Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Slippage in the Bahamas, 2015

calamityschild's picture


Anne Dalke proposes the phenomenon of “slippage” that occurs in a communication to describe an unintentional offense that invalidates or insults a marginalized group of people. Dalke’s essay calls the process of slippage as being “dependent on the unexpected,” in which it appears in conversation by accident. (Dalke) Slippage is an occurrence that happens when a dominant culture makes a disadvantaged culture feel less welcome, misunderstood, or hurt, without the intention of doing so, and it is a symbolic act that has a deeper discriminatory message. The act of slipping is more dangerous than a simple gaffe or social misstep, it has the ability to inflict pain and create hostility. Real slips are mishaps, and similarly, verbal ones can be considered as indeliberate, but it doesn’t absolve the slipper of responsibility to attempt to reconcile feelings and instigate a process of healing. In real life, a slip may injure the person who fell, but in this sense, it the person who observed and caught the slip who is more hurt. Slipping undoes progress made, and without careful re-examination of the slip, it can build resentment. The inherent risk of making such a slip is not only the harm it can do if received by a member of the marginalized group in question, but also that it establishes the conditions for a community that allows for such offenses to be made so carelessly.

In her essay on making connections based on sharing ostensibly unifying traits, Jordan recalls a moment in her teaching career when a student approached her and called her lucky. The student, who was also a mother and a housewife, told June, a black woman, “You have a cause. You have purpose to your life.” (Jordan, 43) The student’s comparison between herself and Jordan is one that frustrates Jordan: “if she believed me lucky to have regular hurdles of discrimination then why shouldn't I insist that she's lucky to be a middle class white Wasp female who lives in such well-sanctioned and normative comfort that she even has the luxury is deny the power of the privileges that paralyze her life?” (Jordan, 44)

Jordan’s student slipped when she categorized Jordan as being fortunate to have oppression imposed onto her existence because of the spaces in society she naturally occupies because of her gender, race, and class. Jordan’s student meant no harm; she did not intend to offend Jordan. A reader could guess that the student sincerely respected Jordan’s work and wanted to recognize her achievements. However, the student’s idea that Jordan is somehow blessed to be the kind of person society has neglected is an instance of slippage because it subtly trivializes Jordan’s history. Jordan’s black femininity is reduced to being a marker of value, as if Jordan’s historically diminished personhood is the only thing that makes her memorable at all.

Jordan’s social location as a victim of oppression, in the eyes of her student, makes her work all the more important. It needlessly glorifies Jordan’s efforts to educate and to displace racist and sexist perceptions, which are things that must be accomplished to improve society, but things that are not explicitly the responsibility of the oppressed. The student believes Jordan is lucky to have these obstacles placed before her, as if Jordan’s relatively more important being is a result of having those additional inherited barriers. Jordan herself never felt any more lucky to face more impediments by virtue of her race and gender. Her student, whose whiteness and background affords her a cushion of privilege (it’s this that proves to be the cause of the slippage), doesn’t understand that personhood is not a matter of overcoming the greatest number of prejudices. Those extra hindrances that come with being congenitally disadvantaged because of gender and race does not make it any easier to make a meaningful imprint on society. The student doesn’t recognize her own personhood, and calls herself a “nobody” because she has only “fulfilled the traditional female functions” she was expected to. (Jordan, 44) The student believes her life is more unremarkable because she is not a member of an oppressed group. She needed a narrative of disenfranchisement to make her story more compelling.

It is a slip because it is not an intentionally offensive statement, but it has serious ramifications. Jordan’s student didn’t have any malicious feelings towards her, nor would she probably have thought herself as being a racist or a sexist. However, the statement is harmful to Jordan because characterized Jordan by her struggles, and it colored Jordan’s existence only within the lines of her gender and race. It was a little dehumanizing. The student’s slippage, as with other slips, is a “form of resistance” that persists because it was allowed to be made, unchecked and unexamined. (Dalke) It was unconsciously hurtful, and the student’s inability to recognize the error in her statement contributes to the culture of misunderstanding. The consequences of her slip are the perpetuation of the idea that a person’s value is bound to the degree of their oppression, and that inheriting oppression could propel a person to high achievement. When “the reality — of an active world, shaping and being shaped by active subjects — turns out to a be considerably more complicated,” our tendency to slip poses a threat to the careful bridges we are trying to build between islands of discriminators and the discriminated in our efforts to repair for past injustices. It is through careful thought and empathetic consideration of others that we can finally heal, despite our slips, and mitigate the discomfort and the re-lived pain of marginalized groups. (Dalke)


Dalke, Anne. “Slipping into Something More (Un)comfortable: Untangling Identity, Unsettling Community”


Jordan, June. “Report from the Bahamas, 1982." Meridians 3, 2 (2003): 6-16.