From The Free Dictionary:
give someone the benefit of the doubt
to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either.
I’m afraid this is going to be more ‘stream of consciousness’ typing, taking the thoughts as they come – which is what I am actually more comfortable with – rather than something that has a specific beginning, middle and ending. Or point. I did have something else planned, having to do with the question “Why is this a feminist issue?” but, you know… I think I’ll just leave that one for another place and time. Heh.
I, as always, speak only for myself and my experiences and not as a spokesperson for any particular group of people.
So, this is an off the top of my head topic, mostly because I’ve been seeing that phrase (the benefit of the doubt) used lately and it does sometimes seem to me that different people have different ideas of what that means – depending on which side they are looking at it from, I suppose. I know, shocker. It often comes up (in one way or another) during discussions of race on and off the blogs, especially when it’s an issue of someone – usually, but not always, a person of color – saying to a person – usually, but not always, White – “hey… you know, that’s a racist saying, picture, way of thinking”.
Needless to say, this is not always greeted with cries of joy, thankfulness and relief. More often with defensiveness, pushback, argument, hard feelings, hurt feelings, discussion and then – if we’re lucky – some sort of resolution. And in there somewhere, sometimes, wails about being given the benefit of the doubt. And that’s when I wonder… what is it people think the benefit of the doubt actually is? Whatever their interpretation is of it, it’s far different from mine, I guess.
I have a favorite blogger, a White guy, that I came across through a link from another site – most of the time, with those, I go, look at whatever it was that was linked, and then forget to go back again, but with this one I was so impressed with the quality of writing, as well as the sense of humor and heart of the writer that I put it on my daily reading rotation. Almost as much fun as his writing is seeing the pictures that he finds to go along with the posts – some of them are just brilliant. Old timey, retro stuff a lot of them – really fun and neat. He doesn’t write much on race (that’s not what I visit his site for), but when he does it’s with a level of understanding – including knowing that there are some things he can’t understand – of righteous rage (especially about Katrina) and a talent for getting to the heart of the matter. I knew that this was someone who “gets it” and I felt comfortable there.
So, imagine my… well, surprise, surely, but mostly shock and um… gut kicked feeling when one day I click on the site and there is this really dreadful, racist picture there, illustrating a post. Oh man – I knew what it was about, from the post… it was being used to illustrate some sort of racist thing right wingers were doing or saying regarding Black people and he was ripping them a new one. Still… as you can see, I had a dilemma.
I was a fairly new commenter and, I’m pretty sure, either the only or one of the few commenters who was Black or of color and I felt I could do one of a few things.
1.) I could just say “oh well, I know what he’s doing and that he’s not racist himself” and just let it pass and keep commenting there as if nothing had bothered me.
2.) I could just scratch the site off my rotation and move on to somewhere else.
3.) I could mention that, while I understood the intent, that the picture was worse (to me) than whatever it was he was writing about or against, and that it made me extremely uncomfortable.
#3 is the one that is most fraught, for me, as a person of color. So many things can (and often do) happen when one chooses that option. And, the thing is, you never know which reaction you’ll be hit with, even if you are dealing with the nicest, most aware, most “I get it” (usually) White person that you know, especially if it’s someone you like and who you believe likes you. Anywhere from an outright denial of the racism to “well, reasonable people can see that sometimes things, when used like this, aren’t racist” (which, of course, puts you right away in the “unreasonable” category), to – as someone recently pointed out – if they are selling something, other (usually) White commenters coming to the defense of the original writer, declaring that of course it’s not racist, whatever it is you are selling I am going to buy 10 and give them to all my friends and family, to eventual grudging acceptance that, okay maybe it’s racist, but you’re a jerk for pointing out, to oh okay, sorry, i didn’t think of that, thanks for pointing it out.
Me, I dithered a lot, all the time with this huge pain in my stomach because if I got the “wrong” reaction, I would have just been so disappointed, I love the site so maybe it’s better to say nothing, but if I don’t say anything how can I then continue to enjoy the site, knowing that I don’t trust this person enough to speak, and if I don’t trust this person enough to speak and don’t trust him and his reactions enough to believe that he’ll do the right thing, or if I don’t trust this person enough to believe he’s not going to turn into someone else and start spewing accusations and vitriol at me for speaking up… well then, what the heck am I doing here? Do I trust this person or not? Okay, yes, I do.
So, I went into the comments of the post and said something to the effect that, while I usually love all your pictures, I do not love this one. It’s racist. And his reaction was to change the picture immediately and then to comment on why he had used it, and what he was trying to accomplish, but that he definitely could make the same point with a different picture.
Or something like that, this was a while ago.
In making the decision to not just shake my head and move on, or to stay silent and probably seethe or to roll my eyes and think “oh well, par for the course” but deciding instead to bring this to his attention, come what may, and to believe (or at least hope) there would be no blowback from it… I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.
When people’s commenters (friends, co-workers, so on) choose forms of options 1 and 2 and opt not to mention that something is, even if unintentionally, racist (or wrong in some other fashion), it may be quieter and less painful for the original poster and less uncomfortable for those that like and support them, but that person is not necessarily being given the benefit of the doubt, in my opinion.
They’ve already lost it.