"You should make a complaint!"

So, I’ve noticed this pattern:

  • Someone will describe some act of discrimination or social violence
  • And then very well-meaning people will weigh in and say things like
  • “They can’t treat people that way!”
  • “Wow, you should really report that!”

Reporting incidents of discrimination can be a good thing, and sometimes it goes somewhere. But, hearing this well-intentioned advice can actually be really frustrating, for a number of reasons:

The thing about being a marginalized person is that discrimination is a routine experience, not an occasional outrage:

  • Things that sound like aberrations to folks who are usually socially valued enough to be treated well most of the time are daily life for a lot of marginalized people
  • If we filed a formal complaint every time we experienced this, we’d have no time or energy for anything else
  • And sometimes, we want to get on with our lives and do things other than fight discrimination
  • Which means that, sometimes, when we talk about discrimination, we’re not asking for advice on how to make it go away; sometimes we’re accepting that we’re not going to be able to make it go away this time
  • And it needs to be ok to disagree about the right way to proceed

Also, sometimes complaints don’t actually help:

  • When the bad thing is the rule rather than the exception, it’s unlikely that anyone will care.
  • When the offender is much more socially valued than the victim, it’s likely that no one will care
  • People who complain frequently are generally seen as problem whiners, even if they are entirely justified in every complaint they make

Complaints are a good idea sometimes. But complaining is a very personal decision. Understand the costs and risks of complaining. Do not pressure a marginalized person to make a complaint in order to make yourself feel better about the state of the world. Do offer to support them if they want to do so.