Petty cruelties

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post on Tyler Clementi, a reader left this comment:

This strikes me as a rather typical college prank gone horribly wrong. Unlike Laura Ingraham, it doesn’t sound like the roommate planned out the event in a calculated way. It’s easy to imagine a college kid spontaneously thinking, “Hey, I can see my roommate’s hookup through my webcam, I could stream this live for kicks.” It’s not a nice thing to do, but by the standards of 18-year old kids it’s not exactly Hitleresque. He could very well have done the exact same thing if it was an opposite-sex hookup.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m empathizing with the wrong guy in this story because it obviously is just terrible. The guy should bear the consequences of his actions, but I don’t imagine it occurred to him, or would occur to most people, that the roommate could be ashamed to the point of suicide. Maybe this will be a teachable moment and people will realize that embarrassing someone like this isn’t just fun and games.

Uhhh. I don’t know what to make of the claim that this was a “typical college prank.” Kind of alarming.  Maybe I didn’t know typical college students at when I was an undergrad (ok, this is definitely the case, but still!).   And I don’t think this would have been as likely to happen if Clementi had been hooking up with a girl – and if it had, the effect would have been much more likely to shame the girl, not to shame or make fun of Clementi. In any event, I loved this response to that comment:

That’s much of the problem. Bigotry (and this *was* motivated by bigotry, I have little doubt) is seldom of the variety where you beat someone to death, burn a cross on their lawn, or similar violent acts. It’s the accumulation of petty cruelties that everyone seems to have no problem with. They don’t feel malicious, so they don’t seem to care that what they’re doing is hurtful, and when they get called on it, they claim it’s all in good fun.

What Tyler Clementi’s roommate did to him was cruel and dehumanizing. It was inexcusable.  And in all likelihood, Clementi had probably endured years of smaller humiliations and “petty cruelties” leading up to the violation that ultimately drove him to suicide.

In public discourse we tend to focus our attention on the most blatant and obvious incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – with the notable exception of transphobia, which, sadly, remains a perfectly acceptable bigotry except sometimes in its most violent forms.  And it’s right and necessary that we denounce and fight to end obvious demonstrations of bigotry.  This is especially true with raising awareness about transphobia, which has led to the deaths of countless trans men and women through suicide, denial of necessary medical services, and hate-motivated murders.

Fighting oppression, though, also means educating ourselves about the more subtle, and insidious ways hatred and bias manifest on an individual and systemic level.  It means learning to empathize with the lived experience of marginalized people – the regular, often daily humiliations, jokes, suspicions, ignorant or mean comments, insulting assumptions; the systematic lack of representation or negative representations of people like us in media and entertainment.  Things that in isolation might be no big deal, but together add up to a steady stream of little indignities, a lifetime of constant messages that we’re worth less, or nothing at all, compared to the people who really matter.

Being a good and effective ally to marginalized groups requires listening and taking seriously the perspectives of marginalized people when we say, “that was racist,” “that was sexist,” or “that was transphobic.”  Those of us who are marginalized in one or another are the experts on our own experiences of oppression.  So when a marginalized person says a comment or action was offensive or hurtful, as allies our response shouldn’t be “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way”/”I didn’t mean it that way” or “It wasn’t that big a deal, you’re just being sensitive.”  We should understand that it’s probably far from their first encounter with the behavior they are calling out, and that things might appear to us as minor or isolated incidents because we don’t have to deal with them every damn day.

Good ally work also means learning to check ourselves – to acknolwedge our own bigotries and privilege.  When (not if) we’re called out for doing or saying something offensive, are we more concerned with the fact that we’ve caused hurt or offense, or with defending the illusion that we’re incapable of ever doing or saying something offensive?  Good ally work requires us to evaluate ourselves not by our intentions, but by the effects of our speech and actions – not so we feel guilty (which helps no one), but so we can do better.  We also need to own whatever privilege we might have at the expense of others – whether that’s based on skin color, sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, body shape, mental and physical health or abilities, religion, etc.  We need to acknowledge how our privilege has given us access to opportunities and resources that others don’t have, and use our privilege to make those benefits freely and equally accessible to all.  We also need to recognize that both privilege and discrimination are intersectional, not one-dimensional.  As a woman of color I deal with misogyny and racism, but I have privilege with respect to my class, my gender identity and expression, my body shape, being in a straight partnership, and so on.

