A Brief Digression About Linguistic Imperialism. Or Something.

A person I follow on Twitter posted today that she was unfollowing Wil Wheaton everywhere because he had “used his position as a celebrity to bully an innocent young girl.” I don’t follow Wheaton myself, but from everything I’ve seen/heard from him, this didn’t sound like him. Of course, I have personal experience in the fact that even the most personable and…socially enlightened of celebrities can make serious blunders regarding things they’re just not educated about or haven’t experienced. Anyway, I was curious. Fortunately for me, the person I follow reblogged the original post, which you can see here.

This exchange triggers me on many levels. In fact, it has been enough to get me up off the couch, where I’ve been recovering–not very graciously or patiently–from reconstructive surgery on my sinuses and drive me to write down some of my process. I’m kind of sure my thoughts on the matter will open me to reaming from various quarters, but, well, there it is.

In case you have decided, for one reason or another, not to follow my handy link, here are the basics of the exchange: Someone, apparently a woman of color (I deduce this from comments late in the exchange) addressed Wil Wheaton’s use of the the term “Spirit Animal.” As I said, I don’t follow Wheaton so I have no clue when, where, or how he used the term. I get the impression (also from things mentioned later) that he uses it often and sometimes as kind of a toss-off, not talking about an actual Spirit Animal, but applying the concept to a person or persons he would like to emulate. The woman posing the question pointed out that he was practicing a kind of cultural appropriation by using a term from Native cultures in this way and suggested he use a different word. Wheaton replied, in effect, that he doesn’t think he’s taking anything from Native Peoples by using the term. Which, yeah, is problematic. But that’s not what triggered me.

What triggered me was someone else’s response to Wheaton’s response, and this is why: It was obvious to me that she had already decided what kind of response she expected to the original question. Several times she reiterated, “Wheaton should have said THIS.” And then she proceeded to tear apart his “apology” for not being what she thought it should be. In fact, it wasn’t an apology at all, and that’s one of the things with which she seems to take exception. Here’s another white guy practicing cultural imperialism through his thoughtless choice of words and not taking responsibility when someone is kind enough to point it out to him.

I kind of get it, as much as I can being a white woman. That is, being part of the dominant culture of the United States. I’m generally not subject to “Whitesplaining,” but I have been and am subject to “Mansplaining,” which in my experience is every bit as crazy-making. And I live most days with “Mental-Health-Splaining.” It sucks big time to have someone not of your culture/background/experience, from whose social progressiveness in other areas you might expect to have a clue, not fall in with your attempts at education. It’s HARD to address this shit, to put yourself out there instead of keeping your mouth shut. And it hurts when someone to whom you look up just doesn’t seem to get it, or even WANT to get it. Honestly, I have been there.

On the other hand, getting defensive and ripping someone a new one when s/he doesn’t give the response you want and/or think you deserve isn’t productive. That’s no longer about education. It’s about you venting your feelings of frustration. And it isn’t conducive to good communication. Okay, yeah, you’re angry at having to explain the same things OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I’m sorry to say this, but SUCK IT UP. Working for change takes saying the same things over and over again. It takes being civil when you want to break things. The message isn’t magic. You have to repeat it more than once. And the more condescending you get, the less people are apt to listen to you. Because when you say shit like “Why am I always the one who has to be civil? The Oppressors never have to worry about being civil to me!” you sound like a kid throwing a tantrum. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! Yeah, life ain’t fair, and the people dealing with oppression and abuse have more on them than the people dishing it out. That’s something I learned my first time in  a mental hospital. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now, but it’s what is.

