The other day, a friend said something that I had a knee-jerk negative reaction to, but which made me think.
He half jokingly said, “These days being a straight white guy is almost an insult.”
To someone who isn’t straight or white or male, I’m sure many had the same reaction I did to it — whining by a group of people so used to having the advantage that any loss of it seems like a threatening insult.
But upon reflection, I had to admit, don’t I tend to use that label to say “group of people who just don’t get bigotry”? Or even when I’m not using it as an unconscious insult, I’m using it as a veiled form of condescension, in which I’m describing a man who “surprisingly” does get it.
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We are having major, high-velocity shifts in our society that people have to deal with, whatever their position or demographics. Almost every issue is one that groups were already living with but that has suddenly become new to the greater population.
Social media have increased not just what we know and discuss but how fast we know it. The days of hearing about topics during the evening news or from the morning newspaper before coming to work in the morning are all but gone for many Americans.
That increased, on-demand consumption of news means very little processing or filtering time exists before you express a reaction. Many times while we are sitting at our work desk.
That’s left us often relying on lazy, knee-jerk words and images to describe people and situations — modern-day stereotypes used to reduce a matter to a quick and manageable bite.
For that reason, we need to make sure that “straight white male” is used as a legitimate and validly inserted description, rather than as a bludgeon.
Some will resist this notion because it reeks of protecting the group in society viewed as already having more protections than most.
But we do it — or at least work to try — because reducing people to thoughtless labels, rather than thoughtful descriptions, doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for anyone.
We do it not to protect, but to re-direct the conversation to more fruitful, productive dialogues.
If the description fits, use it. If it’s used to be demeaning or sarcastic (as it sometimes is when a straight, white dude makes that reference to himself), we need to pause to see whether we are abusing it.
It takes a long time for language to catch up to a changed culture — sometimes decades. Thinking about why we use the words we do is a good head start.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.