How to Stop Saying Racist and Offensive Things

Recently one of the most famous poker players in the world, Daniel Negreanu, made some controversial tweets, mostly dealing with the difference between races and sexes. A few examples were:

“Not politically correct to say this, but I am convinced that political correctness does WAY more harm to society than it does good.

“I believe women act more on emotions and feelings whereas men act rationally/logically.”

“A football coach shouldn’t be demonized for saying or believing that “black players make better cornerbacks.” What is offensive about that?”

“Saying Asian kids do well at math shouldn’t be offensive.”

I replied with: “I’m guessing what annoys Asian people is when someone says to them “I bet you’re good at math”, for no reason but their race.”

His response was: “if they get annoyed by that they will need to develop some thicker skin IMO!”

He has recently written a blog that attempts to explain himself. I think the blog wasn’t especially good, mainly because he makes no apology or contrition for a single thing he said or did. I’m sure all the women reading didn’t enjoy seeing one of their poker heroes say that they are “less rational” than men, and I do believe that this deserves an apology, and not a link to some scientific study to bolster his point.

I jumped right into the argument on Twitter and gave a few reasons why I thought some of the statements were offensive. First of all, as soon as someone claims they are “against political correctness”, you can bet they are very likely to be white, and usually a white man. White men don’t face any of the subtle discrimination that others have to face on a daily basis, so I find it ignorant for this particular group of people to have such a strong opinion against the general concept of “political correctness”, since almost none of what the PC culture fights against is aimed towards them.

The comment about men and women is so patently absurd I don’t know where to begin. Turn on the news someday and I doubt you’ll see a story about some woman getting emotionally charged then raping and beating her husband to death. Or you won’t see entire articles and forums on the Internet devoted to the irrational behaviors of women who are rejected by the opposite sex. Men go on completely insane emotional violence sprees astronomically more often than women do, but I don’t think I need to find an Internet link to prove this.

But enough about the specific comments he made, the point I want to make is that while I attacked the comments and the ideas behind them, I used to and very well could make comments like this in the future.

I consider myself to be a feminist, a supporter of the BlackLivesMatter movement and a believer that poor people are being viciously oppressed in the United States. I suspect that Daniel may consider himself to be all of these things as well. However just because I believe these things, doesn’t mean that I’m not going to say something stupid or ignorant that offends the very people whom I’m intending to support. I am a white man, who has never faced any of the subtle and constant discrimination that minorities and women face on a regular basis, and therefore I am not always going to be 100% attuned to what does and doesn’t offend other people.

The key is not to be terrified that I might say these things. The key is to quickly learn that when smart people say you are being offensive, to look at your actions and try to ask yourselves “are they right?” (hint: probably yes).

The other key is not to make someone into a permanent evil character for saying the wrong thing, but to instead to feel happy for them if next month they are now saying something different because they were flexible enough to listen to the people around them.

What are some of the stupid things I said? Almost a year ago I wrote an article on why talented young girls should eschew girls-only chess tournaments because they were bad for their development. I showed a draft of this article to someone whose opinion I trusted, and they pretty much ripped into it.

My first reaction was “Wow….she’s just being overly sensitive and doesn’t really understand what I’m saying. I doubt anyone else is going to care about this kind of stuff”. And I think that this kind of defensive reaction is going to be the first reaction that almost everyone has to strong criticism.

So if someone like Daniel says some crazy stuff, and then defends it for the next 6 hours, this doesn’t mean too much. He’s still in his emotional man-phase. What really matters is what he thinks about that stuff next month, or next year.

What did I say that garnered the ire of my friend? There were a few things, but one that really sticks out to me was when I wrote something like “If you want your daughter to be a strong and independent woman, I’d suggest they do XXX”.

Can you imagine me saying “If you want your son to be a strong and independent man?”. No, because the sentence at its very core is pretty demeaning and the idea of me telling women that they need to be strong and independent is condescending. It was not something I understood at the time, but the next day I realized it was almost certainly true, and removed it from my draft.

Here is the article now in it’s final form. Even now there are a few reasons this type of article is very dangerous to write and I wish I had the chance to rewrite it:

  1. I’m a man and I’m advising girls on how to behave. I think I’m right, but this is generally something that myself and other men should be very careful about. As a chess coach who works specifically with the top young players in the country, I felt that it was worth writing about despite this issue. However it’s certainly possible that there is some factor in this analysis that I just don’t or cannot understand.
  2. I didn’t include any quotes from women, even though the best chess player ever, Judit Polgar, said in pretty definitive terms that she thought that talented girls should not play in all-girls tournaments. I constantly referenced Judit and her actions throughout the article, but I think it’d be more powerful to include some direct quotes. If anyone’s opinion matters on this subject, it’s hers. You can find some examples of her thoughts from this interview.

