Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Day I Went Into Shock Because of Something Someone Said to me on the Internet

by Giselle Renarde

I've wanted to write this post for months, but I could never work up the courage.

Of all the messed up shit that's happened in my life, nothing has impacted me quite this deeply. In fact, despite having been majorly depressed in my early twenties, this June's event marked the first time in my life when I ever considered killing myself. (Don't worry! I'm not going to do it! I know you guys worry about me! Hence the exclamation marks!)

It all started when I had a guest blog to write for All Romance Ebooks' AReCafe. It was Pride month and I'd always wanted to do up a little post about homophobic and transphobic language people use without seeming to realize how offensive those words are. What particularly sparked this idea was the casual use of the word "tr*nny" in popular culture. There have been times when fellow authors have used this word around me, and when I've explained to them that it's an extremely derogatory term they've been like, "Oh, no, it can't be because I hear it all the time."

So I figured I'd write a post called "The Top Three Word You Might Be Saying (And Definitely Shouldn't Be)."  Since it was Pride Month, I focused on derogatory words that get thrown at LGBTQ people even by those who think of themselves as allies. Since those top three words were all gender identity-related, I decided to do an in-conversation type post with my girlfriend. I didn't want be all like "look at me, speaking on behalf of trans people" when I had this great opportunity to bring a trans woman's voice to the masses (at All Romance Ebooks).

I don't know how much of this I can emotionally handle delving back into, but while I got a lot of tweets from LGBTQ people and allies saying "Thank you for this post," I also got one that wasn't so positive. The person (who was/is a stranger to me) took issue with my girlfriend's statement that throwing the T word at a trans person is like calling a black person the N word. The twitter person told me this this statement was offensive. I cut and pasted the first two tweets this person sent me in the comments of my original ARe Cafe post because I wanted to give voice to their opinions.

At this point, I want to interrupt my story to talk about anti-racism anti-oppression training. Because, through my work in domestic violence, I've been to a lot of it. And I LOVE ARAO workshops. Truly. They are extremely challenging, but also very enlightening and you always leave a more open person. You're never done with this kind of training.

If you're not familiar with working within an anti-racism anti-oppression framework, the crux of it is acknowledging that certain peoples have inherent privilege because of various aspects of their identity. On the other hand, there are aspects of identity attached to oppression. And of course we all have so many different aspects of identity. Some are fixed. Some are in flux.

A lot of people like to think they're not racist, they're not sexist, they're not homophobic, they're not transphobic, they don't look down on poor people, they don't bash followers of any given religion. And maybe they're not those things in loud and noticeable ways, but we ALL have our moments of unfairness. We're all oppressors and we're all oppressed in one way or another. I know I'm an open-minded person, but does that mean I never have some random thought that's based on stereotyping? Nope. When we have those thoughts it's very important to have an open dialogue, even if it's just within ourselves, about where that thought came from.

I repeat: this is hard work. It's NOT comfortable.

I'm fortunate in that I was raised in a family where nobody said things that were racist or homophobic. My grandmother credits her openness to the fact that her line of the family has been biracial since the 1920s. Her family saw a lot of discrimination growing up, and she never understood why (for instance) she, as a white person, could go to the beach but her black brother couldn't. (YUP, there was segregation in Canada. We like to pretend that never happened here, but YUP it did. That's something I never learned in school.)

So, getting back to the event that made me suicidal, when a stranger on Twitter felt something I had published was racially insensitive, I took it to heart big-time. I would never even think to shut down a suggestion like that or reject it outright. I would never think "black people are my family, so I couldn't possibly say something offensive." That's just silly. My reaction is always to do an internal check on the issue.

Then I made the mistake of wanting to have a conversation with my detractor.

That was a mistake. Big mistake. Huge.

First off, Twitter isn't the best place to have a conversation with anyone, let alone someone you don't know who is already upset with you. The last thing I was looking for was an argument. I really wanted to hear this person's opinion, but they seemed to take everything I said as an attack.

I no longer remember which tweet sent me into shock, but my god... I remember sitting on my couch, looking at my laptop, and suddenly my hands started shaking. Then my arms started shaking. Then my whole body started shaking. I was in such disbelief that this person could think so ill of me and my intentions that my body started shutting down.  My ears started buzzing. My vision blurred. Aside from the full-body shaking, I couldn't move for hours. I lost my vision and didn't regain it until the next morning.

The only other time anything close to this has happened was a few summers ago when I sliced my finger open. The cut was so deep I blacked out and fainted in my kitchen. But THAT I recovered from. This, I haven't. And I probably never will. I think about it every day. I think about this person on the internet who thinks I'm a horrible racist horrible horrible person and then I start wondering if I am all those horrible horrible things.

In the week that followed that event, I understood why people killed themselves.  I've never done a drug in my life, but I understood that as well.  I would have done anything not to have to feel the way I felt. I couldn't talk to anyone about it because it would make them wonder about me. After all, people only accuse you of being racist if you ARE racist, right?

