Let me start with a revelation.
In my family we don’t really talk politics, in part because a few members are so divided from the whole fights are inevitable, and in a small family, maintaining connections is more important that maintaining your position. This allows everyone to turn a blind eye when something comes up they don’t agree with; a fine idea for preventing bitter arguments but a troublesome one in voicing opinions.
Last night it came to me I have generalized this pattern of behavior to the rest of my life, not all the time, but enough that it caused some soul searching in the twilight hours.
It’s hard to determine a starting point, because I am so angry. So I’ll start with the story. I was sitting with my three roommates last night, shooting the breeze, talking about nothing. All three of my roommates smoke and somehow the discussion turned to how best to buy cigarettes around our area. There is one store down the street known for never carding those coming in to get smokes, as evidenced by frequent sightings of children being sent in by their parents. At some point my (white) friend started doing impressions of an obese African American woman sending her child to buy her cigarettes. His girlfriend then told a story about getting ice cream and seeing a minivan leaning to the side, with a woman “who had already had her share of ice cream, a lifetime supply.” It was at this point she stopped, like a professional comedian giving space for a laugh. It was at this point I removed myself from the conversation.
The last time I had an argument with this particular roommate about race, he ended up screaming at me that he could “let his hair down” with his friends and use racial slurs. He also ended up screaming n****r in the middle of a crowded bar, at which point I was so angry I again removed myself.
Full disclosure – I’m a white female, but I’m still angry when I think about the things being said, and it’s hard to pin down exactly why. At the heart of things, I think it’s because at some point, arguments become moot. I do believe there are some people whose minds cannot be changed. But at what point do you stop arguing? At what point do you wash your hands of someone and say you’re finished trying?
In my head, I was screaming. Screaming about class and how some people use food to cope. Screaming about how family structure differs and how none of my roommates would have blinked at a white child buying whiskey for his father in the 1930s. Screaming about how fat is not the issue. Why does it matter that the mother is fat? It should only matter that she’s using her child in an emotionally abusive way.
You see, calling someone fat is the clincher to almost any argument. I learned this lesson as a child in elementary school, and it’s still true today, probably one of the worst verbal insults to a woman in our culture. And if you add it onto any other argument it seems to reinforce what is said. And dehumanizes who you’re talking about. You’re no longer talking about a woman, you’re talking about a fattie. And that makes this okay. We see the same training and process in war and the military – it’s much easier to kill a gook or a towel head than a man, a husband, a father, a son. It’s much easier to mock and humiliate someone when you stop seeing them as a person and merely as an aspect of themselves.
Is this me not having fun? Me not allowing others to let their hair down? Me being “too politically correct”? I don’t think it is. This is our life, and we live with these people. Practice makes permanent, and the more we practice the language of hate, the easier it will come to our lips. We reduce our own humanity by shaming others. Maybe it’s time to stop leaving the room and start voicing our thoughts.