The respondent’s tone isn’t the only thing that triggers me about the whole exchange, though, and this is where I think I may be accused of being white. I think about this a lot, too, in case you assume that I don’t, but am just writing out of being triggered. I think about it because as a novelist I write about peoples and cultures I am not a part of. I have black characters and Native characters and Latino characters and gay characters–quite a few in my work in progress–and I worry that I can’t do anything to get it right. My male protagonist is a man of Scottish heritage who was the student of a Native American shaman and practices a particular form of shamanism. He has a Spirit Animal. Is it not okay for me to have made this decision because I’m not of Native descent? Or should I have made him Native because of his spiritual system, even though that’s not how I saw the character? I’m not a Native Scot, either. Maybe I should have just stuck with everyone being white American, because that way I wouldn’t run the risk of getting something wrong or being unintentionally offensive. Except then I’d be open to accusations of not being inclusive enough.

I don’t mean any of this as snarky. These are really questions I ask myself. I do my best to be respectful and honest. I do my research. But I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to “get it right.” And I get tired of having to keep my self-censor active all the time because I’m white. There. I said it. I’ll say it again.

I’m tired of having to censor myself so much because I’m white and I’m afraid of getting reamed by someone who thinks my skin color equals my thought process.

A while back I read a blog written by a Pagan man who had participated in a conference with people from varying spiritual and religious backgrounds, including Native American. He recounted how he led an opening ritual which included invoking the directions and casting a circle, as we Pagans do. Later, a Native man confronted him about the practice, accusing him of stealing a Native system for his worship. The blogger tried to engage the man in conversation and explain that many religions share similar methods of setting sacred space, and that doesn’t mean that anyone stole from anyone else. He wasn’t sure the Native man accepted his explanation.

It’s really easy to look at anyone who bears the outward appearance of the dominant cultural mode and think they’re the enemy. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for us poor white folks, even those of us who are trying hard have a lot to keep track of and we can’t always get it right. Sometimes we have to choose our battles, and sometimes our choices are not going to satisfy every single person who can find fault. Rudeness doesn’t win any allies.

I see this tendency toward being reactive all over the place, not just in matters of race. Last spring I read where members of a sorority at a college back east posted sticky notes on the mirrors in the women’s bathrooms. The notes read, “You’re beautiful as you are!” and other variations on this theme. It was the sorority’s attempt to do something positive and affirm women’s rights to come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The next day, the internet was full of op-eds descrying this gesture because “We don’t have to be beautiful. Beauty for women is a construction of the patriarchy. We need to affirm our right to be ugly if we want!” And you know, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But whom does it serve to shame a group trying to do something body-positive because it doesn’t fit your idea of what they should have done?

I don’t think I have anything else to say about this right now. I don’t have any answers. I guess I would just ask all activists, please, the next time someone makes you angry, I don’t care what about or where they’re from, just stop. Take a breath. Show a little more compassion and be a little less ready to blame. Anger is a good place to start change, but a poor work horse.

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3 thoughts on “A Brief Digression About Linguistic Imperialism. Or Something.

  1. Some brief background on Wil Wheaton, for those who may not know (I know everyone knows ST:TNG): He is Geek Royalty. I am not kidding about this. There are certain people who are obviously geek royalty (Shatner, Takei, Stewart, Hamill, Ford, Stan Lee, a zillion other actors and writers and artists everyone knows), but Wheaton is different, first because he was pretty much universally reviled by hard core Trekkies during his run on TNG, and second because he is One Of Us. He was the kid who was bullied for doing what he loved, and he is just as big a geek as the rest of us geeks (somewhere he wrote a blog about The Sandman that made me cry, and if you haven’t seen his entirely improvised on-the-spot message to a fan’s newborn about why being a geek is good, then please look it up — he’s amazingly eloquent), and he’s a geek pioneer by partnering with Felicia Day (another one who is this different sort of geek royalty) to create an internet channel with wholly original programming. He’s willing to spoof himself on The Big Bang Theory. He has his own Internet Law: Don’t be a dick. SO, that said….