My experience, and I think this is the experience of many people who are marginalized in one way or another (or many ways), is that these lifelong petty cruelties add up.  They kill with a thousand cuts.  If we really want to make our society more just and equal for all people, we need to stop treating these expressions of bigotry as banal or acceptable.

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10 Comments on “Petty cruelties”

  1. presentlyhuman says:

    I hate the “they didn’t mean it!” argument. Intent doesn’t matter. The effect of someone’s actions and words matter.

    Everything has implications. Words, actions, gestures – just because they might seem subtle and insignificant to us doesn’t mean they don’t carry with them meaning and connotations that are problematic and harmful to others.

    Those that insist on their own innocence because of a lack of intention come across selfish. “You’re making me feel bad by telling me how what I said was wrong, and you should let it drop so I don’t have to deal with it.”

    • Grace says:

      Those that insist on their own innocence because of a lack of intention come across selfish. “You’re making me feel bad by telling me how what I said was wrong, and you should let it drop so I don’t have to deal with it.”

      Exactly. It’s an incredibly self-centered, even narcissistic argument.

  2. Mark says:

    I think the response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post was brilliant. Part of the problem (or many problems) with the boys-will-be-boys-type statement is that it is design to normalize and cover up violence: there is not such thing as kids who spontaneously decide to bully another kid without a previous learning. Kid “A” does not perceive kid “B” as a potential object of violence unless their environment labels kid “B” as such. Furthermore, often the same environment warns, under penalty of being bullied him/herself, kid “A” not to “be” like kid “B”. Even more, kids don’t produce patterns of aggression and systematic violence (because that’s what bullying is) without having learn that before. So “boys will be boys” hides a generalized system of violence that people (children included) experience daily at their home, their friends’ homes, the school, the playground, their office, the coffee shop, etc.: girls and women being told that their primary function is to serve others, and accept anything people give them with a happy outlook (including beatings), boys and men being told that they *must* exert violence over their peers, over females, over animals even, to assert their identities and place in society unless they want to be labeled as deficient and penalized in many diverse forms, and everybody having to witness all these (and many more) systems at work daily: the father who is distant and abusive, the mother who is overprotective and passive-aggressive, the single parent exhausted, over-exploited, marginalized by others, etc., etc., etc.
    Personally, I remember when growing up experiencing this type of daily, constant violence, being an “effeminate” children and later on a gay youth: as many, my school had a limit on how many absences per school year each student could accumulate if they wanted to pass that school year; I would literally mark the number of days I was allowed to be absent in my calendar, and use them when I could not handle the stress or when things were particularly rough, and sneak in my mother’s bedroom in the middle of the night to either turn off her alarm clock or change the time, so it would seem she overslept. I think that is what kept me alive! My glasses would be stolen any given morning, and when I complained about it at school or at home I would be told it was my fault, because I forgot that kids do those things and I wasn’t careful enough. I would found dead insects in my pencil case, and I was told I shouldn’t be a sissy, afraid of insects. I would constantly be “accidentally” knocked down to the floor by a “passing” school mate, and would be told to be more careful, as that’s what kids do. I would be name-called all the time, and I was told I was giving my classmates power over me by being offended by that, after all kids do those things… The stories are endless, and the conclusion is always the same: everybody was happy to overlook violence, and explain it as part of a kid’s behavior (and a kid’s teachings in life: learn to defend yourself, to make them respect you!), because if anybody was to actually expose this violence they would be forced to face their complicity and their daily enforcement of violence in their homes, schools, offices… because kids are not burn bullies, they are made bullies.

