Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bigotry By Omission

The other day I was at a junior high school PTSA meeting where we were about to vote in next year's president. The sole nominee (there's typically only one person willing to do the job, so it's not a traditional election in the sense of voting for one candidate over another) was a man, which is unusual for any PTA or PTSA, at least here in Utah. Having served previously on another PTA as treasurer and then president, and planning to serve alongside this particular presidential nominee as his treasurer, I'm a big fan of men being more involved in PTA. Studies show that children benefit from having male role models involved in their school life, but for some reason a lot of fathers seem to group school involvement into the long list of parenting responsibilities they're happy to let mothers take care of.

At any rate, at this particular PTSA meeting we were enjoying a delicious lunch that the current president had prepared. This president had taken it on herself to serve lunch at every meeting, as a way to incentivize attendance and to share her love of food. So we're eating this tasty pasta salad and we're about to vote on next year's president and I raise my hand to ask, jokingly, whether the nominee can make food this good, because I want to make an informed vote. Everyone laughs and he says that actually, he does enjoy baking with his wife. Later in that same meeting, a visitor spoke to us about her current campaign to be on the school board. I revived my previous joke by asking about her cooking skills. Everyone laughed again and the candidate just rolled her eyes and went on. 

It didn't take me long to start feeling skeezy about my joke--especially the second instance, where it was delivered to a woman. In my mind, I was showing my appreciation for the current president's work to prepare food for us while demonstrating my belief that expectations should be the same for any PTSA president, regardless of gender. What I didn't consider until after the fact is that I was making the joke within the context of a culture where women are often valued only for traditionally feminine skills such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Coming from one of two men in a room full of women, my joke could have easily been understood to imply that when it comes to a position of power in a female-dominated organization like PTA, all that matters is how well you can cook. Hopefully anyone who knows me well would recognize that wasn't my intent--I have first-hand knowledge of the hard work and organizational skills required of a PTA president, and I've seen the experience and knowledge needed to serve successfully on a school board--but few people in that room knew me very well and it's never safe to assume everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt when you've said something potentially offensive. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to consider my audience, consider the context, and communicate effectively. If someone in that room was offended by my joke, it's my fault; I should know better. 

In the church I was raised in, we were taught that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. The former are things you do--murder, rape, drinking coffee--and the latter are things you don't do--not helping someone in need of help, not being kind, not giving a tenth of your income to the church. I have a pretty different idea now of what is and isn't sinful, but I still find the idea of commission versus omission valuable. It's very, very common for people to say sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted things, then get upset when others call them out on it, insisting, "But that's not how I meant it!" And then they go on to list all the horrible things they don't do to whatever underprivileged group they've unintentionally offended: "It's not like I go around beating up gay people or calling you fags. Save your anger for the real bad guys!" To that defense, I say: Thank you for meeting the bare minimum requirement of human decency. You are not a bigot by commission. But if you--if we--want to be better, then we need to be more careful not to commit bigotry by omission: not considering that something we say or do might be offensive. When interacting with or talking about an underprivileged group that we are not part of, we owe it to them to do our best to understand their context enough to actively avoid making their lives worse. Sure, I might mean no offense, but if 99 people before me said the exact same thing and did mean to offend (or simply didn't care who might get hurt so long as it wasn't them), then I don't get a pass for having good intentions. 

Image Source
Image source: A pretty great comic that makes my point probably better than I do. 

I understand that a lot of people are tired of feeling like everything they say is subject to inspection by the political correctness police. This is why Donald Trump is president. But you know what? If you show that you're making a genuine effort to be a kind, understanding human being then others won't feel the need to "police" you, even when you screw up. People say unintentionally heterosexist things to me all the time, and in the majority of cases I can see that they mean well because they've done or said other things to show kindness toward me, so I don't let it bother me. I don't want to spend all my time being upset any more than you want to spend all your time worrying about who might be upset at you, so show me you're trying and I'll meet you in the middle. So I guess I am willing to give you a pass for good intentions, so long as I can see them through your other words and actions, and so long as you're willing to listen, apologize, and change when I point out that you're doing something hurtful enough to warrant my speaking up about it. 

And I'll do the same. I'm going to send an apology to that school board candidate. I honestly don't know whether she gave my stupid joke a second thought, but when it comes to showing that I'm an ally to people from underprivileged groups, I'd rather err on the side of being overly cautious than on that of being obliviously hurtful. 

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