The Benefit of the Doubt

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.

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64 Responses to The Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Linnaeus says:

    Bingo, Nanette. When we don’t point out these things to people, especially those whom we respect or who are close to us, we are in essence denying them an opportunity to change their behavior.

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  3. ilyka says:

    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.

    You took something that has been making me a basket case for two days now, and you made something so breathtakingly awesome from it* that I am founding a new religion. It is called Nanettism. Guidance from Your Supreme Divineness on how best to keep the Nanette Day holy much welcome.

    *Though not wholly from it alone, I realize.

  4. ellenbrenna says:

    The humor habit of progressives I despise:

    I will now express the internal narrative of a conservative by saying something racist/sexist/homophobic or just plain dumb, many will laugh and play along, others will merely stop reading my site altogether but right wingers will be shamed, SHAMED, I say, by my insight and wit.


  5. brklyngrl says:

    This is great. I wish I could make it required reading for life.

    It is hard to make that leap of faith, and it so often goes poorly.

  6. Joan Kelly says:

    My heart just stopped from how much I love you, Nanette. Then Ilyka’s suggestion, thankfully, got it pumping again. Hence my ability to type.

  7. Ugly In Pink says:

    ellenbrenna – they’re never shamed, but at least the rest of us can have a good course of laughing at them. it’s parody, it’s not meant to really hurt anyone, so if it does, I hope people give me and other progressives the benefit of the doubt similarly so we can stop. That kind of humor is meant to make people happy, not uncomfortable. But I don’t think anything’s wrong with parodying right wingers in general, including their racist/sexist/homophobic and misogynistic absurdities.

  8. Holly says:

    That’s a perfect example, and exactly fits my mental image of what the benefit of the doubt means in a situation like that. Thanks!

  9. triumphantmulatta says:

    Wow. This is a fuckin awesome post. Exactly right on.

  10. Nanette says:

    Linnaeus, exactly. And it’s not exactly fair to them (sometimes) that they not even be offered the chance.

  11. Nanette says:

    lol ilyka (who is much missed), how does one respond to that comment (which did actually cause Joan’s heart to start beating so it’s a good thing, but still)?

    Oh I know… chocolate is the answer to all things!

  12. Nanette says:

    ellenbrenna, yeah. Sometimes that works great, but other times… not so much.

    I dunno tho… for some weird reason, sometimes it seems (some) people are more open to critiques of their serious posts than when you try to tell them their humor or irony fell flat. At that point you become ‘too sensitive’ or ‘irony or humor impaired’, ‘not used to critical thinking’ or, if they’ve swallowed right wing terminology and attitudes, ‘too PC’.

    Tackling issues like that deftly, and with a humor that allows poc, or gay people or whoever to laugh along with you and everyone else, is an art that not everyone has mastered.

  13. QLH says:

    sometimes it seems (some) people are more open to critiques of their serious posts than when you try to tell them their humor or irony fell flat. At that point you become ‘too sensitive’ or ‘irony or humor impaired’, ‘not used to critical thinking’ or, if they’ve swallowed right wing terminology and attitudes, ‘too PC’.

    I hate that. It’s difficult to argue against those accusations, because it just makes you look ignorant and defensive. It’s kind of a self-proving label: slap it on someone, watch her argue against it, and watch it stick all the more.

    I understand that it’s not fun to be told that your joke is offensive. But maybe listening to the argument is better than saying, “You’re just too stupid to understand irony.”

  14. rebeccab says:

    Well, how timely! :) And exactly right.

  15. ankathry says:

    really enjoyed this piece, and, as a white girl, greatly appreciate the occasions on which I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt. There were definitely times when I totally didn’t deserve it — I cringe at how uninformed and blithely dismissive I was of the experience of racial and ethnic minorities before I took a few classes on that topic. And I identified as a feminist back then, too! It’s unbelievable to me now that I should ever have been so arrogant as to privilege my own completely insulated judgment over the actual experiences of others.

    It does bother me that the education of racist or Eurocentric individuals seems to get assigned to people of color as though it’s a moral responsibility, though. It seems to absolve those with more privilege of the obligation to educate their damn selves and following that, each other.

