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You Know Something is Problematic When… A Quick Go-To Guide

Okay, sometimes “things” happen in the world that just make me sigh. (Read: blackface cakes meant to represent female genital mutilation.) Over the past few months, there just seems to have been a torrent of misguided gaffes and controversies that continually reveal how much work still needs to be done in the world along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, etc. At this point, I sigh not just because these things happen, but because the things that happen slip so easily into the realm of what I called Problematic 101. Often times, it is difficult to distinctly describe exactly why something might be  “[insert identity noun here]-ist,” so instead, those of us who engage in these types of dialogues like to deem something as “Problematic.” It is simply a loose way to suggest that a little ignorance has crept into the disorder of the fight for an equal world, further complicated the realities of people already marginalized, and necessitates some further education. I sigh because many of the same types of issues keep reoccurring, and they usually fall along similar patterns. Thus, I present to you a humble and hopefully amusing quick Go-To guide about how to know when something is Problematic.

 This is to serve two main purposes.

1)    To help those of us less acquainted with the plights of the marginalized to be able to recognize why something is “problematic,” and hopefully prevent us from making a few of the same mistakes.

2)  Serve as a quick reference point for when we have that friend who says something akin to “…black people could get out of the ghetto if they just weren’t so lazy…”

These following items should by no means be thought of in a vacuum. But most problematic things tend to have one or more of these traits.


You know something is Problematic When…

 1)    It claims a simple solution.

Examples: Kony 2012, Geraldo Rivera’s Comment on Hoodies, Discourse Around Welfare-recipients

 Why it’s problematic:

Social critic and journalist H.L. Mencken said it best when he stated “ …there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The problem with simple solutions is that they are predicated upon simple problems. And most of the problems our society faces—quite simply—are not simple. Many times, the solutions proposed often distract from more pertinent issues at hand, and usually distort facts that would reveal how illegitimate the aforementioned solutions actually are. Kony 2012 for instance, created a simple villain for the entire world to launch their activism kits at, but at the end of the day, Ugandans themselves stated that Kony was no longer the huge threat as Invisible Children made him out to be, and it ignored the efforts Ugandas had made in eradicating Kony themselves, and basically just put Kony 2012 back into the heap of Western narratives that suggest that “Africa” (See #3) needs the West to save them. (Full disclosure:  Even I made the mistake of not being as critical of Kony 2012 as I should’ve been.)


2) It includes an attempt to speak for a group historically disenfranchised from speaking for themselves. This is typically done by the dominant group who has done the marginalizing in the first place.

Examples: That ridiculous “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” article, The Help, White Savior Movies Period

Why it’s problematic:

This one’s a toughie, because in recent years, it is usually a crime committed by the most well meaning of folks. But, as this wonderful Ebony article about the black face cake reminds us, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. To illustrate the problem of this, I offer you a crude analogy. Say for instance, there were two boys. Mike and Ben. Mike has a bike. Ben doesn’t. Say Ben stole Mike’s bike, and then tried to explain to you what Mike must’ve felt like as his bike was stolen from him? That’s just—odd? Right?

The point is not to say that every white person who tries to tell the story of a poor black kid from the ghetto should be blamed for the injustices named against that kid. But simply, the “white person” (or the dominate group) is usually the one who gets to speak. There’s a privilege there that marginalized groups don’t get to indulge in. And to be frank, Mike probably has a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what it means to have his bike stolen. The lesson here is not that dominant groups cannot empathize with the plights of the marginalized groups, but the point is to help create opportunities for the dispossessed to articulate their own realities and acquire their own agency. Not to “tell their story.” (And therefore imply that they’re unable to tell their stories).

Also, sometimes the dominate groups speak with such a myopic and distorted view of reality that they reveal that they only reason they get heard in the first place was because of their privilege. (e.g. If I Were a Poor Black Kid)

 Nice White Ladies…

3)  It turns anything into a monolith.

Examples: Most of the discourse around Africa.

 Why it’s problematic:

#1 usually gets traction because of our tendencies to turn everything into a monolith. That is, assuming that there is a single type of narrative or framework around a people, culture, place, etc. WARNING, anything that begins with a sweeping noun, such as “Blacks need to…” or “Africans have to face…,” has a high probability that the ensuing statement will be problematic. This is the type of thinking that ignores the fact that Africa is a huge continent with literally tons of languages and cultures. Or suggests that all Black people can dance and play basketball. It creates a single story, probably wrought with misconceptions and generalizations, and robs “whatever” of its complexity and diversity. Once things are over-simplified, we can then move onto simple solutions. See how that works?

 4)    It blames the victim for their own victimization. 

Examples: Slut-shaming of Rape Culture, Ideas like Reverse Racism, Again—complaints against welfare recipients, Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Woman, Think Like a Man.

 Why It’s Problematic:

This annoys me the most, because it usually comes from a gross level of arrogance. It usually entails ignoring historical fact and the oppression of dominant groups, in favor of suggesting that marginalized groups are at fault for their own marginalization. It manifests itself as an attempt to reach the simple solutions of #1, and it ultimately ends up distracting from the real causes of issues.

It’s when people say a woman deserved to be raped because of the clothes she wore, instead of focusing on the men who commit the crimes. It’s when Gingrich can suggest that Obama was making Trayvon’s death into a race issue, instead of confronting the true and salient reality of racial disparities in our justice system. It’s when rich people can say that poor people can get out of the ghetto if they want to, while ignoring the fact that “ghettos” were constructed due to white flight and discriminatory federal housing policies of the 50s and 60s. It’s when Steve Harvey can tell women that they need to change their standards in order to find a man and then make a movie about it, and no less, by thinking like men themselves? I shudder to think what a world would look like where everyone thought like men. It’s already predominately led by men, and look where that’s getting us.

If you meet someone who suffers from the symptoms of #4 (and indeed, we all do in some capacity) it takes open and honest discussion, and some good ol’ facts to debunk some of these myths.

All-in-all, we all have to face some problematic stuff at some point. This was just my two cents to help in the fight against it, and maybe be a quick reference guide when it’s time to begin some of these discussions. But of course—it’s imperfect—hell, and that’s probably problematic too.

Feel free to add to the list.

You know something is problematic when…?