Recently, the Daily Show aired a segment pitting a panel of Native American activists who are pushing for a new name for a certain Washington-based football team against a panel of fans who are opposed to a name change.
The segment is an amusing take on the sordid situation, but while it contrasts the views of the two panels, there is almost no interaction between them. The reason for this became clear when one of the pro-name change activists, Migizi Pensoneau, published an article in the Missoula Independent about his experience behind the scenes.
According to Pensoneau, the plan was for the segment’s host, Jason Jones, to have the anti-name-change group make their argument, and then ask, “Would you say all of this stuff directly to a Native American?” They would presumably say ‘yes,’ at which point Pensoneau and company would be brought out, awkwardness would ensue, and the anti-name-changers would leave.
But during the event Kelli O’Dell, one of the anti-name-change panellists, burst into tears and accused the pro-name-changers of “ambushing and lying,” Pensoneau wrote. After filming but before the segment aired, O’Dell told the Washington Post that she felt “in danger” and was “going to be defamed.”
In his article, Pensoneau revealed that during a portion of the filming that did not make it to television, he was harassed and threatened by Washington fans at a tailgate party. He pointed out that though he was overtly threatened (one fan told him, “I’ll fucking cut you”), he did not back down because of his conviction that he is right. He also mentioned that O’Dell’s dramatics do not speak well for her own convictions.
“I thought she was crying because she was caught unaware and was afraid,” Pensoneau wrote. “But I realized that was her defence mechanism, and that by overly dramatizing her experience, she continued to trivialize ours.”
Essentially, a response like O’Dell’s takes the privileged person’s discomfort at arguing with a real person rather than a hypothetical one and raises it above the discrimination faced by oppressed groups.
You see this phenomenon all over the place. Watch any middle class person confronted by a panhandler at a bus stop, for example. They will probably refuse more or less politely to give the panhandler money, then quietly seethe for the rest of their wait. (I’m not proud of it, but I have been this person).
Maybe they will post an angry Facebook status.
In the mind of our hypothetical commuter, the panhandler doesn’t even merit mention. We all agree that something ought to be done about poverty, but when confronted with an actual poor person we mostly want them to go away and stop bothering us so we can go back to business as usual. They make us uncomfortable, and the considerably larger discomfort that anyone reduced to panhandling must be facing is not a concern for us.
A similar thing happens with many men when they are exposed to feminist discourse. There is currently a big discussion being had in the online gaming community about sexism. Some male gamers of my acquaintance are frustrated at what they perceive as being a lack of options for avoiding sexism; it seems to them that no matter what they do, someone is going to call them sexist. There’s no way to just fix the problem and go back to business as usual.
What they fail to recognize is that business as usual is the problem. When affairs have been arranged such that one group is systematically oppressed, there is no way to simply patch it up and move on. Any substantial change has to be a long and involved process that will force the people in a position of privilege to confront things they do not feel comfortable confronting. And the end result will never be business as usual.
What is required of those of us who are in a position of privilege is this: stop thinking about avoiding blame and placating angry interlocutors. This puts the focus of the discussion on your comfort, your concerns, your needs, and this is where the focus has been all along – which is why we need to have these conversations in the first place.
The ideal we should instead aspire to is listening to actual people and understanding their concerns, and doing our best to redress them. A good place to start: change the goddamn team name already.