As a professor and someone who lectures and make presentations outside of the classroom, I field my fair share of questions. I have come to realize that every opinion question is a loaded question. Every question comes with a set of assumptions, understandings, and motives. Some questions are loaded with wonder. The questioner is trying to gain knowledge and explore a new and different way of thinking. These kinds of questions invite a conversation between the answerer, questioner, and everyone else who is listening. I love those questions! Some questions are loaded with a desire to make the speaker see the perceived error of their ways. They are meant to be confrontational and challenge the speaker. Challenge is not a bad thing; it is one way that we grow. When I answer these questions, I respond in the spirit of growth-inducing challenge. I challenge the person’s assumptions and try to present a counternarrative, often using the same language presented in the question as a way of showing common ground for growth of the questioner, the questioned, and everyone listening. And some questions are loaded with oppressive ways of thinking and are asked in order to further a problematic narrative that often includes the desire to put me in my place (which is conveniently located below their station). I don’t answer those questions. And when I don’t answer questions, I don’t side step and talk about something else; I actively reject the premise of the question and challenge the oppressive premise. This response is not so much for the questioner as much as it is for everyone else listening and struggling with ways to deal with oppressive premises.
“I reject the premise” has become a go-to phrase for me when being asked to work within an oppressive construct. There are so many times that I have been asked things or been asked to participate in conversations with folk where answering their problematic questions would only lead to problematic answers that support oppressive structures. If you work for social justice, you will often come up against people whose status quo is being threatened by your presence. They will often fight back with questions that are meant to cement the status quo. They are coming to you to reestablish the metanarrative that you are bucking. The temptation, then, is to provide a counternarrative by answering the question and using that time to argue your point. However, in the face of oppression, a counternarrative is not enough. What those who work for social justice seek to present is a metanarrative that does not seek to tweak current oppressive structures but overturn them and replace them with liberating practices. Below, I present three questions often used to undermine workers for social justice. I state the problematic thinking behind these questions and suggest appropriate ways to reject the premise in your response.
Aren’t [insert oppressed group here] far better off than they used to be?
The first time this question was posed to me, I was in college. I was pointing out racist actions by college students, professors, and administrators. The person was telling me that I should “just deal with it,” stop complaining, and “get over it” because “if Black people were still slaves, you wouldn’t even be here.” Confused by the illogical argument, I asked for clarification. In response I was asked, “Aren’t Black people better off than they used to be?” I responded, “yes, but . . .” I accepted the premise of the question when I shouldn’t have. There are at least two premises at work here. First, what is premised here is that progress equals success. However, while Jim Crow laws may have been better than slavery, Jim Crow laws were not OK. It may have been progress, but it did not indicate success. Success is true liberation—where everyone has the same access as another. That is the measuring stick we should be using. Using a dehumanizing institution like American chattel slavery as a measuring stick is ridiculous and shows the demeaning views this person held towards Black people.
This leads to a second premise: Because of such a demeaning measuring stick that sets the bar ridiculously low, I should be grateful regardless of my treatment. I should not expect to be treated equally; I should be grateful that they even let me in the building. My mere existence in a space should be seen as a favor I am receiving. When women rightly complain about pay inequity, they are told to be grateful for the strides made by women in the workplace. When LGBTQ+ people fight against discrimination they are told to be grateful that they can get married—things are better, so stop complaining. The premise assumes that it is pure hubris for any oppressed identity to want an equal piece of the pie; we should be grateful with the crumbs. All the while, the asker of the question sees no problem with having three or four servings for themselves. All these things are loaded into the premise of that question, and we must reject it.
What about [insert perceived problem of the oppressed group here]?
This is diversion tactic 101. When activist protest police brutality and unfair treatment towards Black people and declare that Black Lives Matter, they are asked, “what about Black on Black crime?” When Muslims speak about anti-Muslim rhetoric and the challenges Muslim face in US society, they are asked, “what about radical Islamic terrorism?” When someone from the LGBTQ+ community speaks about homophobic or transphobic treatment, they are asked about predators and child molesters. The premise presented here is that the problem is not with oppressive structures or systematic oppressions. But the problem is you (insert oppressed group here)—regardless of statistics that do not support any of the diversion claims.
Representative Ihlan Omar (MN) got a question from an audience member asking her to condemn a particular terrorist group. Her answer explained well why the premise of the question needs to be rejected. Rep. Omar had condemned that group in written statements and had voted for and sponsored bills and resolutions that would weaken the power of this and other terrorist groups but was repeatedly asked to denounce them due to an assumption that her Muslim identity automatically means that she supports these terrorist groups. One is being racist when one asks, “why are you not just dealing with this particular thing that is being done by people that look like you” because the assumption is that if the Muslim lawmaker does not constantly rebuke this, then it must be seen that she supports it. The violence is default. One’s assumed violent identity is the foundation of this premise. One’s embodied identity should not automatically make one suspect in this way. Reject the premise.
What about other groups?
With the work that I do, I get this question the most. As a practical theologian, I focused on the lived lives of people. This requires qualitative research and referring to qualitative research done on a particular group. The groups I tend to focus on are: girls, Black youth, and Black women and girls. When I present about girls, I will be asked, “What about boys?” When I speak about Black women, I am often asked “What about White women?” This question is often asked by people belonging to the group referenced. So, in effect they are asking, “What about me?” I often respond, “What about them?” Logically, boys do not need to be included in a conversation about girls and White women do not need to be included in a conversation about Black women, but the premise here is that for conversations to be whole, they must be about “me” i.e., the majority dominant group.
For many years, research has been presented about “youth” or “women” with no racial or socio-economic qualifiers. This usually meant that they were talking about White middle class youth and White middle class women. This shaped a view centered on White normativity—the notion that white and middle class was the norm. Everyone else was left outside of the norm and thus outside of the conversation. But when those of us who are not seen as part of the hegemonic norm bring their community to the forefront, we are told that we are not inclusive or all-encompassing enough.
Toni Morrison got this question from a reporter asking if she would ever write about a broader subject instead of “just” writing about Black lives. Morrison responded, in part, that this question would not be and has never been asked of a White writer who only wrote about White lives. To respond this way is not to say, “You exclude people, so we can too”. This is not a tit-for-tat response. It is important to talk about the lived lives of all different kinds of people. The response rejects the premise that speaking about White or male lives only is normative and expected but speaking about lives that do not fall into the previous categories are “different” and “niche”, so it is incomplete without the inclusion of “normal” categories. My identity is not abnormal, and I reject any premise that suggests that it is.
The rejection of these premises is not only about rejection of different ideas and thoughts, but the rejection of a rejection. Often times what is being challenged in the very identity of the person receiving the question. No one should have to justify their personhood. It should just be recognized. Those who work for social justice cannot accept anyone’s attempt to make a particular person or group justify their existence. Reject that premise.
Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.