On Being “Nice”

Warning: mentions of sexual abuse threats, racial abuse

Reading a Facebook post by disability activist Carly Findlay got me thinking about “niceness” – in particular, the concept that minority groups such as the disabled must always be “nice” to their oppressors, lest they seem angry, ungrateful, or unworthy of accomodation. It is my contention that the idea of “niceness” is just another way to silence minority groups, and define the ways they should behave to be deemed worthy of acceptance by the prevailing majority.

I speak to this issue as a member of the disability community, though I feel it is a problem shared by many minority groups.

What do I mean by “niceness”? As used in this post, “niceness” refers to the way that minority groups are expected to act in a grateful, submissive fashion, especially towards their oppressors, in order to prove their worth. Those who are not “nice” are labelled as angry, divisive, ungrateful, or uncommitted to their cause.*

You get proud by practicing. This is possibly the most important thing anyone will ever tell you. The journey towards disability pride is long, and hard, and you have to practice every single day. - Stella Young

By niceness, I mean the “good disabled”, that mythical person who is eternally thankful for their condition and its Lessons, who does all the right things by their health and attempts to overcome their disability so as not to make able-bodied people feel uncomfortable. Someone who does not act “disabled” in public, or let their unconventional body take up space.

“Niceness” is the expectation that women should laugh off sexist jokes in the workplace like a good sport and take online rape threats as the cost of speaking out. “Nice” girls don’t report sexual abuse. We expect “niceness” from our First Australians when we tell them to forget their culture and “get over” centuries of dispossession and abuse – bringing up the past isn’t “nice”, after all.

Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise, that I dance like I've got diamonds, at the meeting of my thighs? - Maya Angelou

In other words, “niceness” is a means by which the status quo is enforced, and activism by minority groups suppressed. For if we spend all our time and energy acting “nice” and trying to prove our worth, what resources are we left with to fight our own battles?

 

The true danger of the enforcement of “nice” is revealed when minority groups step out of their defined boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Australia is a racist country, despite our posturing to the contrary. Perhaps the most egregious public example of Australia’s deeply embedded bigotry is the case of Adam Goodes.** For those not in the know, Goodes was an Australian Rules footballer, a proud Adnyamathanha man who recently resigned due to the relentless racial abuse hurled at him during the course of his AFL career.

This affair began when a 13 year old spectator called Goodes an “ape”, causing Goodes to stand and point at her in a form of non-violent protest. (He, and other Indigenous AFL players, received other racial slurs from the crowd at this match, and many others.) Goodes urged restraint in public criticism of the girl, stating that she needed education. He received an Australian of the Year Award in 2014, in part for his actions in turning his own hurt and sorrow into activism for the Indigenous community.

See caption.
Goodes points at his accuser, with his subsequent tweet calling for understanding superimposed.

From this moment, every time Goodes stepped onto the football field, he was subject to intense booing from the crowd, as well as further racial slurs. He was portrayed both as a sook for not enduring the taunts with good grace, and a perpetrator who unfairly maligned his victim and was therefore receiving just punishment.

The media frenzy came to a head when Goodes performed a short, celebratory dance after kicking a goal. The virulent criticism and hostility he received for his 10 second display of Indigenous culture was enough to force Goodes to take a short leave of absence, then retire from the AFL altogether.

In short, Adam Goodes was subject to such intense racial harassment he was forced to give up his career and life in the public eye. His abuse was not necessarily just because he was Aboriginal – it was because he was proud of it. Goodes broke the mould of what was expected from Indigenous Australians by Australian football culture, and was maligned for it.

 

Similar scenarios can be found in nearly every minority group. Black lives matter protestors are invariably portrayed in the media as violent and angry, no matter how they protest. When a woman reports the death and rape threats she receives to her abuser’s publicly displayed employer, causing him to be fired, it is she who is labelled the instigator for naming and shaming him. And if you are a disabled person confronting ableism, expect to be portrayed as the stereotypical angry, bitter cripple, rather than having your opinion actually acknowledged.

 

By rejecting “niceness”, I am not advocating everyday hostility or violence as a first course of action (though there is certainly an argument to be made for punching Nazis). Nor am I daring to suggest how any member of a minority group should act – just the opposite. No one can tell you how to “do” disability, for instance.

That said: no one should have to throw petals at the feet of their abusers to be seen as a “good” minority. Our need for accomodations is not contingent on our meekness in the face of hostility. And no minority group should have to expend valuable energy on appearing inoffensive in order to advance their cause.

A female robot speaks to Bender from Futurama. Text: have you any idea how it feels to be a Fembot living in a Manbot's Manputer's world?

When people argue that minority groups do not deserve the right to exist, do they really deserve “niceness” in return? Will niceness somehow change the minds of those who speak only in the language of violence? Discourse surrounding inequality should be focused on how society’s imbalances can be redressed to improve the quality of life for many, not a critique of the actions of the marginalised which only serve as another tool of control.

 

It is tempting to think that if I am just nice enough to those who mock me for my disability, or attempt to legislate away my rights, then they will eventually see things from my perspective. Unfortunately, it takes more than “niceness” to instigate change. As Stella Young said, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp”.

In a world where merely existing as a marginalised person can be a political act, pride in oneself is a powerful statement. For me, being a proud, disabled woman is a good start.

 

 

*In case I wasn’t quite clear in the piece, I am not criticising those who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not show pride in their minority status. Not everyone can be “out” and safe, or are able to take part in activism. I am criticising instead the system which expects us to remain silent and compliant, not those who do.

