We are all problematic people, even when we can’t admit it to ourselves. Take John for example: your average cis-gendered heterosexual white male at Kalamazoo College. Like many people, John runs screaming from the word racist, especially when directed at himself, but here’s the thing – if John says racist comments, and continues to say those comments or act in racist ways, John is a racist. But John hates being called a racist. He even sometimes says being called a racist is a prime example of reverse racism.
John will not accept his racism. Not for anything other than his “opinion”. Yes, we are all entitled to our own beliefs, but when your “opinion” is oppressive, you are doing something wrong.
I’ve seen this reaction in too many of my peers, and I believe it stems from a fear of being rejected from whatever community one is a part of. This fear, however, makes finding communities that are inclusive of intersectional identities almost impossible to maintain.
Now, take Eva into consideration: Eva is a cis-gendered heterosexual woman of color at K. Eva has a friend who is queer, Jamie, and thinks that whenever social justice issues surrounding queer identities comes up she needs to bring this friend into the conversation. She also tends to focus most of her and Jamie’s conversations on heteronormativity. She thinks it has no impact on her friend’s feelings towards their identity and self-worth.
Eva mistakenly believes that she is being supportive by sending Jamie every LGBTQIA+ article or video she comes across online, but again this action further marginalizes them.
She does not realize that while this might not be outright homophobic, it is insensitive and may cause Jamie to feel like the “token queer friend.” By centering each hangout on heterosexual identities, Eva unknowingly invalidates her friend’s experiences as a queer individual. This behavior is definitely problematic, but it seems their might be hope.
While I hate that marginalized peoples need to be their own advocates in relationships, the classroom, and the world at large, often it is a necessary first step towards equity and a means of helping problematic people see the errors in their thinking.
If John questions why he is called a racist, and then thinks critically on how his societal privilege is perceived, he has a shot at identifying key attitudes that demand to be addressed. If Jamie talks to Eva about how Eva’s comments make her feel, then perhaps with some thought and time, Eva will be able to change her behavior and underlying heteronormative attitudes so that she and Jamie can have a solid friendship once more.
Problematic people are going to be in our lives indefinitely. But we have a decision with every interaction: whether to be blissfully problematic, or to work on being as socially aware as possible. Which will you choose?