Late Sunday night, just as I was getting ready to go to bed, my friend L sent me a message:
“Stay away from Twitter. It’s pretty disgusting right now.”
Of course that meant that I had to immediately log back on to Twitter to find out what kind of giant fucking mess was going on. As if that message was going to make me do anything else.
Naturally, it didn’t take me long to discover the root of the Twitter uproar – the (usually brilliant) satirical website The Onion had called a nine year old black girl a cunt.
Because, you know, that’s satire.
Initially I was outraged. And, I mean, obviously, I still am. But I’m also kind of glad that it happened. Seriously.
Bear with me here, because I’m about to try to explain why, and things might get a little convoluted and messy.
And before I start, I just want to mention that I’ve made a conscious choice not to use the girl in question’s name here on my blog – in a discussion with a few other feminists, some raised the concern that writers were using her name for SEO purposes. After looking at it that way, using her name felt wrong to me. I also want to do my pathetic utmost not to link her name with the word cunt, although I know that The Onion has already done it in a likely indelible way.
So. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the “joke” itself, and what The Onion was trying to do. Obviously the idea behind this “satire” was that no one would ever call a little black girl a cunt. Because, like, what the fuck? Who would do that? That’s obviously not the world we live in.
I mean, except for the fact that it is. That’s exactly the world that we live in, and you’d have to be blind, deaf and living in a cave not to know that. Or you’d have to be Rush Limbaugh. Feel free to take your pick.
So how did The Onion, whose social observations are usually spot on, go so spectacularly wrong?
I think that a lot of the problem lies in the fact that so many of us have managed to convince ourselves that we live in a post-race, post-gender world. America, which allowed slavery only 150 years ago, has a black president! Hillary Clinton kicked ass as the Secretary of State! There are all kinds of high-profile, successful women and people of colour. Sexism and racism aren’t problems anymore, right?
When you live in the comfortable bubble of white privilege or male privilege (which, just to be clear, I do – the white part, anyway), it’s easy to think that these cultural problems have been resolved. And it’s easy to accuse someone who was hurt or offended by The Onion’s tweet as being completely humourless, or just not being smart enough to get the joke. What’s harder is trying to figure out how we got to this place where we believe that all race and gender issues have been solved, and we can all just wipe the slate clean and start over as equals.
I wonder if part of it is how we teach our children about racism and sexism. When I was growing up in the 80s, my parents really worked hard to stress to me that people of all skin colours and all nationalities and all genders were equal. While they did admit that, yes, sexism and racism do still exist, they taught me that no one of real intelligence, no one in a position of power, would ever, ever be so awful as to elevate one sex or race over another. And I think that my parents are amazing, and that they did a fantastic job of helping me navigate the tricky world of social justice from an early age, but I wonder how dangerous it is for a child to receive the message that smart people can’t be racist, that people in positions of power (teachers, pundits, politicians) can’t be sexist? And I wonder how many people other than me received similar messages from their parents?
Because there honestly was a time when I thought that we were all working on a level playing field. That was the lesson that I learned both from my parents and from the education system (although my French Catholic elementary school did teach us that French Canadians are SUPER OPPRESSED, hahahaha). And maybe part of the education system’s idea was a kind of fake-it-tip-you-make-it mentality, with the hope being that if you teach a generation of children that everyone is equal now, they’ll believe it and start acting that way. Or maybe it was a sneaky way of making casual racism and casual misogyny more palatable, because, hey, they’re just jokes – no one actually believes that women or people of colour are in anyway lesser than white men.
Whatever the truth is, the idea that we all have equality now is a trap, one that The Onion and I have both fallen into (my excuse was that I was thirteen, though – I’m not sure what The Onion’s excuse is). I am guilty of having made racist jokes. I am guilty of having made misogynist jokes. My reasoning was that if we’re all equal, then we’re all equal targets of humour. In some weird way, I thought it would be racist not to make jabs at my non-white friends about their culture or skin-colour – I mean, I wanted to treat them the same way I treated my white friends, right? And if they made jokes about me being white and French and Catholic, then their heritage and background was fair game, right?
(A thirteen-year-old’s logic is pretty fucked up, by the way – I mean, in case you weren’t already aware)
I think my first wake-up call came when I was fourteen.
That was the year that I was first called a cunt (by a male member of my family, because I was tired, hot and overwhelmed at the end of a family vacation).
That was also the year that my geography teacher used the word “Indian” to refer to the First Nations.
I remember thinking that he must have just slipped up, because obviously no one used that word anymore. I put up my hand and politely corrected him, saying that I was sure that he’d meant to say First Nations. I’ll never forget the way he rolled his eyes and laughed, saying, “Yeah, I guess if you want to go all politically correct on me.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard a person in a position of authority, a Good Person, use a racial slur.
That was the first time I’d ever been accused of overreacting to someone saying something overtly racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic.
And yeah, before you jump in and say something, I had lead a pretty sheltered life up until then. I mean, FRENCH CATHOLIC ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. I shouldn’t have to say anything more than that.
And I’m not trying to say here that I had some kind of giant revelation when I was fourteen and have never made a misstep since, because that’s obviously not true. Learning to shake off deeply entrenched cultural messages about gender, race and sexuality is a lifelong process, and I’m still working on it. I still fuck up sometimes.
But I think that what The Onion did was helpful in the fight against misogyny and racism, in the sense that it shook people up. It opened people’s eyes to the fact that yeah, fucking racist and misogynist shit does still exist. They managed to put into (apparently satirical) words the fucked up shit that other people were thinking about an innocent little girl. And it’s like, you know, I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people how and why these things are still present in our culture, or even just that they are still present, but The Onion managed to do that in one single tweet.
I guess you could maybe say that a misogynist or racist tweet is worth a thousand words.*
Because I don’t think that I could ever have enough words to tell you about how fucked up the way we view women and people of colour is, but somehow The Onion managed to help show exactly that by calling a nine-year-old girl a cunt. And although the mainstream media mostly ignored the racist crap thrown at this girl in the days leading up the Academy Awards, they couldn’t ignore this.
So, I owe the Onion a sort of thank-you, I guess. I mean, not really, but you get what I’m saying. Because their tweet renewed a really important discussion. Because their tweet helped open up people’s eyes and shake them out of their comfortable privilege. Because their tweet made some of the racism that’s still prevalent in the feminist movement suddenly become visible, and it’s way past time that we talked about that. Why have so many white feminists stayed silent on this issue? Why have so many glossed over the part that race played in this and focussed only on the misogyny? Why do white feminist so often wait for women of colour to speak up before they say anything?
We need to talk about all of these things. We need to talk about them now.
So let’s do this again soon, okay? But next time, let’s not wait until a major fake news website tweets something unbelievably offensive. Let’s team up and fight injustice just because it’s urgent and necessary and important.
*YEAH YOU KNOW THAT LINE WAS THE FIRST THING I THOUGHT OF WHEN I WAS WRITING THIS POST, BECAUSE IT IS FUCKING AWESOME AND TRUE