Content warning for discussion of a white presenter’s use of a racial epithet. (In this post, I’m writing the standard euphemisms in place of the epithets that the presenter spoke aloud.)
Last week, I attended the annual conference of ACES, an organization for editors. (Copyeditors, developmental editors, etc.)
On the last day of the conference, one of the presenters used the N-word in her presentation, which left me and at least some of the other audience members uncomfortable and upset. This post is my writeup of the incident and its aftermath. It’s pretty long; sorry about that.
This post is intended primarily for white people like me who want to be good allies, so in some of it I’m speaking specifically to that audience.
On Saturday afternoon, in the last full session slot of the conference, I attended a presentation called “Choosing the Right Words,” which was (according to the official description) about “choosing the right words when creating content about the disability population.” (Despite the very general title of the presentation, it was specifically about how to write about people with disabilities.)
The speaker was a white woman. (Or rather, I read her as a white woman; I didn’t ask about her gender identity or racial identity. But her official bio does use she/her pronouns.) She’s “an accomplished broadcast media professional” (according to her bio), and she works for an organization that provides a style guide for writing about disability, a guide that’s intended to “help communications professionals make choices that are accurate, clear and avoid stigmatizing a large portion of the population.” I’m not explicitly naming her or her organization here, because my intention here is not to publicly shame her, but rather to describe what happened and to encourage allies to speak out when we encounter problematic stuff.
(However, I’m not doing much to obscure her identity; I feel like the details of the context and of what she was speaking about are too relevant for me to try to anonymize those. So it would be easy for readers of this post to find her, but please don’t take this post as an invitation to harass her.)
The presenter had provided handouts, including a nicely produced printed-booklet version of her organization’s list of words to use and not use referring to disability. I’ve looked over a few of the entries so far, and found all but one of the ones that I looked at to be sensible and clear; this guide will be useful to me both in my day job (note: I do not speak for my employer) and in a personal project I’m working on.
The handouts also included some separate documents. One of them, which the presenter directed us to read at the start of her presentation, was something she had written about her sister, as a blog post for her organization’s official blog. In this piece, she was objecting to the old idea that words can’t hurt you. She quoted Robert Fulghum: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” She said that her sister had had bipolar disorder, and that the epithets used against her sister all her life had led to self-stigmatizing and had contributed to her sister's death. So the speaker was there to speak on behalf of her sister, and was asking us to be careful about the language that we use with regard to disability. All of which seemed basically fine to me. [Edited to add: However, it would be nice to see a disability-language presentation given by someone speaking from an #ownvoices perspective.]
So I liked that the presenter seemed to be pretty much in accord with my values around language use with regard to disability.
During her presentation, she said repeatedly that everyone makes mistakes, and that we were all here to learn together; a good reminder. I think that she also said something about feeling that she should be in the audience listening to an expert, rather than behind the podium giving a speech (though it’s possible that I misheard or misunderstood that bit); that seemed a little odd to me, but I suspect it was intended as a way to help the audience connect, to bring us together in learning rather than setting herself up as being the superior expert speaking down to us. (I suspect that statement was also coming from a gendered place; I know that to reduce criticism, women often have to publicly self-deprecate in a way that men generally don’t.)
It bugged me a little that she seemed to be assuming that everyone in the audience was non-disabled. But I don’t recall any specific phrases to that effect, so I may have misinterpreted.
Fairly early in the presentation, the presenter gave a history of disability and disability-related terminology. I found that discussion a little offputting too, but I suspect that that was mostly just because I had been in a critical mode about presentations all through the conference; I felt like a lot of the presentations were not as good as I wanted them to be, or made various types of mistakes. I think another aspect of my discomfort with the history presentation was that she appeared to be focusing entirely on the US, without saying so; but that too is a common thing for Americans (including me) to do.
At any rate, although I had various small critiques, up to this point I didn’t have any really big issues with her presentation.
