Who You Are vs What You Do

Today Meryl Streep said something stupid. If you want to be charitable, you could say it was inarticulate and insensitive, but if you didn't want to be charitable, you could also say it was racist.  While the particulars of this case are new, the general phenomenon of someone saying something bigoted or derogatory (whether well-intentioned or not) is not a new phenomenon, and generally follows the same format every time.

Person who is famous (or becomes famous) says something bad.  Person is called out for saying that something bad.  General public starts calling that person racist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted etc. and there are calls for the person to be punished.  Said person is boycotted, or fired, or demoted, people are generally gleeful about said bad person being sufficiently punished, and we move on.  Occasionally, it becomes more of a culture war (See Chik-Fil-A), with people taking sides over what is acceptable discrimination or not.

This kind of framing around bigotry is problematic, because while it is important to call out offensive language, it has a way of excusing all sorts of other behavior.  Under our current understanding of bigotry, only individual acts of ignorance/bigotry get called out.  As part of the calling out of bigotry, the person saying those things get's labeled a bigot, which implies that the person has malicious intent and should be punished. 

So, for example, in 2002 then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the US would have been better off if Senator Strom Thurmond, famous racist, had been elected President. Senator Lott had to resign his position as Majority Leader, as was greatly diminished as a political force in US politics afterwards.  But acts of systematic racism generally get completed ignored, like Michigan's Emergency Manager law, that has disenfranchised majority African American cities of their right to local governance, and was part of the problem leading to the lead poisoning in Flint Michigan.

Our ritual of sacrificing public figures for being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, etc.), actually serves to maintain a system of oppression.  As long as we continue to equate saying something ignorant = being a bigot = need to be punished, we won't be able to make progress to stop systems of oppression.  Being labeled as a bigot is one of the worst things you can be publicly labeled as, and so there is a great amount of resistance any individual will reasonably assert to avoid that label.  It implies being a malicious and bad person, and no one thinks of themselves that way.  We know we have good intentions, and so as long as an act of ignorance automatically equals being a bigot, most people will fight very hard against that label, even if it means maintaining systems of oppression.

So rather than making excuses for Meryl Streep, or any other celebrity, who says something offensive, I would like to propose an alternate way of viewing issues of oppression.  Whenever possible, rather than making determinations about someone's character or intent, we should try and focus on the actions and impacts of individuals and systems.  This creates a space for individuals to be less defensive, to maintain their self-conception as someone who wants good things for others, and places the focus appropriately on the systems that work to maintain oppression.

So in this example, rather than saying that Meryl Streep is a bigot, it would be helpful to point out that what she said, regardless of the intention, is a way of justifying the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in film making, especially for the gate-keepers of the movie industry.  When someone famous, and held in very high esteem, says something like that, it takes pressure off of the movie industry to create more opportunities for non-White people, and means that your career opportunities are largely dictated by your race/ethnicity, which we would generally consider outright segregation and bigotry. 

With this alternate framing, people who sympathize with what Meryl Streep said, or maybe just don't think it's a big deal, can see how it was problematic, without feeling that they themselves are being labeled problematic.  This helps move people in a direction that is more inclusive, and can bring pressure on changing systems that are oppressive, even if they are not intentionally so.  It is vitally important to remove the requirement for intent from the way we talk about discrimination and oppression. 

If someone is intentionally bigoted that matters, and can be called out as such, but it can't be the only way we talk about oppression.  We need to move to conversations about how systems are built on top of oppression, and work to maintain it, in seemingly invisible ways.  We need to be able to talk about how some people benefit from this oppression, without ever intending to.  This is generally the part of conversations where White people/straight people/male people can get very defensive because they don't think of themselves as bad people.  Shifting away from actions, and individual intent, towards systems that we didn't ask to be a part of (but still are), is one way of creating space for people to acknowledge their privilege and help to move to end it.

Making this change, away from whom someone is towards what someone did, obviously won't fix the issue of discrimination and oppression.  This is incredibly difficult work that takes generations to address and make real progress.  Creating a space, however, for people to be more comfortable addressing the issue and admitting that they may be contributing to a problem, is an important step along the way.