John McCain and “gooks”

3 Sep

I’ve read this article a few times, during the coverage of John McCain this past week. “When McCain’s anti-Asian slur stalled his ‘Straight Talk Express,’ he doubled down. Then, he apologized” speaks to two of many questions about identity language that come up in conversations that I facilitate:

  • Why is it OK for some people to use identity slurs and not others?
  • Is it really OK?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “gook,” its etymology as a derogatory term for Asians is murky, but one theory is that it derives from the Korean word for Korea, which is “Hanguk.” (Incidentally, “guk” means people–hardly an insult in and of itself. But its abbreviation, transliteration and usage have imbued “gook” with its disparaging connotation.)

McCain used this word openly. His unapologetic defense of using “gook” in 2000 even involved repeating the term):

“I was referring to my prison guards, and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends. I hated the gooks, and I will hate them as long as I live.”

At this point, identity politics might dictate that no one has the right to tell a POW how to refer to the people who didn’t just detain him, but tortured and permanently disabled him.

I believe that the rules of what you get to say about a group do indeed depend in part on your relationship to that group. So when non-black people complain that black people “get” to say the n-word, but they themselves don’t, I agree with them that the rules are different. But the question of whether those rules are unfair requires us to consider that black people have to live with the impact of the n-word, while non-black people who may want to say it get to do so without living its impact.

In McCain’s case, the rule had a twist: do you get to use a slur for a group that has treated you badly and even inhumanely? That’s the question that also underlies the controversy about Sarah Jeong’s anti-white people tweets: does experiencing racism give you permission to say derogatory, dehumanizing things about white people? Please know that I am not comparing Jeong’s experiences with McCain’s. I wouldn’t even know where to begin or what the point would be. I’m just connecting the dots of a theme across their very different stories about discerning when it’s OK to speak inhumanely about another group of people. What’s the answer?

I appreciate the response from the San Jose Mercury News, in response to McCain’s defense of his language:

“No one expects the former POW to speak kindly of his torturers. But their sin was being sadistic thugs, not being Asian.”

It’s notable that McCain did apologize for repeating the slur and promised not to continue doing so. The question remains: was that the right thing to do?

I believe there is no easy, clear, universal answer. However, I would invite that it’s worth considering the question the Mercury News implied, which is basically: Is an identity slur the most accurate way to get at what you’re trying to say about the group, or may it confuse the real issue of what they did with who they are?

Because in the end, if McCain was standing up against the use of torture, and if Jeong was speaking out against racism, it ultimately wasn’t just “offensive” or “insensitive” to choose the words they did. It was potentially ineffective to their causes.

How to respond when someone tells you what you just said is racist

2 Sep

I can’t take it anymore.

By “it,” I mean the coverage of Andrew Gillum’s candidacy in the Florida governor’s race. I have no idea what Gillum’s platform or policy ideas are because that critical information has virtually been eclipsed by his opponent Ron DeSantis’ comments, and an opposition robocall that, if not from DeSantis’ campaign, is at the very least for it.

In short, after referring to Gillum as “an articulate spokesman,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis warned of a Gillum victory, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”

When DeSantis was called out for racist comments, his campaign responded thusly:

Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”

Then, today, the NY Times reported on an anti-Gillum robo-call to Florida voters:

Well, hello there,” the call begins as the sounds of drums and monkeys can be heard in the background. I is Andrew Gillum. We Negroes . . . done made mud huts while white folk waste a bunch of time making their home out of wood an’ stone.”

Once again, the DeSantis campaign responded, calling the robocall: “appalling and disgusting.”

And current Governor Rick Scott tweeted:

There is no room for any racial politics here in Florida — none. Florida is a melting pot of people from all over the globe, and we are proud of it. No attempts to divide people by race or ethnicity will be tolerated, from anyone. THIS. STOPS. NOW.”

To respond in kind myself, I’ll post here (because I don’t tweet):

Politics in Florida and everywhere have always been racial. And gendered. And socioeconomically and class-informed. And otherwise fundamentally human and thus inextricably linked to our social identities, even if we don’t think a particular identity matters. In fact, especially when we don’t think it matters because that’s a reasonable indicator of exclusion. With all due respect to Governor Scott, when all the candidates are white men, politics are still about race and gender and class, sexuality, religion, abilities and every other aspect of identity that informs our status, access to resources and opportunities and systemically entrenched privileges and disadvantages. Not only because of who the candidates are, but because of the diversity of people whom they are tasked with serving.