This has been a long post, but it's been a long time coming.  Since June, I've pretty much stopped blogging except here at The Grip because I'm so afraid of my words being taken the wrong way. I've retreated into myself, where I'm constantly asking, "Were they right about me?" And if I've offended someone, does right and wrong even matter? To me, in my heart, all that matters is that I hurt somebody. I can't get over that.

Obviously I haven't come to terms with this. I'm still in disbelief and I haven't yet found a way out.

That's all I have to say, I guess. 


  1. Dear Giselle. I feel for you and want to hug you.

    One of the ironies of our complicated human world, I think, is that the people who are the most worried about their behavior or attitudes are the people who, objectively, are the least offensive and most compassionate—in short, the people who are the most innocent of the transgressions they're so anxious about.

    I think you're very wise to recognize the unlikelihood that you, or any of us, "never have some random thought that's based on stereotyping." I agree with your implication that we need to accept this (but do our best to catch ourselves and confront our own lapses).

    But there's a difference between a random thought and a self-aware opinion. It seems inconceivable to me that some belligerent stranger on Twitter has a better insight into your attitudes than you do, given how deeply you've explored these issues and how open you are to challenging yourself. It seems to me that if there'd been anything for you to learn from that stranger in the area of refining your outlook on the issues, you would have learned it. In the absence of that, it sounds to me like your anxiety is the anxiety of an innocent, super-conscientious person who has been unfairly accused of being something she dreads being—but isn't. Your commendable pursuit of a constructive dialogue and your lack of defensiveness further emphasize how fair-minded you've been. Given all the circumstances and everything you've told us about yourself, I cannot believe for a moment that you are guilty of what you were accused of.

    I'll add, fwiw, that comparing the T word to the N word seems perfectly reasonable to me. And even if someone felt the comparison was flawed (believing, say, that the N word was even worse and thus not exactly an equivalent), that would hardly make it "offensive," imho.

    But, you know, I can also relate to the dread of one's words being taken the wrong way, especially on those important issues where one especially wants one's attitudes to be crystal clear. I had an experience of that sort quite recently, in fact, and there is that feeling that maybe one doesn't want to talk at all anymore if that's what's going to happen.

  2. I agree with everything Jeremy has to say. Sensitive people bees that way. :>)

    I'd just want to add that "correct' terminology tends to be a moving target. For instance, when I was kid, the "N" word was the usual. If you used 'black', it was often seen as *more* derogatory than the "N" word. The polite term was 'colored', then came "spade", then 'black' again, (by then acceptable) and now it's "Afro or African American" unless the word police have stepped in again.

    I had lots of black friends in high school and many times I'd be the only white kid at a party. It's pretty easy to be unaware of the recent PC regarding any word. Again. I'll mention the recent ERWA thread "the importance of doing research" which has lots to do with word freedom.

    Besides, this person sounds like a drama queen who's always looking for a scuffle. You'd be better to disregard them as a nut and be done with it. It's not really worth your agony over something like this. There's bullshit, and then there's the REAL shit. He/She sounds like bullshit to me. OMG- he/she is probably a no-no, huh? Damn.

  3. In case any readers are using this thread as a reference: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (my emphasis) named itself thus in 1910. (So, no offense, Daddy X, but unless you're 110 years old...) By the early 1960s (if not earlier), the generally known respectful term was "Negro." I believe "Afro-American" (as opposed to "African American") went out around 1980. I don't think "spade" was ever a respectful term.

    I do think it's important for those of us who fall into a "dominant" or "privileged" group (in this case, white people) to make a reasonable effort to respect the terminology that a historically (and currently) oppressed group collectively chooses for self-identification. And, yes, terminology changes over time—just as in other areas. People generally don't talk about "the Net" anymore, for instance; we say "cyberspace," and people learn to update their vocabulary. And yet that is so much less important than when we're operating in a sensitive area.

    I confess I'm always troubled by the use of terms like "P.C." and "word police," which have the effect of ridiculing and demonizing an enlightened effort to promote respectful, socially aware, and sensitive vocabulary.

    1. Yep- forgot 'negro'. But I also think people put too much effort into something that is so mercurial. And one of my best friends back in the Haight went proudly by "Spade Dan". I'm surely not going to go out of my way to insult or demean someone, but I just can't keep up with it, and don't have too much sympathy for those who make a big deal over a little perceived mistake.

    2. Giselle:
      My first shot at reply disappeared. I must have said something unPC. If it can be written, it can be misunderstood. Many inexcusable expressions of oppression and racism are broadcast every day but some people look to be offended. I think that's what happened to you. The problem of the semi-anonymous nature of social media is that people can say things they wouldn't say to your face. It doesn't do much for the pain of being misunderstood. I have a tendency toward bombastic humor. It is often misunderstood. Like you I'm being more careful about my off the cuff expression. The wrong people are self censoring, IMO. Thanks for sharing, maybe it will help the healing.

