I haven’t been writing much, for quite some time. But I have found myself in countless… erm… discussions on social media, concerning many topics, but most especially, of late, racism. White privilege. White fragility. So, I started a social learning group that I could tag, in place of having these same arguments time and time again, with other white people. I will soon begin to transfer all of the educational units I’ve posted, there, to this blog. I hope someone finds them useful.
I don’t generally go in for long explanations, when harm has been done. I did harm, this morning, with some heartfelt but thoughtlessly expressed sentiments and poorly chosen words, which conveyed nearly the opposite of what I intended. I screwed up in about a dozen separate ways, and people were offended and possibly hurt by that. For that, I am truly sorry. Period. Insofar as the apology goes, that’s all that really matters, and no one owes my explanation any attention, if they prefer not to hear it. I fucked up, I’m sorry, and I intend to do all that I can not to fuck up in that way, in the future.
Someone in my Twitter timeline retweeted the following tweets from Yves, regarding the revelation that Sandra Bland was homophobic:
There was a tweet before these two, which apparently had a link to an article that I somehow missed. I replied with the following:
…and was soundly and deservedly reprimanded by three separate people.
Not having read, or even been aware of the article, my response was dismissive, and likely painful for some who read it. I wish I could rewind, and repair that. Stop and read the original tweets more carefully, from a more mindful, less emotional place, and either not respond at all, or respond with a better understanding and more thoughtfulness. Since I can’t, I’ll offer what explanation I can, here. Not as an excuse – I was wrong, and nobody is obligated to excuse that – but merely as insight for anyone who cares to have it. And this will be long. There’s a whole lot that went into the feelings that inspired those badly worded tweets, and I don’t know how to condense this, without losing the essence.
I’ve been really disturbed by this never-ending pattern of media and public response to state sanctioned murder of black men and women, and other people of color, in which the “they were no saint” rhetoric gets trotted out and paraded around every article, every television news feed, every sound bite, every comments section and social media discussion. It makes me physically ill to read, over and over again, the picking apart of every single personal choice, belief, and behavior of the victims of these crimes, as if smoking weed, or refusing to put out a cigarette, or speaking rightful challenge to over-reaching authority, or shoplifting, or being fucking rude, somehow justifies their murders. It’s the same damned thing that I, and other victims of sexual crimes, have to face when we come forward to either report those crimes or seek social support. It’s victim blaming, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter whether or not Sandra Bland put out her cigarette, when the cop told her to do so, any more than in matters what a rape victim was wearing, when some rapist made them his prey. It doesn’t matter whether or not Michael Brown had ever smoked weed, any more than it matters whether a woman had one too many drinks in a bar, if somebody assaults her. It doesn’t matter what the fucking VICTIMS did, before they were made victims, whether the person who victimized them was a rapist or a trigger-happy racist cop. The victims deserve our support. So, the whole not-a-saint thing hits me pretty hard.
Homophobia does, too. It has been a fact of life for me, since I realized I was something other than “normal,” something other than straight, when I was in my early teens. I’ve written, here, about what it was like for me, growing up bisexual in a bigoted, shitpot, southern town, and here, about how some of that bigotry was shoved down my throat, growing up. And here, about sexual abuse, rape, and victim silencing. About hate, racism, homophobia, erasure, shaming, indoctrination, and how all of those things have been a part of my history, a part of how I became who I am, now. If you don’t want to read them, I understand. None of them is an easy read. All of them come with possible triggers, especially for anyone who is marginalized, harmed, and/or oppressed by racism, homophobia, or rape culture. In a nutshell, I’ve faced homophobia for most of my life. I still face it, now. The memories of the ways it has been weaponized against me are still nearly as painful as its current presence. The fears of what that same homophobia, and the usually accompanying transphobia, may do to my teenage, transgender son, are ever-present and often overwhelming, even in the obvious context of my own undeniable white privilege.
