In the uncomfortable conversations regarding sensitive topics, we often use inadequate terminology to describe the ways that people, especially those in positions of privilege, should act and do act in relation to marginalized people. One of the terms that should be phased out of our vernacular is “tolerance.”
The word is demeaning in the context of how people should view each other based upon innate characteristics. People shouldn’t be just tolerated for being who they are. Asking people to embrace what makes certain communities different may be unrealistic, but we shouldn’t refer to how people interact as if they’re being subjected to something unpleasant that they have to bear. While I’m not sure what the new term should be, what I do know is that women, racial minorities and members of the LGBT community, are subjected to discrimination every day and this term diminishes their struggle for inclusion.
Instead of finding ways to incorporate these communities into mainstream culture and support them, we are settling and aiming for people not to inflict violence upon them or verbally attack them in open spaces. In addition to this, there’s an unfortunate habit of cushioning offensive comments and actions with different language: intolerant, culturally or racially insensitive, discriminatory, prejudiced, biased.
While those terms may be applicable, there are stronger terms that apply, like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic.” The outrage that some feel when behavior is acknowledged with these terms is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that people should adapt their verbiage to appease people. Of course the reverse of this argument is that then the same should be said of the way that other people express their beliefs about marginalized and disadvantaged communities. Why should they be limited in how they express their beliefs about people?
Well in my opinion, the answer is simple. The strong terms used above are those that shed light on the ways that the privileged and the majority subjugate and disrespect the oppressed. That is exactly why the people who already hold the power can’t be allowed to say whatever they want and thereby harm or trivialize the concerns of communities that need support.
Erin Waddles, a coordinator for student diversity and inclusion for the Mosaic Center, said on incidents of ignorance, “The problem I see with not calling it what it is is that it doesn’t allow for any level of accountability. If you know that something is racist [or sexist, or homophobic] and we now accept that as a community, we then have an imperative, we have a duty to do something and try and shift that. But by calling it something else it becomes more nebulous, and it’s harder to define.”
The biggest roadblock in speaking plainly and emphatically when people make remarks that are offensive is how uncomfortable it can feel for both the offended person and the offending person to deal with terms like “homophobic,” “sexist” or “racist” once they’re said out loud. It comes down to a word that I’ve heard several times while discussing this issue: disservice.
We do a disservice to people who have made ignorant comments by attempting to alleviate their discomfort with wavering terminology. By acknowledging what happened realistically and taking the opportunity to discuss, educate, and attempt progress, people who have been offended by bigotry can actually help people to be more aware going forward.
However, such cooperation can be idealistic. It requires both parties to be willing to discuss and explore a complicated territory. Acknowledgement of a negative behavior doesn’t have to be hostile. Caitlin Felder, senior sociology major and secretary of Black Student Union shared her perspective that some of the hesitation to use stronger terminology can occur because people in positions of privilege often view strong critiques of their behavior in a situation as attacks on the character as a whole.
She explained that people have to understand that one can say something in a moment that contributes to an environment of bigotry, but that acknowledging that doesn’t mean claiming that you’re automatically a horrible person. Felder said, “If you make a comment that feeds into discrimination, then I’m going to call you a racist and that’s it.”
What happens after that is crucial. Using strong terms after an incident of ignorance can often shut down further conversation on the problems with the mindset that led to the incident. An important distinction has to be made between saying something ignorant and being ignorant, and if people are willing to do just a bit of listening, they can understand that and so much more about how to communicate with and about marginalized people.