  16. Hector B. says:

    I see a connection to feminism: Trying not to be racist, or sexist, means being able to see things from a completely different point of view. This is possible only if you are able to accept it when the other person tells you when you have got it wrong. But people tend to reject criticism that clashes with their self-image. They don’t realize that they retain ingrained unenlightened ways of thinking. And they want to receive credit for trying, not just for succeeding. So I have to think that your blogger was very enlightened.

  17. zuzu says:

    It’s interesting how these things play out. There’s quite often a furor, and I can say from experience that when you’re the target of that furor, you can feel really defensive if you feel you’ve been misunderstood, and act accordingly. But at some point, you need to drop those defensive feelings and just listen. And, even if you don’t entirely agree after considering the issue, letting the other person know that you hear them, you have listened, you have considered the issue, is very important.

    And, gosh, whatever could you mean by this post?

  18. How timely indeed, rebeccab. I’m going through a similar situation myself. I hope it ends up as well as Nanette’s did.

  19. Nanette says:


    I understand that it’s not fun to be told that your joke is offensive. But maybe listening to the argument is better than saying, “You’re just too stupid to understand irony.”

    You’d think so, but then one would have to not only examine the joke but also do some sort of self examination, and, and… well math is hard.


    It does bother me that the education of racist or Eurocentric individuals seems to get assigned to people of color as though it’s a moral responsibility, though. It seems to absolve those with more privilege of the obligation to educate their damn selves and following that, each other.

    Well, it doesn’t exactly absolve them of the obligation it’s just that not all will do the work or are even aware that there is work to be done. And even then, after all the work (on any issue, really) it’s not all that hard to do something stupid, lol. Believe me, I know!

  20. Nanette says:

    And, gosh, whatever could you mean by this post?

    *blinks* you mean you think I have an ulterior motive or something or someone specific in mind? Surely not ;)

    Bianca, good luck to you, hope it works out. My blogger, as Hector puts it, is indeed very enlightened.. feminist and anti-racist and willing to consider that he could be wrong, and so things were quick and relatively painless. Still even if the understanding hadn’t been immediate, if there is a conversation there, and listening instead of dismissal it’s often worth the time, I think.

  21. r@d@r says:

    i have been that white blogger friend who stupidly posted something racist – actually it was a link to a racist joke on someone else’s blog – that i didn’t realize was racist until a good, no, a great friend gave me that same benefit of the doubt and schooled me. that, to me, is friendship. Once is bad enough, but there was another time, in the form of a comment on someone else’s blog, to which they replied in an email, saying something to the effect of “how about let’s not have you stop by for a visit, for awhile.” the first friendship i kept; the second died in infancy. i learned, i hope, from both instances. i hope.

    the thing is, the two or three times in my 42 odd years of life that i was given that benefit of the doubt in this way continue make me squirm, because stupid a**h*** that i certainly can be, i feel certain that there were at least as many, if not more times, that i was not given the benefit of the doubt, but rather my senseless words and/or actions were received with resignation and the thought: “not this again…” followed by a permanent loss of a potential human connection. it sucks to think of that, but in the final analysis you have to take the opportunity to humbly laugh at yourself, otherwise it once again turns into just being all about you.

    i am eternally grateful for those people i am so very honored to call friends who without any concern for my feelings freely tell me “dude – you’re slipping.” because the sting of being told you’ve been wrong is nowhere near as bad as the ache of realizing, too late, that a window to another mind is shut forever.

  22. Bangnor says:

    Well…uh…understanding that this is a total hypothetical, and all, what do we do when the person is given a chance and chooses to make the situation exponentially worse by getting hyperdefensive and dismissive and causing as much or more offense by not listening and echoing right wing tropes about distinguishing whether or not this is one of those ultrarare occasions when this inevitable blagh blagh blagh might actually have validity?

  23. This post was brilliant. And I agree with your definition of “the benefit of the doubt”, not with the one that a lot of other people seem to be using.

    Here’s the thing…speaking up is hard, right? It would have been much easier for you to say nothing to that blogger. You didn’t have to try to reason with him. You could have just decided that he was an asshole and never visited his blog again. The fact that you didn’t indicates that you thought that, although he had been an idiot in posting that picture, he was in theory capable of not being an idiot. That’s a compliment, and I would hope that people would be able to recognise it as such. Apparently in this case the guy actually did. The many people who don’t? Well, by reacting the way they do when criticised that are proving that they never deserved the benefit of the doubt in the first place.