Since my unavoidable return to that shitpot town, all of those things, and a sweeping culture of racism that pervades nearly every single facet of life, here, have made me all but a shut-in. I can’t go to the grocery store, without running into someone who bullied me in high school for being bisexual. I can’t stop to put gas in the car, without seeing a handful of bigoted, hateful stickers on cars, or an overblown pickup truck with a full sized confederate flag hanging from a jury-rigged flagpole in the back. Christmas dinner with my family ended with me, my partner, and my child walking out fifteen minutes into the meal, because of the blatant, unapologetic racism in my family’s conversation. My facebook, on June 27th, was FULL of right wing rhetoric about how conservatives and Christians were being oppressed by “that Muslim traitor in the White House.”
Living here, it is utterly inescapable, and for at least a few more years, I can’t leave.
So, I turned my facebook, where my friends are family and what few locals I didn’t have horrid associations with, from before, into a platform. Nearly every day, I comment on other posts, trying to simultaneously maintain composure, and fight against the all encompassing culture of hate-infested, cis-hetero, christian, white supremacy that permeates everything. I post educational things about the history nobody taught us in school, the one in which slavery was literally the ONLY real reason for the Civil War (and that, alone, is usually a brick wall), about how community policing, as we know it, has always been inherently anti-black, about how Jesus never condemned homosexuality, about how love between consenting adults is never either a sin or a crime, about how transpeople deserve the right to not be murdered by bigots, about how people of color deserve to live in a place where the police aren’t the enemy.
I have NO community, in real life. Aside from the two other people who live in my house, I have a sister and a former stepmother I barely see, and one old high school friend, with whom I find I have less and less in common. My father and extended family refuse to see their unconscious racism, transphobia, and homophobia, so I don’t feel safe in their presence. There is literally nothing to do, here, no place to go, that isn’t at least a 45 minute drive, which doesn’t involve associating with dangerously hateful bigots. I’m disabled, so travel isn’t something I get to indulge in, much, even just to the nearest city.
In the last two years, over and over and over again, I have either lost friendships, or chosen to dissociate myself from people who refused to see their victim blaming, predator enabling behaviors were a problem. So the vast majority of people I knew, people from my former home whom I considered friends, are no longer a part of my life. And that one former high school friend I mentioned? He’s a white, cis-, gay man. Recently, he was here, visiting, and dropped the phrase, “playing the race card,” into a conversation about politics. It was kind of the last straw, for me. I’m basically a hermit, now.
See, bigotry has been a fact of life, for me, ALL of my life. I am always the most upset and offended by that bigotry when it comes from someone who is also marginalized and/or oppressed by the current status quo. Hearing my gay friend express something so blatantly racist was enraging and devastating. The one person I believed I had, here, the one person I thought was more evolved, and beyond all that bigotry, had just revealed that he wasn’t. It felt, as it always does, when that happens, like a betrayal.
Oppressed people actively participating in or perpetuating the oppression of other people is the one thing I simply can’t ever wrap my brain around, can’t ever stop feeling astonished and hurt by, when I hear or read it. It rips into me like a dull knife, every single time.
What happened to Sandra Bland, even though we don’t know all of the truth, yet, was horrific and inexcusable. I’ve argued with idiots about this until I could barely speak. Idiots who trot out that ridiculous line about how, if she’d just obeyed the nice white policeman, she would have been fine. Idiots who spout the suspicious evidence of marijuana in her system as proof that she was to blame, somehow. Idiots who are just exhausting, and pretty much everywhere I go. I’ve argued until I wept, in frustration with them, and in utter despair of our culture as a whole. I haven’t been able to march. I can’t go to where the protests are, but I’ve been working towards educating other white people about the white supremacist reality of present day America, nearly every single day since last August.
So, when I saw that Sandra Bland was homophobic, it felt like a kick in the gut, on a day when (for a host of unrelated reasons I won’t even get into, here) my guts had already been pummeled. My initial emotion was that same sense of betrayal I felt when my friend revealed his racism. Then, a little bit of anger, and the return of that overwhelming sadness and despair for what our culture is, despite the fact that it’s the 21st century.
