Three years ago, when working on my annual Martin Luther King Day piece, I wanted to connect his dream that children in the U.S. might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to similar dreams for social justice for other axes of diversity. As it happened, once we had published the piece and I had spoken in housemeeting, a discussion emerged on Twitter about whether or not these very kinds of connection were appropriate or appropriation. Concerned, I wanted to seek out opinions, and seized on an interchange between two of my friends, John Spencer and José Vilson, to bring up the question. I emerged from that short discussion believing that I needed to focus more specifically on racism in any future Martin Luther King Day speeches, and I believe I have done so for the most part (2012 – 2013 (less so) – 2014). But in the process of reacting to that 2011 post, I added another cringe-worthy moment to a long and ever-growing list.
However much I might have tried to disguise it to myself at the time, what I did was unfair to José and John, and perhaps especially to José as a person of colour. Through my actions, I was making them responsible for teaching me rather than going out and educating myself. In the process, in other words, I was not being an effective ally in the anti-racist fight for social justice, however well-intentioned I may have been. I’ve tried never to do that again – which is not to say there haven’t been other cringe-worthy moments since. Hopefully, though, they are at least becoming fewer and further between.
Recently, Piers Morgan invited Janet Mock, a trans woman of colour, onto his CNN program to talk about her book Redefining Realness: My path to womanhood, identity, love, & so much more. The Tuesday night interview, in his mind, went well, but when Ms. Mock saw the final version (they had pre-taped the interview four days previously), she went on Buzzfeed to air her concerns. This ignited a brief but intense Twitter war which ended up with her agreeing to come back on the program Wednesday. On that program, Mr. Morgan asked her the following question:
Here’s what I want to learn. I don’t want this to be an ongoing issue that I have with the community of which you’re such a great spokesman and advocate. I want to learn why it is so offensive to actually just say that you grew up as a boy and you then, because you’ve always felt that you were female, you had surgery to become a woman, to become a real woman, as you say in the book. Why is it offensive?
“Why is it offensive?” Well, Mr. Morgan. Let’s break down your question. First, you refer to Ms. Mock as a “spokesman.” Then, you state she grew up as a boy. Then, you characterize her surgery as the moment she became a woman. Finally, you rephrase and say “a real woman.” In other words, first you misgendered her, then you misgendered her again, then you characterized her surgery as a “becoming” rather than a stage along her life path, in the process focusing attention on her genitals rather than her personal sense of identity, and finally you implied that everything she did and felt before her surgery was somehow fake.
Beyond all that… Mr. Morgan could have avoided every single mistake in that question simply by consulting the readily available GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Glossary of Terms. That, too, is part of the problem. It only would have taken him a few minutes, and could have changed the entire tone and direction of the interview. But – as I had done with José – when someone who professes to be an ally places the onus for their education on the oppressed person, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person focuses on their personal hurt at being accused of having been (however unintentionally) insensitive, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person repeatedly interrupts and talks over that person, not really seeing or hearing them, that is not being an effective ally. When one repeatedly states – during and following the interview – that the oppressed person should be grateful for being allowed a forum for her voice, that is not being an effective ally. And when one tweets, “As for all the enraged transgender supporters, look at how STUPID you’re being. I’m on your side, you dimwits,” well, that too is not being an effective ally.
One of the moments when Piers Morgan talks over Janet Mock without really hearing her is when he brought up an article that appeared in Marie-Claire about her life’s journey entitled “When I Was a Boy.” His point was that he should not be blamed for using a similar phrase when those were her own words. Her point, which he never once acknowledged, was that those weren’t actually her own words as she didn’t write that title. Furthermore, when I Googled “Janet Mock” and “Marie-Claire,” I quickly found an article written by Ms. Mock reacting to the piece and stating in part, “But I do wish I could change one thing in the piece: the term “boy” which is used a few times. Overall I’m fine with it because I was born in what doctor’s [sic] proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth. I take issue with the two instances in the piece: The first instance proclaims, “Until she was 18, Janet was a boy,’ and then it goes on to say, ‘I even found other boys like me there…’ My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.” Had Mr. Morgan taken the time to type four words into a search engine, he would have been able to avoid that egregious mistake.
Or, again, had he actually listened to her saying “Those were not my words.” rather than repeating back at her “Those were your words.”
What could have been a learning opportunity for Mr. Morgan appears to have been thoroughly squandered through his focus on his own feelings, his sense of being personally wronged, his sense of being in the right regardless of what anyone else says. Whether or not he likes it, that is his privilege speaking. Male privilege. White privilege. Class privilege. I don’t entirely blame him – our culture incorporates and inculcates an embedded sexism, racism, and classism, and he can’t help but have been shaped by it.
But he can help how he chooses to react to it.
That’s something we all can help. As we work together, each of us absolutely unique individuals, to build a better world, examining our reactions to our culture needs to become part of our work.
Even – perhaps especially – including the cringe-worthy moments.