I’ve been invited to a few fights in my life. Most of the fights I’ve participated in haven’t been mine. I find that I’m jumping into the fray far more frequently now that the election is near and racial tensions are high.
Sometimes I just can’t stay silent.
Illustration by Alice Skinner and quote by Desmond Tutu
Yesterday, I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed a friend’s post on Michelle Obama. This friend is someone I’ve always experienced to be kind and intelligent. The post was a derogatory statement about Michelle Obama “having the nerve to say white people who put her in the Which House are racist.” The post and its commentary raised my hackles… and then I saw the first comment:
“Gorrilla in heals.” (Original spelling included for full effect.)
I debated about whether not only to jump into the fight, but to start it. This was a friend of my mom’s, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful or rock the boat.
But I did.
I rocked that boat until it almost capsized.
It was too important.
So I added this to what was a very one-sided conversation about how horrible Michelle Obama is:
“Perhaps if we were all a little more willing to listen to and understand the black experience–no matter who conveys it–there would not be such a great racial divide in this country. It’s interesting that this post was positioned as a statement about not being racist, and yet the first comment–which no one has countered–was Michelle Obama being called a “gorilla in heels” (which was also grossly misspelled). If that’s not a racist and ridiculously offensive comment, I’m not sure what is.”
What followed was a frustrating discussion about Michelle Obama whining about racists, about how Barack never deserved his second term, about how tired the post’s author was of the Obamas inciting racial divides, about how Obama was elected only because he was black, about how the author wasn’t racist because she’s a nurse who has always treated all her patients equally no matter what color…
But there was never an agreement or acknowledgment that “gorilla in heels” is a racist statement.
Instead, she countered that I called Trump names (and “which was worse?”), that my friends said vile things about him on my page, about how her friends were entitled to their opinions.
There was so much I wanted to argue, mostly about how calling Trump out for what he’s proven himself to be–homophobic (rolling back LGBTQ rights), xenophobic (“shithole countries”), misogynistic (“grab ’em by the pussy”), a failed businessman (3 bankruptcies and many outstanding, unpaid debts), a pathological liar (“This is a hoax…,” then “I knew this was a pandemic from the start…”), and just plain dumb (Yo-Semite)–was not name-calling, it was truth. but I ended with this instead:
“Which is worse? ‘Gorilla in heels’ isn’t simple name calling–it’s so incredibly, offensively racist. Seeing it and not calling it out makes me complicit. I won’t be complicit… on my page or anywhere else.”
And she replied: “It is called freedom of speech. It is not my job to call people out for their thoughts.”
And that’s where I knew the fight was useless. She was not willing to listen. Nor were any of her friends who continued to “like” her arguments.
Here’s the thing about the First Amendment: It’s not absolute. It does not apply to words categorized as obscenity, child pornography, slander, libel, incitement to violence, and various others. And in its purest form, it only protects individuals from government interference. So hiding behind its protections to promote racism is really a moral and ethical issue. The government won’t say that an individual shouldn’t call Michelle Obama a “gorilla in heels,” but does that mean we–in the name of humanity–should? Just because we can? And that we should turn a blind eye to blatant racism simply because “it’s not our job” to stop it?
That’s where I disagree. It is my job. It should be all of our jobs. If this country is ever going to bridge our racial divide, we all have to stand on the side of decency and humanity. We all have to take a stand for what is right, for what is decent, for what is human. Racist rhetoric is none of those things.
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I cringe when I hear gay jokes or homophobic slurs. I cringe and then I speak up. It is my job to protect my fellow humans. When I hear someone use the word “retarded,” I speak up. It is my job to protect and defend the disabled. Perhaps those jokes and words were once socially acceptable, but they’re not any more. When we know better, we should do better. (Thanks, great Mother Maya.)
The fight I invited myself to felt like a battle of epic proportions. When I was finished with it, I drank too much and cried myself to sleep. It feels insurmountable, this blind hate that fills so many hearts. I am fearful for my kids who are entering adulthood in such a broken and battered national state. They deserve better. We all deserve better.
If we’re not willing to stand up for those who have been systemically downtrodden, what are we willing to stand for? A leader who bullies, incites violence, mocks the disabled, praises white supremacists, rolls back LGBTQ rights, and lies every time he opens his mouth? How have we come to this?
My black friends will say we haven’t “come to this”–this is always who we’ve been as a country. Racism runs deep. It’s breaking its ugly head through the surface of all our lives now because it’s been unleashed by a leader who allows for and encourages hate and discord.
I was raised in an incredibly racist small town, home to many KKK leaders and members. It is hard to avoid internalized racism when it is part of the fabric of your life. I have to work every day to educate myself, to learn more, to listen harder, to be better. I have to work to undo what was part of my blood and sinew simply because of my geography. I have to do the same for my internalized homophobia.
I am willing to do the work.
Our fellow humans deserve it. They’ve always deserved it.
How long will we allow others to be held down because of the color of their skin? How long will it take before we all start listening? And believing? And changing?
It’s already been centuries too long.