**I’m talking in terms of public symbolism here. Some other horrific examples of abuse of Indigenous Australians include the case of Ms Dhu, who died at the hands of the Western Australia police after being arrested for an unpaid fine, and the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory which was found to have committed a series of assaults against its young inmates, including being hooded and tear-gassed.

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

13 thoughts on “On Being “Nice””

  1. Love your blog. I respectfully suggest that what you tern “niceness” is actually people pleasing, which is never good no matter if one is disabled or not. I can vehemently disagree with someone and still be nice (in other words I won’t be an a-hole). But they will know I disagree.

    Just my two cents.

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    1. I agree that there is an element of needing to be pleasing to others in “niceness”. In minority groups, that expectation of being pleasing often comes in the form of suppressing what it is that makes them different (eg don’t act disabled so people don’t become uncomfortable, don’t act our your black culture etc). I don’t necessarily mean nice in terms of being respectful in conversation, or polite to others, for instance, which I certainly aim to be!

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      1. Thank you for your comments. I wanted to add, as a First Nations’ person (we try don’t use Indigenous…Aboriginal as a general rule because of the way governments have chopped and changed and decided on what is ….for their own purposes.) I agree with your comments about NICE. It is NOT about people pleasing at all IMO. It is about being forced into not upsetting your oppressors, or you are labelled radical, unpleasant, not a “real Aboriginal”, trouble maker etc. This niceness is so well developed that there is a level of people who claim to speak for us that are experts at being NICE, meanwhile they know nothing of the issues or ability to effect change.

        I sat through Ms Dhu’s coronial inquest, there were glaring examples of how a girl who was genuinely pleasant and calm was afforded no respect as a human. Her niceness didn’t help her one bit. I also remember the horrific death of John Pat and each and every one of the sadistic ways our people have died at the hands of authorities. Nothing has changed. Except we have almost 100% nice people as Leaders, spokespeople and cultural experts. Being nice ensures you get a top job, fat paycheck, ensure our children and vulnerable live in hell and nothing changes. They have been taught well. If non-Aboriginal children with disabilities (cognitive impairment, FASD, acquired brain injury etc) and victims of trauma and sexual assault, were imprisoned for petty crimes and treated less than animals, we would all cry. The fact that is happens to First Nations people with no consequences (cannot wait for all the “lack of training, staff have left, recommendations to be dribbled out from the Royal Commission) reminds us how irrelevant we are in deserving respect as humans. Apparently children who are severely abused and or neglected, with disabilities should be punished more severely than paedophiles, adult prisoners and murderers.

        I applaud your insight and yes it is like how people with disabilities are forced to ‘behave’ to receive acceptance.

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        1. Thank you for your enlightening comment. What happened to Ms Dhu, and what continues to happen to First Nations people in this country, is an utter disgrace. You are absolutely right, if what you describe happened to anyone else, there would be a public outcry. I was thinking about the lack of response to the Four Corners report on abuse of people with disabilities in homes, and came to the conclusion that the general public cared more about animals being shipped overseas for live slaughter than they do about people with disabilities, and, I daresay, First Nations people.

          The treatment of children in custody, and the reporting of it as a “tough on crime” issue, makes me despair. Surely, if children come from abusive backgrounds, have disabilities and other social factors which influence their behaviour, they should be *helped* to overcome their obstacles and be rehabilitated. What does punishing them to the point of torture prove? What kind of society have we become, where government abuse of children is celebrated? And this is even more true for First Nations children, whose trauma is more likely than not the result of generational oppression by the very governments who are now punishing them.

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  2. I love love LOVE your blog. You write so eloquently and in such a balanced way.

    I love these posts, because they invite me to look at situations from a new perspective, and I feel as though they educate me! I agree that this ‘niceness’ in the face of inequality only seems to reinforce the status quo.

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  3. Thank you, this is very well written. People here in the US always say “Why can’t THEY protest nicely.” Then when there are peaceful protests, like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during our national anthem at football games they say, “ugh. I just came here to watch a game, not see political protests.” The hypocrisy and willingness to ignore an entire communities protests is infuriating.

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  4. I’ve been so behind in reading blogs, but I’ve been catching up with all your brilliant posts, and this bit in this one really resonated with me: “Will niceness somehow change the minds of those who speak only in the language of violence? Discourse surrounding inequality should be focused on how society’s imbalances can be redressed to improve the quality of life for many, not a critique of the actions of the marginalised which only serve as another tool of control.” This is such an important bit of resistance right now in the US as people are being admonished that they should be nice to the Trump supporters who voted to deny their humanity. Relatedly, a trans friend posted a quote the other day from ginnydi (not sure who that is precisely but didn’t want to not give credit!) critiquing the idea that oppressed people can “alienate” allies: “Your opposition should to oppression should be moral, and immovable. Your belief that all humans should be treated with equal respect shouldn’t be conditional based on whether or not individual people are nice to you.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot during all these discussions about how to make hateful people treat us like human beings, and I’m not sure what to do, but I think you have to start with an assertion of your worth as a human. If someone else wants to fight that, what is the value of being nice to them?

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    1. The current situation in the US was certainly on my mind while writing this piece. I’ve seen that quote re: alienating allies, and think it is fantastic. It is so hard to know how to react when people come from a position of believing that certain people do not deserve the right to exist because of their skin colour / gender / abilities etc. How do you even begin to reason with the entirely unreasonable? I’ve tried to engage with these kinds of attitudes and realised you just can’t – by trying to reason with them you legitimise their beliefs. But where to go from there?

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