New video! It’s a new poem/PSA/collaboration with Linebreak Media about reframing the idea of “political correctness” to be less about censorship and more about choosing to not use needlessly hurtful language. Please share, re-post, blog, etc. if you like it.

Especially since this issue comes up every few months in the media, and pretty much every second of every day for people who pay attention, I’m hoping this piece can be a resource for people who are tired of saying/typing this kind of stuff over and over again.

Language matters.


The Oscars, Bad Jokes and Bully Culture

3 Points About Rape Jokes that People Seem to Be Ignoring

Responding to Common Arguments About Offensiveness

On Boycotting the B-Word

…plus a few extended thoughts on this piece over at Opine Season.

TRANSCRIPT (may not be perfect, but it’s pretty close):

Okay class, settle down. No you can’t touch my gun. No, none of you are going to get tased. See, I’m not a regular cop, so my presentation today is not going to be about drugs or graffiti. I’m with a special unit… the division of political correctness—yes, the PC police.

And I know we don’t have a good reputation, that everyone thinks we’re just trying to stamp out free speech or, create a world where everyone lies to themselves and it’s all sunshine and lollipops and unicorns. I get that. No one likes being told what to do. But the thing is, political correctness isn’t about being perfect, or censoring your emotions or always being nice to everyone. It’s just about… not being a jackass.

For example… the word “retarded” is offensive to a lot of people because it dehumanizes those with cognitive or developmental disabilities. So when you use that word to talk about the plot of the new action movie blockbuster, or make fun of your friend for forgetting his wallet, you’re kind of being a jackass.

Similarly, rape is a real thing that happens to real people, far too often, so that word should only be used when actually talking about rape. Not in ironically over-the-top comedy routines, not when referring to what a bad 3D conversion did to your eyes, and not when talking about how that video game mini-boss took down your shields in one shot. With all of these examples, it’s not that your feelings are wrong, it’s just that you’re expressing those feelings, like a jackass.

Fun fact: the word “bitch” is a derogatory term for woman. And unless you are a principled third-wave feminist trying to re-appropriate the word, which you’re probably not, it does not matter how you’re using it—as an all-purpose, ungendered insult, as a synonym for “complain,” or as a directionless expletive at the end of a rap verse—it is ALWAYS a derogatory term for woman. You cannot give a chicken-salad sandwich to a vegetarian and say “but it’s chicken SALAD.”

Am I saying that you are a bad person if you use these words? No. Am I saying that I’ve never used these words? No. Am I saying that it should be illegal for anyone to use these words? Absolutely not.

I’m just saying this: Most people use offensive language because they just don’t know any better. Well now you do. But there are others out there, who like to be offensive, because they think it’s cool. Here’s the thing about that: you want to be edgy, you want to push people’s buttons? Talk about white privilege. Talk about drone strikes, police brutality, the foreclosure crisis. Talk about rape culture. Those things will push people out of their comfort zones, more than “using naughty words” every could. You want to go against the grain and be that cool, independent rebel? Good. I’m just saying there are more powerful ways to do that than needlessly shitting on entire communities of people who already have an uphill battle in this society. Using inclusive language is very easy. If you think it’s hard, that’s because you’re not really trying.

Now if I were to say “don’t ever use the letter W because that letter is offensive to me,” then you could get mad. It would be very difficult to go through life without using the letter W. That would be an unreasonable request.

But do white people really need to use the n-word? Is it so difficult to say that you got “screwed” instead of you got “jewed?” Can you think of no better way to register your dislike for something than to call it “gay?”

Shakespeare, once wrote: “A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality. Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile. Thine face is not worth sunburning.” Now that’s not all from one passage, but still, a glorious, beautiful way to call someone a jackass.

You may have noticed that I’ve used the word “jackass” numerous times during this presentation. That’s because well, I’m a little drunk, but ALSO because even though “jackass” is an insult, it’s the good kind of insult. It’s a word that refers to people who are rude, annoying and thoughtless by comparing them to donkeys. And sure, it may be offensive to donkeys—but who gives a shit?

Class, I’m two weeks away from retirement. I’ve been fighting the good fight since teenagers were calling each other “gay-wads” and politicians were openly using racial slurs in campaign speeches. And I know, you may not have anything against people with disabilities, or women, or the LGBTQ community or anyone, but using language like this—even if you don’t mean it to be offensive, directly contributes to a culture, that hurts people. And sure, we need to do a lot more than just change the way we talk, but… I’m just a beat cop. I hope you’ll all be my deputies. Together, we can say “no,” to being a jackass.

Originally published at Opine Season

“Telling [people of color] they’re obsessed with racism is like telling a drowning person they’re obsessed with swimming.” —Hari Kondabolu (hat tip to Donte Collins)

After a week of comments and conversations, I wanted to address the recurring points that some white people have brought up in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Because it’s not just about Trayvon Martin; every time there’s a national conversation about race and racism, white people (yes, I’m generalizing; no, I’m not sorry) tend to have the same kinds of reactions.

Getting wildly, irrationally defensive even though it’s not about you:
My column from last week basically just says “if you’re white and upset about the verdict, here are some things you can do to confront racism in your own life.” That’s it.

But then come the comments: “It’s racist to say that white people are racist!” “Why do we have to make such a big deal out of this?” “I’m white and I paid to go to college so there’s no such thing as white privilege!” “Why do we have to be singled out?“ The people talking about racism are the real racists!” “We’re not all like that!” “I’m so offended!”

White people: “talking about racism” does not equal “attacking you personally.” We desperately need to stop being so insecure every time anyone brings up anything remotely related to race and racism. You don’t have to agree, but to immediately jump into “eyes-closed-and-screaming” mode speaks volumes about you and the kind of world in which you’d prefer to live.