    This is an important point.
    “It does bother me that the education of racist or Eurocentric individuals seems to get assigned to people of color as though it’s a moral responsibility, though. It seems to absolve those with more privilege of the obligation to educate their damn selves and following that, each other.”

    I’m a white girl. I don’t think it’s anyone’s job to educate me. Which is why I tend to appreciate it when someone actually takes the time to do so. It’s a compliment, even when it doesn’t feel like one, because at least the person thinks you’re worth trying to educate.

  24. QLH says:

    Accusing anyone who speaks up of “flaming” is, actually, NOT really likely to foster an atmosphere where honest criticism from allies is welcome. In fact, it makes you look like you think that you’re untouchable/beyond reproach, and it also paints anyone who speaks up as a vicious troll who’s just out to get you. Sometimes it can be hard to tell who’s out to persecute you and who’s not, but now we’re back to giving people the benefit of the doubt.

    That’s a two-way street.

    If we’re supposed to give a blogger credit, maybe that blogger could return the favor. We say, “Hey, I see your point, but here’s why that’s offensive,” and she says, “Oh, I hadn’t even considered that, but I see what you’re getting at,” and the conversation continues from there. We assume that she meant no harm, and she does the same. We give her the benefit of the doubt by assuming that she’s approachable on the subject, and she gives us the benefit of the doubt by engaging in reasonable debate on the subject.

  25. Lovely post, Nanette. We were on the same wavelength that day… although yours was far more gracious. *grins*

    And yes, it is difficult to know where the borders are – how far do we let this conversation go if they seem to be Just Not Getting It? – but I think that’s specific to each conversation and relationship… and not nearly so important as the fact that it’s attempted at all.

  26. Cara says:

    You know, it’s quite possible to simultaneously give someone the benefit of the doubt and speak up. I think that there are times when you can tell that someone is being obviously inflammatory, or has said something so incredibly racist that there is no need to hold back. And I think that there are times (like the situation related here, it seems) where the person is being unknowingly racist or “ironic” but still racist, and you can say “hey, I know that you didn’t mean it like this, but what you said is actually offensive, and here is why.” That seems to have been the end result, here, and that may be why it worked so well. Of course, if after giving the benefit of the doubt and seeing that the person really didn’t deserve it after all, it’s fine to let loose.

    I have been spoken to like this on many occasions, in areas of race, sex, gender, class and sexuality. Hell, like everyone, I’ve messed up a lot. And occasionally, I still do. And I appreciate it when someone takes the time to educate me about an ingrained prejudice. It makes me a better person, blogger and activist. But I also appreciate that they generally don’t come at me saying “you prejudiced fuck.” It definitely increases receptiveness.

  27. snappy mackerel says:

    Props, Nanette.

  28. roses says:

    I think #3 is giving them the benefit of the doubt. Not giving them the benefit of the doubt would be to assume they were being intentionally racist and choosing option #2. #3 is giving them the benefit of the doubt by… well exactly what you said. Trusting that they’re not really racists at heart and that if they knew how offensive they were being they would willingly try to change their behaviour.

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  30. The assumption that I did not give anyone the benefit of the doubt is not borne out by the evidence. Not only did I not deny that the complaints had a point, I acted on them. I just predicted—rightly it turns out—that some people will continue to flame you as if you didn’t listen or consider their opinion, no matter what you do.

  31. Now you may not be saying that. But just interesting timing is all.

  32. Blackamazon says:

    *applauds Nanette*

  33. Nanette says:

    Amanda, actually, no. While the thread at your place, your readers comments, your reaction, so on gave me the final push to talk about something that’s been on my mind for a while, I didn’t write this to you, about you, or really even in direct relation to you. If I had thought it would do any good I might have applied it specifically to you and supplied concrete examples and instances and stuff from the thread or something. As it is..

    I think what you did get out of this piece is, well… interesting. And yes, good for you for taking action on the book cover.

  34. La Lubu says:

    Fabulous post, Nanette. It is destined to be linked to, time and time again.

    I’m “irony deficient”, because I’ve seen so-called “irony” used as a mask for replicating the same-old same-old racist, sexist bullshit. Othering, 2.0.