But then she started saying aloud some of the problematic words themselves. In particular, in reference to the “Spread the word to end the word” campaign, she said something like “The word is ‘[R-word, spoken in full by the speaker but elided by Jed],’ and I will say it.” That made me a little uncomfortable. Not only that she said it in full, which I think could have been defensible in this context, but that she added the phrase “and I will say it,” which came across to me as defiant (though for all I know, she may have meant it to be humorous or to be a belated content warning), and which thus suggested to me that she knew that saying the word out loud in full was controversial and that she was taking a stand in favor of saying it. She could have instead used a framing like “We generally ask people to avoid saying this word, but in this particular context I'm going to say the word in full because I think it’s important and relevant,” or something along those lines. But she didn’t; instead she said “and I will say it.” And I started to think that maybe this panel should have had a content warning upfront, letting people know that she was not just going to be talking about language and what words we should use, but also explicitly saying some of the words that she would recommend against using.
And then came the moment that’s the reason for my writing this post:
While discussing one of the disability-related epithets that she was saying not to use, she said that using that word was like using the N-word to refer to a black person. Only she said the full N-word, not the euphemism.
I have encountered people in the past who have felt that it was fine to say that word in quotation marks in the context of talking about words. But even if she felt that way (as I imagine she did), it was an inappropriate and gratuitous analogy to what she was talking about. I can imagine an argument that she might have needed to use the R-word in full (at least on slides, if not aloud) because that was a significant example for the topic of her talk. But there was no need for her to refer to the N-word in her discussion, and there was absolutely no need for her to say the full word instead of a euphemism.
She could have phrased her point about the disability-related epithet she was talking about in any number of other ways. For example:
- “This term is an epithet; you shouldn’t call people this.”
- “Using this term is like using a racist epithet.”
- “This is one of the worst ableist epithets. It’s comparable to the worst racist epithets.”
- “It’s almost as bad as using the N-word.”
All of those phrasings would have made her point perfectly well. There was absolutely no need for her to say the N-word aloud.
I looked around the room (I was near the back of the room), and saw at least three or four people who looked black to me. Nobody in the audience, of any racial background, said anything. The presenter went on with her talk, and didn’t seem to think that there was a problem. I thought about trying to intervene, but I didn’t know how she would react; I was worried that if I spoke up right then, she might say something that would make things worse for the people most likely to have been hurt by what she had said. So I decided I would approach her after the panel and talk with her about it then.
Shortly after that, I left the room. I had several reasons for leaving; I wasn’t walking out solely in protest of her use of the word, and my quiet departure a few minutes after the fact wouldn’t have been an effective protest anyway. But her language did contribute to my discomfort and was among my reasons for leaving.
I went and found a seat in a hallway near the room. I decided that it would be better to send email to the presenter than to try to talk with her in person. I got her email address from her business card and began to write a note to her, but I paused to message my friend Kat (who was attending a different presentation), a.k.a. KTO, to let her know that I was no longer in that room so that she wouldn’t try to come find me there. And she messaged back to ask me if I had been in the room when the presenter had said the N-word. I said yes, and KTO told me that other people who were in the audience for the disability-language panel were discussing it in private messages, and on Twitter. I told her that I was writing email to the presenter about it.
KTO said that her friends who were attending the presentation had decided to wait until the question period at the end of the talk, and then all raise their hands and hope one of them got called on. I asked KTO if she thought it would be a good idea for me to go back and participate in that, and she said yes.
So I did. I arrived back in the room not long before the presenter ended her presentation. I stood in the back of the room. She asked if there were any questions. I hoped that KTO’s friends would raise their hands en masse, and that I could raise my hand too, and we would all be part of a group acting together. But nobody immediately raised their hand, and I was worried that if I didn't step up, the presenter would decide that there were no questions, and end the session. So I raised my hand. The presenter immediately called on me.
I was a little bit flustered. I'm not quite sure what I said exactly, but it was something along the lines of “Earlier in your talk, you said the N-word in full. That was really inappropriate.”
