Whole Lotta Shamin’ Going On

illustration by Emily R. Armstrong
illustration by Emily R. Armstrong

There is a certain insidious kind of behavior perpetrated by ‘enlightened’ individuals that takes the form of unsolicited criticism. It is packaged as evangelizing for The Liberated Choice. Those offering the criticism believe they are doing a service to those they criticize, that this criticism is educational and will improve the lives of anyone in earshot. Those “enlightened” individuals would certainly reject and likely speak out against insults meant to keep the status quo, and they likely don’t even realize that they’re participating in the same sort of behavior.

In this culturally enlightened folk recognize that the policing of identity expression is generally oppressive, and often times specifically sexist, racist and/or homophobic. They recognize that there are systems in place that work toward the detriment of the people for the financial benefit of a few, that economic and social structures supporting these systems really dictate what people buy, what people do and how people present, or repress, their identities. The least expensive food has the lowest nutritional value. The western standard of beauty is an impossibly thin, carefully makeupped, shorn, white, eurocentric ideal. “Good hair” is a term used in black communities to indicate silky, straight hair. As members of this society, people are expected to go along with these ideas of “good” and “normal.”

It takes a certain amount of courage to do what feels right when it is contrary to the oppressive expectation. In some places, rebelling against these expectations can incite violent repercussions. In safer places, one may still field uncomfortable questions and find themselves on the defense against folks who would rather uphold the status quo. This is honorable and praiseworthy.

What is not honorable, however, is the evangelism of breaking these cultural norms that takes the form of elitist shaming. It’s when responding to inquiries about one’s choices moves to expressing opinions about the choices of others in an attempt to get them to live their life the ‘enlightened’ way. It’s an attempt at shaming them out of behaviors deemed as harmful to themselves. We see this a lot these days with food. There are enough dietary restrictions to fill their own shelf in the library, and half of them are a step away from new religions. It is going beyond making information available and attempting to remove a choice. When someone leans over to tell a friend how “ unhealthy” their healthy snack is, they are now engaged in the same behavior as those who would mock someone for eating anything healthy in the first place.

Muslim women in France saw this with a ban on the burqa and niqab in 2011. While the ban did contain some liberating sections such as imposing a large fine on men who force women to wear the veil, it took away women’s religious freedom by not allowing them to wear their veils at all. In The Politics of Natural Hair, Kiki Nicole talks about how she has noticed, now that she wears her hair natural, that some women rocking natural hair shame their processed / weave / wig wearing sisters. Shaming can be seen among every type of ‘liberated’ subculture, and it does not serve to help anyone’s cause.

Having the freedom to choose the more ‘liberated’ option means also having the freedom to choose the less ‘liberated’ one. Talking generally about the historical context for an action or expression is much different than talking specifically about someone’s choice within that context. Those folks who believe they’re making the world a better place should consider whether their efforts are creating more opportunities and choices, or whether they are simply policing the actions and expressions of others.

This piece was originally published on The Letter Red.

3 thoughts on “Whole Lotta Shamin’ Going On”

  1. I don’t think most of our sisters and brothers have a liberated “option”…I think with the pervasive nature of media and corporate agendas, the “choice” is often elusive if not illusory all together. We have to find ways to share information and be critical of the oppression that seeks to keep us all ignorant without folks taking offense. Sometimes people just don’t know. How many times have you seen the words “natural” on a label and later found out it was anything but. Don’t shoot/shame the messenger ;)…

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