My wife and I were in the process of making dinner. Not a fancy meal: Some baked potatoes, a couple sausages (veggie for her, chicken for me). Pretty standard. To give you some idea, the potatoes were a treat.
By way of a tradeoff, I said I’d wash if she’d handle the rest of the process, i.e., toss them taters in the oven and poke ‘em with a fork. Negotiations were engaged, a deal was struck. I set to it.
To my credit, I washed the crap out of those potatoes. I couldn’t have gotten them any cleaner if I’d used dish soap. They were, in a word, clean.
I’d used the palms of my hands to scrub—not a technique of my invention, I admit—and when I was done, I found that my hands, in addition to also being clean, were quite soft from what was essentially the potato massage they’d just received.
The thought came to me that it was something to market—potatoes as a way to soften hands—and then my brain hit a kind of bump, and a little notification popped up in my head, like, “Hey wait a second, that might be some pretty sexist shit you’re thinking right now.”
Now, the image in my head was not, “Hey ladies, you want soft hands well get your ass in the kitchen and scrub some potatoes!” but it’s where I’d have ended up one way or another had I not stopped and recognized the direction my brain was taking.
White people do this all the time when it comes to saying and doing racist things. It’s the “I didn’t mean it that way” principle. It’s true, I didn’t mean potato-scrubbing-as-hand-softener in a sexist way, in fact, I wasn’t even envisioning it as being just for ladies—they were my hands after all—but it is important to recognize the roots of these kinds of ideas when they occur to us, whether it’s latent sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., and to work to move beyond them.
And just because you didn’t mean something to be discriminatory doesn’t mean it’s not. Another familiar refrain is to not mean to say “gay” as a derision for gay people, but instead just as a generally used expression meaning something unmanly, terrible or all-around shitty. That’s actually an excuse people make. “Oh, I meant gay like everything awful in the world, not like actually being gay.”
Language matters, and since our external language comes from our internal language, how we frame our thoughts matters too. I’m not saying we all need to conform to an arbitrary, transitive linguistic ideal all the time, just to be mindful and critical of why we think the things we do even in otherwise trivial circumstances, like washing potatoes, reading the news, whatever it might be.
People are incredibly resistant to this notion. It’s easier to justify a habit or mode of thinking than to change it, so you hear a lot about the “P.C. police” and “Why should I have to call a person a certain thing?” It’s an easy answer: Because it’s less prickish that way. Sure, you can be a hatemongering dick if you want. You have that right. But isn’t it worth the slightest effort to not bring someone else down, even if that’s all the difference achieves? Not bumming out another human being?
If history has taught us anything, it’s that no, it’s not worth that effort. Or at very least that a lot of people aren’t going to be willing to make it. Okay. Fair enough. At least we’ve come far enough that those who exercise their freedom of speech to be assholes can get called out on it a little.
Believe it or not, that’s progress. And it can keep being progress as long as people are willing to consider the humanity of others in the way they think and act.
The potatoes were delicious.