When I write about personal experiences with sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of bigotry, a common response is: “Wow, you need some new friends! I’m a [insert marginalized identity here] and nobody treats me this way!” (Bonus points for “I don’t let anybody treat me this way!”)
Charitably, I understand where this is coming from. I am seen as a young, possibly naive and vulnerable person who just doesn’t understand that some of the crap I’ve gotten from people isn’t inevitable and not everyone’s going to treat me this way. This well-meaning older person just wants to let me know that I can find better friends who won’t treat me in these crappy ways.
But there are a few wrong assumptions inherent in these statements, such as:
- I am too young and naive to know that I can in fact expect people to treat me better
- I have no people in my life already who treat me better
- I fail to set boundaries and/or kick people out of my life when they treat me poorly
- I need to be reminded that #NotAllPeople are bigoted
- I am writing in order to discuss my personal problems and not broader, systemic problems
Ironically, I’m actually known (among people who actually know me, that is) for being pretty quick to set boundaries and not at all squeamish about ending friendships, relationships, and acquaintanceships in which I don’t feel that I am being treated with the respect I deserve. It’s an approach I advocate pretty freely, because it has set me free: free from shitty relationships, free from friends who passive-aggressively bring me down, free from imbalanced demands for emotional labor, free (mostly) from microaggressions. Obviously not everybody always has the option to just get rid of people who treat them poorly, but when the option is available, I always err on the side of taking it.
In fact, if I didn’t believe that it’s possible for me to be treated well, I wouldn’t be writing articles about how to avoid sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. The fact that I write articles about that kind of implies that I think “better friends” (at the very least) is a reasonable goal for marginalized folks to set for themselves.
Aside from the condescending nature of these comments–I can manage my personal relationships on my own, thanks–they tend to miss the point. If I write an article about men, women, and emotional labor and you respond with “Damn, girl, you need some better dudes in your life!”, you’re missing the point that the problem is not confined to a few crappy dudes I’ve gotten myself tangled up with. Yes, there are better and worse dudes out there, and I generally have the privilege to seek out the better ones, but that doesn’t solve the overall problem of gendered expectations surrounding emotional labor. I can seek out better dudes all I want; that won’t help other women.
You could argue that these responses are inevitable given that I’m sharing personal anecdotes and of course readers would be concerned about my wellbeing. But that’s a catch-22. When people write about bigotry and oppression without including personal anecdotes, readers have difficulty connecting these abstract concepts with concrete experiences that actual human beings have. When we do include personal anecdotes, readers start debating the merits of those anecdotes and giving us unsolicited advice rather than focusing on the actual issue under discussion. You can’t really win.
So I aim for combining the two–discussion of theoretical concepts along with personal anecdotes. Some folks still get caught up on the personal anecdotes and decide that I need help running my social life. Oh well.
Note, though, that when I write about the ways in which sexism, homophobia, ableism, and ageism have impacted my life, I’m not always talking about people who were my actual friends, and I’m not always talking about people who are in my life right now. Anyone I interact with in passing can potentially express bigotry towards me, and despite my relatively young age, I’ve been old enough to have friends and partners for quite a while now. There are a lot of people I used to be close with who are no longer in my life. There are a lot of incidents that I’ve analyzed years after the fact, once I’d developed an understanding of things like sexual assault, and realized were tied to systematic oppression in some way. (For instance, I realized at one point that all of my first sexual experiences as a teenager were nonconsensual. Don’t worry, concerned older readers, I haven’t spoken to that man in years and I’m quite aware that nicer men exist.)
Finally, the “get new friends” response concerns me because it’s so reminiscent of the “not all _____” response, which is weird because it’s usually coming from fellow marginalized folks. Some women think it’s really important to let me know that the men they date aren’t nearly as crappy as the men I’ve dated (by the way, most of the men I’ve dated have been wonderful, but blog posts about how great my exes are seem neither appropriate nor interesting). There’s a self-aggrandizement inherent in that response: “Well, I have a wonderful boyfriend who always does his share of the housework and never mansplains or questions my competence and always makes sure that sex is pleasurable for me too but also totally understands when I don’t feel like having sex that night.” For all that the commenter means to highlight the wonderful man/straight ally/supportive neurotypical friend/etc in their life, they usually come across like they’re trying to brag about their superior friend-finding abilities.
Imagine how hurtful “you need better friends!” would be if that weren’t an option that’s available to me right now. Because sometimes, for some people, it isn’t. Maybe the most they can do is try to gently nudge their existing friends toward a path of lesser bigotry, or do some excellent self-care to minimize the harm of that bigotry. “You need better friends!” is flippant and dismissive in this context. Not everybody gets to design a perfect social circle.
Besides that, we can’t all just platonic-Lysistrata our way out of systematic oppression. Even if all the bigots ended up being friends with each other and the rest of us all got to have wonderful progressive friend groups with absolutely no bigotry, those bigots would still have a disproportionate influence on our society and therefore disproportionate power to oppress us. (Psst: you can’t neatly separate people into categories like “bigot” and “totally not bigot” anyway.) For instance, my friends and I are definitely absolutely not friends with the Republicans in our state legislature, and yet look.
Some people choose to cut bigoted people out of their lives. Other people choose to keep them around and try to make them better. Most people choose on a case-by-case basis. Regardless, “just get new friends” isn’t an appropriate response to someone sharing their experiences with bigotry. As uncomfortable as it can be to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t just swoop in and fix someone’s problems for them, it’s necessary.
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