There are exceptions to every rule of human engagement, but you should generally follow these rules for talking to people who are marginalized in North America, especially the U.S. This list is probably incomplete. I might write another one later. Shout out to Shannon Barber. And for clarity: I worded these rules myself, but I am certainly not the first person to think of any of them. (Here is Part 1.)
- Google things for yourself instead of asking one of us to Google for you. We are not your information servants or mammies. Respect that we are doing YOU a favor by answering your questions.
- Don’t ask us about our race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender identity or anything else you don’t need to know. If we want you to know about our heritage or how we identify or it’s important for you to know, you’ll find out. Your curiosity is not more important than our comfort.
- Don’t assume that we are not Native or otherwise indigenous. Don’t talk about Native issues as if Native peoples and Native cultures no longer exist because it’s mean, untrue and you sound asinine.
- Curb your enthusiasm. It’s great that you just discovered oppression and all that, but actually we’ve known about it for a while. Try to carefully think through why you’re communicating your latest idea to a minority before you announce your new idea with zest.
- Do not expect cookies just because you weren’t an asshole. Preschool ended a while ago. Welcome to adulthood! (If you are a preschool student reading this, I guess 5doesn’t apply but kudos to you on your reading comprehension! Here are some cookies!)
- This might be amazing new information to some, but some women are minorities, which makes the phrase “women and minorities” kind of problematic. Consider “white women and nonbinary people and people of color who may or may not be LGBTQIA” or “women, nonbinary people and minoritized men who may or may not be LGBTQIA.” Or “marginalized peoples.” Oh no, is all of that too intellectually unwieldy? You know what’s unwieldy? Discrimination, not a couple of extra words.
- Don’t act like white ciswomen are the most marginalized and vulnerable people in Europe and its post-colonial settler satellites. White gay cismen aren’t it either. Stop pretending they are because every time you do, you’ve likely embarrassed yourself in front of someone more marginalized. If you only ever react in a serious way to sexism and/or homophobia but not other forms of discrimination, you are part of the white supremacist problem.
- No, you’re not a minority among minorities when you’re white and everyone is a person of color. Don’t talk like that, ever.
- No, trans, nonbinary and genderqueer people did not choose their gender and sex identities. Stop suggesting they did. You’re being a fucking jerk.
- Don’t whitesplain. Don’t mansplain. Don’t cisplain. Don’t straightsplain. Don’t ablesplain.
- Don’t tell people who are marginalized in a way that you are not what their agenda should be. Also, acknowledge that we can multitask. It’s -ist/-phobic to assume we can’t.
- In connection, if you’re feeling celebratory about a social justice victory, good for you! If your marginalized friend is not, do not “talk” to them about the importance of celebrating. Coercion is mean and don’t you want to celebrate with someone who consented to celebrate with you? This is essentially #10 all over again.
- Respect lived knowledge. Someone who has spent their entire lives being racialized has a PhD, postdoc and faculty position in racism whereas someone who has not spent their entire lives being racialized just doesn’t. Recognize when you are a neophyte and an outsider. It’s okay. You’re still five fifths of a person even when you don’t know everything.
- Don’t pretend that all axes of oppression are structurally parallel. They were built into the system differently, even though they are all completely fucked up. Racism was written into the U.S. Constitution. Homophobia wasn’t &etc.
- Don’t fret about not being one of the people on the receiving end of Constitutional fuckery. It sucks that people like me used to be considered only 60% human with no entitlement to human rights.
- Remember that “Asian” includes South and Southeast Asians. Remember that the Model Minority Myth is a MYTH. Remember that “Asian” and “Asian American” are umbrella terms that include 60+ ethnic and linguistic groups. Beware overusing “Asian” when what you really mean is “Taiwanese,” for example when you’re talking about groups in the U.S. that are almost universally socioeconomically well off.
- This one is for white Canadians: no, the word mulatto is not polite; stop it. Anti-Black racism is also a Canadian problem (see the poverty rates in Montreal and high school graduation rates in Toronto); acknowledge that. Oh, and yeah, those Asian and Latino targeted immigration sweeps in Ontario are totally not racist. Oh wait, yes they fucking are and you should be talking about them. With all that time you spend trashing the U.S. you could probably fix a few of Canada’s problems!
- This one is for white Europeans: fucking get it together and stop telling us that racism isn’t a problem in your country. Every single Black person who has traveled in Europe knows you are full of shit. Whenever someone tells me it’s not an issue where they live and I’ve been there, what they’ve really said to me is, “I’m not very observant about other people’s experiences!” (Okay, let’s be real, this one goes for white Canadians too.)
To finish this off, here’s James Baldwin on homophobia and white supremacy (from a 1984 interview given with Richard Goldstein in the Village Voice):
“A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live. I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”