  35. ilyka says:

    The assumption that I did not give anyone the benefit of the doubt is not borne out by the evidence.

    Oh yes. It fucking. Is.

    This is the very first comment about race and that cover, Amanda. The very first:


    …Amanda, as smart as you are, and i actually love the title, but the cover image is so vintage racist i’d have thought you would have written *about* a book that looked like that rather written *in* it.
    i don’t intend to stop reading the blog, or to not read the book (because i expect the content is as good as the blog, and really, there’s worse– a picture of Michelle Malkin, for instance) but… really? a big black anthropomorphic gorilla and a little white woman? this is exactly what you’re talking about! i really, really respect you as a writer but… do you think there’s any room for criticism of the cover? i mean, images of helpless white women abound and deserve to be poked fun at, but why does it have to come with a big black gorilla that walks like a man?
    congratulations on the book.

    This is your very first acknowledgement of that comment, Amanda:

    And i wasn’t disappointed in how long it took the eagerly offended to by outrage by their perceived racism of the cover.

    We had a running bet on how long it would be before people saw the sexism and not the irony.

    In other words, you handled it like a complete snot, just like I long ago warned you not to. I could have saved my fingers a lot of aching back then had I NOT given you the benefit of the doubt, but no, I’m a dreamer, and I completely underestimated how bloodyminded and pigheaded you can be.

    But is that all? Hell, no, that’s not all! When justicewalks and Heart backed Serena up, you kept digging:

    Good to know what the joy-killing narrative is going to be. My money was on “pornographic”. Shows my guessing skills.

    Joy-killing? JOY-KILLING? You probably think this song is about you, don’t you?

    And then, my personal favorite for sheer head-asplodyness, this:

    It did make writing it easier, though. I realized that stressing out over inclusive vs. not condescending vs. humor was pointless when there was no such thing as the perfect mix that will avoid criticism that I’m secretly a racist/sexist/Markos-lover, and that realization freed me up to write in my own voice and aiming for humor.

    Shorter you: “I realized that to change would mean to make an effort, and I didn’t wanna, because ‘these people’ are just out to get me anyway.”

    You know what? You don’t get to invalidate the work of people who do make the effort by declaring success at that effort “impossible.” Fuck you! It’s not impossible; it’s just seemingly impossible FOR YOU. God knows why!

    Some of your so-called friends are in that thread wailing about tone and sensitivity and good faith and, yes, the benefit of the doubt. They appear to think they are being supportive. They are not being supportive; they are being enabling. They are enabling your worst qualities: Paranoia. Defensiveness. Obstinacy.

    I may not be your friend, but I at least respect you enough to say that you should really get some help for that shit. Not everyone who brings up race and racism around you is Bitch|Lab; not every attempt at discussion constitutes “an inevitable flamewar” (by the way, please, someone start an inevitable flamewar with me by kissing my ass about what a great writer and thinker I am and then humbly begging my permission to talk about the one teensy-tiny problem they have with me! Please start that flamewar with me! I would love it!); not every criticism of you has been fired from Bill Donahue’s stinking cannon.

    People wouldn’t try to reach you if they didn’t think you were reachable. But I think you may at last expect those attempts to stop, because every blasted time you’re given the opportunity to respond in good faith, with respect for the people who risked your anger, your condescension, and your ultimate rejection just to treat you like a decent human being–every blasted time, you fuck it up. I CAN’T STAND IT.

    And if you don’t agree with me about the moral issues here, fine, let’s talk about the political ones: How can you be so heavy into politics and still be this politically stupid? You could have had a nice, tidy 80-comment thread that was 85% pure love, if only the first words outta your virtual mouth had been, “Sure, Serena, we can talk about that! I have to warn you, though, I’m not sure how much pull I have with the publisher over this.” That’s it! That’s all you had to do. Stop claiming that’s so hard to do. It is not hard to do. If I, the dumbfuck former Mormon Republican can figure this out, you, the lifelong feminist liberal, have no excuse.

    Put the goddamn gun down and quit shooting yourself in the foot! I’m BEGGING you. You are capable of being better than this.

  36. Nanette says:

    We were on the same wavelength that day…

    Hey, Mags, were we ever! That is an excellent series you are doing, everything so well and patiently laid out. Anyone who has an interest in anti-racist work or just in knowing more and having a place to ask questions, here is Mags’ race relations 101 series. And it’s only just begun!