If the people I know, here, discovered this, they would undoubtedly use it as a sort of gotcha. They would use it as yet another reason why they think I’m wrong to believe that her death was not fucking okay, or in any way justifiable. They would do this, even while believing that I, and my son, are fundamentally less worthy, as human beings, because of our sexual orientation and gender identity.
And all those things were swirling in my head, as I realized that it didn’t matter whether or not she would have fought for me, or for my son. She did not deserve to die, alone and unjustly imprisoned. When I said that “homophobia isn’t a lethal offense,” I did not mean that directed homophobia doesn’t kill, because it absolutely does. I know why that seemed dismissive, and it is entirely the fault of my own hastily worded reaction. I only meant that her being homophobic was not reason enough to justify locking her up and taking her life. When I said what I did about her not having the opportunity to learn and grow, I said it from a place of someone who was raised to hate, raised to be racist and bigoted, and learned better. Someone who, through life experience and age and seeking knowledge and understanding, overcame some busted beliefs that were carefully cultivated in my young, formative mind. Someone who believes that we all have the capacity to overcome our broken and damaging conditioning, to become more empathetic and humane and caring towards one another, no matter our lot in life.
If someone had killed me, when I was a few years younger than Sandra Bland, I would never have been shown my internalized racism, either. I think that unjustly depriving someone of that chance is every bit as tragic as killing someone more socially enlightened, more empathetic to the ways in which people unlike themselves are oppressed.
So, yes. I will continue to demand answers and accountability from the people responsible for Sandra Bland’s death. Her homophobia didn’t make what they did to her less unjust, and my support for that doesn’t hinge on what her attitudes towards me may have been. I don’t say that for anyone other than myself, though. It is completely understandable and justifiable for other LGBTQ people to wish to withdraw their vocal support for that particular cause, in light of this information, and I don’t judge them in any way. For me, her death didn’t remove homophobia from the world, or even my little sphere of it. It just denied her the chance to gain experience that may have shown her a better way to be.
So, I will still say her name. Sandra Bland may never have been my friend, if we’d met, but what was done to her demands justice, and she should not be forgotten.
Again, if you’ve made it this far, I am so very sorry that my language was dismissive, offensive, and/or harmful. I can’t promise never to screw up again, but I promise to try harder to be more conscious of my words, rather than spewing complex emotions into thoughtless 140-character blurbs. And now I’m off to find the article that inspired all of this, and learn how to do better.
I have recently started spending an inordinate amount of time on Twitter. A year ago, I would have believed that to be a waste of time. A year ago, I was uninformed.
Twitter, largely thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists like Johnetta Elzie, DeRay Mckesson and Zellie Imani, has become the active, vibrant, effective hub of social change. It’s strange to say, but I sometimes feel like I didn’t really grow up, didn’t really mature in my own feminism, until I found Twitter. Sure, I sort of understood my own white privilege, but I didn’t really know even a third of the racial history of this country. I believed in intersectionality, but I had not quite internalized it.
Twitter changed that, 140 characters at a time. Not to mention all the links to mind-blowing, mind-expanding studies and articles, op-ed pieces and blog entries. It also introduced me to a host of amazing people who are doing some very difficult, often thankless, sometimes risky even to the point of possible death, activism work.
Aside from the cat pics and joke memes (which, let’s be clear, I enjoy more than I should), Twitter has mostly been a feeling of community I’ve missed for a long time. It has given me something I thought I’d lost, before: a place to talk about my personal feminism, without feeling like I was constantly under attack. A place to learn from other people, without feeling completely disconnected from the teachers. A place to debate, where the trolls can fairly easily be dismissed (at least, they can for me; I know others’ experiences haven’t been that at all) by the simple click of a mouse.
And there are the question tweets. Mostly, the questions aren’t original. Often, they’re things I’ve seen a million times, and just haven’t bothered to address or answer, for myself. Simple questions, with maybe not-so-simple answers.
Tonight’s simple question, from Feminist Gals an account created mostly (from what I can tell) to educate teens and college-aged adults about feminism, was this:
Why do you need feminism?