And can we just call what’s racist, racist? I agree that the robocall is “appalling and disgusting,” but let’s be clear that what makes it “appalling and disgusting” is that it activates racial stereotypes denigrating black people as a group with the impact of  perpetuating and gaining advantage from discrimination. And that these stereotypes are part of a historic and current system of beliefs and attitudes that continue to incite violence and marginalization on a mass scale against black and brown people.

But wait, you say, how do you know someone’s motives? What if, like DeSantis, whoever is behind the robocall didn’t intend anything racist?

To that I say, racism doesn’t require individual intent to have not just individual but greater social impact. Social norms provide all the intent needed. Furthermore, I don’t even have to do or say anything to advance or sustain racism. All I have to do is not act. Or deny that racism is even a thing.

And that brings me to how the DeSantis campaign handled being informed that what DeSantis said was racist. But enough about them. Let me ask you: how would you handle it if someone told you that what you just said is racist? (Or how have you handled it in the past?)

Personally, I’ll say it stings. And that then, I’ve had a choice about what to do with that hurt.

Here’s how I try to respond.

  • Notice my instinct to recoil, and perhaps to deny, explain, erase my impact by championing my intent, protest or turn the tables (maybe by “what about-ing” what someone else has said)
  • Shut up for a moment.
  • Find my gratitude that someone has–even if harshly–bothered to let me know how they heard what I said. Because they had other options, including letting me continue to say things like that and also writing me off as an ignorant bigot.
  • Add that perspective to what I thought I already knew, instead of trying to cancel out or zero-sum our perspectives. Because the truth is that it is possible for someone to use the word “monkey” without racist intent, and it is well-documented that monkeys and apes have been racist tropes across ages and world cultures. What does that add up to? Not that “monkey” is either innocent or racist. That “monkey” is both innocent and racist, and I don’t get to choose what you hear. People have made that word mean more than its original denotation. And we can’t unring that bell. On that note: It’s OK if I didn’t know something I said was racist, but once I know, I have to decide if I care. Because if I don’t care that what I said is also racist, I should admit, if only to myself, that that’s what my reaction is really about, instead of pretending it’s about how they’re wrong.
  • Thank them.
  • Notice if the sting persists, and figure out what I can do differently to avoid making the same mistake, and also to be present for my next, new mistake.


Being “kind and brave” with our own

20 Jun

There’s a common struggle I encounter in communities, when it comes to holding members and peers accountable for their actions and speech. The options seem to be:

A. Abide whatever was said or done, because the person “didn’t mean it” or “has a good heart.”

B. Kick them out!

This is, of course, a false dichotomy. And it masks the underlying issue of our own fears,  and lack of skills and practice putting bravery born of love into action.

Being “kind and brave” is something I first saw clearly articulated in the Color Brave Space principles (inspired by Mellody Hobson’s TED Talk “Color blind or color brave?“) shared on the Fakequity blog. According to Fakequity‘s team:

Fakequity=Fake Equity. Fakequity is bad.

It shows up as all talk and no action.

Being kind and brave is considering intention and impact, not pretending you can choose between them.

Is speaking up because you care.

Is holding someone accountable especially because you believe they’re a good person. 

Is coming from love, which isn’t just being nice: it’s being real.

This formal complaint against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, issued by 640+ Methodist laity and clergy embodies the practice of being “kind and brave.” Even if you disagree with their position, notice how they present it:

  • They begin from a place of community that includes Sessions, rather than trying to deny or revoke his Methodist identity. (Consider all the times a community has claimed to be “shocked” by what someone has said or done because “that’s not who we are.” Actually, the facts would indicate that as egregious as the actions or words may be, that is also who your community is.)
  • They explicitly name their intention: reconciliation (not punishment or ostracization. This is not to say that there would be no consequences, but the intention in this complaint is that those consequences be decided and experienced within a community framework, not in isolation or excommunication).
  • They focus on what he has done, not who he is. When they do talk about who he is, they talk about him as a Methodist (in a really powerful public position) first and foremost, which is not used as an accusation but as a premise for why they must speak up. Because Jeff is family.
  • They offer hope. Not a simplistic “say you’re sorry and we’re good,” but a realistic and commitment-requiring (on all sides) aspiration to be on a “journey  with  him  towards  reconciliation  and  faithful  living  into  the  gospel.”

