Beyond “F*ck You”: An organizer’s approach to confronting hateful language at work

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The people we work with usually reflect what the dominant culture of our society is like. This includes some of its worst aspects, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism. For worker-organizer’s, these present their own difficulties. They impede our short term goals such as being able to withstand the drudgery of a job, as well as exist as obstacles to uniting our coworkers against management. In addition to these problems, they stand in stark contrast with our long-term goals of creating a new world free of oppression and exploitation. But how do we deal with this? Here is an account from Coeur de Bord about their response to hateful language at their workplace.

“Oh man, I hate that faggot.” Stop. Breathe. Collect. Intervene.
“Fuck that word, don’t ever say it!” Admittedly not my most measured response to a supervisor using bigoted language. But it did spark a conversation. One that left me feeling that I had created for myself the dignity and self-worth that would help prevent future degradation by my bosses. Because I shouldn’t have to feel like shit, I shouldn’t have to accept the casual use of violent slurs, and I shouldn’t let anger and frustration ruin my day or prevent me from existing as my honest self.

After a cold silence that forced my supervisor to get out of my hair for a few minutes (which I used to practice some stress-relief exercises on nearby inanimate objects), he sought me out to apologize. I had mellowed out a bit, so when he started elaborating on his “intended meaning” I tried a more polite and informative approach. I told him there isn’t a “not bad” way to use that word. “See, I was trying to connect with you about a person we both hate (a corporate boss), so when you said what you did it sounds to me like you feel that sort of hatred towards me, my friends, my family, because we are who we are. You know how much that fucking sucks??” I began to see some understanding in his eyes.

I was off to a good start, and he followed up with a question: “Obviously I’m pretty ignorant about this stuff, I just hear people say shit like that all the time. Is saying ‘gay’ in that way bad too?” I said that yea, it’s also fucked up, but to a different level. I told him briefly of the overt threats and violence associated with calling someone that “F” word, the fear that drives many of us to tread softly and carry an extendable baton as we go about our lives. I spoke of how those words, even when not associated with acts of direct violence, are spat at us as reminders that we are supposed to be less than, to be ashamed, to remain silent and hidden until we are called on to serve as an example for something or other. He got it. He’s seen it in action at work, too.

His derogatory comment wasn’t a random example of poor word choice: it fit perfectly into the social atmosphere that rules at my job. I work in a large distribution warehouse where the macho culture and hyper-sexist work divisions create a pretty hostile atmosphere for the very few openly queer people. Our bosses love this- they encourage workers to compete against each other to work faster, lift and carry heavier boxes without help, and bully slower or “weaker” workers with sexist and homophobic taunts to get them to work harder. The faster and harder we work, the company’s profits grow as our pitiful paychecks grow even smaller. This competition between workers is reflected among the ranks of management, separated into multiple levels, where part-time supervisors have to disregard the sanity and safety of us workers if they want to impress their superiors with high production numbers in the hopes of a promotion. The toxic social culture makes it especially difficult for supervisors who are women or people of color (of which there are precious few). My supervisor was born in an East African country, a region that comprises a large portion of our immigrant and refugee population, which undoubtedly makes him even more vulnerable to the malice of his bosses.

“So its kind of like when people say ‘N——.’” “Its not the same, because the history is so much different. But there is a certain similarity in the basic attempt to dehumanize other people with a single word.” We talked about the oppressions our different communities have faced throughout history, and how this oppression affects our lives today. He agreed with me that derogatory slurs are some of the most painful, daily reminders of these histories of extreme violence. We talked about reclaiming these hateful words in our communities, and the side effects of making it seem more acceptable when the wrong people hear us say it.

Whether or not you are comfortable with reclaiming words of violence within your communities, it is never acceptable to use them with the intent to harm.Nobody wants to be degraded or shamed for who they are. Most people understand that the rest of us feel that way, even if they haven’t previously been challenged to think about it. And maybe (ok, definitely) not everyone will be as understanding and willing to engage in a conversation. But I’m offering this story in hopes that some of my responses will inspire y’all to digest and transform the feelings brought on by facing bigoted language. I acknowledge the anger, sadness, and frustrated confusion it brings on, but with this conversation I found a way to prevent them from sticking barbs in me and dictating my moods and energy for days to come. Those barbs represent both the heterosexist oppression we face as queer people, as well as the employing class’s daily efforts to keep workers divided, weak, and compliant.

Though this incident occurred with a supervisor of mine, I am more excited about the prospects of these conversations with our fellow workers. In our struggle against capitalism, we will inevitably encounter co-workers who demonstrate bigoted views, whether out of ignorance or conscious malice. No different from you, my first reaction is to remove the problem or move myself from the problem. But this isolationist tendency prevents the bonds of solidarity from growing before the seeds can even be planted. Remember that above all, the employing/ruling class wants us isolated and divided, weak and powerless to challenge their abuses. Don’t give them what they want.

So often, experiencing homophobia leaves me with a shitty feeling in the corner of my head that lasts for days. I’d be willing to bet that many of you know this lingering feeling. It distracts us from having fun, prevents us from being able to truly relax, and keeps our focus on getting through the daily grind, rather than being able to organize against our exploitation as wage workers. Having this conversation taught me that by working around these emotions can help break down the barriers that the employing class uses to weaken working class solidarity. If taking a stand like mine doesn’t feel possible to you, think of other ways to overcome the effects of such violence. Maybe having a plan or scripted response will be more comfortable than the spontaneous and improvised approach I took. Maybe a friend or co-worker can assist in navigating through these encounters. Certainly, I urge Fellow Workers to discuss and develop strategies that would offer the support and protection of the Union to support FWs experiencing such hateful attitudes at work. We cannot afford to ignore and work around such problems in building a union for all working people.

Coeur de Bord is a queermo IWW living in Minneapolis. When not organizing against hostile work culture, they are most likely reading books about dragons.

Originally posted: April 17, 2014 at The Organizer

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One thought on “Beyond “F*ck You”: An organizer’s approach to confronting hateful language at work

  1. Mori

    One of the most popular fallacies is “words only have power if you give them power”.

    This is usually thrown out by someone advocating reclaimation of language. But often it’s short sighted. Words are symbols. The symbols perform a function. The function services culture. Hateful words and slurs have power not just because someone is offended and can’t shrug it off – they really mean something. As another author recently said: slurs like “fag” are still the last thing many gays and lesbians hear before someone kicks their teeth in and leaves them for dead by the side of a dark highway. The offensive power of these words is not all in one’s head.

    One of the biggest problems with attempting to re-purpose words is that many slurs are ugly and largely fit only as short, sharp insults. Many individuals within a marginalized community “reclaim” them only to use them as insults against their own. All this does is keep the word alive as a valuable slur.

    Reply

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