I responded twice, and I’ll include those answers, here. But there is so much more than I could put into tweets, even if I filled that text field over and over again, all night long. I decided to start a living, updated-as-necessary list of all the reasons why I need feminism.
I need feminism…
- …because before I was old enough to legally buy a drink in a bar, I’d been molested for five years, gang raped while on a vacation, abused by two different partners, and roofied and raped at a party where I had one drink.
- …because my family didn’t believe I’d been molested.
- …because I chose a boy I didn’t really care about, to lose my virginity, so that the grown man who was molesting me wouldn’t take it from me, without my consent.
- …because virginity has become so commodified in our culture, I actually believed I would lose value as a human being, as soon as I was no longer a virgin.
- …because from the moment I had sex with that sweet boy, I was labelled a slut.
- …because my best friend at the time was also gang raped, that night, and blamed me for it. Because she and her friend beat me in a parking lot for not saving her.
- …because I was taught to question and doubt the validity of my own lived experiences, by people not believing my accounts of them.
- …because of gaslighting.
- …because, when I told my boyfriend (at the time) about being raped, he blamed me for it, and immediately explained how he would leave me, if I pulled away from him the next time he tried to kiss me or initiate sex.
- …because I was still so unsure of my own value as a human being that I stayed with him, anyway.
- …because my sexual orientation has been dissected, ridiculed, picked apart, and even been deemed imaginary or non-existent, since I was outed in high school.
- …because not all of that came from straight people.
- …because a high school guidance counselor told me that I shouldn’t be “shoving it (my sexual orientation) in everybody’s faces, when I spoke to her about the bullying.
- …because I was quietly steered away from the hobbies and careers I wanted, when I was young, because of my gender.
- …because my childhood religion taught me both that I was the source of all evil, and that my only legitimate purposes on this planet were to make babies and take care of them. And men. To take care of men.
- …because my emotions, even when their expression is both logical and appropriate to the situation, are often used to discredit my words. I am neither hysterical nor oversensitive.
- …because I had an easier time getting booze at the liquor store, when I was a teenager, than I did getting birth control.
- …because I grew up believing that women weren’t supposed to enjoy sex.
- …because all the heroes in my books, movies, and TV shows were men and boys, beyond Nancy Drew.
- …because I was taught all about all the things I was supposed to do to keep myself from being raped, without ever hearing a thing about consent.
- …because my male friends and cousins were never taught not to touch me, if I said no.
- …because I was never taught how to set boundaries, or even that I was allowed to do so. In fact, I was made to accept kisses, hugs, cheek-pinches, and to sit in someone’s lap, even when I’d said I didn’t want to do so.
- …because parents are still forcing their kids to accept touches and physical affection from people who make them uncomfortable.
- …because, until I was in my late twenties, I believed that if I “led a man on” to a certain point, I owed him sex.
- …because girls – and more importantly, boys – are still being taught that lie.
- …because too many people believe they are entitled to my attention, time, respect, affection, body, and intimacy.
- …because girls are still made to choose their clothes for school based upon whether or not the boys might find them “distracting.”
- …because the vast majority of legislators making policy and funding decisions about women’s health in the US are male.
- …because I’m afraid to post face or full-body pictures of myself online, due to the possible commentary.
- …because my clothing does not indicate consent
- …because my alcohol consumption doesn’t, either.
- …because one in five women will be raped in her lifetime.
- …because 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are molested as children
- …because our country provides those child victims with neither justice nor adequate treatment for their trauma.
- …because a child victim of sexual abuse is almost twice as likely to be sexually assaulted or raped, later in life, as someone who was not molested as a child, yet there is no ongoing support system.
- …because children almost never lie about sexual abuse, yet are rarely believed.
- …because women almost never lie about rape, yet are rarely believed.
- …because police officers often interrogate reporting rape victims as if they were the criminals…
- …and only about 3% of rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell…
- …and victims are revictimized by the court system, during trials…
- …and by their communities…
- …and by the media…
- …yet too many people, when told by a woman that she was raped, refuse to believe her unless she goes to the police.
