Extending the benefit of the doubt

As a young(er) person who was broadly quite accepting of the notion of a non-racist Canada (or a post-racial society in general), it was deeply disappointing to gradually become more aware that the way I saw myself didn’t mesh with how others saw me. To be sure, nobody is perceived by others the way they perceive themselves, but the fact of being judged as deficient because of something that I took some pride in was decidedly unfair. To be denigrated according to a deeply inaccurate and unjust bundle of ideas that have formed about blackness was, at least at first, a profoundly painful betrayal of a society and people in whom I had placed a great deal of confidence.

As I began to become more aware of the ‘background radiation’ of racism in our society, I realized that just maybe everyone else was as ignorant of what was going on as I was. I thought that by talking about it, by educating people about my experience, that our shared desire to see racism eradicated from our society would motivate us to make improvements and to listen to the experiences of those who have so often been on the receiving end. I thought that it would be a simple fix – those who didn’t see racism because it wasn’t relevant to their lived experiences would say “this is new information that I wasn’t aware of before. Now that I know this, I can incorporate that into my new understanding.”

Yeah… that didn’t exactly work.

Instead, what I got was a strong pushback from people who were seemingly ready to affirm on a stack of holy writ that I was just “race baiting” – introducing race into conversations where it wasn’t relevant. That I was griping about slavery. That I was just too ‘angry’ to see past my own biases. That I was just trying to weasel cookies out of people’s white guilt. That I was dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy, ignorant… the list goes on.

I also encountered people who relied on a seemingly coded language. They would begin an argument on seemingly-innocuous grounds where there would be broad agreement from most reasonable people, and then through a series of ever-widening logical holes would steer the conversation towards their real position – that the victims of racism deserved what they got for one or more of a variety of reasons: laziness, cultural deficiency, an entitlement ethos, biological inferiority, lack of ‘personal responsibility’… again, a long list.

Perhaps most frustrating were the people who claimed to be, or otherwise seemed to be, allies in the struggle against racism who nevertheless made statements reminiscent of those in the first two groups. In their own frustration and difficulty accepting the realities of racism, a situation further coloured by the fact that they themselves had never needed to confront racism in a personal way, they fell into the same cognitive traps that made the race-baiting-accusers and the coded-linguists so galling. It was based on the tacit acceptance of a handful of unwarranted assumptions about members of minority groups who talk about race, or about the groups themselves.

And so, over a number of years and bruised friendships and self-recriminations over al of the racist statements I let slide because I was “picking my battles”, my skill at detecting racist sentiments grew. I knew, within a couple of sentences, where a coded or dismissive line of reasoning was going – often before the speaker hirself knew that there was any racial component to hir speech. I could rattle off refutations and dig my heels in on things that seemed innocent enough, but that I knew were the first baby-steps toward victim blaming and racial attack. I began to see the racial elements of things that even I hadn’t considered relevant before. It was like a goddamn Spidey sense.

This wasn’t, however, the same thing as developing a skill set to gain some kind of advantage in blogging or in winning arguments or seeming erudite on internet comment threads. For me, like so many racialized behaviours that I developed over the years, it was about survival. I couldn’t afford to accommodate where those conversations were going, because at the end of the conversation came an attack on me. I couldn’t afford to accept the accusation of ‘race baiting’, because it meant that the next time that person was confronted with a racial issue, they’d use my tacit approval as a loophole to escape confronting their own flawed cognition. I couldn’t afford to let my friends make racist arguments out of benign ignorance, because ultimately the chickens of their ignorance would come home to roost on either my head or the head of another person of colour, maybe not through active oppression, but through the propagation of a racist system that is built on axioms never uttered aloud, but acted upon with impunity.

My story is not unique. People of colour, LGBT folks, women, anyone on the lower side of a power divide have developed this kind of reflexive ESP for dehumanizing statements. They (we) have learned to navigate the waters of these discussions after years of failure. We’ve put in hours, many of them against our will, battling the forces of oppression and the selective blindness of privilege in our day-to-day lives. We have to. Failure to develop these skills means getting washed away in the undertow of those waters when the tide of public opinion turns against us.

People who have complained to me about feeling “ganged up on” or “bullied” when entering into minority spaces, often with seemingly-benign intentions, therefore get little sympathy from me. After all, there’s the obvious issue of separating the honest confused from the willful abusive, but even allowing for that I don’t find such appeals for “the benefit of the doubt” persuasive. Extending the benefit of the doubt to everyone who doesn’t saunter into a conversation wearing a “bigot” badge means that members of minority groups are being asked to unlearn what they (we) have learned – to forget that our emotional and psychological survival sometimes depends on early detection and rapid response. The world that forges us does not often give us the ‘benefit of the doubt’ when talking about our own stories, and more often than not punishes us for speaking up.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


  1. baal says

    Having foreclosed ‘benefit of the doubt’ do you also foreclose
    Tauriq Moosa’s concept of charity in discussion? They seem very closely related (if not entirely overlapped). Alternatively, I’ve missed the point here somewhat and the contexts are not the same (though I’m not sure how other than you’re being essentially descriptive here and he’s being proscriptive).