I keep re-reading this letter because it impels me to try to be more kind and brave, which fundamentally requires me to continue growing my recognition of how I’m family, whether by blood, organization or just humanity, with people whose ideas, actions and speech run contrary–sometimes deeply–to my own.


This is what kicking the (coffee) can down the road looks like.

16 May

In response to the racial profiling, harassment, humiliation and discrimination incident at one of their Philadelphia stores last month, Starbucks has changed its policy to allow anyone, whether or not they’ve made a purchase, to use the bathroom at Starbucks. 

Which is not the point. 

What happened isn’t about bathroom access. It’s about racial bias leading to racist consequences that will just find the next opportunity to rear its head, if not in denying a request to use the bathroom, then in disapproving of the way someone else smells. Or in not tolerating their simply occupying space near you. And yes, in all three of these incidents, white people called the police on black people. This isn’t to say this is only about white people’s bias against black people, but the phenomenon and underlying issue is certainly, persistently and significantly inclusive of white people’s bias against black people.

My issue with this “open bathroom” announcement is that it (toilet) papers over the real issue, allowing Starbucks to think it’s addressing racial bias, when it’s really just removing one of the more public ways racial bias in its culture (and yes, broader US culture) may manifest.

What’s worse, now anyone who disagrees with the open restroom policy (fearing, perhaps, an influx of whomever they’ve come to expect Starbucks will call the police on) can blame it on black people, as if racial inclusion and equity are wreaking havoc on society.

(Which, actually, they should—at least on those aspects of society that are unfair, denigrating and divisive.) 

But we can’t advance equity and inclusion by eliminating people’s everyday opportunities and responsibilities to practice them. What’s next for Starbucks, an “open hiring” policy that eliminates applications and interviews, so as to avoid any incidence of bias in hiring? I would hope instead that Starbucks would vet and improve its hiring processes, sustaining and evolving its bona fide practices and criteria, and eliminating and educating managers about unintentional, unhelpful bias in hiring. Similarly, whether or not Starbucks chooses to stop policing its bathrooms, it still needs to educate its employees about the inevitability that they’ll profile some customers as more respectable and preferable to others (based on perceived race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities) and to train their employees to discern how to engage with the diversity of the public at the cash register, when closing up their stores, when someone asks for change or directions, when someone pays for their order with change scrounged from the bottom of their bag or when someone has lingered over one cup of tea for several hours.

Because the only way to realize the promise of equity and inclusion in our collective experience and impact is to practice doing what we need to do, everyday, with a commitment to learning and growing.

A false inequivalence

15 May

Consider this: someone is accused of murder, and 60 other people step forward, offering as a defense of the accused that they themselves weren’t murdered by this person.

Does that sound absurd? 

How about if someone is accused of sexual harassment or assault? Because that’s what’s playing out in the accusation—now three accusations—against Tom Brokaw. After one woman spoke up, 60… 65… (and perhaps still counting) women have publicly and collectively vouched for Brokaw’s “decency and integrity.” 

The rationale seems to be that if he didn’t harass them, he couldn’t have harassed the other women. And in the court of public opinion, the fact that there are more women whom Brokaw hasn’t allegedly harassed than there are women whom he has allegedly harassed, well, it’s all the more proof that he couldn’t have harassed anyone. Ever.

And this standard seems to be unique to sexual harassment and assault claims. Think about it: when someone is accused of arson, do their defenders point to all the buildings that person hasn’t burned down as evidence that they couldn’t have burned down the building in question? Or, in a more pointed case, when Wells Fargo was accused of opening over 2 million accounts in customers’ names without the knowledge or consent of those customers, was the fact that other clients didn’t have accounts opened fraudulently on their behalf considered proof that no crime had been committed?