- …because people like RooshV and Donald Trump exist.
And that’s all I’ve got the spoons to type, right now. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I will be back.
Listen up, y’all. We need to have a talk. One of those real, no bullshit, tear-away-the-politeness talks that gets down to the actual meat of a thing, instead of dancing around it in pretty-shiny-white circles that pretend to mean something. This isn’t cotillion or cocktail party or church potluck talk – though it probably should be.
Mostly, white America has been fooling itself for a very long time. We’ve somehow managed to talk ourselves into believing that we live in a “post-racial” society, in which “color-blindness” can symbolize anything other than what it really is – a defect in our vision – and we can convince ourselves that racism was obviously bad, but that it only existed in the past. That once the Jim Crow laws were overturned, once schools were forcibly integrated, we could pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened and considerate, and go on about our business without worrying about race-based social injustice, anymore. We could gasp in horror at “the way things used to be,” and feel like good people, because we don’t act that way, now. Goodness no!
Fairy tales are nice, sometimes, for children. Even as children, though, we learn that fairy tales are make believe. That there is reality, and there’s fiction, and that we can’t hope to live responsible and fulfilling lives, if we conflate the two. Somehow, though, we managed to miss the memo that the whole idea of the present as a “post-racial society” is a fairy tale, too. We know Santa Claus isn’t real, unicorns don’t exist, little green dudes don’t live on Mars, but we missed this hugely important thing about the reality in which we live. So, let me break it down for you.
Racism isn’t some monster under the bed we’ve managed to outgrow. Racism is real, it’s current, it’s still a problem right now, every day, right here where we live, no matter which part of the country that happens to be. It still affects a very large portion of our population, on a daily basis, in damaging and horrific ways. Pretending we can’t see that won’t make it go away. Pretending we, as white people, haven’t all benefited from its presence won’t make those benefits – or the corresponding hardships placed on minorities as a result – cease to exist.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your life doesn’t suck, too. Maybe it does. The fact is, though, that our ancestors were given advantages that the American ancestors of people of color were simply not able to access. I’m not talking about the folks who fought in the Civil War, either, but people who are most likely your parents or grandparents, who had opportunities available to them that were categorically denied to people of color, often through cleverly worded prejudicial clauses in law or policy.
Let’s look at housing, for instance. Where we live largely determines what kinds of services and opportunities we are able to access. That’s just simple fact. Another fact: home ownership has always been a part of the path to financial stability, in this country (and the burst of the housing bubble in the 21st century doesn’t negate the advantages of home ownership, currently or throughout history). When programs were established to lend money to people for the purpose of purchasing a home, beginning with the New Deal in the 1920s, and continuing beyond HUD programs in the 1990s, the programs were blatantly racist in practice. Loans that were made available in the mid-twentieth-century went almost exclusively to whites. And when I say almost exclusively, I’m talking over 98 percent, before 1968. This little bit is only one tiny part of how the US, as an institution, privileges white people over people of color, in housing. There is an ocean of historical evidence of much more widespread, race-based housing discrimination, and that little bit I just mentioned is only a drop in that ocean. It isn’t just historical, either. Housing policies, while much more circumspect in their racism, are still quite racist, still quite biased towards white people, and still oppressive to the “Other.”
Image description: Illustration of a house with a white picket fence, under the words, “The American Dream”
So, there’s one way in which our forebears had a leg up, whether or not they were racist. They still reaped this benefit of a society which clearly and unapologetically favored whites over people of color. One way in which we, as white people in the US, now, still reap the benefit. It isn’t saying our lives are fabulous. Personally, I can’t afford to own a home. All other things being equal, though, I would be more likely to qualify for a home loan in a ‘good’ neighborhood than would a woman of color. Still. Now.