    I was thinking earlier (but couldn’t access the site and plus I was busy, but anyway) about the various comments about not expecting poc to teach you – which I do agree with. For one thing, there is no one view among people even of the same real or arbitrary color/culture grouping, let alone those from different ones – I learn from other folks, of color and not, all the time!, but also I’ve found that when one takes the steps, get their hands in there and really open up and start working on things, there are a multitude of people who appear to come out of nowhere who are willing to lend an ear, a word of advice, point out a pathway and, in general, help out as much as possible.

    One reason, of course, is that it’s always good to have allies, and when one is dealing with some White people, it’s good to have White allies who are informed, understand things and who can then speak to others in words that they can hear. Any number of people of color realize that, often, even if they say the same exact words, their voices cannot heard or simply are not believed. There will be demands for “proof”. Until another White person or person of one’s social, cultural group says it, it is not considered to be true.

    I’m sure this has something to do with structural and cultural racism and so on and I fully believe that some people are not even aware that they are doing it.

    Well, this was the long way around to say something or other, but I’ve forgotten what it was ;). Except, read Mags, of course.

  37. Nanette says:

    Oh, and congrats on finishing and publishing the book too, AM. Meant to say that as well.

    LaLubu, thanks! And yes, I know just what you mean.


    You know, it’s quite possible to simultaneously give someone the benefit of the doubt and speak up. I think that there are times when you can tell that someone is being obviously inflammatory, or has said something so incredibly racist that there is no need to hold back.

    I tend to think that, how things are said is less important than what is being said and why (and things, especially online, are not always said in the tone it appears) and that listening should come first. That’s hard to do, too, sheesh. Mind you, this isn’t a perfect world and of course none of us are perfect people. Also, though, in a perfect world, that one thing that was thoughtlessly racist that you may have done/said/pointed to would be the first thing like that that day the person of color speaking to you may have come across. Instead of maybe the 10th, 20th, 50th. The thousand little cuts and all that.

  38. Nanette says:

    *idly wanders by on her way to also start a new religion*

  39. Hector B. says:

    things, especially online, are not always said in the tone it appears

    Indeed. So much of the internet is mano-a-mano deathmatch 2000 that responses to posts are commonly assumed to be contradictions. When responding, I have found myself having to explicitly say “I agree with you, and what’s more…” to prevent the original poster from assuming my response is “You’re full of shit and here’s why,” savagely trying to refute what he presumes is my counterargument.

  40. Bangnor says:

    *lights candles and prays that everyone in America will become as much of a “dumbfuck” as ilyka*

  41. QLH says:

    God, Ilyka: yes, yes, and yes.

  42. XtinaS says:

    Oh goodness, yes.  I need to get better at this.  Thank you for posting this.

  43. still censored... says:

    ilyka, thank you, thank you, thank you. She’s now taken to accusing the people who persist in discussing the issue (but only those who aren’t persisting in DEFENDING her, of course) of having no jobs / lives. I think that’s my benchmark for a thread “jumping the shark” so to speak, not to mention the ultimate in bad faith.

  44. Ravenmn says:

    One thing I’ve found comforting as a white person is the understanding that racism is being continually taught to us through our media and through our education system for our ENTIRE lives. And the teachers of racism, especially unearned privilege, are very good at their jobs. They teach us white people what to pay attention to and what to ignore. They tell us what is “important”: the concerns of white people, and what is trivial: the concerns of people of color. Racism is a very powerful and effective system that white people in America, especially, are being constantly taught to uphold.

    Given that, I expect that on any given day I’m going to screw up. My intentions can be wonderful, but I’m very likely to take something that has meaning for people of color and just stomp all over it. I was deliberately taught to NOT see the racism around me. And I was deliberately taught that if anyone mentions it to me, my reaction is to object and say “No, it’s not there. You’re wrong and overly sensitive.”

    In an odd way, people who don’t see racism are significantly downplaying its power over themselves. You, too, can be a victim of racism when you are blind to it and react so inappropriately when it is pointed out to you. That is exactly the method that racism uses.

    White people have a choice. We can refuse to follow the same old patterns. We can refuse to get angry or defensive or lash out when our racist actions or ideas are questioned.

