Here is a thought: if you are going to criticize someone for using words incorrectly, it would help you did not make the same mistake.
Jamie Utt does not like white people who complain about “reverse” racism or men who complain about “reverse” sexism. Every time he hears some “privileged” person complaining about being oppressed, it reminds Utt of the famous line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
How ironic then that Utt keeps using words that do not mean what he thinks they mean. He states in his piece on Everyday Feminism:
Too often, when people are talking about racism or sexism or heterosexism or any other form of oppression, they’re simply referring to when a person was made to feel bad for or about their identity.
There is absolutely no acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power.
And this is no accident.
There has been a concerted effort made by a small but loud group (like the Limbaughs, Zimmermans, or Robertsons) to coopt language and shift the discussion so that things stay just the way they are.
But whenever we say things like “Well, sometimes women can be just as sexist as men,” we are contributing to the problem.
Racism is defined as, “1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race, 2: racial prejudice or discrimination.”
Sexism is defined as, “1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women, 2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.”
Heterosexism is defined as, “discrimination or prejudice by heterosexuals against homosexuals.”
None of the definitions mention “wider systems of oppression and power,” which is logical given that the terms describe a specific type of broad bigotry.
The problem with Utt’s argument is that it is based around ideology. The reason people do not “acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power” is because they do not agree those systems exist, at least not as described by people like Utt. His objection to that is akin to Christians complaining about atheists complaining about religion by saying, “There is absolutely no acknowledge of wider systems of the Devil’s hatred of God and man.”
While Utt is correct that some right-wing pundits co-opt political language to use for their own agenda, he fails to acknowledge that his side co-opted the language to push their agenda. Utt’s argument that acknowledging women’s sexism against men contributes to the problem is an example of that.
What Utt means is that sexism is a system of “institutional power” that only benefits men. Since women have no power, they cannot be sexist. For Utt, if a woman beat and tortured a man specifically because he is male, that is not a sexist act. As he explains:
Yes. Any person of any identity can be an asshole to any person of any other identity. But that doesn’t make it oppression. It doesn’t even make it racism or sexism or heterosexim or any other -ism.
Utt makes a valid argument, yet he does not apply to all situations. That is clear from the rest of his piece. He only applies this argument to cases of “reverse” sexism and racism. So if a man beat and tortured a woman, that would not simply be an incidental violent act committed by an asshole, but an intentional expression of institutional male power over women. He goes on to state:
There is a profound danger in watering down our discussion of identity by removing any mention of societal power, oppression, and privilege.
Doing so ensures that the conversation remains about interpersonal slights rather than about the larger systems of oppression that are the true problem.
That is a false dilemma. There is no danger in acknowledging women’s sexism against men or black people’s racism against white people other than breaking the myth that those two groups are incapable of sexism or racism.
Most acts of bigotry are interpersonal slights. They are individual instances that a person experiences that may have little or nothing to do with any attempt to maintain some oppressive power structure. Utt seems to realize this, and states:
Now, this is not to say, that the real issue is the system, so I can say whatever I want, and it shouldn’t matter. Not at all.
Our interpersonal interactions are reflections of and support structures for the larger problems of systematic inequality and oppression.
This appears to contradict his prior argument. He appears to accept the possibility that that all interactions can stem from various systematic inequality and oppression, not just the negative experiences of token groups. However, Utt quickly back away from that:
Instead, we need to recognize that not all hurtful words or deeds are equal when certain ones are backed by a history and current system of domination, violence, oppression, repression, dehumanization, and degradation.
This makes no logical sense on a broad or personal level. Utt tries to explain his position by comparing the racial slur “cracker” to “nigger.” He argues that the context matters:
And there’s that inconvenient fact that the “n-word” was created solely by White people as a pejorative for Black slaves.
And there’s that other inconvenient fact that the word “cracker” literally refers to White power and supremacy in its reference to the overseer who cracked the whip.
This sort of semantic play looks very impressive, but completely fails. Context does matter, and in present context “cracker” is a racial slur used solely for white people. The history of the word is irrelevant, in the same way that the history of “nigger” is irrelevant. That “nigger” is a bastardized variant of the Portuguese word for black does not take away from how the word was and continues to be used.
Do the two slurs carry the same social weight and history? No. “Nigger” has a whole connotation that “cracker” does not have. However, words are not just used in a broad fashion. Both words are insults, and in context to their use they can carry the same emotional weight. The reason “nigger” carries such a weight is because of its historical baggage. However, any word can become an insult. Calling a black man a “boy” can be just as insulting because of the intent behind the word.
The same holds true for “cracker.” If a white person were constantly called that, constantly berated, isolated, and bullied, then “cracker” could for that person carry the same emotional impact as “nigger” would for a black person.
That is how insults work, and to assume that because a person belongs to a certain group insults hurt them less is absurd.
What seems to bother Utt most is the idea that the “privileged” feel oppressed:
A young person with whom I am friends on Facebook recently posted the following as his status: “Why is it that all of a sudden the worst thing in the world you can be is a white, straight, middle class, christian? [sic]”
And I engaged him. Because I’m hearing this sentiment more and more from folks of privilege: There is a tremendous fear (no matter how grounded in fiction it may be) that they are under attack.