  2. mythbri says

    In this context, extending the benefit of the doubt to people from privileged groups who comment or intrude on discussions of issues faced by people of less privileged groups is like a “cookie”. There are some people who say “I’m totally on your side, BUT…” and expect that the cookie they get for “being on your side” should excuse whatever comes after the “BUT”, no matter how hurtful it is.

    Pleading ignorance can only get you so far. You have to show that you’re doing something about that ignorance, or you haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt for yourself.

    There are issues that face less privileged groups that I don’t belong to. I deserve no cookies from them. I don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt if I say something stupid, although they’re generous if they choose to extend it to me. My role in those discussion is less in participating than it is to combat my own ignorance.

  3. Rabidtreeweasel says

    I would say yes, charity can be the same idea as giving the benefit of the doubt, but it is not always the same. For example, if one is being charitable when a child asks, “Why are you so fat?”, one is aware that the person speaking to them is a child, has no reason to know what they’re saying is inappropriate, and in turn treats the question charitably. In that case it is a learning opportunity.

    With people who should know better it is decidedly different. There are some ideas that are rightfully met with scorn or derision, like the idea that PoC are lazy or that all immigrants are living off social security. There are certain facts or statistics, often times skewed or taken out of context or from old/disproved studies, that are used to support such claims or to derail conversations about issues affecting the minorities such claims pertain to. Often times these claims have already been addressed elsewhere or within that conversation, so when they are repeated they are assumed to be drive by posts.

    Should such posts be treated charitably or given the benefit of the doubt? What if they really are “just asking questions?” If we respond harshly, are we bullying and “no better” than the other side?

    I say, No. If you are coming into a space dedicated to particular subject then it is your responsibility to do your homework first. If you have questions, the questions should be regarding information you already have and should demonstrate you’ve read any FAQs available on that forum or blog and from other sources as well so that your ideas are well rounded. Not, “I heard,” or, “It’s been said,” or, “common sense tells us.” If it’s a claim that you are curious about and want to discuss, you should read as much information as possible on it. You should not expect others who have done the hard work to spoon feed you the information, especially not in a community where more often than not the person who is JAQing is not actually interested in the answers.

    In the case where someone is not presenting data but are presenting themselves as curious regarding drama they’d heard about elsewhere that’s brought them into the discussion, benefit of the doubt or charity might be suspended depending on how they enter the conversation. If they jump in, assert something they heard or read elsewhere as fact in a manner that demonstrates they haven’t gotten all the facts then it is perfectly fair and reasonable to assume that they are not interested in having a conversation. If it’s an issue that’s been discussed before and explained elsewhere, or an event that’s been revisited and gone over but is being brought up again months later as to why Them Bitches Ain’t Shit,” or regards someone who has already lost the privilege to expect a charitable interpretation due to their past actions, then the responders are certainly within their rights to write that person off.

    But there is that (in my experience) rare percentage of people who really are just curious, who think they are bringing up a valid point which has been bolstered by society their entire lives and are shocked to find themselves in a space where they are being told what they always believed to be green is actually purple. That’s why I like links to places like Feminism 101. It’s an easy link to provide and gives them a jumping off point and if they are really interested they’ll go read it. If they ignore the offered links, change the subject, or start rattling off why the links offered are sockpuppets or hives or filled with nazi propaganda, then they’ve identified themselves as trolls. Either way, the links have done all the work and the time and resources of the posters or blog owners have not been wasted.

  4. Rabidtreeweasel says

    I should note that when I say “You” here I don’t mean “You, Baal,” but the general You. “They” would have been more apt on my part.

  5. smhll says

    People who have complained to me about feeling “ganged up on” or “bullied” when entering into minority spaces,

    There’s a sinking feeling that people get when they realize they aren’t “one of the gang” and they suddenly don’t have the advantages that come from always being in the majority, or at least in the dominant mainstream. It’s a kind of a privilege if prevailing culture normally has your back, and you only lose that privilege if you particpate in very concentrated pockets of subculture. (Where “sub” is not intended to have a negative connotation.)

  6. flex says

    Crommunist wrote,

    there’s the obvious issue of separating the honest confused from the willful abusive,….

    I think that this is the interesting point.

    I don’t think that anyone has to be given the ‘benefit of the doubt’ by default. In fact, I suspect that the very phrase, which is ostensibly a call for civility, has a power dynamic.

    When an unknown person makes a comment which is unintentionally sexist or racist, there are several possible reactions to call them out on it. The most common, regrettably, appears to be doing nothing at all. However, the next most common reaction is generally one of, ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’.

    This is the same whether the individual is honestly confused or willfully abusive. Only after the first prejudice check is made can you even tell if the person is honestly unaware that their remark was a reflection of the prejudices of society or an idiot who has not only absorbed the prejudices but defends them.

    Neither of these people are given the ‘benefit of the doubt’. They are treated the same until they show which path they want to take.