    Does this mean people of color are always right? Nope. What it means is we make a commitment to speak honestly and openly about race.

  45. justicewalks says:

    I see this is where everyone who preceded me in recognizing Amanda’s willful insensitivity has gathered. Hello! And a hearty and sincerely meant THANK YOU to all of you who were with me on that thread.

  46. Ravenmn says:

    I think I worded my post badly. I’m NOT comforted that racism is taught to me every day. I am, however, aware of its power and the fact that I have been indoctrinated with racist thinking by people more powerful than me. So it doesn’t surprise me when I fuck up and it doesn’t make me particularly offended. My post has been bothering me all day — I knew I worded it poorly. I hope I clarified where I fucked up.

  47. CK says:

    justicewalks: Seriously, thanks for saying all you did there so consistently and ably. If I’d tried to reply to all that you did, I’m pretty sure my head would have exploded.

  48. Nanette says:

    lol ravenmn, I knew what you were saying. Comforted by the *understanding* of what was going on, and had been going on, all your life. And I can see how that would be too, although even if we are aware of something, that doesn’t mean we’re completely free of it, we all mess up. Look how many of us are aware of the insidiousness of TV commercials, yet still get sucked in. Sigh.

    justice walks, great job – very clear, persistent, and very patient. You must be exhausted.

  49. Hector B. says:

    There were enough hints dropped where I had to look it up, but the image is gone. I wonder if I would have even noticed the symbolism; I must confess as a nerd I tend to take everything at face value. Plus I saw the movie when I was a little kid — I remember it mostly as being about cruelty to animals.

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  51. roses says:

    Hector, in case you haven’t already pieced it together, it was an image of a black gorilla carrying off a white woman. And I will say that I personally did not see the racist symbolism until it was pointed out. But I’m the first to admit I’m fairly ignorant on racial matters, and I learned a ton from the resulting discussion (even if it did get a bit nasty in places).

  52. Joan Kelly says:

    I don’t know if I am beating a dead horse or too used to the sound of my own www-voice in the last few days to *not* say this, but Hector I thought also that one point raised was that not-seeing that image as having the relationship it does to violence against black people in this country (or elsewhere) is a not-seeing-ness that means something. To judge someone for seeing it as racist and liking it for being so is a pretty straightforward thing to tsk tsk over. I know it seems more subtle but to me it also seems pretty straightforward to note that if you have had the luxury of not being personally touched by the hatred in that image, the point is not that you were innocent or a jerk, the point is the luxury itself – who gets to have it, why it’s there, what it does, what it costs and to whom. It is insane how habitually that part of the discussion gets translated to be about a) whether the non-see-er is “good or bad” and/or b) the evil motives of the person who is simply talking about the undeniable fucked-ness of the construct itself. And it is difficult not to become skeptical when something that bizarre continues to be the norm; it is hard not to then suspect that the supposed blindness and misunderstanding is purposeful rather than random emotional blabbity blah. That is not to say that I presume to read people’s hearts and minds – it is a piece of information that I think anyone I talk with deserves to know: I have a hard time trusting what people tell me under these repetitive conditions.

  53. Hector B. says:

    As a general rule for life, not tied to racism, sexism, or whatever, if some one is offended by something you have said or done, their offense is real whether you meant to offend them or not. If you didn’t mean to, the best thing to do is say, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

  54. Tracey says:

    This was wonderful. Just wonderful. I hope you don’t mind if I link to it.

  55. Nanette says:

    Tracey, thanks :) and I don’t mind at all, link away.

    Also, I’d like to leave here a link to Black Amazon, who has this, combined with the book cover thing and expanded greatly on some deeper meanings, in On Myths and Monsters .

  56. nell says:

    This is a great piece, Nannette. You do an excellent job showing how the idea of ‘benefit of the doubt’ is so often used to shut down and not hear criticism/good advice on rectifying a situation – whatever it is.

    Having managed, on occasion (!), to shut out good advice/criticism on a fairly impressively wide range of issues with this approach – learning to see the problem with the tactic in general, when used by me or others, has been extremely valuable to me – but I’ve never been able to put it as succinctly and clearly as you do here.

    And to Justicewalks – you were right (which you know, of course) and Amanda was completely in the wrong from her first casual dismissal of the concern as ‘success bashing’, and she redeemed herself late and, IMO, only partially (between that and those hideous NWS pornified ads I may take a Pandagon break for a while….).

