Yesterday, I was sent a message on tumblr and politely asked by a white follower with various disabilities not to use highly potentially ableist words, like stupid and dumb, to address oppressors and their behavior. And in the tumblr community, the easiest way to avoid an issue is to just nod your head, apologize to the other marginalized person, and say you won’t do it anymore.
The mistake I made was not doing this.
Under the stress of my family’s mental abuse more than usual lately, I tried to engage in a deeper conversation with this person about why, as a Black woman and writer of Color in a community with a strong history of language policing and educational discrimination against them, I do, in some cases, view this request/accusation as language policing. At no point did I say I wasn’t trying and wasn’t going to adjust my vocabulary for sake of this marginalized community. I simply felt that it also required a deeper conversation of why I view it as language policing. I tried to approach this person with disabilities on a honest level with a serious issue between our two communities but what was required of me was for me to just nod my head, apologize, and not do it anymore.
I was accused of “ablesplaining” and unfollowed by both this person’s blogs. Though I don’t find it acceptable, its understandable because its probably what I would do if I felt that way. I think I deserved the right to clarify my meaning, especially since I was under duress and may not have been clear; sometimes this is just how things happen in these situations and I can’t wholly blame this person.
The cardinal rule is that you can’t decide for any marginalized community what is oppressive to them. But it gets complicated when you’re dealing with two marginalized groups with interrelated oppressions, in this case, victims of language policing and victims of ableist language. I imagine there are various opinions and experiences among, for example, Black people with disabilities.
I am against being told how I should address my oppressors unless I’m triggering someone with a disability/disabilities with my language or the person I’m addressing is someone who has a disability. I have aimed the word “stupid” at racists and fat haters because their inability to see what they’re doing or their outright hate is infuriating to me and I don’t feel I owe them any respect. Then to have someone pop in and wag their finger to say “Hey, you must have meant [this word] instead of ‘stupid'” compounds the wrongness of the oppressions I face and smacks of derailment. I view that as a form of language policing to an extent.
I do wonder if I have the grounds to say it requires more work than just dictating to communities who are victims of language policing what words to use and telling them they must have meant these other approved words instead; the issue of language policing and context/situation of word usage are important too. But is it really as complicated as I think? Despite the fact that the ex-follower misunderstood and blew up at me, when this incident happened last night online, my commitment to justice came into question and I take that very seriously. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. If the answer really is to just stop using words that are labeled as ableist regardless of context and situation, then I am prepared to commit to that principle.
Between marginalized communities that are victims of language policing and one that is a victim of ableist language (I am aware they are not always separate), there needs to be more discussion to come to an understanding, not just one community giving another marching orders, as per the culture of tumblr and textbook/rule book activism so we’re not stepping on each other’s toes. That’s the least I can be sure of right now.