    3. And the historic point about naming the NAACP is a specious one at best. To suggest the term wasn't in common usage through the 40's, 50's, 60's is just plain wrong. I'd bet there's people in the U.S. who still think they're doing a black person a favor by calling them 'colored'.

    4. Re. the NAACP date: My point was simply that by 1910 there was already an African American–endorsed, more respectful alternative to the N word getting high-profile visibility. In other words, by the mid-20th century, a non-African American using the N word was, at best, behind the times. It was not "the usual."

    5. Agreed.

      In my lifetime, (since 1944) the "N" word was always considered derogatory. 'Colored', however persisted far too long. I saw it as late as the mid-60's in Georgia and Florida at public water fountains, bathrooms and other facilities. Unfortunately, among non-whites, the N word was the norm in unsophisticated settings. Probably still is.

  4. Just reading comments under articles about equality, immigration, religion etc can make my blood run cold. It is incredible to me that there are so many 'haters' out there who say the most despicable things about anyone they see different from themselves. Racism unfortunately hasn't been eradicated and probably never will, the N word, faggot, kike,dyke,rag head will live on as long as ignorance battles with wisdom. And after reading of the intolerance in some of our schools and churches, ignorance has the better chance of survival.

  5. Giselle, thanks for this post. I really feel for you. Blogging, posting, all that has always been hard for me because I get really concerned about the effects of what I'm saying. I frequently have to take breaks from communication because I can't take it after a while. I've also experienced how deeply shocked one can be by messages coming in over the Internet, and I'm so sorry that this took you so low. I agree with Jeremy that the way you've described this and your obvious self-awareness and openness to self-examination suggest that you would have learned from this person if it was possible.

    I've had some painful conversations myself around some of these issues, and one thing I'll point out is that I've noticed that there are triggering phrases–things that carry a lot of weight and meaning and are often shorthand for certain groups of attitudes. Some people seem to use those phrases without an awareness of the impact they're going to have, and yet other people use those same phrases intending to signify a collection of hostile attitudes. It's very hard to tell what's going on over the Internet.

    As a person who is often trying to speak about the experience of being female, a minority, or not straight, I will note that "PC" and "word police" are very often used by people who are attacking me or others like me, silencing their efforts to describe their experience or being generally abusive. Many honest efforts to describe painful experiences of harassment or discrimination are described as "looking to be offended." I have a pretty strong reaction in my gut at this point to those phrases because they've been so often used in accompaniment with verbal abuse of various sorts.

    What strikes me here is that Giselle was operating in a difficult intersection. In trying to defend trans people and help others understand language that can be hurtful to the LGBTQ community, she found herself in a conflict over race that sounds really tough. It does sound like the person on Twitter wasn't at all generous toward Giselle, which is really unfortunate. However, there's an irony to defending her by talking about how some people "look to be offended." That very phrase could likely be used abusively toward Giselle with respect to her post on ARe, by people suggesting that people would only have a problem with the words she pointed out if they're being over-sensitive.

    The whole point here is that words can hurt, and they can hurt over the Internet, and we all need to learn a lot about how to be kind to each other.

  6. The biggest problem, as I see it, having been a part of activist communities most of my life, is that most have a hard time identifying the enemy. They go back and forth with one another to the point they're battling their friends on fine points then on the big picture there's not enough energy left to fight the bad guy..

    And what responsibility does this person have for the anguish Gisselle's been put through? Not fair. Gisselle's act was at worst a gaffe. This person seems to be purposely inflicting pain. Not the same.

  7. People who feel strongly about such things, especially if they've been badly hurt, may come to any discussion with certain assumptions that blind them to possible alternate views, or any consciousness of their own blinkered view. In the case you mentioned, it sounds as though that person saw you as equating problems of the queer community with racial oppression. I've seen this sort of thing played out elsewhere. Yours was a legitimate semantic point, while to their super-sensitized perception it may have seemed like a trivialization of racial experience, something they'd learned to watch for and pounce on. I wonder whether their own unexamined attitude toward the queer community may have come into play here; was the comparison with gay experience more distasteful to them than a comparison to, say, the historical treatment of Jews would have been?

    There are arguments and confrontations that cannot turn out well no matter what the adversaries say. Avoid them if you can, and move on.

    1. I think you nailed it, Sacchi. I fell into this well of value pluralism where there was no possible resolution. Both stances were legitimate and nobody was really wrong, and I think that's what's held me in stasis with this issue for so many months.

  8. Just want to say I've read everybody's comments and I'm glad my post has sparked such an insightful conversation. I love you guys.

  9. Dear Giselle,

    Of course I'm reading this almost a week after you posted it, but let me just add my own words of support. The fact that your reaction to this Twit's accusation was so extreme demonstrates how untrue that accusation was. Real racists don't care what they say or what they sound like. In fact, in many cases they believe their language is justified.

    Your self-scrutiny - your sense of horror in considering whether you might have been racist - is clear evidence to the contrary.


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