    I’m sorry I didn’t participate longer – each of my drafts started along the lines of ‘what? are you an idiot?’ and went down from there – but that seemed destined to go no where good so I took a break and when I got back the cover image was down. I didn’t realize until I was following some other links around the blogsphere today that it actually managed to get worse.


  57. Hector B. says:

    Amanda was completely in the wrong

    Hey, I went over and read that thread, and as far as I can tell, no one has tried to see the situation from Amanda’s point of view. As I see it, the problem was that Amanda just wasn’t listening. She had been surfing a wave of happiness, yet having a nagging sense that this success of hers was sure to end with someone peeing into her cornflakes. And then she saw what appeared to her to be a stream of urine going into her cornflakes, and said OH NOES. So, like most humans, she focused on her own feelings rather than reach out to these voices saying: “Your book — you know, the one you’re so proud is going to get published — is going to have a racist image — that you think is pretty cool — on the front cover.” Because, it’s very hard to separate in your mind “you like that racist book cover of yours” from “you’re a racist”, when not being a racist is part of who you think you are. And she came off like an insensitive clot, especially when she tried to explain where she was coming from; what her gut had told her was going to happen, the chorus said, “You just don’t get it.” So she got defensive. But she did pass the group’s concerns on to the publisher, even though her ego did not let her do a public mea culpa.

    So, to sum up, book cover image is racist; Amanda did not see the racism in it; when people pointed out the racism implicit in the image; she focused on her own feelings rather than listen to what they were saying; and she did not perform a public mea culpa.

  58. roula says:

    hector, that’s a great summary, mostly spot-on and fair. the only thing is that many people DID sympathize with amanda’s position. in fact most of the people voicing concerns about the cover seemed like they felt really crappy about, as you said, peeing in her cornflakes, and took pains inserting [apology] tags because they didn’t like to do it but it felt important and right to do. i know i felt this way.

    what really got to me was the dogpile on a handful of thoughtful, concerned commenters for speaking up in the first place. it was partly the number of other commenters who were being dismissive and contemptuous that anyone should even think to see offense there, much less rain on the parade over it — which sucks since the complainants were all “gah sorry to rain on the parade but pretty please could you consider that there might be a racism aspect, so very sorry?”

    of course this isn’t the first time crap like this happens in the intertubes and i, like amanda, am tired of flamewars — but from my perspective they have been caused not by the people with concerns but by the people tired of paying attention to pesky “concerns”, e.g. commenters who defend the status quo with phrases like “the eagerly offended”, and fanned by the silence of our favorite minor celebrities whose success we have all been rooting for. it just feels like a letdown, and i guess letting people down IS part of being a public writer and a star on the rise, but it’s “letting my supporters down” and NOT “rankling my enemies” and the reaction from amanda (or whoever else in other cases) should have been different, is all. should have been in good faith, if you like, from the start.

    sorry about being long, i do that a lot.

  59. nell says:

    Ah – well, I probably should have expanded. I tend to be wordy, so I was trying for brevity – and ended up not being clear.

    I meant, when I said that Amanda was wrong, that I believe she was wrong in her choices about how to respond once the issue was raised, not wrong to have liked the cover in the first place. I thought her explanation of her thought process about the ‘jungle’ theme and shifting away from the Tarzan=white-men-only image was interesting and completely logical.

    I didn’t immediately recognize the inherent racism of the cover either, white girl that I am. I didn’t like the cover art much, so didn’t even read the thread till it popped over 100 responses, but I can’t chalk that up to unconscious anti-racisim. I just didn’t care for it aesthetically. Which I was sure she didn’t want to hear from me – so, out of respect for her totally well-deserved excitement over the accomplishment of having a book so close to publication, I didn’t pop up to say that.

    I know it can be hard to hear criticism – almost especially thoughtful and accurate criticism. I also know – for reals – how exciting it is to see the cover art of your first book for the first time (which is part of why the ‘success-bashing’ thing was so irritating – many of her regular readers are quite accomplished and successful in their chosen professions/careers/interests, the implication that the big ‘we’ were all basement dwelling losers seeking to drag down the one of us headed for the light was petty, at best).