    Now there are some places where the reaction is a bit more aggressive than ‘Hey, that remark shows intolerance, did you really mean it?’ Yet, most of the places where you get your ass handed to you for a inadvertent (or deliberate) remark are pretty obviously places (to most people) where these remarks are not tolerated. But even in places where the normal response to a racist or sexist remark is, ‘Stop saying such things or get the hell out.’ there is no difference in the reaction toward an honestly confused person and a willfully abusive one.

    In this situation no one got the ‘benefit of the doubt’. But at the same time, no one was treated differently either.

    So you don’t give the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to separate the honestly confused from the willfully abusive. You treat them both the same and it rapidly becomes clear, from their reactions, how to distinguish between them.

    In my experience, giving someone the ‘benefit of the doubt’ is an excuse to not point out egregious behavior. That is, the person just displayed a prejudicial opinion, but they are a [choose appropriate] nice person/friend/unknown person/supervisor and I don’t really want to get involved in an argument, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t really mean (or know) what they said.

    This is different than calling for charity in discussion because charity is about giving someone the time and ability to clarify their ideas. Giving someone the ‘benefit of the doubt’ about a topic usually is about neglecting to pursue the topic, for various reasons.

  7. says

    “Benefit of the doubt” is earned, not given freely. The demands for “benefit of the doubt” in the sorts of discussions we’re talking about are usually an expression/assertion of privilege. Nobody has a right to come into someone else’s space and demand that their viewpoint be given a platform. If you’re entering a minority space from a position of privilege and expect that from the first moment people owe you something, you’re already on the wrong foot and you are earning a negative reaction with your attitude. And when someone checks you, if you automatically go into defensive victim mode… well. You’re done. You’re being an entitled jerk and you should leave.

    And if you think that everyone is wrong except you? You should STILL leave, and don’t look back. That’s not a space for you, and you’re definitely being an entitled jerk if you think all spaces should accommodate you, rather than you either change yourself or stay out of some spaces.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    Here’s something that troubles me. If I, as a privileged white male, have dealings with another white male who treats me shabbily, then I’m able to deduce that I’m getting shabby treatment simply because the person I’m dealing with is a jerk. But if you’re standing right behind me in line, and get the same identical treatment that I get, how are you going to be able to figure out whether this person is simply being a jerk to you, or whether he is behaving this way out of racism? If I try to put myself into your shoes, I can’t see how your “spider sense” is able to separate the genuine racism (which I won’t deny is definitely out there) with the amount of race-independent jerkishness that exists in the world.

    From talking to plenty of people of color, I have no problem accepting that there’s far more racism prevalent in the world than I’m readily able to perceive. But it also seems to me quite likely that, for the reason given above, a lot of what might be attributed to racism by people of color might not be.

    I’d even go a step further and say that, if we privileged assume there’s MORE racism than we think there is, and less-privileged people assume there’s LESS, then the world would be a better place. Comments?

  9. mynameischeese says

    “‘background radiation’ of racism in our society”

    Nice turn-of-phrase. Good to see you bringing the message to the physics crowd.

  10. says

    Yeah… you might want to thinking really really hard about this:

    I’d even go a step further and say that, if we privileged assume there’s MORE racism than we think there is, and less-privileged people assume there’s LESS, then the world would be a better place.

    I’m sure that if you put your mind to it, you can figure out where you went wrong.

  11. Rabidtreeweasel says

    It is, at least in part, different in the recourse available to you. Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, all the ‘ism’s are not just present in the types of insults and assaults that occur, but in the rights and cultural bias applied to the people involved. And, as you noted, there are also types of aggression which you might not perceive, such as micro-aggression.

    Often times, in my experience, the aggressor isn’t aware of it themselves. They only know when they use behavior A, they get response B, and response B is desirable. In general I can tell when someone is treating me in a manner that is misogynistic, but that’s because I have experienced it enough to distinguish it. It’s not just that someone is trying to shut me down or is “being a jerk” but it’s how they are doing it. It’s not that, “They’re being rude to me just because I’m a girl,” but, “they’re being rude to me in this particular way because I’m a girl and they think they can get away with it.” This puts me in the uncomfortable position of either pointing it out the other person and risk suffering further abuse or silently swallow a bit more of my self esteem and bite my tongue.

    Often times I’d be hard pressed to spell it out for the observer exactly what is offensive in the case of a micro-aggression because the behavior is endemic. There is a lot to unpack and often times, when the person on the receiving end attempts to unpack it, they are greeted with more hostility or with disbelief. This type of gaslighting makes expressing oneself very difficult, and as with the aggressive behavior, is a symptom of a misogynistic system we all operate within. Once a behavior is identified by the person on the receiving end as objectionable, and the other party gets defensive, that’s a good indication your dealing with someone taking advantage of the system.

  12. smhll says

    It’s pretty awesome that when someone treats you poorly in a customer service environment that the interaction is between one individual and another individual. It’s nice to be seen as an individual. Not everyone gets quite this kind of individualized treatment.

    (The discrimination pattern detector will sometimes ping off of cliches and slur words. Those can be pretty obvious.)

