Spark in Darkness. Many of you are familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.
I’m faintly, academically curious about how the same arguments used by privileged people to dismiss nasty complaining marginalised folks keep getting used -and even rebranded. One glorious example is:
You know how this goes? Someone spouts a whole load of bigoted crap as they do so many times over – maybe they’re ignorant, maybe they don’t give a crap, maybe they’re just that overloaded on their own superiority and privilege, maybe they’re malicious – ultimately they’re called out on it and they turn round and say “I didn’t intend that!”
And magically everything’s fixed. Except, not. Unintended bigotry is still bigotry. Something that dehumanises or others marginalised people still does so even if the person producing it is thinking of fluffy kittens and happy unicorns. It doesn’t make a slur any less triggering, a piece any less erasing, a portrayal any less stereotyped or their actions any less dismissive, offensive and othering. Intent as an excuse puts the privileged person’s feelings above the actual harm caused to marginalised people. This is why the watchword for so long has been “Intent isn’t magic.”
Ah, but the forces of privilege aren’t going to give up just because someone has hit them with some common sense (alas, for if they did we’d be in a much better world by now). And even as we continue to fight magical intent, it’s mutated child has crawled onto the scene…
The Good Faith argument basically says that the person meant well – they had good faith. In other words, it’s the Intent argument for those who know they’re not going to impress anyone by waving the intent banner. But it has the bonus points of being aggressive, not defensive. See, the “Intent” argument is a defence “I didn’t mean that!” while this is an attack “I’m acting in good faith!” with the nasty little implication that the marginalised person challenging them has BAD FAITH. Tuttut.
And you can see that in how it’s used. I’ve seen it used most often as an accusation: “you assumed I was acting in bad faith!” As if whether they’re acting in bad faith or not changes what they did! Just like with intent, your good faith isn’t magical. If you do/say/write something demeaning, dehumanising, stereotyping, othering or erasing marginalised people then that is what you have done/said/write. Your magical Good Faith Fairy won’t buzz around your words and deeds like some kind of Microsoft Paperclip and edit you actions.
And you know what? Damn right I assumed they were acting in bad faith! Why should I assume differently? Why should I ASSUME that any straight person is going to deal with me in good faith? Why should any trans person assume a cis person is acting in good faith? Why should POC assume white people are acting in good faith?
The world has taught us time and again that privileged folks rarely engage with marginalised people in anything like Good Faith. Even when those privileged people think they’re engaging in good faith, so much of it is built on assumptions and societal conditioning and sheer ignorance that they’ve made no effort to challenge – or even realised they had to challenge it – that they don’t even have good faith. Good faith in even addressing issued of prejudice with a marginalised person would have to begin internal challenge and self-education.
Some straight people have earned my trust, as I’ve mentioned before, but the key words there are “earned” and “my”. As in, they proved to me they had Good Faith and they proved to ME, not the greater GBLT mystical collective! No-one else has to give you the trust that you’ve worked to earn from me. Frankly, it’s almost ridiculous for a marginalised person to assume a privileged person isn’t acting in bad faith.
Perhaps most extreme of all, I have heard people DEMAND an assumption of good faith. People who are cis, straight and/or white demanding that GBLT people and POC assume they are acting in good faith. And if we don’t, they then dismiss what we say. So we’re either silent in the face of their prejudice – or we criticise and are dismissed or ignored because we didn’t meet their DEMAND that we assume good faith.
In my book if a straight person demands I assume they’re engaging in good faith, then already they’re showing their bad faith to me. Because they’re not interested in questioning or challenge or criticism – they already have the answers, they have already assumed their rightness, and they’ve already established themselves as an unassailable, infallible authority EVEN more so than marginalised people. They have also arrogantly placed their feelings as more important than the marginalised people they’re actually talking about.
They make three of the most classic of ally fails. Firstly, they assume allydom. They try to force us to accept them as an ally by forcing us to accept they are acting on Good Faith. They demand trust that they haven’t earned from us (because if they had earned it, they wouldn’t need to demand it). They demand to be considered a safe person (while proving how unsafe they are).
Secondly, they assume that their self-declared allydom makes them a community member. They demand to have their privilege ignored. Because the people who tend to get an assumption of Good Faith are those who face the same marginalisation (not always, every group has sell outs).
Thirdly, they assume they have BOUGHT the marginalised communities they talk about. That their “allydom” means those communities owe them – owe them gratitude, owe them consideration, owe them “most special privileged person” status. It is one of the pervasive problems of allydom that privileged people expect to be treated as super special awesome folks for believing marginalised people.
Ultimately, it’s another form of privileged people silencing marginalised people. It’s another demand from privileged people that margainalised people be good little toys. It’s another entitlement that privileged people feel is their natural due. It’s another attempt for privileged people to elevate their own voices even when talking about our issues. And it’s yet another reason why the last thing we should assume is “good faith” or a “safe space” even from – perhaps especially from – self-proclaimed allies.