Let’s consider another measure of quality of life: employment. Until 1964, it was in no way illegal to be openly discriminatory in hiring practices. That’s only 51 years ago. When either our parents or grandparents were very likely the majority of the workforce in the US. Again, not ancient history, even for those who don’t think that the phrase American history is an oxymoron. Until 7 years later, in 1971, businesses could still get away with creative policy-making, skirting the non-discrimination laws by making rules that were unrelated to the actual requirements of a job, yet would disproportionately disqualify minorities seeking employment. Cute little tricks like in-house “intelligence tests” that were specifically written to favor whites’ education and experiences over those of minorities, yet bore no relation whatsoever to the job being sought. For all this progress, the laws established in Griggs v Duke Power, in 1971, were put in a stranglehold in two 1989 rulings. One of those, Wards Cove Packing Co. v Antonio, basically flipped the script. Instead of requiring companies to bear the burden of proof – in other words, making the companies prove the policies in question weren’t discriminatory – it placed the burden on the employee being discriminated against, placing yet another barrier in the way of justifiable equal employment litigation. After all, many of these discriminatory policies rested on the disparities in the education received by white people, as compared to the education available to people of color. The decision in the other case, Patterson v McLean Credit Union, basically stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only applicable to hiring practices, and held no sway over post-hire advancement or workplace harassment or prejudice faced after someone was hired. I hate to sound redundant, but this is NOT ancient history. This happened in my lifetime, and probably in yours. 1989.
There are SO many other ways in which institutionalized racism in this country has been and continues to be perpetuated. If I wanted to go into even a significant percentage of those, a blog post wouldn’t do it. I’d have to write an entire series of books. An encyclopedia of injustice. Aside from housing and employment, which I’ve really barely skimmed across, here, there are blatant and ongoing inequalities in education, historical representation within education, social support systems, law enforcement attitudes, prejudice, and approaches, prosecution, detainment, media representation… the list goes on and on and on. And in every generation since the grand old US of A became a nation, every single one of those things has been inherently, institutionally biased to benefit white people, and to oppress people of color. In spite of the big, flashy legislative signs of progress towards equality, every single one of those things is still biased towards white people. So, even if your own individual life sucks, even if you’re otherwise oppressed because you live in poverty, or because you’re disabled, or because you’re a woman, if you’re white, you’ve still benefited from generations of disparity.
An individual who has benefited from institutionalized oppression is NOT inherently a bad person. We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed or like some kind of evil because the current system has given us an advantage, in comparison. Recognizing and owning the fact of your white privilege doesn’t mean you have to be ashamed of yourself. You probably didn’t create those laws. You probably don’t overtly discriminate against people on the basis of race. But let’s face facts, here. Chances are pretty high that, because of things like unequal historical representation in education, and biased portrayals in the media, and being brought up to believe, at least subconsciously, that all things white are inherently better, it’s very likely that you hold some internalized biases, yourself. Being brought up white in the US, it would be pretty miraculous if you didn’t. Again, this isn’t about making you feel bad, though your feelings are really not the point. Recognizing those little seeds of bias buried in the way you interact with the non-white world is a good thing. Unpacking those beliefs, examining them, picking them apart, and using the knowledge you have, now, to put them to bed, is essential in becoming a socially aware, socially responsible human being.
Now, this is where it gets a bit sticky. If you don’t actually care about your fellow human beings at all, you may just want to stop reading, right here. Continuing would only be a waste of your time and mine. As a matter of fact, if you’re that guy, then just “go away,and never come back,” Gollum. I’m speaking directly to white people who do care, who don’t want the system of institutionalized racism to continue to exist. This is where we put our money where our mouths are, so to speak.
One of the reasons that the employment and housing discrimination is so easy to overlook, so easy to outright ignore, is because both things are often much less about what you know (i.e.- how qualified you are), and much more about who you know. Since these institutionalized advantages have been around pretty much as long as the US has been around, the people in control of such things as housing, employment, education, and legal proceedings are much more likely to be caucasian than any other race. Not just by a tiny margin, but by a whole damned book. We, as white people, are far more likely to exist somewhere within the six degrees of separation sphere of landlords, property managers, business owners, hiring managers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Even if we don’t, chances that they will give us a fair shake are pretty good, because we look like them. Because even progressive white people have often internalized a certain underlying conditioning, which exists in nearly every aspect of our culture, that tells them white is inherently better.