  13. sharoncrawford says

    “complained to me about feeling “ganged up on” or “bullied” when entering into minority spaces”

    Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to me. Maybe it’s because when I enter someone else’s “space” I shut the fuck up and listen. If it’s a group of spaniel owners, I speak up because I actually know something about spaniels. If it’s a forum of black people talking about the experience of being black, I keep quiet because I don’t know what it’s like being black. You can learn a lot that way. I also frequent some LGBT and feminist blogs. On LGBT and black blogs, I pretty much limit myself to brief messages of support. If something is said that I don’t understand, there’s a wonderful tool called “Google” that will look it up for you.

    I have learned a great deal about privilege from the things I’ve read on the internet. A subject I thought I understood but about which I actually knew NOTHING. Someone who suddenly appears and thrusts themselves ignorantly into the discussion is not entitled to the “benefit of the doubt.” These people will eventually sap your will to live. One exception — they start out by saying “I’m eleven years old and….”

  14. manuel moegarcia says

    “complained to me about feeling “ganged up on” or “bullied” when entering into minority spaces”

    This is a great point, very well expressed in this post. If a person cannot bear to do without “the benefit of the doubt” they may not be able to enter minority spaces or help minorities, regardless of their own opinion of their good will toward minorities. Demanding the “benefit of the doubt” from minority spaces may be asking the marginalized to give more than they can bear, because they are marginalized.

    sharoncrawford #9 and Improbable Joe #5 elaborate helpfully.

  15. Steve Schuler says

    Changing only two words in Improbable Joe’s screed yields this result:

    “Benefit of the doubt” is earned, not given freely. The demands for “benefit of the doubt” in the sorts of discussions we’re talking about are usually an expression/assertion of entitlement. Nobody has a right to come into someone else’s space and demand that their viewpoint be given a platform. If you’re entering a majority space with an attitude of entitlement and expect that from the first moment people owe you something, you’re already on the wrong foot and you are earning a negative reaction with your attitude. And when someone checks you, if you automatically go into defensive victim mode… well. You’re done. You’re being an entitled jerk and you should leave.

    And if you think that everyone is wrong except you? You should STILL leave, and don’t look back. That’s not a space for you, and you’re definitely being an entitled jerk if you think all spaces should accommodate you, rather than you either change yourself or stay out of some spaces.

    So it seems that by employing the same rationale, justifications, and conclusions (in an only slightly altered context) that this perspective provides support for what most of us would consider the maintenance of a racist status quo. I think that this is somewhat problematic and helps to illustrate the trouble with establishing double, or multiple, standards for what constitutes fair and equitable consideration and treatment of individuals regardless of the color of their skin. I’m looking at this in the light of racial concerns, but I think that it is similarly applicable to other categories of differentiation.

    To the point, I do not think that “extending the benefit of the doubt” should only be a one-way street in our relationships if we expect to make any real progress towards a more equitable society.

  16. Pteryxx says

    Except you didn’t change the “context”. By changing the word “minority” to “majority” you changed the entire meaning as if you’d flipped a sign from + to -. Expecting the majority space to take precedence over the minority IS racism – and you just created a racist statement. Congratulations, you demonstrated a tautology.

    In fact, you recreated the “color blind” fallacy – that if everyone just pretends racism doesn’t exist, it’ll vanish. That won’t work because most racism is unconscious and has to be actively corrected.


  17. Steve Schuler says

    Actually, Pteryxx, as someone who has been the actual recipient (victim if you prefer) of racially motivated violence, I think that I may have an experientially informed understanding of how fluid ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ statuses are and how they play out with ill consequence in the real world.

    In one moment or instance an individual may enjoy majority ‘privilege’, cross the street (in a manner of speaking, although sometimes literally) and suddenly that same person has entered into a social environment in which they now represent a minority and find themselves bereft of ‘privilege’. ‘Context’ is much more dynamic and less fixed than some proponents of Identiy Political Theory seem to maintain, although I am not sure that you would agree with me on that point.

    I can personally attest that being on the receiving end of racial hatred is not a desirable thing. I wish it upon no one, hence my anti-racist principles and position. On the other hand, I am not so naive and inexperienced as to believe that racism, and all of the ugliness and brutality associated with it, can only be embraced by members of the overall majority in any particular society. Racism is brutal regardless of the social status or race of it’s adherents and practitioners.

  18. says

    I doubt the sincerity of your entire proposition, starting with referring to what I wrote as a “screed”, and then pulling the “reverse racism” nonsense. Then you finish up by putting the burden on the victims of bigotry to make things easier for their abusers.

    And, since I don’t know you, why should I believe that you’re not being intentionally provocative? What have you ever done to earn the benefit of the doubt with me, that I shouldn’t just take your statements at face value and judge them negatively? Why do you demand something you haven’t earned?

  19. karmakin says

    That is the goal though, isn’t it?

    What I mean is that the goal of all this should be to remove all those patterns that people unconsciously act upon (conscious stuff being an entire different ball of wax), or at least minimize them as much as we can.

    I don’t think we’re there yet, of course. I think we’re closer than we were 15, 20 years ago, and we’re certainly closer than we were 50 years ago.

