Something important happened while I was at work last week. It gave me two opportunities that I’m thankful for. I got to speak up about something that matters, then I got to discuss with someone why it’s important to speak up.
Among other things, I work as a receptionist. This night there was one client in to see the woman who was working. We’ll call him Joe & her Susan. The rest of the office was empty. I often end up chatting with clients while they’re in the office & Joe’s a regular. I was doing some tidying & I overheard Joe & Susan talking about how Atheists can be hateful & rude. I’m an atheist, I believe Joe is as well, & I’m pretty sure Susan’s Catholic. Also, we’re all white. I joined in the conversation, thinking we were all in agreement & wouldn’t have any issues.
I said that I had been a couple years to a conference for atheists & expressed my disappointment that they started having a well known keynote speaker I wasn’t willing to pay good money to see due to his rhetoric. Joe agreed, knowing who he was. To make my point, I mentioned two other names of well known atheist speakers that I don’t like for the same reason. Joe asked who one of them was. I said he’s one of the well known atheists who hates Muslims.
Joe: Oh, I’m totally fine with that.
I was very taken aback, I thought I must have misheard him. Joe’s very friendly & generally seems to get along with everyone. I said, “Excuse me?” As Joe repeated himself, I could see Susan’s horrified face out of the corner of my eye. It was clear she was concerned, most likely as she’s heard me make very harsh statements in the past.
I was horrified. I couldn’t believe a man I’ve enjoyed talking to in the past could say something so hateful about people who haven’t done anything wrong. I told him that hatred isn’t okay. He, again, repeated that he’s totally okay with hating all Muslims because of “what they’re like.”
I said that any society run by religion is going to have trouble, but I don’t see Islam as any different from Christianity in that respect. He did that thing old men do & spoke down to me as if I was a child. He told me how he’s been all over the world & seen all sorts of people & events. He told me that Christians are different from Muslims because, “At least they’re trying. Even if they are failing, they’re trying.” He went on for a bit longer about how Christians will speak out against their leaders for doing evil things & Muslims won’t, etc. I told him all religions have extremists, but we cannot allow ourselves to submit to the idea that an entire religious group is all evil because of what we know some extremists have done. I mentioned some cases of Christian extremism & then said I would never assume Christians were bad people based on those things. I again stated that hatred is unacceptable, then I walked away.
As I walked away, I heard Susan say something about how we shouldn’t discuss religion. Shortly after that, she came up to my desk to chastise me for being controversial, I guess? She was making the we-should-whisper-finger-to-her-mouth motion as she quietly said I shouldn’t have done that. I told her, in a normal volume, “All I did was say that hating people is not okay.” Her eyes got wide & she motioned again for me to be quiet, lest Joe hear us. I said, louder, “All I did was say that hating people is not okay.” She threw her hands up & walked away in frustration.
The rest of the night went well. We all chatted a bit more, Joe & I discussed something else, he paid, then he left.
I feel like I need to say this here: Susan & I are friendly with each other. We enjoy working together & often she’ll drive me home if we leave the office at the same time. I like her. She’s sweet & fun & gets along with everybody & she’s good at her job. We discuss our personal lives sometimes & I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anybody. That being said, she is very non-confrontational. & I understand why. It’s really uncomfortable to say something that we know someone won’t like, especially when we’re saying it to a). Someone we like or b). Someone whose opinion may have an effect on us (such as a client). I wondered if she would bring up what happened while she was driving me home. She did.
She opened with, “Joe’s a very nice man, he’s just opinionated.”
“I know. Me too!” I said, smiling. *I’d like to mention that through this entire conversation, both at work & in the car, my demeanor was nothing short of pleasant. I work in customer service for a living & I’m good at it. I did not swear, raise my voice, name call, or say anything outside of a regular conversational tone. I was not angry, I was trying to educate.
Susan was very obviously trying to explain to me, kindly, why I should have kept my big mouth shut.
“Well, people are allowed to have their own opinions.” She said.
“Absolutely! I’m allowed to have one too, right?” I replied.
“Sometimes when people say things like that, I just let it go.” She said.
