The Politics of Politeness

not your babe
As a young outspoken woman, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been expected to qualify my opinion to be more palatable to those who come from a more privileged position. I can’t tell you how many variations of “not all ____” (usually men) I’ve heard. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that their allyship was contingent on minority members making them (members of a privileged group) feel comfortable and welcome.

This goes beyond being polite as a matter of common decency. I’m damn charming and polite when the situation calls for it. But the issue is when you demand my politeness because you don’t like what I said. The issue is that as a young woman, I’m expected to be pretty and dumb. I’m expected to couch my opinions in soft words, and leave plenty of room for someone to tell me why I’m silly and wrong. If the crux of your criticism of my opinion hinges on the fact that I made you uncomfortable with it, kindly exit stage left, pursued by bear. Or just say that, don’t demand that I make you hearing an uncomfortable truth more palatable to your privileged ears.

At my placement, all but two of my 40+ coworkers are women. All of my regular volunteers are women, and we serve many young women and their children. I’ve never been asked to prove my expertise or qualify my opinion at work, because there is an assumption of basic competency and a knowledge that I’m well versed in whatever I’m talking about. This has been a wonderful respite, especially in the political climate around this year, and not always a given, even living in Chicago for a year of service. I’ve had to defend my opinion on everything from whether or not comments were sexist or homophobic to what the right part to buy for a toilet was to what makes a city a city, all within this year. With the last instance, my assertion that the definition of a city was fairly variable, based on extensive research for my minor in urban studies, was brushed aside because the person I was speaking to (an older man) had lived in cities longer than I had, and therefore inherently knew more than me, and wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that I might know what I’m talking about.

Young women with strong opinions are written off as hysterical, overemotional, too sensitive. If I had a dollar for every time I was told to learn how to take a joke (always by men trying to shrug off the fact that they said something offensive), I could pay to send these men to classes to learn how to actually be funny. Why is it “just a joke” when a man says something problematic? Why can’t women make the same generalizations about men (i.e., men inherently benefit from a patriarchal society, men have much conditioned sexism to unlearn, mansplaining is real) without being told “not all men”? I’ll take double standards and misogyny for 200, Alex.

Marginalized groups, be it by race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or countless other markers of privilege, must work much harder to be taken seriously. For evidence, look at our current president (rich white male television star) in comparison to his opponent (a highly qualified woman with years of political experience) or predecessor (a highly qualified black man with years of political experience). Or just ask someone who’s not a straight white man. We have opinions too, ya know.

And on that note, self-proclaimed allies to marginalized groups: for the love of all that is good, sit down and shut up for once. Listen when we talk. Don’t talk over us, don’t talk for us. Don’t expect us to make exceptions for you – you can wave your ally flag all you want, but you still have problematic opinions, and you need to acknowledge that. It’s not my job to teach you how to not be a shitty person. Some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had are with people who very much believe themselves to be allies, yet can’t get their heads around the fact that they’ve said something wrong. If you’re called out for something, step back and think about it – your personal feelings do not outweigh someone else’s basic human dignity.

The term for expecting marginalized groups to act in a certain way to get better treatment from groups in power is respectability politics (and here and here, because if you’re someone who needs to be educated on this, I know you’re not going to just take my word on it). The idea goes that if the marginalized group acts a little nicer, minds their Ps and Qs and resembles the group in power as much as they can, maybe they’ll get what they’re asking for in time. This allows the group in power a quick way to dismiss the marginalized group and keep them in line without really addressing the core problem or challenging the status quo. You most frequently see this rhetoric pop up when yet another young black man has been murdered by police – his reputation is dragged through the mud and the conversation becomes “if he had only done X, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.” This allows white people to absolve themselves of the part they play in furthering this system of violence and distance themselves from the insidious problem of police violence in this country. And that is just ONE example among so very many I could give you and would be happy to.

I’ve never been good at holding my tongue, but this year has pretty much removed any filter I may have had left. I’m coming out of this year angry. I’m angry that we elected an orange bigot to the highest office in the country. I’m angry that I even have to write this post in the first place, or write about cat-calling or problematic depictions of this city. I’m angry that there is no money for schools, but plenty of money to keep bringing in rich, white tourists. I’m furious that so many people are happy to be complacent in this system, and that they’re happy to just let harmful systems continue, because it doesn’t affect them. I’m sick and damn tired of being asked to not be so angry, of being told that my anger and passion somehow detracts from the truth of what I’m saying. I’m tired of having to demand the same respect as my male peers, and of watching anyone who is not a straight white man get ignored and spoken over.

I’ve got at least one more blog post on deck before my year is over, that’s probably the nice happy one you’re expecting from me after this year. But I don’t think that’s entirely authentic to my experience this year. While it’s been an overall good experience, I can’t pretend that it was also a totally stress-free easygoing one either. This year more than ever has showed me how to be an activist, and to prioritize speaking truth to power over sparing someone’s feelings, and I hope that this post speaks to this a little bit.


2 thoughts on “The Politics of Politeness

  1. Margaret LaPlante says:

    Please, please Emily, never lose this passion and outspokenness and anger.
    I’m angry that you and your cohorts are sill fighting a battle we thought was over in the 70’s. Please keep fighting. Never, ever give up or in.


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