    • Grace says:

      So “boys will be boys” hides a generalized system of violence that people (children included) experience daily.

      Yes. It’s a response designed both to keep people from interrogating the effect of personal and societal bigotries, but also to naturalize those effects – i.e., to place the blame on the victim for somehow “provoking” violence and abuse and claim that these are just natural responses to being different in whatever way.

      My school had a limit on how many absences per school year each student could accumulate if they wanted to pass that school year; I would literally mark the number of days I was allowed to be absent in my calendar, and use them when I could not handle the stress or when things were particularly rough, and sneak in my mother’s bedroom in the middle of the night to either turn off her alarm clock or change the time, so it would seem she overslept. I think that is what kept me alive!

      No one should ever have to live like this, least of all a child. It’s criminal that we allow things like this to go on and turn a blind eye. Criminal.

  3. thefrogprincess says:

    This is spot on, Grace.

    I blogged about this over at my space. Here’s my take on it: I actually do think the broad outlines of the roommate’s actions were a typical college prank. But I don’t say that in a “boys will be boys” copout way but in a way to highlight that the things we consider to be “a typical college prank” are still devastating invasions of privacy and acts of violence. I also think similar instances of webcam invasion are likely happening all over the country involving straight couples.

    HOWEVER…

    The information we have about this particular cruelty convinces me that the roommate was either disgusted or amused by his roommate’s sexuality and that was what prompted him to set up the video feed. Moreover, this hideous public outing also happened in a culture/context in which Clementi’s sexual expression is largely looked upon with disgust. This is what the roommate was actively tapping into; his tweets suggest real intention. So my real concern is not so much the cyberbullying itself (although that’s a real problem) but more with the fact that we (by which I mean straight people) have all created or participate in a culture in which disgust at gay sex is virtually guaranteed. And those of us who aren’t homophobic (and who call ourselves allies) still aren’t speaking loudly enough to condemn the rampant homophobia that’s swirling around and that is killing our fellow citizens.

    You’re right: we’ve got to check ourselves. Are we just saying we’re allies to feel better about ourselves? Or are we willing to take strong and firm stands? Are we willing to say enough is enough, even when that means taking on a very dominant Christian philosophy? (I went back and forth on my blog with an evangelical commentator who was generally thoughtful and respectful but still clung to the beliefs that I consider to be at the root of homophobia.) I think there is no better time than now for all of us to take a moment and make sure we’re actually helping in our actions, rather than just talking an empty talk.

    • Grace says:

      we (by which I mean straight people) have all created or participate in a culture in which disgust at gay sex is virtually guaranteed. And those of us who aren’t homophobic (and who call ourselves allies) still aren’t speaking loudly enough to condemn the rampant homophobia that’s swirling around and that is killing our fellow citizens.

      Yes, exactly. The idea that gay sex and same sex attraction are disgusting, wrong, or abnormal is the driving force behind homophobia and gay-bashing. And this is what’s frustrating to me about Christians like the commenter at your blog who insist that you can simultaneously teach that homosexuality is a sin and fight homophobia.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Didn’t there used to be a formal word for the petty cruelty phenomenon in racism and ethnicity studies? Micro-Aggressions? Is it out of fashion today?

    Great blog by the way. Read you at Ta Nehisi Coates’s comments section, and your measured, aspirational outrage was refreshing. Wish there were more like you.

    • Grace says:

      Glad you found the blog! Welcome!

      Micro-aggressions is a great word – exactly what I was trying to describe. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      Heh, thanks re: the comment’s on TNC’s post. Some of the comments were pretty frustrating, but in general most of them were thoughtful – something I really love about the comments section at his blog.

  5. […] links in the righthand column at Questioning Transphobia are a good place to start. – Working to recognize and check our cis privilege. – Finding ways to volunteer with or support local and national trans […]

  6. […] a comment Read the full post here Good ally work also means learning to check ourselves – to acknolwedge our own bigotries and […]


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