  20. Steve Schuler says

    Likewise, Joe, I do not know you and for all that I really know you may have very well been ‘Poeing’ when you wrote what I think I fairly described as a ‘screed’ (“a ranting piece of writing”) that served as an almost perfect model to modify very slightly in order to illustrate the mistaken nature of your perspective, amd possibly Ian’s. But I have extended the benefit of the doubt and trust that you were writing what you sincerely believe.

    Basically by changing essentially two words in your comment, majority to minority and privilege to entitlement, clearly exposed the weakness of your perspective. I mean, by what reasonable standards would one expect that a person’s status alone as either belonging to a social minority or majority would warrant entirely different (and even opposite) expectations, respect, and and even treatment?

    In so far as intent to be provocative, of course, depends on how you define or use the term ‘provocative’. If by provocative you mean something like “meant to elicit an emotional response”, then no, my response to your comment was not intended to accomplish that end. However if one takes it to mean “intended to stimulate further thought or discussion”, then yes, my comment was intended to be proocative.

    Reverse racism? I’m not even sure what that looks like as I don’t regard racism as being a phenomenon that can only involve thoughts and expressions of racial bigotry by a member of a majority racial group upon persons of a minority racial group. I do gather that some people do define it that way but, of course, they are wrong. 🙂

    Also, Joe, I have very little concern whether or not you trust, respect, or admire me as those are all considerations for you alone to make. Finally, I find myself unclear as to just what you perceive me as having “demanded” from you that I have not “earned”, but that is of little concern to me as well and I would not want you to trouble yourself to expand on that notion.

  21. says

    The analogy doesn’t work because majority and minority spaces are not analogous. Majority spaces are the spaces in which decisions that affect everyone are made. As long as that’s the case, everyone is entitled to participation in those spaces as part of their right to self-determination.

  22. Steve Schuler says

    Stephanie, my old pal, at long last we finally find ourselves in conversation, albeit not on your blog! I gather that I have graduated from a state of permanent moderation to now being officially banned. All for the better, I believe, so a thanks to you would be appropriate, don’t you think?

    I find it interesting that you distinguish apparently different roles, functions, and rules that you think ought to apply to majority and minority ‘spaces’, although I’m sure that would require much more elucidation than your brief comment affords to more fully appreciate. I think that it worthwhile that we bear in mind how fluid one’s identity as either a member of some majority group or minority group is, as I have pointed out above, since those roles are very context oriented and that they can, and do, change very quickly depending on the social situation one finds themselves in. Is it reasonable, then, to expect that any individual ought to be subjected to different respect and treatment on the basis of their race (considering the social criterion we are here discussing) than one would afford to anyone else without regard to race? I think not, which is why I think that generally ‘the benefit of the doubt’ is better extended to all people without regard for social status of the recipient than it be afforded to people selectively on the basis of their membership in some broad scheme of social differentiation.

    I think this is where I find myself in disagreement with Ian, who I do not think is a blindered ideologue as well as you, who I do consider to be a blindered ideologue.

  23. says

    Steve, I’m not your “old pal”. You’re a slimy creep who gets “satisfaction” out of pretending we have some kind of relationship, and I am the person who gave everyone the information to keep the same from happening to them and to report you to your ISP if you keep it up. Time to behave.

    The only part of your actual “argument” that has any relationship to what I said is you being all incredulous about the idea that global decision-making happens in majority spaces. Given that this is one of those facts of political life that is so widely understood as to be nearly a truism, I’ll just let that stand as is. If you have something to say that amounts to more than, “Whaaaaaaa?”, go ahead and post it.

  24. says

    So Stephanie… you’re saying that Steve Schuler is actually 100% making my point for me about how people you don’t know don’t deserve to get the benefit of the doubt? Because it would have been totally clever if Steve had turned out to be a decent person making an accidentally bad argument, rather than a known negative quantity making a thinly-veiled racist argument.

  25. says

    At this point I will chime in to remind folks of my non-official ‘policy’ of asking people not to let history from other blogs leak over into mine. Steve – the fact that you’ve been enough of a tool to get moderated/banned at Stephanie’s blog has no relevance to this discussion.

  26. says

    Well, Joe, it’s not as though there wasn’t already plenty of evidence, with that whole decontextualized “racially motivated violence” and the blind eye continually turned to the idea that these individual spaces exist in a larger society.

  27. Steve Schuler says

    Stephanie, my not old pal, should I be surprised that my glaringly obvious sardonic reference to you being my ‘old pal’, in light of my subsequent reference to being ban-hammered completely out of your cyber-world (which I think that I fully deserved and I am confident that I would have done the same if I were you which, thank God Hisself, I am not) could somehow escape your steel-trap and otherwise highly nuance-sensitive mind that I expected it to be taken seriously by anyone in an attempt to feign that we have any kind of relationship other than an acrimonious one? Give me a break, Stephanie.

    Not to mention (Woops, too late now!) your pathetic display of ‘power’ by informing me that you have made my ISP known to ‘The Others’ (would that be through the highly secretive and mysterious Back Channel that I occasionally see references to) to warn them of my malevolent presence as if anybody with the least bit of personal integrity or self respect would give a flying flip what micro-influence you might possibly have on someone’s life? Well, now that I think of it, you did start that petition against Justin Vacula, so perhaps you really someone who should be feared, if not respected.

