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Living Empathetically In A ‘Safe Space’

Attacking an attack is only fighting fire with fire

"Referring to a person using inappropriate gender pronouns can be likened to assault."

I heard this sentence during my first week in Terra, a community-operated house with an emphasis on queer life on Stanford’s campus, where I spent my sophomore year. After building a phenomenal community in the African/African American–themed dorm Ujamaa the year prior, I hoped that moving into Terra would help me build another community, one that used issues like identity, gender, race, and sex to create conversation and camaraderie. And, indeed, I ended up learning so much about what gender and sex mean to those outside of heterosexual, cisgendered identities.

The cultural adjustment to living in Terra was substantial but also healthy and eye-opening. At one of the first house meetings, one of Terra's residential assistants made the aforementioned statement about improperly using gendered pronouns. I did my best to understand how misgendering someone could feel like such a strong attack. I thought about what I knew of prison — specifically how transwomen prisoners are often made to live as male inmates, consistently being referred to as “he” and “him.” That helped me understand the use of the word “assault” in this context. I promised myself then and there that I would strive to identify everyone the way they preferred, even if doing so would be a continual learning process. During my time at Terra, I watched as everyone constantly worked to create a safe space in which no misgendering occurred, and I tried my best to participate in this, too.

But I hardly agreed with everything that occurred there. I was particularly unprepared for the callout culture that seemed to come along with our attempts to create a safe space. Instead of viewing people’s misgendering mistakes as teaching moments — as opportunities to learn empathy and be more conscious of our surroundings and behavior — I noticed that many people decided to turn those who had erred into targets for their anger.

One night I was walking toward the kitchen when I heard one of my house members berating another for using “she” instead of “they.” This person was waving their hands wildly and shouting, telling the housemate to “fucking try harder.” Is that really going to be effective? I wondered. Would a random visitor to our home who made the same mistake meet the same fate? Do aggression and attacks really help people who use incorrect pronouns in any kind of long-term way — especially those who do so without malice, just because they don’t even know what they did wrong in the first place? Is attacking them as a quick band-aid to remedy the situation worth it?

I definitely believe that everyone has a right to defend inclusive and conscious cultural awareness. Fighting for the simple right to be respected is a noble fight to wage. But does this effort ultimately have to be a fight?

I’ve seen this derogatory and sharp callout culture show up in all sorts of places and on many other platforms, too. Tumblr users berate one another about whose political ideologies are the best. We watch one of our presidential candidates engage in toxic rhetoric daily, but in a white, male American body, which makes his behavior professionally passable, if not acceptable. Musician and artist Azealia Banks is profusely and consistently apologizing for her outbursts and antics, calling out other stars — like Zayn Malik for recycling her fashion choices — with racist rhetoric.

But let’s take Azealia’s case. What if instead of reacting so combatively to her racist outburst, the media and the general public had tried to teach her a lesson about sensitivity and cultural awareness? Ultimately, she was attacked in the same way she had attacked another, and her entire career suffered for it. Mistakes are one of the best ways to grow, and as a digital generation behind screens and keyboards, it seems we have more opportunities to do just that. But if every misstep is scrutinized angrily, we will be doing ourselves one hell of a disservice by never addressing the root of this issue.

It’s not a simple problem to solve, but I started with a simple step: When I have the capacity to, I offer everyone the benefit of the doubt. Whether a Terra house member who misgendered someone had no idea that they’d erred, or this was the fifth time I’d had to correct their language in one meeting, I asked myself: Is this person going to hear me best if I start screaming? Or can I encourage change in their behavior better if I go in with a cool head and really talk to them, rather than at them?

I think those who are trying to shift our culture need to meet others where they are in their understanding of these concepts and their cultural literacy. Some people may need to be brought up to speed about issues like misgendering. That’s not to say that every error must be treated as a teachable moment by those who know better; I've found that explaining why African-American vernacular is not indicative of stupidity or ignorance every single time gets old, for instance. But assuming the worst of someone based on a single error, especially if the person has no prior experience with or training in concepts of social justice, is ultimately both ineffective and defensive. If our goal is to make others more conscious and inclusive, meeting them with aggression is too quick and dirty to truly further this mission.

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