It is a fear peddled by conservative media and in daily conversation. It is a fear that what was once promised to us as people of identity privilege (often at the expense of others) is no longer a guarantee.
It is a fear that speaks to the progress –humble in some areas and significant in others – that has been made (and continues to be made) in overturning (or at least reforming) systems that were built fundamentally for the benefit of a tiny few.
This is a straw man argument. It is not fiction that white, straight, middle-class Christian people are under attack. One need only watch MSNBC or follow other liberal media to see numerous examples of people fitting one, some, or all of those criteria getting blasted for just being.
Some of the criticism is fair. For example, the notion that Christians are an oppressed group in the United States is laughable. The notion that granting gay people the right to marry is an attack on straight people or religion is moronic. The notion that acknowledging the changing racial composition of the country is an attempt to marginalize white people is borderline crazy.
However, painting all men as a potential rapists, treating all white men as oppressors, and considering Christianity a delusional fantasy created by bigots is a legitimate problem. That happens far too often, and those who belong to those groups are right to take offense.
Like many liberals, Utt rationalizes the above bigotry by calling it an attempt to overturn or reform oppressive systems. Anyone complaining about it is essentially whining about their loss of power. Yet few of the people making the complaints are doing that. Most have no social or political power. Most are looking at their personal situations, seeing the imbalance and lack of concern for their problems and the seeming over-concern for other people’s problems, and calling foul.
Utt tried to mitigate the young man’s negative response with:
“None of this is to say that people with identity privilege do not struggle,” I said. “Plenty of us are struggling with real and tough things. Plenty of middle class White families are fighting in a system that is working against anyone who isn’t rich. It is just important to keep perspective about the relativity of privilege.”
Except it is not important to do that because the two are not necessarily related. This is akin to telling someone dying of cancer that they must realize that other people in the world have it worse than them. What does that have to do with their illness and need for assistance? It is little more than a snide comment designed to shut down the “oppressor” because they do not know how good they have it. Utt realizes that and tried to explain it away:
In the case of the young man above, perhaps his family is struggling with the class inequality that is ever more present for middle class people of all races and he is projecting those concerns onto issues of race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Well, if I simply write him off as a bigoted jerk who doesn’t understand power structures, where do we go?
Instead, it is my responsibility as a person of privilege striving to be an ally to call him into discussion.
It is my responsibility to at least attempt to bring him to a place where his words are less hurtful, and – who knows? – perhaps doing so will help him along the path to being an ally himself.
Yet Utt did write the young man off as a bigoted jerk who does not understand power structures. He argued with him, and that did not get the placating result he wanted, Utt turned to condescension, pretending to care about the young man’s experiences, something Utt apparently never considered before he decided to “educate” him.
Even Utt’s concern is superficial. He does not want to address the young man’s issues, just get him to shut up about them (as sharing those experiences is “hurtful” to “oppressed” people) long enough to turn the young man into an ally.
This reminds me of a particular quote from the Hagakure:
For the most part, people think that they are being kind by saying the things that others find distasteful or difficult to say. But if it is not received well, they think that there is nothing more to be done. This is completely worthless. It is the same as bringing shame to a person by slandering him. It is nothing more than getting it off one’s chest. […] By bringing shame to a person, how could one expect to make him a better man?
Shaming the “privileged” seems to be all people like Utt are concerned with. As Utt states in his conclusion:
Because while we fight tooth and nail to make powerful change to systems of oppression, we need to ensure that if people who benefit from these systems are not actively acting in solidarity, at least they aren’t in the way.
And this is primarily the work of other people of privilege.
It’s time for us to call our people in.
That is why those people feel attacked: because they are being attacked. There is no effort to listen to them, let alone understand where they are coming from. Case in point, Daniel Drake wrote this in response to Utt’s article:
I’m white. I feel like I have been the victim of racism, and at times, oppression. Why? Because I grew up in the ghetto of San Diego and being the only white kid in a class of black, Mexican, and Pilipino gang members will do that to you. Do I feel like the government is oppressing me? Not so much. Do I believe people in general are racist? Most people, no…. But saying that white people don’t suffer from racism is pretty blind and non-constructive..
Utt responded with:
Daniel, you were most definitely a victim of race-based bigotry, sure. But the whole argument I am trying to make in the piece is that we need to use the term racism to describe prejudice + power or we devolve into a discussion of interpersonal slights that brings us no closer to overturning systems of oppression.
You cannot get a more clear-cut example of racism than what Drake presented, yet not only did Utt avoid calling it racism (even though the words he chose are the very definition of racism), but also refers to Drake’s experiences as “interpersonal slights.” He completely dismissed Drake’s experiences and then offered a mealy mouthed non sequitur to justify it.
Perhaps Utt keeps using words that do not mean what he thinks they mean, however, he is ironically good showing exactly what racism and sexism look like.