Refusing to acknowledge the role that race plays in our lives
“It wasn’t about race.” That was the most consistent theme in the responses. Time and time again, when there is a racial incident in this country, people of color point to the giant racist elephant rampaging through the room and white people say “oh that’s probably just the wind.”

Is it possible that Zimmerman would have approached a white kid the same way he approached Trayvon Martin? Sure… it’s possible. But the lived experience of millions upon millions of people says that it’s also extremely naïve to believe that.

When people of color talk about racism, they’re not just making things up. There’s no Black Santa who delivers big bags of money to anyone who claims to have been discriminated against. Racial profiling, harassment and discrimination are daily realities for millions of people. To just dismiss that as “whining” or “playing the race card” is unbelievably arrogant.

“Refusing to talk about racism” doesn’t end racism. “Ending racism” ends racism. If your house is on fire, you don’t just ignore the flames away. Maybe a better metaphor is if your neighbors’ house is on fire, you don’t tell them to “stop making such a big deal out of it.” You don’t look the other direction and say “but are you sure it’s on fire?” You help, or you get the hell out of the way.

Focusing on the details and ignoring the big picture:
“Zimmerman was half-Peruvian!” “911 dispatchers don’t have the authority to give orders!” “Trayvon was big and really strong and got in trouble at school!” “Zimmerman had an African-American girlfriend once!” “Since Travyon was right-handed, and standing at x angle, and the moon was at y point in the sky, there’s no way he could have…”


I think the biggest misconception about the outrage around the Zimmerman trial is that people are mad about the verdict. To be fair, many are. But many more are mad because Travyon Martin happens every day in this country. It may not always end with a dramatic gun death, but young black and brown men are demonized, profiled, harassed, imprisoned and killed every day for being young black and brown men (and women too, let’s be honest).

The marches and rallies that have been happening recently aren’t just about Trayvon Martin. They’re about the culture that demonizes black and brown youth, assuming that they’re dangerous, threatening, and up-to-no-good. They’re about the lack of accountability and consequences in police brutality cases. They’re about disproportionate minority confinement. They’re about the selective application of the “Stand Your Ground” law. They’re about the gross over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. They’re about who is given the benefit of the doubt and who isn’t, time and time again. They’re about the continued de-valuing of black and brown life in this country.

Argue about the specific details of this specific case all you want, but nothing in the above paragraph is up for debate. That’s the big picture that we—especially those of us who identify as white—have to see, if we ever hope to transition from “having a conversation about racism” to “doing something about racism.”

I posted these as a comment on the previous column, but I can’t recommend them enough; absolutely must-read material:

Questlove at NY Magazine

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic

Aura Bogado at Colorlines

Originally published at Opine Season, the night after the Zimmerman verdict, where it maxed out our comment system… though the timestamp here is still July 2013, I’m actually re-posting this here a year later. Be sure to check out the addendum to this piece here.

In the next few days, there are going to be a lot of essays and op-eds attempting to make sense of, or grapple with, or process the Zimmerman verdict, from writers who are better than me. So I want to talk about this from a very specific angle.

This is an open letter to white people, especially to those white people who understand that something terrible has happened, and has been happening, and will continue to happen, but don’t know what to do.

Clearly, something needs to change. But not every problem has a clear-cut, run-out-the-door-and-do-something solution. If you’re angry, or sad, take a second to process. Think about where you fit into this injustice, how you benefit from it, how you’re hurt by it. If that involves prayers, or posting links on Twitter, or having hard conversations, or writing poems, do that. Process.

But it can’t end with “processing.”

If you’re someone who has avoided thinking about white privilege—the unearned advantages that white people benefit from because of how institutions are set up and how history has unfolded—now is a great time to unstick your head from the sand. If Trayvon Martin had been white, he’d still be alive. What better real-world example of white privilege is there? Grappling with how privilege plays out in our own lives is a vital first step to being able to understand what racism is.

But it can’t end with “thinking about our privilege.”

We also need to act on those thoughts, to cultivate an awareness that can permeate our lives and relationships. When people of color share personal stories about racism, our immediate response has to stop being “but I’m not like that.” Just listen. Don’t make someone else’s oppression about you and your feelings. When people of color are angry, we need to stop worrying about the “tone” of their arguments, or trying to derail the conversation with phrases like “it’s not just about race,” or contribute meaningless abstractions like “let’s start a revolution.” When we see unjust or discriminatory practices or attitudes in our workplaces, schools, families or neighborhoods, we need to step up and challenge them. We need to take risks. We need to do better.

But it can’t end with “striving to be a better individual.”

Times like this can feel so hopeless, but it’s important to remember that people are fighting back, and have been fighting back. Racism doesn’t end when you decide to not be racist. It ends when people come together to organize, to work to reshape how our society is put together.

Check out organizations who are doing racial justice work, community organizing trainings, work with youth, and more: the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Hope Community Center, TruArtSpeaks, Juxtaposition Arts, Justice for Terrance Franklin, Justice for Fong Lee, Communities United Against Police Brutality. There are certainly others (feel free to add more in the comments). Google stuff. Talk to people. Figure out where and how you can plug in.

As a white person, that can be hard. The leaders of any racial justice movement will be, and should be, the people who are most affected by the problem. But that doesn’t mean that white folks should just sit by and watch. Some of the organizations listed above may have ways for you to get involved; some might not. But there’s always something you can do. Organize a discussion group. Learn about good ally behavior. Challenge your Facebook friends. Challenge yourself. Join an organization. Infuse social justice principles into your workplace, or place of worship, or school, or neighborhood. Listen. Understand that Trayvon Martin’s murder was not an isolated incident; start seeing the racism all around you, and start doing something about it.

Above all, stay engaged. As white people, we have the option of not caring. Many don’t.