What to do if you’re offended by someone else’s pain

Behind me, Lucy Loudmouth bemoans the current state of “PC” enforcement (loosely paraphrased): “Now nobody can wear a headdress at Coachella? And the way they treated Kylie Jenner… This political correctness just goes too far.”

I do get it. As a white kid I had my share of bad reactions to criticisms on the grounds of race. But this reaction—which shall hereafter be referred to as the “last-straw” approach—really mystifies me. 

The “last-straw” reaction is typically scripted as follows: “Listen, I’m totally okay with rights for Black People/POC. But saying I shouldn’t wear cornrows/wear a headdress/brandish a confederate flag/paint a bindi on my head/etc. is just taking it too far.” This weird reaction is predominantly reserved for people who are asking for tolerance on the grounds of cultural appropriation, but it does extend to other disenfranchised groups, like women or Lgbtqia+.

Why does the suggestion that other white people’s behaviour is inappropriate make white people so uncomfortable? Lucy Loudmouth will never wear a headdress, or cornrows, and neither will 80% of the people who have this reaction to stories of people getting flack for behaving outside the bounds of good taste.

Perhaps some people think this language isn’t harmful. But the “last-straw” reaction demonstrates that their allyship and support of disenfranchised people is 100% conditional on their personal comfort. White people simply don’t like the suggestion that they’re not allowed to do things on the grounds of racial appropriateness (the irony of which does not escape me), even if they are never going to personally wear a headdress to Coachella. 

This is even more ridiculous because it shows a complete and utter refusal to accommodate patterns of historical change in regards to shifting standards of public behaviour. There are so many things that used to be common in public discourse that now result in public crucifixion, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just like some things become more appropriate over time (like seeing young women in tank tops or being open about having sex), others pass beyond the bounds of good taste as our collective moral compass recallibrates. Railing against this fact is a little like being a proponent of the confederate flag—someone who does so will only be perceived as more racist as time goes on.

So, in the interest of actually helping out the poor souls who think these kinds of comments are either necessary or tasteful, here are a few steps to go through if you think you might be about to make a comment like this. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you actually know why [minority group] is upset? Because it’s probably not that they want to hurt you, or take away things away from you. Somewhere, they probably explain why they want you to stop. A cursory Google search should do. Here, let me get that for you.

Next, decide if these people, their feelings, and their lives matter to you!

Once that’s done, ask yourself: does the criticism affect you in any way? If it does, should you modify your day-to-day behaviour? Fun fact: if you weren’t planning on doing said slightly racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/ableist thing, you can probably just kick up your heels and congratulate yourself.

The next step is to ask yourself if it’s actually necessary to open your slightly racist mouth. Sometimes, keeping quiet over a slight concern is the kinder, more thoughtful thing to do. Remember, white people don’t always need to voice every feeling and thought that springs into their heads.

As a final check, is there any chance that your answers to the above questions mark you as the contemporary version of your grandma who asks where the “real canadian nurses” are, and everyone just mumbles and looks away in discomfort?

Repeat as necessary.

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