I had to give a longer response to that. What I said was the following: “There are a lot of things people say that I disagree with, & in a job like ours it’s often necessary to just stay quiet. I get that. But some things are too important for me to let go & that’s one of them. Casually saying it’s okay to hate an entire group of people like that is not only evil & ignorant, but it also leads to thousands & thousands of people all over the world being tortured & killed all the time. When I hear people perpetuating that rhetoric I have to say something because if I’m silent, I’m being complicit in the harm it’s doing.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Well, people are allowed to say their opinions if they want to.”
“Absolutely!” I said. “They’re allowed to say whatever they want, & I’m allowed to say whatever I want in reply.”
“It isn’t like you’re going to change anyone’s mind, though.” She said.
“You’re probably right. But if I make it known that what they’re saying isn’t okay, at the very least maybe it will make them uncomfortable enough to not say it around me or anyone else nearby who might have to hear it.” I said.
She repeated, “I just let those things go.”
“& I’d never judge you for that.” I said. “Saying something can be very uncomfortable & make things harder. I wouldn’t judge someone for staying quiet if they felt like they needed to for their health or job or anything else.”
That’s where the conversation ended.
I think she was incredibly shocked that I was neither upset nor embarrassed about what had happened. I didn’t act like I’d done something wrong. I didn’t apologize. I didn’t agree with her. I also didn’t get visibly angry or upset, & I didn’t say anything that was unreasonable. I didn’t give either of them room to argue with me.
That’s because it wasn’t an argument. I wasn’t fighting an equal side of a debate. I was explaining to two adults, both more than twice my age, why it isn’t okay to hate people for no reason. The only thing I’m ashamed of is that I needed to do that. I’m ashamed that I live in a society where I have to explain not only that hatred is bad, but that being silent about it is bad, too. That’s embarrassing.
I do not enjoy confrontation. Many people won’t believe me about that because of how confrontational & outspoken I am. But please understand this: I am not outspoken because I enjoy making people feel uncomfortable. In my perfect world, everyone is respectful & kind & peaceful & nobody ever needs to argue about anything ever again. So much of my time is spent fighting & I really dislike it. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel angry. It makes me feel tired. But I will keep doing it because that’s what’s right. This is what I do because it’s what I have the power to do. I am poor & with little resources, so I can’t do anything else.
This seems like a small example because it is. These were two short conversations between three random people & they won’t amount to anything. Like Susan said, nobody will change their mind. But it’s important for me to say this because a lot of folks in my position wouldn’t have said anything, & not saying something is evil. Even if we don’t think it matters or we won’t change minds, we need to say something. We need to say the uncomfortable thing, because you know what’s even more uncomfortable? Being part of a group that it’s “totally okay” to hate.
I didn’t write this for recognition or to tout my virtue or whatever. I didn’t write this for Muslims or any member of a marginalized group to read & think what a great ally I am. I wrote this for white people, & heterosexual people, & cis people, & men, & folks who practice the majority religion where they live, & people who have the power to say what they think. Not everyone has the ability you have. Not everyone can safely say the things you can say. I have the privilege of being white & also the ability to speak my mind at my workplace with reasonable certainty that it won’t cost me my job. So I use those privileges to talk to other white people about how we should respect & treat others. I also talk to other cis people about how we ought to be respectful of trans & non-binary folks, among other things. You need to be doing that, too. If you have the ability to make the world a better place for someone else to exist, whether through words or funding or other actions, you should be doing that. “Because you can” should be all the motivation you need.
& Please, for the love of all things, don’t try to “educate” the marginalized people you want to stand next to. Please. They know more than you, have experienced more, & you’ll look like a fool. Talk to the people who need to hear it. Try to educate folks close to you & who have similar experiences. It’s more uncomfortable, but you’ll ultimately find more success & be more helpful.
There are many types of privilege & you can have one without having another. Those of us who have privilege aren’t doing enough. We need to do better.
Words have power & we need to use that power when we have it. If you have an audience, even if it’s one person, use that to say the important thing. If it feels weird? Do it anyway. Because you can.