    No, Joe the Improbable One, I am decidely not a card carrying meber of ‘The Party’ and have an earned reputation (apparently)of being a ‘known dissident’ and my best recommendation to you is to continue to follow your leaders, as I think that they will most likely take you where you would like to go. Plus, as an after thought, I think that the brown ring around your nose is really quite becoming of you.

    Now, I am quite sure that if I took myself as seriously as the both of you appear to take yourselves, this little exchange would be taken by me as something of some significance. I can assure you that I don’t and that it hasn’t.

    Ian, my sincere apologies to you for having had this regrettable conversation, such as it has been, on your blog and will refrain from further comment here.

  28. says

    Well, this has absolutely been a demonstration of that “people of colour, LGBT folks, women, anyone on the lower side of a power divide have developed this kind of reflexive ESP for dehumanizing statements” concept.

  29. tariqata says

    Speaking as a fairly privileged person who has been in a position where I know some of my actions have been perceived as expressions of racism, I strongly disagree. It seems to me that more-privileged people asking less-privileged people to assume that there’s LESS racism* than they imagine is a lot like asking them to ignore the evidence of their own eyes for the benefit of those with more privilege – something that could potentially expose those with less to unpleasant, uncomfortable, and dangerous situations as a result. Meanwhile, asking more-privileged people to assume that there’s MORE racism in the world than they can perceive, while not a bad thing, doesn’t go nearly far enough. What those of us who are privileged need to do is think carefully about our own words and actions, try to understand how they are going to be perceived by those who are less privileged by actively listening, and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

    *Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

  30. Steve Schuler says

    I actually am trying to refrain from further comment, but this is simply too rich to resist.

    You know, I could be entirely wrong but when self-professed skeptics begin to believe in and to rely upon “spidey sense” and “reflexive ESP” to discern reality I have the suspicion that they may have slipped into the Land of Woo without even realizing it.

    On the other hand, with no real reason that might support the notion that I am possibly a “thinly veiled racist”, I find it somewhat amazing that my stealth mode as an undercover racist was so easily detected and penetrated that it does make me wonder if there might not really be something to this “spidey sense” and “reflexive ESP” hokum. I’m tellin’ ya, the skeptical racists that I hang out with are going to be absolutely amazed when they hear about this, doncha know?

    I know, I know, I really had to swallow my pride to not stick with my flounce but like I already said, this was simply too rich to resist.

  31. Steve Schuler says

    So, would you care to lend a bit of rational support to your notions of “spidey sense” and “reflexive ESP” as reliable means of detecting racism. Somehow I think not, although that is apparently the means by which you have may have identified me as such, but of course I could be wrong about that as well. It could be something less mystical in nature, like maybe, not agreeing with you?

    What a laugh! And if you know me, which you don’t, I do love a good laugh.

  32. says

    Well a) I didn’t identify you as anything, let alone “racism” (your sentence doesn’t parse well), and b) if you care to read the post you’re commenting on, you’ll see that experience in racial conversations throughout my life has given me a pretty good read on the axioms underlying many statements that might seem innocuous, but which end up blaming the victims of racism for their oppression.

    So yes, entirely wrong. Also dickish.

  33. Steve Schuler says

    What, me being dickish?

    Well, I’ve got to cop to that.

    But the sum total of your response to my thinking is that I’m a dickish tool (that might be a “slimy jerk” as well based on Stephanie’s assessment of me) who is entirely wrong.

    So let me ask you straight up, do you think that I am a racist?

  34. says

    I don’t use the phrase “a racist” – I think it’s inaccurate and lays the blame in entirely the wrong direction. Everyone has occasional racist beliefs, and everyone has different levels of skill in recognizing their own bigotries. I know I’m suspectible to the same racist ideas that comprise our culture, I’ve just learned to identify those thoughts when they crop up in my thinking, and to scrutinize my behaviour. That doesn’t make me “not a racist”, it just means I try my best to be anti-racist.

    What Improbable Joe and Stephanie are probably picking up in your original comment is your false equivalence of the power dynamics in majority and minority spaces, based on your contention that because those dynamics are contexually-derived and fluid they are therefore evenly exchangable in the way you attempt to illustrate. That line of argumentation is often used to deny the existence of privilege by saying that since there are circumstances in which an individual may not possess group privilege, and since groups are made up of individuals, therefore groups do not have privilege. The next step of that argument is usually to attempt to re-define the entire world by casting racial inequalities as therefore justified (if white people don’t have privilege, then there must be SOME explanation of why they’re at the top of the heap…), which then gives way to victim blaming.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t see anything “reverse racist” in your reply – it seems like you were just saying that you’ve been the victim of racial abuse even though you were a member of the majority. That doesn’t make you “a racist”, it just means your understanding of how privilege works is less than full.

  35. Steve Schuler says

    Wow Ian, I am truly touched and impressed and want to thank you for your reponse!