    But this particular issue – of how someone committed to progressive politics and action ideally reacts when called on their blind-spots-o-privillege – has been thrashed out pretty thoroughly in a wide variety of online arenas. The script has already been written (I learned the script in fandom, actually, not progressive blogsphere politics at all….), and is posted in many places – and I’ve seen in references to it on Pandagon in the past.

    For Amanda to toss out that script, while emotionally understandable, was politically and progressively foolish, at best, hostile and insulting at worst. Wrong, in (too) fewer words.

    Not that we all can’t be in the wrong at times, even the best intentioned among us – but, at least in my years of reading Fandom_Wank – I have definitely learned that the fastest way to defuse a wankstorm caused by your own actions is to 1) *stop defending yourself* 2) *apologize for offense caused* and, then (and this one is very important) 3) *stop talking* !

    A part of me is actually still flabbergasted that an online blogger of Amanda’s experience and expertise hasn’t internalized that routine yet.

    Which is undoubtedly a lesson for all of us about the importance of humility and practice in the face of difficult situations. ;-)

  60. Bangnor says:

    Hector B, the problem is though that Amanda has a history of not listening. And people would probably be more likely to try and see things from her point of view if she hadn”t started out by dismissing people’s concerns and patronizing them and accusing them of being opportunists and dragging up past issues and rewriting history in a totally self serving way and all the rest. She gets defensive, she lashes out, then she can’t understand what all the fuss is about or how her reactions contribute to the problem and actually make it a lot worse. It’s a pretty well established pattern and doesn’t give anyone a lot of faith for the future.

  61. Nanette says:


    But this particular issue – of how someone committed to progressive politics and action ideally reacts when called on their blind-spots-o-privillege – has been thrashed out pretty thoroughly in a wide variety of online arenas.

    This has puzzled me for a long time, this idea among some that the best thing to do when confronted with even the mildest criticism is ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK! I don’t know if it’s that they’re more used to dealing with political opponents as opposed to those who are, basically, on the same political side, or if it’s a product of online culture itself or if people who have reached some measure of online success simply (and erroneously) believe that’s the best way to ‘protect the brand’ or what.

    This does not, of course, prevent “flame wars”, the oft derided and definitely mislabeled “circular firing squad” – can’t be a circular firing squad until there is a circle – or the freakish expressing of longing (by some) for the uniformity and conformity of the Republicans – forgetting, I guess, how they achieve that uniformity. A virtually all White party that regularly, and with glee, tosses their women, few non-White and gay constituents under the bus might have at least public uniformity of thought and purpose, but it’s not something I’d like to see those on the leftish side of the aisle aspire to :).

    Although some do.

  62. Nanette says:


    It’s a pretty well established pattern and doesn’t give anyone a lot of faith for the future.

    yeah… it may be just my “woc paranoia” but I actually think that natural tendencies (not just Amanda’s) are sometimes exacerbated when it’s anything to do with race or people of color… because then that means that not only are you (general “you”) publicly wrong, but you are Wrong on Race – which, for rising “progressives” stars, especially those attempting to make a living from their work and/or gain influence in political or organization circles and so on, is apparently considered not a good thing.

    Mind you, I’ve not seen where that’s noticeably held anyone back from achieving success over the years, but it’s possibly a bit different with blogs, because of the public nature of things.

    What I don’t get is the seeming lack of a desire (among some) to work *with* poc, instead of around or over or thru… I mean, I understand it with the for profit White “progressive” political blogs, as their advertising dollar and “money for politicians in order to gain power” base depends on having just the demographics they have, but I don’t get what the reasoning is for feminists to follow the same sort of pattern when their audiences and readership are vastly different.

  63. belledame222 says:

    way late, but: this was terrific. and you know, i think it’s applicable in a number of situations.

    it’s horrid to choose one or two (applying in a context that makes sense to me), unless you -really- feel comfortable with one. it’s, well, besides everything else, if it’s someone you like and respect:

    “I was angry with my friend
    I told it not, my wrath did end.
    I was angry with my foe,
    I told it not, my wrath did grow…”

    but the trouble is, way too many people assume that if you are saying something at all, THAT means that you have assigned them “foe.” and react accordingly.

    and then, sooner or later, you…tend to swallow it, more often than not.

    but if you swallow it, it tends to curdle…

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