    Something “Angry Black Woman” didn’t take into account was that this apology, though addressed to her, was a very *public* apology. By describing his thought process, he was not whitesplaining so much as explaining his thoughts for the benefit of the thousands of other people who might be reading what he wrote. The explanation he offered actually had the potential for an open dialogue, but she shit that away. He is also entitled to his feelings; while using the term “Spirit Animal” is problematic for us honkies, I agree that there are worse things (like the Lakota woman who fucking froze to death in her home for lack of heat!) affecting indigenous Americans (“Native Americans” — which I’ve been told by some of them not to say, “Indians,” “First Nations People,” or whatever we’re supposed to call the collective groups of inhabitants of North America who were already here when the continent was discovered by Europeans) than using the term “Spirit Animal.”

    And who gets to decide this? Angry Black Woman (as she insists on being called) said, “Different forms of it belong to specific cultures that are already having a hard time with erasure/delegitimization, partially through appropriation.” So there are “different forms” but she’s specifically offended by “spirit animal” which is by and large a part of many First Nations cultures — but Angry Black Woman is, presumably, black (some African cultures have/had similar concepts, but not all of them). So can any minority call out any white person for any appropriation, perceived or otherwise, for any minority group, whether or not it’s their own? And then fly into a rage because the apology was not up to snuff?

    Then we get into even dicier territory.

    A large part of my ancestry comes from the British Isles. The Irish in my line goes back to before the Norman Invasion, and somewhere before that it turns Welsh and becomes unpronounceable (the other side goes back to 1500s Scotland before it disappears). So, can I have a tutelary animal spirit, as it has been deduced existed in ancient Celtic religion? Or is that too close to NativeIndigenous AmeroIndian Nations cultures? (That snark right there, for those of you who don’t know me, is deliberately hyperbolic.) Am I not allowed to reclaim part of my erased/delegitimized cultural heritage because I am a white girl with some amount of privilege? Or because of, essentially, semantics? Am I not allowed to keep the baleen and polar bear fur a friend brought me from Alaska that was given to her by Inuit friends *specifically* to give her friends back home? Am I not allowed to incorporate anything even slightly outside my own genetic makeup’s culture into my identity? I’m sorry, Angry Black Woman, but you don’t own Wil Wheaton’s feelings, and you don’t own indigenous culture, and you don’t own my identity.

    Yes, that spiraled out of control and got long. I guess this is where I would use that sorrynotsorry hashtag. (This is why I’m not on Twitter; not enough characters.)

  2. A wise man once counseled: “When we believe or say we have been offended, we usually mean we feel insulted, mistreated, snubbed, or disrespected. And certainly clumsy, embarrassing, unprincipled, and mean-spirited things do occur in our interactions with other people that would allow us to take offense. However, it ultimately is impossible for another person to offend you or to offend me. Indeed, believing that another person offended us is fundamentally false. To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with that. In the USA, we seem to have a culture where people scrutinize everything that is said, just looking for something that offends them. My life has been much better since I took the counsel given. It was hard to offend me beforehand, and since, I don’t recollect a single time where I have been offended. Yes, some people may say things trying to offend me, but ultimately it is my choice whether to be offended or not. It doesn’t stem from a lack of caring about what someone says, although that is part of it. Rather it stems from a belief that the person speaking isn’t as educated as they should be.

    On the other side of the equation, I don’t worry about offending anyone with what I say because I have fully embraced the idea of it being a choice. Granted, I don’t go around trying to offend people, and will listen to criticism when it is respectfully offered. But I don’t worry about the political correctness of my language on a day to day basis. George Carlin has a great insight on the softening of our language and the effect it has in our culture and how we respond to things.

    The only thing regarding the language we use is when people practice stupidity. There are two categories- ignorance, and stupidity. I classify ignorance as someone not knowing something, but willing to learn and fill the gaps of their knowledge. Stupidity on the other hand is not knowing something and being unwilling to learn. The ignorant I don’t mind, but the willfully stupid make me mad.

    Enough ranting on my part. To cite my sources and everything, the quote was from a talk by David A. Bednar, an Apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was given in October 2006. I was directed to this blog by Jennie Davenport, a friend of mine from High School. I clicked on a link from Facebook that she had posted.

    1. I do agree with this to an extent. However, my life has led me to believe that the effect others have on me is not always purely a choice.

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