Column: We're all a little problematic

Online managing editor Danny Nett

When I was a senior in high school, I stayed up all night writing an essay for an LGBTQ scholarship. The prompt was something along the lines of, “How have you worked to change the perceptions of gay people in your school?”

Thinking the whole time I was a groundbreaking contrarian, 17-year-old me basically turned in a poster-child argument for respectability politics and queer kids “just being normal.”

Four years later, that essay still makes me want to vomit. If I didn’t accidentally kill my old hard drive with a cup of coffee, I’d probably be purposely purging it with a bottle of pink moscato or some other cheap, campy wine right now.

But no matter how embarrassing past views might be, I think it’s important to see them as something you’ve learned and grown from — not some shameful, negative reflection of who you are as a person.

Earlier this month, feminist scholar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received some backlash for comments she made about trans women experiencing male privilege in a way cis women never do — implying to a lot of folks that trans women aren’t “real” women. 

Adichie was pretty quick to clarify her thoughts on Facebook, and I commend her for that. She owned up to not having fully conceptualized the experiences of a diverse and nuanced community — and honestly, I think that’s kind of understandable for a cis person. 

It’s tough to admit that a belief you hold is problematic — and it’s even tougher to be able to divorce your recently recognized biases from your character as a person. We should all strive to keep learning and hold one another accountable if we fall complacent in pursuing progress.

But publicly shaming those who misstep or are uninformed isn’t a goal for a movement. A goal is to eradicate the sexism, racism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism and other ingrained biases and oppressions that have shaped us all in various ways.

I’m concerned about this pattern that arises in popular progressivism — in part because I find myself falling into it often. A well-intentioned person will say something that trips my mental alarms, and I instinctively jump to condemn them as a bad person, or screenshot it to my friend, or roll my eyes and scoff.

And, like someone jeering at their younger sibling for not knowing a big word yet, I come away from those interactions with a degree of feigned superiority — charading this feeling of self-righteousness as the ideals of tolerance and equality.

When I do this, I’m not entirely thinking about combating racism and protecting trans kids and making the world better. I’m losing track of why I call myself queer, and a feminist and an ally. And I’m just kind of being a dick.

When I talked in high school about “toning down” queerness to gain acceptance, I was speaking as someone who’d just come out and had never even heard of queer politics or women’s studies.

When I quietly shame others for what they say, I’m brushing away the fact that I only have those mental alarm bells in place because of the personal experiences and academic opportunities I’ve had in my life.

I ignore that I’m falling into the narrative that there’s only one appropriate school of progressivism to follow — as if inclusive terminology isn’t constantly evolving or learning isn’t a process.

And, most importantly: When I scoff at the missteps of others, I'm disregarding the fact I'm still problematic in a lot of ways, too.

Thanks for reading.

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