 1

The world (at least as I perceive it through my facebook wall) seems to be storming with events, articles, debates and even SCOTUS decisions that all center around sexism and racism and poverty. Many of these have spurned comments and conversations that use and focus on the sometimes vague, sometimes contentious, and often difficult to explain noun: "privilege." The term isn't new and it isn't actually that difficult to define: "a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people." But what is new is a huge portion of the population being confronted with the notion that they need to recognize their privilege.

 Recognizing privilege is not a slap in the face, even if it might sometimes feel like it. I admit, sometimes the sting makes me want to cry just as much as I did when I was around 10 and a person told me, "When you said that, it really hurt my feelings and that makes me want to be around you less." I feel guilt and I feel shame and suddenly I try to recall all the things I've ever done or said that might have hurt someone and I jerk back as I feel this, not wanting to believe. I feel it. I feel it emotionally and physically and it doesn't feel good. And then I remember that shame isn't productive and the best I can do is move past it and make amends.

It's normal to not want to do something or think about something that is going to cause you pain. There are entire branches of psychology and people who make fine livings off of suppressed feelings and experience. But common sense tells you that if you are doing something that causes damage and you ignore it you are only going to cause the damage to increase. And while some souls go their entire lives living in privilege and refusing to acknowledge it, I think a life lived in ignorance is kind of a sad thing.

Privilege comes in all forms. From the fact that I can find a Band-Aid that reasonably matches my pasty skin to the fact that if I dress up and enter a fine hotel I'm more likely to be assumed a guest than the wait staff. I can enter stores without feeling the ever watchful eyes of security on me and I can ask for directions from strangers without them shying away and feeling threatened. I can speak in my native tongue with the speech patterns and vocabulary I use at home while on job interviews and in professional environments and no one ever accuses me when using that language of trying to imitate or act as if I am of a different race or culture. I can see images in magazines of people of my race and with similar features that are exemplified as beautiful.

I also have to adjust my language to sound more forceful, direct, and "male" in cover letters, resumes, and conversations to sound more like the professional standard set by a male-dominate culture and less like the submissive "female" tone I was expected and socialized to have during my upbringing in this same culture. I have to be aware of my safety both inside and outside my home, making sure my doors are locked and that I pretend I don't live alone (honestly I just questioned whether I should post that online or if that in itself is a safety risk.) I take less public transit as I worry about coming home at night by myself and try to avoid thinking of all the possible dangers that lay in the 1/2 mile between the train and my house. When I leave my home I have to concern myself with my looks not just to appear clean and well groomed, but to be in-style while walking a line where I can feel confident but not too sexy because that would be slutty, attractive because my clothes fit well but minimizing my weight because it is higher than the current standard of beauty. While I might want to look attractive on a date I also don't want to give the "wrong idea" because that might attract sexual assault, but I don't want to look too casual or schlumpy because I am expected to "compete" with other women in a society that tells men they are visual creatures and judges them on the attractiveness of their dates and women that they are a product designed and valued for its appeal as visual consumption.

So what is a person to do when faced with the face-slapping confrontations that seem to say, "You need to recognize your privilege. Ignorant people are the problem." No one wants the slap, nor are most eager to be told something that seems to say that THEY are the problem.

Read more »

Be nice, make friends, assume the best.

I moved a student to a new desk today and he told me he wanted to move back because he didn’t like sitting next to the boy I put him next to (who is new to the school and admittedly a little…unique.) I absolutely refused and told him that he has sat next to many people and that he complained about each one including the girl he currently is asking to be put back with. He didn't believe me and I flat out told him that he WILL get to know his new partner and that he WILL learn to like him. That anyone can learn to like someone when they know them better (something I don’t necessarily believe is possible for adults but is absolutely possible for children.)
I strive everyday to convince 28 young people that they are friends and that each of them is a wonderful person and that they need to show how wonderful they are in their interactions and respect for one another. I also try to teach that when they think anyone is being less than wonderful to them the first thing we should consider is why this wonderful person would do something to hurt us and question whether or not there has been a misunderstanding.
If only adults could do this better:
  • "Hey, we're a totally wonderful and caring country, are we sure we're showing other countries that through our actions?"
  • "We're trying our best to put out public policy, so I'm sure the other political party respects us and didn't mean any offense when they blocked our bill. There's no reason to retaliate."
  • "Hey, that other political party is full of awesome people too who are trying to do what is best for everyone, so I'm sure ...
Yeah, I couldn't even get through three before my cynicism kicked in and I couldn't even finish. People--adult people-- don't believe in others good intent. And I think it's partly because they so rarely have their own good intent and selfless inclinations. When we're all out for ourselves and OUR interests, how can we expect others to do anything less? And if we're only looking out for ourselves can we possibly be demonstrating our