She told me that she was sorry if I was offended. She started to continue to say something, but I raised my voice and said loudly over her that that was not an apology. (I felt bad about trying to talk over a woman speaking, but I felt it needed to be said.) I don’t think she heard me say that; she kept talking. She said something to the effect that she had not called anyone that; she had only used it as part of a comparison.
A white woman in the audience raised her hand and was called on. She said something that I couldn't quite make out; I was too far back. But I think that it was something to the effect that we understood that the presenter was not using the word in reference to a person, but that it was still not a good idea. The presenter said “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”
I raised my hand again, and rather to my surprise, the presenter called on me again. I said something like, “Twice now, you’ve used phrases like ‘I’m sorry if you were offended.’ That’s not an apology. In your position, you should know that.” She fumbled for words for a moment, and then said something like “Okay, I’m sorry. Is that what you want to hear?” That too didn’t sound like a sincere apology to me, but I decided that it was as good a response as I was likely to get, so I said thank you and took a step back.
She asked if there were any questions about the topic of the talk. Another white person, on the other side of the room, raised their hand and was called on. They said they had one more comment on the same topic: they pointed out that the presenter said “N-word” (per se) at a later point in the presentation (I must have been out of the room by that time). [This paragraph updated hours after posting, to correct my misgendering of the person in question. Apologies. For details about what the person said, see their comment on this post.]
The presenter acknowledged the comment and again asked if there were questions on the topic of the talk. Around that time, I left the room again.
It seemed to me that the presenter hadn’t really understood what the problem was; her quasi-apology had sounded defensive and insincere to me. So I went back to the hallway chair and finished writing my email to her.
While I was writing that email, two people who had been in the audience (one read as black to me, and one white), both strangers to me, stopped by my chair (separately) and thanked me for speaking up. Both indicated that they had been upset by the presenter’s comments, but had frozen up in the moment and hadn’t felt able to say anything. The black person told me that they had felt like they should speak up, but had worried that the presenter would be dismissive of them, treating them as just an oversensitive black person.
That comment helped me a lot; it made clear to me that I had done the right thing, and that the silence of the black people in the audience didn’t necessarily mean that they hadn’t been upset. And it reminded me that we who want to be allies must do the work of stepping up and using our privilege to support the people who need our support.
I finished the email and sent it off. KTO arrived in person, with a couple of her white friends, and we had some further discussion and analysis of the situation. I gather that at some point after I left the room, during the Q&A session, the presenter said that she was having trouble breathing; people from the audience helped her sit down and tried to calm her down.
KTO and I later did some more post-incident analysis on our own. I feel that I did an okay job of speaking up, but that I could have done much better if I had been better prepared and more thoughtful in my phrasing and framing. KTO started writing a suggested script for allies in that sort of situation, and I’m hoping to write some further notes and recommendations too.
But in the meantime, I want to note that I had a huge amount of support in my speaking up. Here’s some of what led me to have the courage to step in when and where I did:
- I’m a white cis middle-aged man. The stakes for me personally were very low; I was certainly not going to lose my job or be otherwise punished for speaking up.
- The room was full of people who were there specifically to hear recommendations for social-justice-aware terminology. So I was (subconsciously) very confident that the audience wouldn’t criticize me for being overly concerned about language or anything like that.
- I remembered Mary Anne’s writeup from 2010 of being called out for saying the N-word explicitly while she was on a panel, which helped give me some sense of what the presenter might have been feeling when I spoke up. I suspected that the presenter was distressed and flustered and feeling defensive, and that that all contributed to her unfortunate responses. So I had (vicarious) experience that gave me more context for the situation and made it not entirely novel (I do much better when I have some idea what to expect, going into a situation, than when I don’t); the presenter apparently didn’t have that context. (I wish that I had explicitly acknowledged in my comment to her that we all make mistakes, and that I imagined she might be feeling pretty defensive about this. I don’t know whether that would have helped her, but it would have helped me to feel that I was doing a better job of intervening.)
