When does defending one’s reputation become a ploy to avoid addressing faults?
I’ve begun to fear that the time I spend trying to convince people that I am good could instead be used actually doing good, and is not.
I don’t want to live in a world where all I have is my reputation. I don’t want my worth to be determined solely by what others say and think about me based on standards I never agreed to, but such is the nature of capitalism. In the age of The Influencer, we are being given new clarity about the fact that our very beings are valued like brands that must be constantly managed, consumed and defended. I have seen good people felled by targeted outrage that made association with their “brand” untenable, and have joined in that same outrage to vanquish folks whom I’ve determined to be bad myself. I don’t want this world, but here I am living in it.
I will likely never know a day when what is said about me doesn’t figure at all into my safety, livelihood and career. It will always be important to set some records straight, to rebut some falsehoods about who I am and what I have done, purely for the sake of survival. But recently, I’ve begun to fear that this defensiveness has become such a natural response that it gets in the way of creating any new world where I don’t need it to survive in the first place.
I’ve begun to fear that much of the time I spend trying to convince people that I am good could instead be used actually doing good, and is not.
I’ve always been fascinated by white people’s indignation at being called “racist.” I’ve been pondering this phenomenon even more since Donald Trump’s response to accurate criticisms of his recent string of racist and xenophobic attacks on lawmakers of color, wherein he proclaimed, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” accused the lawmakers themselves of being racist, and trotted out a group of Black religious supporters he dubbed “inner-city pastors” to shield himself from racial critique, in just his latest iteration of “I can’t be racist, I have Black friends.”
The easiest answer to white people who get this bent out of shape at being accused of racism is to point out that if they want to stop being called racist they need to stop doing racist things, but it goes much deeper than that. The conversation isn’t really about whether Trump wants to be seen as a racist or not. It’s about what being seen or called racist does to Trump’s brand, and it can be argued that it actually increases his value as long as he defends against it forcefully and/or turns the table on his accusers.
In this instance, the defense itself becomes a commodity, and the actual (alleged) transgression a non-issue.
Last week, a friend sent me a message to let me know that a persistent online antagonist was tweeting falsehoods about horrible things I’ve supposedly done yet again. In the past, I would have forged a full frontal offense to counter these easily disproved accusations, and I have. In the past, perhaps it was necessary to wage such a battle, to get the facts out there for objective observers to see. But this time I begrudgingly recognized this urge as being less about this person’s actual accusations, and more about the audacity of them to think they could come for me. It became about how quickly and easily I could tear their argument apart, and how wonderful it would be for me to be cheered for it.
Somehow, and I’d love to see this as growth, I recognized that my defense itself could become a commodity, and the actual alleged transgression a non-issue for me in many of the same fucked up ways it might for Trump.
I know that what I had been accused of doing was ludicrous, but instead of responding I was forced to consider how I may have done similar things in other situations. I was forced to consider the mistakes I’ve made this year, this month, just this week, and it was an excruciating process. What, if anything, have I been doing to better these faults? Who, if anyone, have I been accountable to?
And though it may never help my image, I cannot answer these questions unless I am willing to admit my faults in the first place, rather than only defend against them.
Of course, what it means to defend against aspersions on one’s character as a Black queer writer exploring Black queer issues is different from what it means for a racist to defend against accusations that they are racist in important ways. The capitalistic demands that force marginalized people to seek to always be seen as good and perfect and productive in order to be considered valuable have so much influence because society tells us we have no inherent value otherwise. This urge for Black folks to defend our reputations is in part birthed out of a history of being told our lives don’t and can’t matter without them, not simply because it gives us more social capital or satisfies a sadistic urge to have power over others as it does for a white racist in America.
Still, like Trump, I haven’t always responded to accusations about me out of a desire to prove a falsehood. I have often tried to make the truth irrelevant, me good and wholesome and consumable regardless of how many faults I have. But I don’t want to live in a world where I have never made a mistake, where I have never done anything wrong or cruel or petty.
I want to live in a world where I can acknowledge my mistakes, my cruelty, my pettiness, openly and honestly, so that I can work through it all. That world is a vulnerable one. It would mean folks might take my traumas and use them against me. It would mean having the strength to be attacked and to know when you don’t need to swing back. It would mean striking a tricky balance between surviving in a capitalist society where one’s very being is a brand and refusing it. It would mean not always being seen as “good,” but that may just be the only way to actually do it.