The meaning of being “problematic”

By: Megan Graves, Columnist

In regard to social activism, we often hear the term “problematic” being used to describe a person thought to be in the wrong. So what does that term mean, exactly?

By proper definition, it means to present or constitute a problem or difficulty. But here’s my definition in the context of activism: to be problematic is to hold or act on a belief that is inherently negative toward a person or group of people (to be sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.).

When we think about it that way, we realize that some people don’t care if their beliefs or ideas are problematic. Some people hope that theirs aren’t, and some people think they know that theirs aren’t.

Well, reader, allow me to let you in on a little secret: we are all problematic.

You could view yourself as the most open-minded, accepting, anti-hate person to exist, and I can guarantee that you’ve felt/done/said something problematic in your lifetime, and that you will do so again.

This happens because whether we know it or not, our society has internalized hate within us. Through various outlets, especially the media, we are taught that men are better than women, white is better than black, and straight is better than LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Asexual), along with many other discriminatory and problematic beliefs.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about internalized misogyny, and how a prime example of that is slut-shaming amongst women. But here’s another example of internalized hate: In the documentary “Dark Girls,” a young, 5 to 7-year-old, dark-skinned girl is asked to attribute personality traits to a chart showing five drawings of cartoon girls. The drawings each have a different skin tone, ranging from very light, to tan, to very dark.

When this child was asked “who is the smart child?” and “show me the good looking child” she points to the drawing of the girl with the lightest skin. When asked, “show me the dumb child” and “show me the ugly child,” she points the the drawing of the girl with the darkest skin. She points to the girl that looks like her.

This child did not wake up one morning and decide that girls who look like her are dumb and ugly. She was taught those beliefs over time through society. That’s internalized racism, and it’s heartbreaking.

As you can see, internalized hate comes in many forms. It can be a belief held against another person or group or people, or it can be a belief you hold against yourself and people like you. These beliefs lead to problematic behaviors and assumptions. So how do we combat this?

The best thing you can do is to constantly be honest with yourself and your thoughts. Be aware of what you’re thinking, and never stop trying to educate yourself. It’s hard to unlearn something that’s been ingrained in our minds for so long that we don’t even realize it’s there, but we have to try.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to think and say the wrong things sometimes. When that happens, admit it, learn from it and continue to grow. Understand that deconstructing internalized, problematic beliefs is a life-long process. You’ll never be perfect, so don’t stress yourself out striving for it. Just aim to be better. That’s all you can do, and that’s all that matters.

10 thoughts on “The meaning of being “problematic”

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