They are more likely to listen to us, to actually hear what we’re saying. More likely to give real consideration to a cause that has our voices raised in protest. This is where our privilege can do some good.
And this is where we, collectively, are failing our fellow human beings.
Black people are still not given equal employment opportunities, or access to equal housing or education. They aren’t being sentenced comparably to their white counterparts for criminal convictions. They make up roughly 13% of the population, yet they account for over 37% of the prison populations – and it is NOT because they commit a vastly larger proportion of America’s crime. Our nation’s police force is murdering unarmed black men and women in terrifying numbers.
Yet when they tweet #BlackLivesMatter, we respond with #AllLivesMatter. Which is missing the point. When white social media laments that a beloved lion was killed by a sport-hunting American dentist, black people are reasonably upset. After all, the same people who are crying over this lion killed on another continent often didn’t have a thing to say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose and so many more, when they were killed, right here at home. If they dare to mention this strange dichotomy, we respond with things like We can care about more than one thing at a time, you know, or You don’t get to tell us what to be passionate about! Again, because we are missing the point.
The point is, racism is alive and well in the US, and we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for being allies, if we aren’t actually being allies. Tweeting #AllLivesMatter, or getting defensive when someone is describing their lived experiences as black people, is missing the point. Getting pissed off when someone uses the term “privilege” is not being an ally. Allies don’t walk into a space that oppressed people have carved out to speak about their oppression, demanding that the oppressed people watch the tone in which they describe their experiences, or demand change. Allies do not walk into those spaces, demanding that the focus shift to their feelings. Allies are there to support, to amplify, and to listen. They’re not there to take charge, and make the rules. As white people, when dealing with matters of race, we’ve already been in charge for a very long time, and we’ve been royally mucking things up.
We’ve been mucking things up because, instead of listening to people of color, when they tell us what the issues are, we want to argue. No, no, that can’t be it. It must be this other thing over here. When they tell us how to address these issues, we create more by telling them that our ideas – you know, those ideas white people have been coming up with for decades, in response to racial inequality, the ones that haven’t actually worked? – are somehow better than theirs. We’re saying that what they really need is a white hero to ride in and save them from their own less valid ideas. In essence, what we’re doing, instead of being the helpful allies we think we are, is perpetuating the problem. We’re saying the same things that are born out of the roots of the very issues people of color are literally dying for. We’re saying that our feelings are more important, our experiences nullify their own, our defensiveness deserves more consideration than their oppression.
And that’s really not okay.
So, Dear Fellow White People:
Stop tweeting those awful banalities like #AllLivesMatter. Of course all lives matter. The whole point of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that black lives haven’t mattered as much, in this country, as white ones. EVER.
Stop wailing when someone points out that you are using your privilege to silence them, or center yourself in a movement that IS. NOT. ABOUT. YOU. Recognize that it isn’t an insult, but a plea to stop using your experiences of our culture – which happened in a world where you, by virtue of your skin color, are viewed as somehow more worthy as a human being – to negate theirs.
Stop trotting out tired old racist tropes without understanding where they originated, when faced with media accounts of people being murdered by the very people who are supposed to protect them from murderers.
Instead, educate yourself. Do your own damned research. This is the information age, so there is literally NO excuse for demanding that an oppressed person educate you on the history of their oppression.
Instead, speak up about the injustices you see. Nobody is saying you can’t, or shouldn’t, draw attention to animal cruelty or sport hunting. At the same time, though, use your white privilege to draw other white people’s attention to Sandra Bland, or Sam Dubose, or simply the fact that black women make only 64 cents for every dollar made by white men.
Instead, stop talking over them, and actually listen to what they’re asking. Put yourself in their shoes.
How about, maybe, you give us equal access to housing, jobs, and education? How about you start sentencing us by the same standards you use when sentencing white people for the same crimes? How about, perhaps, you get your police to stop killing our young men and women in the streets? How about you value our lives as much as you value your own?
