Stepping on people’s toes and the tale of (not) prioritizing impact over the intention


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a picture of a tweet from 2018

When someone steps on your toe, it hurts. What usually happens is that the person whose toe has been stepped on says “Ow, that hurts” and the toe stepper says “Gosh, I’m sorry!”.

If the toe stepper hasn’t taken their foot/chair etc off your toe at that point they do so immediately, and are very apologetic.

There is never a dispute about whether the person whose toe is being crunched is truly experiencing harm or pain. There is never a debate about whether they should just tolerate you stepping on their toe. You never say “Hey, you’re making me feel bad by telling me I’m on your toe, so I’m going to get upset and maybe keep my foot on your toe”.

Also, while the person may not have intended to step on the person’s toe, they take responsibility for the impact their action has had and repair the harm they have done by removing the chair/door/foot off the person’s toe.

All of this is considered extremely reasonable. And indeed it is best practice in these situations.

Now we consider the parallel between someone telling you that your language/behavior is Islamophobic/ antisemitic/ racist/ ableist/ homophobic/ classist/ transphobic etc.

This is where things go a little off course. The principle differences between this and the traditional toe-stepping scenario above are as follows:

  1. In the toe-stepping scenario, the person who has stepped on the other person’s toe agrees with the exclamation of the person whose toe has been harmed. The experience of the person whose toe has been stepped on is recognized as valid and legitimate.
  2. In our parallel “what you said to me was racist” scenario, the toe-stepper responds with “How dare you! I’m a good person!” or they tell the person to not be so sensitive because they didn’t mean it. They believe their intention is more important than their impact. They self-certify themselves as harmless, even while engaging in harm. They come to this conclusion because their likely structural power vs. the person whose toe has been stepped on means that they have been taught that POC’s views are worth less than theirs.
  3. In our toe scenario, the relationship between the toe-stepper and the stepped-on is generally one of equals. However, because of structural power and the privilege it affords the “toe stepper” in the racist language scenario, they are looking at the issue from a different vantage point. A vantage point where they prioritize themselves over the other person.
  4. Furthermore, most people’s definition of racist, sexist behavior, etc is of someone who does physical harm and shouts charged expletives at someone (we can engage in the deliberate way that this has come about another time). It is defined as something that very few people participate in and do.
  5. What’s more, in reality, it’s extremely rare for the person who experiences the sexist, homophobic, racist behavior (the stepped-on) to tell the person who has done it (the toe-stepper) that it’s happening/has happened. Why? It is extremely risky as the toe-stepper will likely dismiss the stepped-on anyway; self-certify themselves as a good person; say they didn’t mean it and engage in all sorts of justifications — all the while continuing in the process to step on the person’s toe because they cannot listen to what the person is telling them about their experience. They only have the luxury of doing this ignoring and dismissing because of their power and privilege. It’s what power and privilege have been designed to do to maintain itself and the status quo.
  6. The toe-stepper may also claim that their feelings are hurt by the (stepped-on) person who has told them they’ve been doing the ~ist thing. The toe-stepper will confuse their feelings of shame and guilt as being more important than the verifiable harm, pain, and lack of safety that comes from injustice and oppression that the stepped-on is experiencing and living.
  7. Contrast this with stepping on someone’s toe. It’s considered ordinary. We try to avoid it and take action to prevent it from happening (being alert as we move around, and cautious of where we put things), but we know it happens. And when someone does tell us we are on their toe, we believe them. We apologize. And we tell them we won’t do it again. That is why shifting our understanding of doing something ~ist, or engaging in an ~ism from something extraordinary to something ordinary occurrence, is critical.
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