A different twist on this “proof is outside the pudding” logic, there was the defense of Sean Spicer’s treatment of journalist April Ryan: apparently, since Spicer was rude to lots of people, that was evidence that he wasn’t racist or sexist.

What the Brokaw and Spicer situations have in common is the perceived insufficiency of not just the claims made against them, but who made them: women, and in Ryan’s case, a woman of color. The idea being that they are inherently untrustworthy because, you know, they’re prone to “playing the [insert identity] card,” possibly hysterical and have “an agenda” that could irreparably damage the good names of the professionals whose “decency and integrity” we can all rely on without a petition.

Now, you’re thinking: don’t forget that those are 65 women who’ve spoken up in Brokaw’s defense. Yup. Like all people, they each get to make up their own minds about what and whom they believe. It’s just that whether or not we believe them depends on the side they pick. 

Another perspective on the NSWO

16 Mar

I found Megan McArdle’s Washington Post column “The student walkout said more about adults than kids” to be a useful additional perspective on a topic that, quite honestly, I’m not just biased about, but pretty strongly biased about (meaning: did I support the National School Walk Out? Absolutely, no question). Personal certainty is usually a good indicator that I need a perspective-check.

McArdles notes that in coverage of the walk out:

… one moment in particular seems especially popular among conservatives: the kids in Tennessee who used the opportunity to rip down an American flag and, allegedly, hop on the roof of a police car.


In response to this incident and its use as “proof” that the walkout was no more than an opportunity for youth to skip school and break rules, supporters of the march responded, “C’mon, these are kids.”

Which is particularly interesting, since the justification for the march, coming from the very same folks, was that we need to respect youth and what they have to say, not just dismiss them as children.

McArdle teases out this contradiction, writing:

The idea that children, in their innocence, have special moral insight goes back a long way in Western culture — perhaps to the biblical injunction that, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It has, of course, always warred with some variant of the belief that “children should be seen and not heard” — that children are not yet ready to hold up their end in adult conversations.

So when does the special moral insight of children manifest itself? When they are telling us that algebra is a stupid waste of time and the drinking age should be 14? No, funnily enough, children are only gifted with these special powers when they agree with the adults around them. Our long-standing cultural dichotomy lets adults use them strategically in political arguments, to push them forward as precious angels speaking words of prophecy to make a point, and then say, “hush, they’re just kids” when the children mar that point by acting like, well, children.

… if you wouldn’t be swayed by a 17-year-old’s passionate advocacy for a lower drinking age — or for that matter, their ideas about Federal Reserve policy — then you should probably apply those same cautions to their other views…

I appreciate the point that listening to youth–listening to anyone or any group–isn’t about convenience. It’s about the fundamental recognition that youth, people of color, evangelicals, women, rich people, people with disabilities, immigrants, all of us are people, even when our perspectives don’t serve your agenda or cause. Something I need to remember while I’m turning the volume up/down on someone else’s voice because it does or doesn’t confirm my bias or prove my point.

The National School Walk Out: What are youth learning?

14 Mar

Today is the National School Walk Out, in which reportedly thousands of students across the US are participating. A colleague sent me this article from The Guardian, urging adults to “Drive them to a march. Buy their gas. Whatever it takes, support all kids marching today.

In the article, Sarah Smarsh notes “a social media refrain [that] has emerged among sympathetic adults: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. The ‘permanent record’ they talk about doesn’t exist. Your high school punishments are meaningless once you graduate… March on.”

To which I say, yes.


I appreciate the clarification that most actions and their consequences are situational–ex. things that happen in high school are often contained within the community and the records (formal and informal) of that school. Of course, with the power of social media, it’s arguable that there is a permanent record of sorts, at least virtually. And it’s simply true that some actions and consequences have in the past and will in the future transcend their locality because of the sheer size, impact, significance and communicability (once again, thank you, internet) of the events. Just search a phrase like “college acceptances retracted” and see what pops up, including infractions at your high school that your school feels a duty to report to your next prospective community.

Which brings me to the perspective from which this article seems to be written: there’s an underlying foundation of privilege.