    I honestly thought that you might not (probably not, in fact)respond to my last comment. I mean, after all, it is YOUR blog and I do not think that blog owners are necessarily obligated to respond to their commenters, particularly those who may have pissed them off, and I think that I probably earned a place in that category. As soon as I punched the submit button I realized that I had really asked an impossible question to answer by you in asking if you thought I was a racist, it was certainly not premeditated as such, though.

    Yes, I did realize that to make the comparison that I made using Joe’s comment as a template does constitute a false equivalency in a strict sense, although I do think that it had some merit for pointing out the potential for an overreactive compensatory zeal, which I did perceive in Joe’s comment. I suppose that is why it stood out to me and immediately struck me as a potentially effective device that I only had to tweak slightly to make, what I think at least, was a valid point. While being aware of some of the shortcomings of my ‘model’, I was also aware that I was not acknowledging or addressing the larger societal problem of White Racism, which I do not deny and could provide plenty of anecdotal evidence to support. I agree that while there are many dynamics involved in our individual experiences with race and racism that there are also overarching social structures that do have a profound influence on most individuals opportunities for equity, and that those opportunities are also often made available on the basis of class, race, gender, etc…

    Yes, I would have to agree that my understanding of how privilege works IS less than full, but, and no offense intended (honestly), I am not so sure that your understanding of how privilege works is quite so full as you may think that it is. I’ve only followed your blog somewhat intermittently for the last year or so and do not think that I have enough information to make that determination het, if ever…

    Being the product of a lower income, blue collar family and environment, I am proud to say (tonque in cheek) that I have managed in the course of my life to maintain that social status. A victim of classism? I honestly do not think that I am, but that is a whole other story.

    I hold no illusion that we live a post racial society, a reality that I think will require the ongoing dedicated effort of people of all races if we have any hope of realizing that goal someday.

    I suppose I’ve babbled on enough here and can only hope that I have communicated something worthwhile to you. Thanks again for your response to me.

  36. says

    Class and race are variables that heavily overlap, and when viewed from a certain perspective they can seem to be almost synonymous. The best way I’ve found to understand the dynamics is to think of regression models, where if you can keep all other things equal, look at how changes in one value affect your overall estimate. So, for example, is it the case that low-income black men have the same obstacles to accessing education, justice, opportunity that low-income white men do? It would be difficult indeed to make the argument that I (middle-income black man) have a lower aggregated “privilege” basket than a white man who is facing poverty conditions, but that’s not a relevant question. Nobody (I would hope, at least) would deny the abundant reality that income/class stratifies privilege immensely. Rather, I would imagine that people make the argument that class is just one of many variables that need to be considered.

    At any rate, I imagine this is a conversation we will continue to have over time.

  37. ThoughtfulOne says

    “Extending the benefit of the doubt” means different things in different contexts.

    If someone says a clear and outright sexist, racist, classist remark, or remark biased in any other offensive way, the prima facie assumption is that the person fully meant to be offensive. He/she does not deserve the “benefit of the doubt”. So go right ahead and call out the person by whatever means you feel appropriate. The same thing goes for whatever statements are “based on the tacit acceptance of a handful of unwarranted assumptions about members of minority groups who talk about race, or about the groups themselves”. I assume this is the context in which you mean it.

    However, this presumption is not absolute, but rebuttable. It is analogous to an affirmative defense being raised for someone charged with a crime. In this case, if the person backs down, fully admits to being offensive and apologizes for it, in that case, yes I would say he/she deserves the “benefit of the doubt” since there is now positive evidence in favor for it.

  38. Pitchguest says

    The concept of ‘benefit of the doubt’ as a courtesy usually extends to people you don’t know because you don’t know them. You can’t judge them either way you slice it. So if we’re to elaborate on the FTB concept of ‘benefit of the doubt’, it is to assume that anyone you don’t know is something (awful) until proven otherwise, throwing away the accepted ‘innocent until proven guilty’ rule of thumb. None of you can see the problem with this kind of thinking? Surely you jest when you say that extending the benefit of the doubt to people you don’t know is a matter of privilege?

  39. says

    I especially like your last suggestion… Provide link to remedial instruction on the matter at hand, where the commentor’s decision to go or not go to the link provides all the info you need to progress. I’ve seen this tried when arguing with creationists. It separates the honest questioners from the dishonest ones (hint, they’re ALL dishonst)

  40. says

    very prettily said! Once you recognize your own privilege, you have new information about yourself and others in the world, AND you become responsible to that information.

  41. Rabidtreeweasel says

    Absolutely. I would hope that’s something we can all agree on. Learning is an ongoing process. I would be careful to watch for non-pologies. If someone is unwilling to modify their behavior then they aren’t really sorry, they’re just trying to get you to stop talking.

  42. says

    Exactly! I’m privileged, I showed up for ‘class’ and did the fucking homework assignment. Other privileged people… You have no excuse. Benefit of the doubt my arse. The whole ‘just asking questions’ trope is just a way to start picking a fight… When do these 101ers ever NOT double down when the shit is explained to them? I’m sure minorities would LOVE to answer those kinds of questions if most of the time the response they got was… “Holy shit! I never realized…”. Thing is? It ain’t. there’s never any learning down that avenue. (and by never, I mean pretty much almost never). I mean, kudos to those who have the patience to engage them, but for those who refuse to… Absolutely, i get it…

  43. says

    Ugh. This argument never gets un-stupid.

