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On Checking and Being Checked: Working through Hate Speech

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“Have you heard a comment that you wanted to call out, but not felt comfortable articulating your discomfort?

Have you been called out on a remark and felt less than proud about your response?

Are you struggling to balance the affirmation of anger with the opportunity to educate?

How do you keep the doors to learning open when you just want to shut someone down?”

These questions come from the Facebook event page for the skill-share “On Checking and Being Checked,” hosted in March 2013 at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, USA.

They are all questions that come up in circumstances of hate speech.

There is intentional and tangible hate speech, such as tagging buildings with homophobic slurs. These are relatively easy to “call out” as hurtful towards specific communities and erase to signify progress towards a more just society. While, yes, these examples should never go unremembered, the violence goes beyond these moments. Unintentional hate speech, a statement / slur / thought that comes out without recognition of how it hurts, so often goes unchecked. Thus, hate speech continues and runs deep, as it often remains invisible to those who do not directly feel the hurt of a “before and after” dieting ad or the “men” and “women” signs on restroom doors. When speech makes these stories invisible, it hurts those of us who see their body as a continuum – not a before or after, not fully masculine or feminine.  Examples of simplified language and narratives ultimately simplifies bodies, gender identities, and other components that empower and construct communities made important to an individual.

So. How do we talk about the hurt that our words carry when the words seem harmless?

Working through our words requires conversations, and these conversations start with “calling out” and asking ourselves why. The content of this article was developed through literature, physical spaces, and conversations that made room for listening to stories from many layers of identities and questioning the status quo. In other words, the content of this article was only developed through living and listening outside of myself, and becoming okay with feeling uncomfortable.

This proved essential during a time of intentional hate speech acts on my college campus in the United States. It was the most hateful African American American History Month, filled with the N-word written on dorm room doors and a sighting of Ku Klux Klan regalia. This time of tangible hate speech led to an even longer time of unintentional hate speech amongst students, who made comments such as “I just wish they [in reference to students of colour on campus] wouldn’t be so angry. We’re all here to learn, can’t we just focus on that?” Taking value and voice away from communities who experience threats to their physical safety perpetuates the violence of the tangible, marketable examples. How does “learning” commence without the validation of a person’s histories made invisible due to an underrepresented identity or physically “passing” as white?  How do we start dialogue about space while belittling the emotions and conclusively the personhood of those we speak with? How do we get un-stuck? Learning does not happen without sacrificing our own comfort for the safety of others. Meanwhile, growth does not happen without acting beyond the moments of tangible hate speech.

In response to the series of hate events on campus, a group of students and I facilitated a skillshare called “On Checking and Being Checked,” framed as a space in which everyone in the room had knowledge but also room for growth in addressing all of the questions posed throughout this article. Below is a summary of the two sessions. I hope these tools could become useful for conversations in any situation in which we feel uncertain about space and the potential hurt of our words :

Strategies and Tools for Calling Out and Starting Dialogue

Statements and actions, not people, are called out. Calling out and dialogue does not take root in shaming: we all have a need for growth with different layers of history. In considering these layers, it is essential to speak from our own experiences. This manifests in using “I” statements to recognize the absence of important voices from communities you may or may not represent, rather than speaking for them. Without fully understanding or living the histories implicated in the dialogue, uncertainty seems inevitable. This is okay! Let it guide you into asking questions, while considering what may be triggering (a sound, smell, or image that reminds a person of a traumatic experience) to your audience. This may lead to greater understanding of what words represent, who decides what they mean, and who they affect. Vocabulary and various resources can become empowering, but not everyone has equal access to it. This places those who “call out” in the position of providing an opportunity, but not the responsibility, for mutual growth and education.

Speaking up and out necessitates patience, self-care, and difficult self-reflection in recognizing how you may benefit from an institution you critique your audience for upholding. Nevertheless, with the sensitivity in our actions and care in our listening, we find that allyship is something never fully achieved, but something that we must always work towards.

How To Respond When Getting Called Out

As with calling someone out, getting called out requires recognizing experiences outside of yours. Take time and listen – discomfort does not make you a victim in asking “How was I supposed to know?” or  “Are you calling me a racist?” Make it a space to deepen your understanding of how your statements and actions affect other peoples. However, never expect to have something explained to you in gauging when it is okay to ask questions. Consider this as an indication of the importance of educating ourselves in relevant politics (intersections of anti-racist, queer, feminist, disability, etc. studies) and recognize who typically has the burden of educating.

Lastly, apologize. Apologize for your own actions, but never the audience’s response. Conditional statements such as “I’m sorry if you feel that way” indicates the fault lies in their sensitivity to something that their identities and histories have made important. Devaluing the moments of getting called out and continuing to neglect the stories and hurt that other bodies carry manifests into intentional hate speech. Dialogue will not continue if all parties do not have access to the emotions that personhood grants us. This has nothing to due with a person having “a bad sense of humor” or “liberal arts brainwash.” Rather, it is about a person’s safety violated in unintentional hate speech.

Always

In these unintentional moments of creating violence through our words, use calling out and getting called out as opportunities for growth. Writer Junot Díaz once said, “we all have a blind spot around our privilege, shaped exactly like us.” We are “blind” to the statements and actions that do not affect ourselves and others “shaped… like us,” which makes it difficult to remain accountable for the things we say and the space we take up. In conversation, literature, blogs, and whatever brings us outside of ourselves, we have the opportunity to understand the traffic, crash, trauma that occurs because we could not see beyond our “blind spot.” We have the opportunity to validate voices without occupying them.

Interested in seeing more resources related to allyship? Check out this link.

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