Dude, not cool

Published 2014-05-28

So you’re a person with privileges who wants to be an ally. We can also assume you’ve read your 101 — but OK for now if you haven’t. You’ve read and pondered Shanley’s excellent HOWTO. You want to help.

But geez, that all seems like so much work, dunnit? What can you do, like, right now?

Well, the first and most obvious course of action is to shut up and listen when the people you ally yourself with speak.

After that, remember that your privilege gives your words rhetorical weight. When someone transgresses a boundary, you can utter this incantation:

“Dude, not cool.

With this single cutting phrase you underline that apparently casual language has the power to hurt others and simultaneously prop up extant power structures. Because the phrase is casual (“Dude…”) it’s nonconfrontational. Because it’s brief (“…not cool”) it doesn’t invite argument. It circles something as unacceptable, like littering or pooping in the sink. I recognize that “Dude” is a gendered term, so feel free to make an appropriate substitute (“Girl?” “Honey?” “Friendo?” I’m not sassy enough to pull those off. Honestly, I’m gonna stick with “dude” and let the gender-normativeness slide a little here.)

For example:

If you’re able-bodied, and a colleague describes a project as “lame:” “Dude, not cool.

If you’re a man, and someone at a conference drops the word “bitches” into his presentation: “Dude, not cool.

If you’re straight, and a coworker jokes that they would “be gay” for a particular celebrity: “Dude, not cool.

If you’re of average mental ability, and a friend describes a recent movie as “retarded:” “Dude, not cool.

Remember: this works best because of your privilege, and because nine times out of ten, someone wouldn’t casually use a word like “lame,” or “bitch,” or “gay,” or “retarded” in the company of people directly offended by those words. Their use of those terms assumes because everyone here is able-bodied/male/straight/not-mentally-disabled, we all agree on the appropriateness of these words and the thinking underlying them. Calling it out says: just because I share your privilege, doesn’t mean I agree.

Of course, it’s entirely possible these phrases might be offered in the company of someone who would be directly hurt by it. In which case: all the more reason to say “Dude, not cool.

SPOILER: this is harder than you think.

A couple of years ago I was at a huge tech conference. The presenter — a semi-bigshot at Twitter — was giving a preso to a packed room about a then-popular frontend framework. He had a loose funky (some would say “hipstery”) style that played well with the (mostly-white mostly-male) crowd. A lot of the tone struck me wrong. He dropped a lot of, for lack of a better word, gangsterisms. He found this aspect of Black culture kind of worthy of humor, or at least as juxtaposed against his own very white very nerdy personality. It rubbed me a little wrong; maybe not wrong enough to warrant a “Dude, not cool, but still. The audience ate it up.

Then he dropped the word “bitches” in a slide. It was something like: “first you get the JavaScript framework, then you get the money, then you get the bitches.”

I wish I wish I wish I had said the thing that popped into my head: “dude, not cool. It would have made me the most unpopular person in the (crowded) room. That’s why I should have said it. Everyone needed to know that Hipster Framework Guy was treating Black culture and women with casual contempt for the sake of a laugh, and that there was at least one white dude in the room who was not cool with it. Not cool with the contempt, but even less cool with the casualness of it.

Edit 2014-06-01 I changed “you alone can utter this incantation” to “you can utter this incantation.” Anyone can say “Dude, not cool.” The impact of this incantation will vary by speaker. My audience for this essay is people with privilege, calling out other people with privilege.

Edit 2014-06-02 I originally intended this would be the first of two posts collating my thoughts about #YesAllWomen and related issues. In writing the second (forthcoming) post, I realized it was not particularly about #YesAllWomen.