We live in a sexist, racist, classist, ageist, ableist, homophobic2, cissexist, etc society. We’re excellent at prejudice, at tribalism, at discomfort with people different than us on any axis. To think we’re unaffected by that is arrogant and/or naïve.
Everyone is all of these things to varying degrees (yes. Even you). So we are free to a) not be so skittish and defensive when called out for problematic behaviour, and b) not be so haughtily self-righteous and pitchfork-wielding burn-them-to-the-ground when someone else is.3
Sure, when I’m accused of something like that it doesn’t feel good. It is jarring and uncomfortable to learn I’ve unintentionally denigrated someone. I (with most) like to think I’m one of the Good Guys, It hurts to realise I may have been the villain. Crucially though, that hurt is my fault, it is not the fault of the person who brought this to attention.
And yes, sometimes it was legitimately a misunderstanding, a mishearing, a lack of context, whatever. But. More often these are the excuses we tell ourselves to keep being the hero rather than take the time to examine the implications of our (unconscious) behaviour.
When someone says “Dude, that joke/comment/act/word/behaviour is not ok.” I have two choices: I can apologize and learn, or I can follow the instinct to double down. To justify. To defend. To make sure everyone knows I’m the good guy here. It was all just a hilarious misunderstanding, see. My prejudice is perfectly reasonable according to this graph from the internet. And your criticism is invalid because of this [_____]ist thing you did that one time, perhaps even as part of this very criticism.
But all that defence is not even necessary. They’re (probably) not saying “Dude, you’re a horrible person”. They’re saying “Dude, that’s not ok, it’s [_____]ist and because you’re apparently unaware of it I’m pointing this out, I’m hoping that by letting you know this is a problem you’ll change your behaviour to not be un/intentionally hurtful because I actually don’t think you’re a horrible person”.
Though, even when they are saying “You’re a horrible person”, even if they subsequently write me off entirely, I can learn, apologize, and do better next time.
P.S. I will continue to mess up, to say or do things that I know are hurtful when I’m tired or angry or stressed (or it’s a Tuesday), or to suddenly learn things I’ve been saying or doing for years are hurtful to a group of people I’ve never even thought about. But that is not really the test of character. What we do next is.
Not quoting anyone specifically because 1) It’s too common, and 2) specifically calling someone out who’s said this feels kinda counter-productive. ↩
I tried and failed to come up with an -ist synonym for homophobia. sexualityist? heteronormativist? Nope. Sadness. ↩
A case can be made for the problem of insincere accusations for the purpose of defamation. Sometimes calling stuff out is irrelevant/defamation/libel/slander, but frequently this is overused to dismiss sincere accusations. ↩