My next example was even more embarrassing because this time it was actually public. In my old blog I wrote an article about how annoying it is when men complain about special women’s prizes and tournaments in chess. This was in response to a Grandmaster who went on Facebook and posted an over the top rant about how horrible women’s prizes were in chess tournaments. It was so nasty and filled with bitterness that I couldn’t resist replying.

However then I went off the deep end, and started comparing women’s only chess prizes to affirmative action and went on and on about this comparison. By the time I finished my blog I was pretty happy and was like “yeah that’ll show these whiny men to just shut the hell up about it already”.

I posted a link on Facebook and got some positive feedback and then someone ripped into me about the affirmative action part. At first I was like “damn, chill the hell out”, but then someone else chimed in as well. Note that these were not random Internet psychos but smart people whom I generally agree with. After a while, when people you know to be very intelligent are opposing what you’ve done, you simply must realize that the chances of you being wrong are very high, and then try to figure out why this is true. Once you’ve determined this, if it’s appropriate to do so you should just apologize, instead of trying to explain your actions.

While this was not the only mistake I made in the aforementioned blog, a good general rule of thumb is that it’s important to realize the scale of what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about a chess tournament, don’t somehow throw in comparisons to affirmative action, the holocaust, or anything else that is unbelievably more important and that affects the lives of millions of people. If you are talking about a person you don’t like, don’t ever compare them to Hitler or Stalin, unless that person was actually Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin.

My point is that I get a vibe that Daniel Negreanu is at his core not a racist man, and that he definitely believes all people should be treated equally. However he said some things that offended a lot of people, and those people were right to criticize these things. Hopefully he learns from this, understands why these comments may offend people, and stops posting these kinds of things on Twitter.

I think I’ve learned a lot over the past few years on how to properly express myself about issues of racism, sexism and inequality, but there’s a good chance I’ll mess up again. However when I do mess up, and people call me on it, I’ll listen and be better at it moving forward.

2 thoughts on “How to Stop Saying Racist and Offensive Things

  1. The problem with the BlackLivesMatter movement is that they only raise a fuss on the comparatively rare occasions where a black person is killed by a non-black. On the much more common instances where a black person is killed by black person all we hear is crickets. Ergo: it is a racist movement. And the problem with such racist movements is that they alienate liberal whites. Without liberal whites, for example, there are no 13, 14, and 15 Amendments, no Civil Rights Act, etc. So that is not a very prudent political strategy.

    Also, I disagree with the premise of the article. These issues need to be discussed in a forthright manner and certain facts are bound to ruffle some feathers. Fretting over those particular feathers is not part of any real solution to our very real problems. In the end, everyone is free to go their own way politically and murder is always murder, whether by white police, black thugs, the CIA, or the IDF, for example.

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  2. Greg, this comes late, but BRAVO & TY.I want to strongly agree w/you that the question of opinion–e.g., listen to women if you’re a man; people of color if you’re white, etc.–is sometimes complex.

    My favorite example: when I was directing theater, playwright August Wilson said he did not think people of color should be cast in “European” roles–he was absolutely opposed to multiracial casting. Many actors of color did not agree. Wilson wanted more space for Black & other voices in the theater; they wanted to work, & to be more broadly represented on stage. I once had dinner with two cousins who happened to be roommates. One was a playwright, & agreed with Wilson. He told me not to cast color-blind, but only to use actors of color in roles written for their heritage. The other was an actor, and he completely disagreed. He told me to take down as many boundaries as possible and cast as blindly as I could–e,g., do Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc. with actors of color.

    I realized that whatever I did, some portion of the Black theater community might consider it racist, since some might also have thought a white director shouldn’t direct a Black play. The way out of the dilemma would have been to do all-white theater…but to me, THAT was racist, especially living in New York City, which is so diverse. (I ultimately went with the diverse casting of classics & also w some anti-racist plays.)

    So as a white person, I had to form my own opinion, and be ready to be criticized. The impossibility of pleasing everybody gave me some courage, because it also meant that I HAD to make mistakes–I could never be perfect–and I had to be ready to learn from them. The mistakes I made STILL cause me to cringe–but I’m glad I was willing to cringe & learn! 🙂 I’m glad you are, too! Your formula is perfect: Listen to smart people, feel awful when you screw up, and keep forming your own opinions–that’s how we move forward.

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