    A) This isn’t “the FTB concept”. This is the way I approach conversations, based on a lifetime of seeing the consequences of what happens when you unilaterally give everyone the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to use it, but I thought just maybe people would appreciate an explanation of what is going on in MY head when I interact with people.

    B) “Innocent until proven guilty” is a LEGAL MAXIM! Holy fuck! How do people not get this? It’s the same turds who call out “freedom of speech!” every time someone points out that they’re being an asshole. That’s not what it means, that’s not where it applies, and believe it or not, I EXPLAIN WHY IT’S NOT THAT WAY IN THE POST YOU’RE COMMENTING ON!

    Mother fuck, people are stupid.

  44. says

    You left out the part where the person under discussion says something that causes people to make a judgment. What you’ve done is disappear the context to make it seem like we are doing something different from what is actually being done.

  45. John Horstman says

    Well, 101ers don’t double-down in the cases that they actually are just ignorant and really do want to be better. I was there once upon a time with respect to to any number of feminist, marginalized-sexuality, trans, racial, and global/cultural issues about which I’ve since learned a lot more, thanks to years of classes, conversations, listening, reading, etc. (I’m certainly still there with respect to many more issues – one of the pernicious effects of cultural privilege is that it so often makes those on the privileged side of the divide blind to its effects). Of course, that’s rather the point: I’ve done years of reading and taken classes and had conversations and listened in order to learn more, and one of the things I’ve learned is that spouting off about some idea on which I only have my own experience to draw as information is a really bad idea.

    I think it requires a desire to develop better models of how the world works or a desire to learn as much knowledge as possible. So many people feel WAY out of their comfort zones when their assumptions or universalized/naturalized/essentialized experiences are challenged, and they’re likely just looking to have their understanding of the status quo reinforced or validated. Even then, it can sometimes be valuable to engage, because just knowing a different perspective is possible can occasionally plant the seeds of doubt that can grow to an awareness that an idea or perspective taken for granted isn’t a universal truth. I’m watching this process in my Queer Literature course (it’s not actually a 101 course, but classes like it are actually appropriate venues for 101-type questions) right now, and it’s really pretty cool.

  46. Vicki says

    And how about if privileged people try being the ones to extend the benefit of the doubt? Not dive in assuming that the person who is pointing out problems is “hostile” or “oversensitive” or hasn’t thought things through.

    In my case, that means extending the benefit of the doubt if I am bothered by something a person of color says about race. It means men should try extending that benefit of the doubt, that assumption of good intentions, to women on questions of sexism. Cisgendered people should give trans* people the benefit of the doubt. Able-bodied people should give disabled people the benefit of the doubt about their own experience, not assert that “it can’t be that bad.” And so on.

    I don’t see a lot of calls for that.

  47. Pitchguest says

    A) Yeah, I fired off ‘FTB concept’ half-cocked. However, lots of talks about not extending the benefit of the doubt across the board here at FTB — and over at A+theism — so maybe you can forgive my confusion. In any case, my bad.

    B) You say you’ve learned not to extend the benefit of the doubt to people because of the way you’ve been treated, how you’ve developed a sort of a ‘Spidey sense’ to detect and/or otherwise know when in a discussion that implicates racism. So if we’re to take your example of white persons entering a minority space (your words, not mine), you don’t feel sympathy for them feeling “ganged up upon” as there’s the obvious issue of seperating the abusive from the honest. You don’t see the moral relativism with this kind of reasoning?

    Then you go off and say that willing to extend the benefit of the doubt is a matter of privilege? Right. Go ahead and call me stupid again if it makes you feel better.

  48. says

    Then you go off and say that willing to extend the benefit of the doubt is a matter of privilege?

    You’ve made this nearly identical claim twice, but I still have no idea what it means. Could you clarify what it is you think my post was about? The only time I use the word ‘privilege’ in this post is when I pointed out that when people speaking within minority spaces haven’t done any of the work required to have an informed opinion on the topic, it’s frustrating to those who have lived these discussions every day.

  49. carlie says

    What exactly i the benefit of the benefit of the doubt? Every time I see it invoked by someone, it seems to mean “you shouldn’t have made me feel bad about what I said”. But how else can one transmit the information to not say that? Any rebuke is going to be seen as insulting, and if the force of the rebuke is commiserate with the damage of the statement (or its underlying assumptions), that at least makes a bigger impression that the person is much more likely to take seriously and remember the next time.

    So what benefit is there not to do so? The only negative consequence I’ve heard is the person threatening to no longer be an ally if they aren’t treated obsequiously enough, and that kind of ally is the kind nobody needs. If your willingness to participate in social justice is predicated on everyone else fawning over your minuscule effort, then you’re a pretty horrible person as well as someone who would suck up more effort on the part of everyone else (trying to keep you happy) than you would contribute. In that case, no, you’re not needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *