I’m a pale, half-Mexican woman, with brown siblings and white parents. After our adoption, (long story, you can read about it in a few weeks), we were living in a predominately white area in the Chicago suburbs. My siblings and I represented probably a quarter of the entire Latinx/Hispanic population at the school, so needless to say, we - but especially my older brother and sister, stood out a lot.
I was, I suppose, fortunate (dare I say - privileged), overall, to have been born with the pale skin out of the bunch. I was able to blend in with my surroundings a little more, at least outside of school where I wasn’t known already as someone who wasn’t fully white. My siblings didn’t have that luxury. While we’ve all encountered some form of racial taunting over the years, they got it worst when we were young.
My brother told me of a memory he had resurface recently, where he recalled seeing some kids at our bus stop push my sister down on the ground and then start kicking dirt on her while yelling the word “brownie” over and over. I remember him coming home from school crying on several occasions too, because people would mock him and call him names for having brown skin. I’m not going to bother inserting the names here, but I’m sure you can imagine the types of creative slurs young kids can come up with.
For whatever reason, the common understanding was that since I didn’t “look” Mexican, it was safe to make as racial jokes because I wasn’t a “real” Mexican and therefore didn’t have the right to get offended. I adopted a grin and bear it approach to dealing with these “jokes”, though I never found them to be all that funny in the first place. I always imagined the way my siblings looked when they were picked on for their skin color and it hurt, maybe only a little (because in some cases I do believe there was no malicious intent) maybe only deep down, but it hurt nonetheless. It also took me out of that moment, took me out of being present, and reminded me once again that I was different - that my family was different. It's not a great feeling.
As a young girl and throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly found myself in hobbies or jobs that were male dominated. Unlike my siblings, I never had to experience a moment where I walked into a room and realized I was the only brown face there, but I feel it’s probably somewhat similar to how I felt each time I walked into a room and saw only men’s eyes looking back at me. I can only imagine how much often this feeling of “Oh shit, I’m alone here” hits women of color, especially. I wound up having to bring back that same grin and bear it technique in order to make it through the repetitive, irritating, sometimes low-key and sometimes blatantly sexist “jokes”.
Many of you have probably lived the same experience I have the few times I attempted to speak up for myself and let someone know that I didn’t share their sense of humor. I’d say these are the most common responses I get after telling someone that their joke is not really that funny to me, and may upset others as well.
"I don't care if I offend you. It's freedom of speech."
"Get thicker skin. My words shouldn't bother you. They're just words."
"It's just a joke, relax."
If I choose to push further, or if I make the mistake of getting upset over it, suddenly I’m labeled as being “triggered”, “hysterical” or “an ice queen”, and I’M the one who is now the burden on the group or conversation for not being able to just chill and let a “simple joke” slide. I know when it comes to black women especially, it’s all too easy for them to be labeled as this grossly inaccurate stereotype of “the angry black woman”, so silence tends to be used in more cases than they’d prefer.
Well, I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I gotta say, I think it's fucking stupid. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why people are so hell bent on being able to say whatever the fuck they want to say without acknowledging that it could hurt someone else. My only assumption at this point is kind of simple: we’ve stopped giving a shit about our fellow man.
I really think people have just gotten so much into that “I hate everybody” mentality that it’s so easy to write off anyone who you don’t agree with. I don’t know that I believe people are fighting for their ability to tell racist, sexist or homophobic jokes strictly because they believe so fervently in their right to free speech. On that same note, I also believe that choosing to omit certain words or phrases from your interactions isn’t actually hindering your free speech in the slightest. In my opinion, that shit barely even qualifies as an inconvenience. It feels a lot more to me like people are fighting for their right to not care about other people.
[If you're not an angry, antagonistic, free-speech-loving, hate-speech-spreading asshat - please note that these next paragraphs aren't being directed at you.]
Seriously though, what is it that you MUST get across and can’t possible do so without access to these words or phrases that you already KNOW are very likely to offend? Why is it so easy for you to stand up for your right to free speech but you are so quick to ignore the speech directed at you that’s really only asking for you to be kinder and more considerate? Why does someone saying the words, "this makes me feel bad" upset you so? Why isn't that all you have to hear before you check yourself? Why don't you care?
I’ve started to work hard on understanding myself and the people around me which has lead me down a path that includes a great deal of empathy-boosting habits. Since I started actively challenging myself to see things from perspectives other than my own, I’ve started to naturally empathize with people more. Even the people who I previously may have been irritated or bothered by don't phase me these days. It’s my belief that we’re all incredibly complex people living our own lives filled with our own unique challenges and struggles. Take a moment to really look at the next person you encounter today. Try to imagine what they’re going through, in great detail. Everyone is fighting their own battles, and one of my new goals lately has been to attempt to reduce the amount of negativity I put out into the world - especially any that I would have been inclined to direct at a person or group.
