be kind, not nice: how niceness marginalizes oppressed people and protects oppressors

This weekend, I had an experience with a dude that reminded me how much women are expected to be nice to strange men who give us no particular reason to be nice. On a hot night at a rooftop bar in Minneapolis that serves $3 vodka rail drinks (uh oh), I am sitting with four women friends when a stranger comes up to our table and starts making conversation. It is pretty clear that he is there to flirt with literally any one of us who will take him. Unfortunately, he is not especially interesting. He says nothing of importance. The onus is on us to keep the conversation moving along, and so we tease him about being boring. He calls us mean as a joke. I’m sure you can imagine how stupid the conversation is. One of my friends, who happens to be sitting across the table from the man and thus is ill-positioned to hear him in a loud bar, starts looking at her phone and talking to our friend who is sitting next to her. The man seemingly can’t take this, even though three other women are humoring his attempts at conversation politely. He says she’s being mean. He says she could just be nice. I tell him, as gently as I can, that what he’s saying is sexist and that she owes him nothing: not time, not attention, not laughter, and not conversation. He tells me I’m crazy, that he’s being nice and he just thinks someone should be nice, and that’s sexist?! In a perfect moment, another friend happens to arrive at the bar right as he’s saying this. She asks, don’t you have friends you can hang out with? He says yes. She says, then go hang out with them. The high of watching him angrily leave because he has been told to go is almost worth the low of having to listen to him talk for half an hour.

I know many other women have experienced nearly identical scenarios, perhaps with less happy endings. I also know that the expectation of niceness is put on other marginalized groups too: people of color and people with disabilities, especially. And it’s definitely required that marginalized people are nice when talking about their own oppression; being anything but nice is, in and of itself, grounds for complete and total disregard. 

That dynamic, that respect from an oppressor is contingent on being nice to them, gets at the toxic nature of “niceness.” Let’s define it before going any further. When someone, like that man at that bar, says someone should be nice, he means not that someone should be kind, compassionate, or empathetic, but that someone should be subordinate, obedient, accommodating, and subservient. Nice means you bend to shape yourself as best as you possibly can into what an oppressor wants you to be. Nice means going out of your way for people who would never even think about going out of their way for you.  That’s what nice means for marginalized people.

Nice functions in basically the opposite way for the people on the top. To be nice, all oppressors have to do is not overtly or explicitly engage in oppression. If you don’t yell at a marginalized person, don’t use slurs against them, and don’t physically assault them, you are a great candidate for Being Nice™. And once someone is nice, it is nearly impossible for marginalized people to criticize them or call out their bigotry without being dismissed. Being labeled nice is hugely protective for oppressors, and the bar is extraordinarily low. Being labeled nice is not that protective for marginalized folks, and the bar to be nice is extraordinarily high, and the consequences for being labeled not nice can be serious.

Think about my very mundane and not particularly dangerous story: a stranger comes up and talks to a group of people he doesn’t know. He expects them to entertain him. When one of them stops paying attention to him, he calls her mean and demands that she change her behavior because he wants her to do so. She’s not being mean by any stretch of the imagination. She hasn’t said anything rude, she hasn’t pointed and laughed in his face, she hasn’t even left the table– she just shifted her attention from a boring, obnoxious stranger to her immeasurably more entertaining friend and cell phone. In contrast, after being told he’s being unreasonable and kind of a jerk for saying she’s mean, the man says he’s being nice. To him, ignoring a stranger who is trying to flirt and presumably have sex with you or one of your friends (none of whom is interested) is mean but forcing himself onto a group of friends who were having fun before he arrived and then expecting them to unconditionally enjoy his company and getting pissed when one of them clearly doesn’t qualifies as being nice.

Now, realize that this is a pretty tame scenario. These expectations of women, people of color, and people with disabilities can manifest in small ways, such as in a conversation in a bar. But these expectations can also show up in giant ways. When someone marginalized isn’t nice, subsequent violence against them for will be excused because they weren’t nice. Even if they were nice, they will be painted as not nice in media coverage of an incident. Even if they were kind, compassionate, empathetic, and working for justice, they can still be “not nice.” And even when oppressors are remarkably unkind, they can still be “nice.” Niceness is a concept that restricts marginalized people’s lives and actions while protecting oppressors from consequences of their actions, and niceness is bullshit. Understand where your expectations about other people’s behavior is coming from, and sometimes, adjust. And if you are expected to be nice, to people please, to subordinate and objectify yourself to succeed and feel safe, I wish you the bravery to shake off those expectations. As Audre Lorde says, “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

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