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Permissive Transgression

Short definition: “permissive transgression” is what I call it when you enter a space where you see somebody do something that in any other context would be wrong but you don’t see anyone doing anything about it so you think you should do it too.

I specifically use this phrase to describe what happens when a person with privilege (usually white) expresses an idea in a sloppy, careless, or quietly harmful way. Nobody says anything about it, and then somebody else sees that it’s okay and pushes the harmful idea farther.

Like somebody makes a joke, and it accidentally makes light of a vector of marginalization. Nobody calls it out, so then somebody else makes a riff on the joke that also makes light of that marginalization.

Now it’s a joke about oppressing a group of people.

I try to keep an eye out for this when it happens, and I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable speaking up about it when I see it.

On Twitter, it always happens when three or more white people are posting on a thread. Always.

Call to action? If you’re white, pay attention to what the white people around you are riffing on, especially if they’re riffing on something you said. And learn to say something immediately.

Say “Uh, this is making my uncomfortable all of a sudden, can we talk about that”

You’re allowed and encouraged to do this even if you realize you’re the one who started it. “Hey I know we’re riffing on what I said but I’m hearing it back and I really don’t think we should be talking like this”

It’s easy, no one needs to fight, and you’ll be glad you did it.


I was in the car for a while today and suddenly this thread popped into my head and I couldn’t let it go. Still wrestling with it, but since there’s a lot of people in positions of authority over community spaces coming out this weekend to disappoint us, here it is for y’all:

Here’s the messy thought: a lot of the bad habits I learned growing up cake from not realizing that not everyone around me understood the importance of treating people well.

So if I saw somebody doing something ostensibly harmful and I saw the harmed person laugh? “This must be an agreed upon dynamic that both of them are engaging in voluntarily, because I would never the fuck treat somebody that way if they weren’t okay with it”

Like when you see a white friend make a quietly racist joke at a black friend and the black friend laughs it off and you know the joke is racist but you hear the laugh and you think wait is this part of dismantling barriers, is that what I should be doing too

Or your straight friend makes a homophobic joke at your queer friend and your queer friend laughs and you think “is this what acceptance looks like, being willing to openly say things like that”

And I’m thinking back to who made these jokes and thinking hold the fucking phone was my friend just a bigot and I didn’t notice it because they weren’t afraid to show it? How much of my own habits were informed by that?

Sooo yeah, that’s permissive transgression. It’s how you get to “I didn’t mean to cause any harm”. You give people the benefit of the doubt on their intentions, and slowly it poisons your own.

It took me a really fucking long time to realize that not everyone I grew up with was trustworthy, and I’m still unpacking those habits. But recently (very recently, embarrassingly recently) I’ve started giving a lot less shits about saying something.

And more to the point, I’ve started feeling tremendous waves of relief when someone helps me spot those transgressions in my own behavior. Because I know I have em.

So if you’re white, or if you have other privileges you haven’t fully examined yet, that’s my big advice to you: learn to spot your own transgressions, and learn to love the people who spot them for you. They’re doing you and everyone else a big favor.