I ask myself, “could this hurt someone?” before moving forward, not because I am heavily censored due to people voicing their frustrations more frequently, but because I wouldn’t want to be hurt, so I try not to hurt others or bring them down. Saying things like, “that’s retarded” may seem so innocent to you that you want to fight for the right to use it, but consider the person who lives with a disabled child, or a disabled person's feelings for a second. Imagine all the times that someone likely called them or someone they love that name out of hostility or ignorance. Sure, maybe you’re not saying it in “that way”, so it isn’t actually offensive - but the word itself brings back memories of negative interactions for many, so why bother using it? There are tons of alternatives.
This obviously applies to racial slurs as well. Maybe you said the n-word just because you thought it was funny, maybe you said it because you think it should be no big deal because it’s in rap songs or what-the-fuck-ever-reason you’ve come up with. Either way, you’ve said a word that has a LONG, like crazy fucking long, history of being used to demean and oppress others. Maybe you meant it as a simple (but incredibly stupid) joke, but you’ve likely just added on to a lifetime of bullshit and unkindness associated with that word. All for what? To make another person with an equally shitty sense of humor laugh?
I understand that some comedians as well as a bunch of non-funny, regular ol’ assholes are feeling like they can’t tell ANY jokes these days without offending people. Maybe that’s true, maybe we are over sensitive these days. Maybe, just maybe it’s something else though...
This makes me think of how one of my previous relationships ended. I was in a relationship with someone who was very controlling, angry and incredibly opinionated. In addition to being controlling of my speech, behavior and activities, he regularly made me the butt of his jokes. I expressed countless times that I didn’t like some of the things he said or did, but never pushed it because he would either insist it was all in good fun and I was making a big deal of nothing, or he’d react with anger and it would turn into a huge battle (which I usually lost). In order to avoid fights or being told I was the one bringing down fun situations, I just learned to shut up about pretty much everything he said or did that bothered me. Since I didn't have much self-esteem at the time, it was easy for me to imagine what he was saying was what everyone else was also thinking, so even if I did try to stand up for myself more, I imagined I'd be standing alone.
Eventually, I wound up gaining some self-worth and started to realize this wasn’t the type of life I wanted or deserved to be stuck living. I started standing up for myself more and more. I wasn’t trying to start fights, so I always tried to voice my concerns in a calm and rational way, but I wound up voicing these concerns regularly as the days went on. I was told that I had changed, that I was just trying to start fights because everything he had been doing had “never bothered me before” and now suddenly I was "super combative" and "seemed to have a problem with everything".
I was accused of being over-sensitive. In reality, I wasn’t being over-sensitive. I was just fed up. I was tired of being the butt of the jokes that I didn’t like, and I was tired of being mocked and hearing the same shit day in and day out. I was just straight up OVER IT.
So this brings me back to why I believe you’re starting to see so many people actively campaigning against and boycotting people/brands that cross the line. Maybe, it’s not that this society has suddenly been replaced by a mass of ultra sensitive cry-babies, MAYBE you’re just hearing about it more because suddenly all these people who didn’t feel they had a voice are realizing that they have more support than they realized. Maybe, it’s that these devalued and marginalized groups are starting to see some progress and are finally being viewed as real fucking people with feelings. These same people are starting to stand up for themselves and it’s upsetting the folks who can’t stop themselves from making jokes at the expense of others.
While I’m halfway sorry that your once-funny jokes seem to always fall flat these days, maybe the issue isn’t with society. Perhaps you’ve actually been an unfunny asshole your whole life and this is simply the first time you’ve actually listened when we told you so. Maybe your jokes were well received previously because you always dropped them in rooms predominately filled with people who've been fortunate enough to live lives free from oppression. Maybe it's time for you to take a moment to feel sorry for someone other than yourself and acknowledge that your words have meaning. You could be using them to uplift and spread messages of love, but instead you're choosing to fight a battle for the right to be a prick.
I think it's time to direct that energy elsewhere. Imagine all the ways you could be positively impacting this world if you could just pull your head out of your ass and start treating others the way you'd want to be treated.
I normally try to stay away from saying things like, "It really is that simple", because I know not everyone will interpret things the same way I do, or understand things the way that I or another person may understand them. I get it. However, in this instance, I gotta say, it really is that fucking simple. Just try to not be a dick, for a day even, and see how much your day is impacted. My bet is that your day will continue on the way it always does, except maybe this time someone else won't be suffering in silence over words that you could have just skipped.
The world isn't over-sensitive, you're just being an entitled dickhead. Stop being a dickhead. Be nice to people, it's not that hard.
(Photo Credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash)