Home > Daily Struggles, Manifestoes, Naming Experience, Positive Actions > Building Community Through Conversation

Building Community Through Conversation

Because we can’t keep our mouths shut forever, nor can we always stay locked safely within our homes, it is inevitable that we must interact with and speak to other human beings. And because of this, it is (nearly) inevitable that we will, at one time or another, say or do something that someone else interprets as offensive.
You know what I mean. You’re nattering blithely along, everything’s good, we’re all happy – except, suddenly, some of us aren’t. And you don’t understand why. You are a good person. You are not a sexist, you are not a racist, you are not a homophobe. You are an ally! Someone must just be overly sensitive!
Well, perhaps someone is. Or perhaps you ought to give a closer listen to what they are trying to say to you. What should one do in such a situation?


When anyone calls attention to language or actions that come across as sexist or racist or homophobic it would be very nice if a few things subsequently happened.
(1) The person who spoke or acted does not take criticism of the words/action to mean that those making the criticism are calling him or her a bad person. In other words, that person is able to separate criticism of the words or action from the notion that it is a personal criticism. “Your words sound sexist” is not “you are a sexist“. Those momentary pangs of guilt get in the way of community building; we must resolve to ignore them and work past them, not deflect them with anger or denial.
(2) Having managed to make this separation – that a criticism of one’s words is not an indictment of one’s person – then the speaker would respond in a considered manner. Something along these lines is one possibility: “Hey, I didn’t mean to give offense and I don’t want to give offense. Let me try to understand the reaction here. It would be great if I can learn something helpful from this.” Or even just “I didn’t mean anything negative by this. What am I missing? How are you reading this?” Or, “Hey, I’m sorry – I didn’t realize that would come across that way.”
(3) People who find various statements or actions of theirs criticized would also remind themselves that no one is perfect and we are all living in a society steeped in sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, etc., that affects all of us in unconscious ways. Therefore it’s possible that we all – and I most definitely include myself here – will occasionally let something slip that is hurtful or demeaning or dismissive. We may find ourselves falling into habits of speech or easy turns of phrase that are burdened with meanings we don’t consciously profess. It happens.
Helping each other to become aware of these moments so that they will be less likely to occur is something that, ideally, members of a community – be it your workplace, social group, neighborhood, or even family – would do for one another. And those who take on that sort of labor – identifying where we fall short of our best ideals – would not be vilified for that work, in that ideal community.
An ideal community, for me, is not one where no conflict ever occurs or nobody ever says anything that offends someone else. It is one where, when things like that happen, people engage in reparative labor for the good of all members of the community – not defensive reactions designed to protect one’s self conception as a “good” person and impugn the character of those who raised criticism. One can both be a good person AND give offense, even – especially – unwittingly. Whether or not we are willing to take responsibility for our unconscious as well as conscious intent and effect is a marker of how good a community we are willing to build together.
I think I am pretty good at avoiding manifestations of sexism in my daily speech but I doubt I am quite as good at avoiding racist or homophobic constructs, except when I am being consciously vigilant. Even so, I am not aware of all the potential verbal slings and arrows, precisely because of my privilege as a straight white person. I needn’t attend so closely to what is racist and homophobic in my environment in order to survive and thrive. I’m just as susceptible to unconscious bias as the next person, even in the form of gender schemas. I am likely to be unaware of ways in which behavior I take for granted as everyday normal stuff may be exclusive or hurtful – all without me intending it to be so.
If I am unintentionally racist or homophobic, then what I want – what I need – is to be called on it, no matter what my conscious intent was. Calling attention to these sorts of casual, everyday manifestations of the sexist racist homophobic culture we live in does many sorts of good. It helps keep us more self-aware – and unfortunately, it takes a lot of constant conscious effort to avoid being unintentionally, casually, sexist racist or homophobic. It also sends a signal to anyone in the community who might think otherwise, that sexism and racism and homophobia are not tolerated in this community; that equity and equality are widely shared values, not just the pet causes of an unimportant few.
It takes an awful lot of painful work to have these sorts of discussions – much easier to deny that any offense was intended, therefore none could have been experienced. I personally would love it if I never ever had to engage in these kinds of discussions again. Yet community members should not have to just suck up a lot of unthinking sexism or racism or homophobia as a price of belonging. We should be grateful to those who are willing to call attention to the difficult stuff.
Men who speak up about gender issues are behaving very much outside the norms of masculinity through their willingness to be vocal advocates. Whenever this happens, in any community, it has been my experience that other members of the community try to sanction the deviants back into acceptable masculine behavior – i.e., ignoring any manifestations of sexism, especially those that are more subtle. This is not necessarily a consciously undertaken reaction, but it has to be countered. The verbal sanctioning against calling attention to homophobia is, if anything, even worse. These days anyone who wants to talk about racism gets accused of “playing the race card”. But we need to be willing to examine what goes on in our own communities, with an eye to building a more equitable environment for ALL. Discussions like this are signs of health in a community; not talking is the disease.
P.S. While I was composing this, one of my Sciblings posted this. I am sympathetic to someone who doesn’t enjoy having profanity directed at them, though that is a different thing from being upset with someone merely because they choose to lace their conversation with profanity. Certainly my Scibling can choose to walk away from Scienceblogs if just knowing that other people are swearing is too much for him. Readers may remember that some time ago I debated whether or not I should leave Scienceblogs because of Seed’s association with James Watson. Ultimately I decided to stay because I want to have a voice in how this community should be shaped. For my part, I would be happier if we spent more time worrying about the implicit as well as explicit messages we deliver to each other, rather than whether some of us like to swear.

  1. Jim Thomerson
    June 9, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I think the statement, “You make me mad!” is not true. The true statement is, “I respond to you by becoming mad.” In other words, we generate, and are responsible for, our own emotions and thoughts. Realizing this, and not allowing people to jerk our chains, might help us to deal with each other in a kinder and gentler manner. So if we find something to be offensive, is it just us, or is it, By Golly, really offensive? Anyway, it is fun to be in control of one’s emotions and not respond to a chain jerkers in the manner they expect.

  2. Jim Thomerson
    June 9, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I think the statement, “You make me mad!” is not true. The true statement is, “I respond to you by becoming mad.” In other words, we generate, and are responsible for, our own emotions and thoughts. Realizing this, and not allowing people to jerk our chains, might help us to deal with each other in a kinder and gentler manner. So if we find something to be offensive, is it just us, or is it, By Golly, really offensive? Anyway, it is fun to be in control of one’s emotions and not respond to a chain jerkers in the manner they expect.

  3. June 9, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    For my part, I would be happier if we spent more time worrying about the implicit as well as explicit messages we deliver to each other, rather than whether some of us like to swear.

    It’s probably worth noting that the words that we choose to use make up part of the implicit message that we deliver.
    –Mike

  4. Richb
    June 10, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Good timing on this post … I am a “straight white male” who has been dealing with another male co-worker who sometimes likes to point out the “hot chicks” who work in our building. I find it completely inappropriate and quite offensive (especially since he is married!), but so far my usual reaction has been to walk away…He hasn’t gotten the hint. The next time he mentions it, I will certainly tell him, in an appropriate and professional way, just how I feel about it.

  5. Richb
    June 10, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Good timing on this post … I am a “straight white male” who has been dealing with another male co-worker who sometimes likes to point out the “hot chicks” who work in our building. I find it completely inappropriate and quite offensive (especially since he is married!), but so far my usual reaction has been to walk away…He hasn’t gotten the hint. The next time he mentions it, I will certainly tell him, in an appropriate and professional way, just how I feel about it.

  6. June 10, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I usually try not to talk about personal issues at work for this very reason: someone may be offended without me knowing. I just don’t want to risk my job over it.
    Outside of the workplace, however, I speak my mind. I agree that I would very much like to be told that I am offending someone. But to be honest, you had better be offended for a good reason. If it’s something like “I’m offended that you don’t believe in my god”, I just won’t care.

  7. June 10, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Here’s a nice example from Female Science Professor about language some of us may just take for granted and others just can’t.

  8. June 10, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Here’s a nice example from Female Science Professor about language some of us may just take for granted and others just can’t.

  9. LJG
    June 10, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    As an addition to these points, the person mentioning the offensive statements/undertones etc, MUST not be abrasive and emotional when they point out these offenses. It needs to be a conversation for it to work, not an accusation! It seems many people on this blog and elsewhere are abrasive when they point out these things, or when someone comes back with a I am unaware of why this is offensive, please explain they get puke on their shoes.

  10. Cassie
    June 11, 2008 at 5:13 am

    To LJG: at some point today, I’ll go find the awesome blogpost from some awesome feminist blogger which says this more eloquently, but in the mean time: NO.
    Someone who’s been on the shit end of the sexism, racism, homophobia, whatever, does not have the obligation of responding politely. What you are asking is that the oppressed have the duty of dealing with their oppression on the terms dictated by their oppressor, which is bulcrap of the highest order. It’s like white liberals tut-tutting because those black South Africans were just so RUDE and VIOLENT when demanding equal rights, or that women are so SHRILL and EMOTIONAL and ABRASIVE and over the top when they have the audacity to shout at their aggressors or fight back physically.
    If someone wants to take the time and effort to smile nicely and be polite to an offensive person, fine, but it is not a “MUST”. And “abrasive” and “emotional” are sexist code words for “damn uppity women demanding equal rights”, you’d be best advised not only to stop using them but to stop using the sloppy, patriarchy-inspired thinking that induces you to use them.

  11. June 11, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Well said, Cassie.

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