On -isms: It's Not You, It's Me

By | Thursday, January 30, 2014 Leave a Comment
There was a bit of a stink recently over a white woman who went to her regular yoga class, and then wrote about the heavy-set Black woman who attended for the first time. The first woman proceeded to explain all the hard-ships the second one must be going through, and how alienating and difficult it must be for her to be in a class with skinny, white women, and that the thought of it was so disheartening that the first woman literally broke down into tears when she got home.

Now I am not the first, nor am I going to be the most elegant, to point out that the first woman spent the entire 2000 words talking about how she felt. How she reacted. How she imagined the heavier woman must feel. Even the very title of the piece, "IT HAPPENED TO ME", focuses on her. It had absolutely nothing to do with the overweight black woman; she was just the object the skinny, white woman projected her own feelings onto. She may as well have been writing about a vacuum cleaner. In fact, judging from the article, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she's actually talked with her vacuum cleaner more than she talked with this second woman.

I bring this up because A) it's recent, but more significantly B) it points to why some people seem to have a big problem understanding racism. And sexism. And ableism. And all the other -isms I'm trying to use this column to talk about. The problem people have is that they approach it with the same demeanor as trying to gently break off a relationship: "It's not you, it's me."

When you use that line in a relationship, you're saying, "You are a good, decent and worthy person. There's nothing wrong with you. I am the one who has a problem." Which is a lie. Or, if we're being generous, a half-truth. Because the "problem" that you have is with the other person. The conslusion would be more accurate if you said, "I am the one who has a problem in dealing with you." But, by saying, "It's not you, it's me," you're trying to soften the blow of the relationship's demise.

And in the context of dealing with people who are different than you, saying the equivalent of, "It's not you, it's me," you're still trying to soften the blow of whatever social, cultural, economic, etc. disadvantages they recipient might have. Obviously, none of us (well, very, very few of us) choose our gender or race or social upbringing, so there's no "fault" that you have to try to alleviate in the first place. And in the second place, you're making it about yourself despite the fact that there's no "fault" to alleviate in the first place. "It's not you, it's me," in this context translates to, "It's not your fault that you're Black; I just have a problem with your being Black." Or, more broadly, "It's not your fault that you're who you are; I just have a problem with people that are different than me."

No one actually says this, of course, but that's the inference by the whole tone and demeanor.

But if you're the one saying that, even by implication or euphamism, you absolutely have not understood the other person. You're deliberately removing an attempt to sympathize with the person, and forcing your own feelings to the forefront at their expense. You're saying that their issues are inherently less important than your feelings about their issues.

In comics, this manifests itself most punguntly when people start to talk about racism, sexism, etc. in comics and folks inevitably come in and say that's reverse racism (or whatever -ism) or that talking about it is racist (or whatever -ist). If you look at comics writ large, there is absolute and quantitatively a significant disparage between how people are represented in both the comic industry and on comics pages, and how even our small American society breaks down culturally. Women are under-represented. Blacks are under-represented. Latinos are under-represented. Asians are under-represented. Gays are under-represented. The disabled are under-represented. And that anyone says that that isn't a problem is saying, "It's not you, it's me." They're saying, "There's not a diversity problem in the industry; I just have an issue with seeing or hearing about anyone different than me in comics."
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