- The black woman who called out Mary Anne during that 2010 panel was tremendously helpful to me. (I don’t know who she was, but I appreciate her having spoken up.) Before I heard about that incident, I might have guessed that hearing the N-word spoken aloud by a non-black person in a semi-academic “quoted” context might be painful, but I didn’t know for sure that that was true; without that person’s statement, I would have worried that I was speaking out about something that wasn’t really a problem. (I often second-guess myself about that sort of thing, thinking things like “Nobody in the affected group is speaking up, so I guess I’m overreacting.” The flip side of that is, of course, that when someone does speak up, I think “Someone in the affected group is speaking up, so I don’t have to.” Funny how either way, I absolve myself of having to take any action.) (Though sadly, sometimes when I do speak up, it turns out that there really wasn’t a problem and I shouldn’t have spoken up. But that’s relatively rare.) So the fact that I knew for certain that this kind of speech can really hurt people led me to be much more confident about speaking out than I otherwise would have been.
- KTO’s friends who were in the audience told her what was going on. If they hadn’t raised concerns, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go back into the room in person; I would have stuck with just the email. Which would have served the goal of critiquing the presenter’s actions, but wouldn’t have served the goal of letting black people in the audience know that someone was there to back them up, and reminding non-black people in the audience that that word is not ours to say.
- KTO coordinated things between me and her friends, and told me what the plan was, and explicitly said that she felt it was a good idea for me to go back into the room and participate in the plan. Without her recommendation, I would have second-guessed myself too much, and would have decided to stick with email.
So I very much appreciate all the support I had; that all made it about as easy as it could have been for me to speak up. And even with all that support, I was still scared and nervous and uncomfortable (and have continued to have anxiety about it for days afterward, for various reasons). Speaking up is a hard thing to do, especially for someone who hates conflict. But it is doable, and having done it will give me more confidence and ability to do it better next time, and I hope that some of you who want to be good allies can also learn from my experience.
Note: My intent in posting this is not to ask for cookies/praise. Instead, it’s to ask all of us more-privileged people to do better. Presenters: Think about your language, and when you inevitably make a mistake, apologize sincerely for it. (If you’re feeling defensive, it’s okay to say so, and to ask for a little time to calm down.) Audience members who have relatively high levels of privilege: Be willing to speak up when presenters make mistakes; support people who are more vulnerable than you are.
I have a bunch of related thoughts to post at some point, including a summary of the email that I sent to the presenter. But for now, four postscripts:
- I suspect that a few of my white friends would agree with the presenter that it’s fine to speak epithets aloud as long as they’re effectively in quotation marks, not directed at an individual. You are allowed to have that opinion, but I hope that you’ll recognize that saying such words hurts people. You’re allowed to think that people shouldn’t be hurt by hearing particular words, but the fact is that real people in the real word are hurt by such words. Euphemisms and circumlocutions can help provide a little bit of distance.
- I would guess that no more than 10% of the attendees of this ACES conference were people of color. Especially given that, I feel like we white people attending this conference need to do better.
- One point that I didn’t mention in my email to the presenter, but should have: The topic of this presentation is an important one, and the organization that the presenter works for appears to be doing useful work. Her analogy-in-passing cast a pall on the rest of the panel; it meant that for the next 45 minutes, at least some of her audience was probably sitting there feeling hurt and stressed and uncomfortable rather than giving full attention to the presentation. By casually tossing this hurtful word into the middle of a presentation on a different topic, she had undermined the effectiveness of her own presentation.
- The presenter replied to my email with a polite note that indicated that other audience members had told her afterward that what she’d said was fine. Her note made distressingly clear to me that despite being a media professional whose job is about helping journalists choose the “right word” in disability contexts, and despite her firm statements that words in a disability context can do serious harm, she’s oblivious to the harm that words can do in other contexts.