Notice that the headline opens with two financial ways to support today’s activism. Absolutely, yes, if you have a car and disposable income to cover someone else’s gas, please do use those tools for social justice. And, there are plenty of non-additional cost or equipment-intensive ways to support youth today, including cheering when you walk by a march, joining them for a few minutes, writing a letter to your representative/congressperson or talking with youth about what they’re going to do tomorrow. It’s critical to convey from the top that this isn’t only about how to support youth if you happen to have the financial resources. This is about a diverse group of adults supporting a hopefully diverse group of youth in making themselves heard.

Then, back to the refrain: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. I believe it’s more honest and useful to say: Protesting may hurt some future avenues for you. Just like not protesting may. It’s up to you always to discern and choose which possibilities are worth it to you. And which potential consequences you can afford.

The idea that all youth can equally afford to be civilly disobedient is just untrue. And irresponsible to suggest. Protest in its very nature challenges authority. Who is immunized from any and all consequences to their actions? No one. But you have better odds when you have some authority standing behind you, whether that authority comes from your identity (ex. whiteness, wealth); or your family and community’s identity and resources (ex. a parent who is a lawyer, connections at your school or local police department, or just coming from “the right neighborhood”).

Privilege as it plays out regarding the National School Walk Out and other activism in general has made me wonder: what are we teaching our youth about social action? Many of the independent schools with whom I work have planned with or on behalf of students regarding today. Specifically, schools are articulating how they are supporting participation in today’s event, and what is or isn’t acceptable (ex. younger children are not allowed to leave campus, while US/HS students will be supervised and/or accorded space in front of the school). So what are the potential lessons learned by students who are ostensibly being “supported” today?

  • What issues to care about. Because support for today’s protest against gun violence in schools is not identical to support in the same schools for activism supporting DACA protections, transgender rights or the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • What side to take on these issues. Where is the space for students who actually advocate for maintaining or increasing gun ownership rights? The students who are indifferent? And how are we cultivating discernment–not just a hive mentality–among all students, including those who, because they identify into a popular opinion majority, are at particular risk of mindlessly basking in a sense of right(eous)ness, rather than thinking critically through the issues? Notably, in 2017 in SF, the Women’s March coincided with an antiabortion march. Some of the schools that explicitly promoted or supported participation in the Women’s March did not even mention the antiabortion march. I’m not arguing that all issues are of equal importance or that all sides of any given issue are equal. I am asking: how are we teaching students to discern equivalence and i in social issues? How do they learn that white supremacy and civil rights for all racial identities aren’t equal perspectives, socially, morally or legally? And, to bring the focus back to today’s walk out, how do they address what is and isn’t equivalent about the different positions on gun violence in the US, and why their schools as institutions may take a position–not just be neutral?
  • That resistance, protest and civil disobedience are always risk-free. With good intention, some schools are extending their support to students marching against gun violence today through by deciding that students will not be penalized for participating. I’ve seen this before in everything from coordinating around senior cut day (when schools inform teachers that they shouldn’t assign homework or plan any quizzes, and ask parents/guardians to communicate with the school about planned absences) to supporting absences due to other activism (again, see: Women’s Marches). This is great, and… I think reinforces a privileged notion of activism. That it never costs you anything or poses any risks financially, socially, emotionally, or physically.
  • That resistance should always happen on the terms that authorities to which you are beholden offer you. It is absolutely a school’s responsibility to say that students cannot just leave campus (especially younger ones) because schools must consider safety and liability. But the school’s responsibility is not the individual student’s–or teacher’s or staff person’s or administrator’s. I write this not intending to say that all students should buck all considerations or safety and rules that are put in place on their behalf by the adults that care for and have responsibility for them. I am saying that resistance and protest by definition take on institutions and authorities that have been setting the rules of engagement. And without abdicating the responsibility we have right now for the children and youth we serve, many of us have a concurrent responsibility (under mission and core values) to prepare the same students to stand up when there is no authority behind them to guarantee their safety and success.

So I say yes, and… to supporting students’ engagement at today’s march, and the next demonstration on this and other issues, and on all the days in between specially organized events, when we’re still practicing our values and have the opportunity to stand up for what we believe.

** Thanks to my colleague MB for sharing this article.