It’s really not that much to ask, is it?
Yesterday, New York Magazine went live with an article which was focused on amplifying the voices of 35 women. These women are only a portion of the total number of women who have come forward in recent months, detailing the sexual assaults they suffered at the hands of Bill Cosby. The cover photo, seen here, shows each of the 35 women, sitting in a chair, in stark black and white. There are 36 chairs. The last chair in the image is empty. That chair is haunting. That empty chair sparked a hashtag on twitter, #TheEmptyChair, which has become a platform for women who feel like that chair belongs, at least in part, to them. A platform from which they are telling their stories, explaining why their chair is still empty. At least one man on Twitter, Elon James White, offered his own profile as a part of that platform. He invited victims who felt the need to tell their story to send him private messages, which he would then post without their names, twitter usernames, or identifying information.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that his inbox was immediately flooded with responses. Accounts of some of the most vile bits of humanity, repeated and expanded upon beyond the capacity that any one human brain can reasonably hold. He will never know what it is like to be a woman in America. The best he can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell him, and magnify their voices from his male-privileged position. That isn’t as dangerous for him as it is for those women.
In the last few years, institutionalized racism has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light. Into a place where even the most isolated, oblivious white person can’t possibly be unaware of the inexcusable, abominable acts being perpetrated on black people by a white-dominated society. In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, and the fallout in Ferguson in reaction to that murder, and the seemingly endless murderous rampage of the US police force, directly after, I stopped just shaking my head, then turning away. I spent days watching the live feed videos from Ferguson and St Louis. Watching police hit peaceful, law-abiding protesters with pepper spray, rubber bullets, tasers, and various other military operational equipment. What we were being shown on mainstream media was an unruly crowd of mostly black youth, vandalizing and burning shops and police cars. What wasn’t being shown, on most TV stations, but was being shown in a host of live streaming feeds on the ground, was an entirely different story. Police inciting, rather than responding to, outbreaks of violence. Protesters demanding justice they wouldn’t receive, and being taunted, derided, ridiculed, infantilized and demonized in the press and by law enforcement in the streets.
I watched until my eyes hurt from weeping. A human being had been murdered. An innocent black man shot down by a white cop in the streets of his own hometown. And the mainstream media was undeniably bending over backwards to excuse it, to justify it, to explain it away. Pundits debating the existence of racism, as if there was any doubt that it still exists.
I wrote some things, like you do. I talked to my friends, and lamented the fucked up state of the nation. I cried some more. I agonized over what I might be able to do, from my perch as a disabled woman in a small town in the racist-as-fuck south. I debated with my partner. I listened to black people. I asked questions. Then I listened some more. I’m white. I have white privilege. These are undeniable facts. I will never know what it’s like to be black in America. The best I can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell me. The best I can do is amplify their voices, to help the things they say be heard by people who may not listen to them. I can argue against the people who may not even give them the time of day, because of the levels of melanin in their skin. I can use my white privilege to speak to intractable, ignorant white people. That won’t be as dangerous, for me, as it would be for a black person.
Look, I’m what the relentlessly oblivious refer to as an SJW. A “Social Justice Warrior.” They mean it as a derogatory term, an insult that usually implies some sort of weakness, some sort of bleeding-heart liberal status that is, in their terms, indicative of a “pussy,” a “bitch,” a “beta.” I don’t care how they mean it. I am a Social Justice Warrior. To me, it means that I refuse to limit my noise-making and calls for attention only to problems that affect me, personally, or people like me. Intersectionality. It’s a thing. There are so many justifications for oppressing people, so many ways people are held down due to factors beyond their control or agency, and I’m not okay with any of them. I’m not affected, personally, by racism. It can still fuck right off. I’m not personally affected by transmisogyny or cis-sexism, but that can fuck in the general direction of off, as well. I will speak out against oppression, wherever I see it, in whatever form, no matter who I see perpetuating it.
I do it because I actually believe that human beings are all equal, and all deserve equal rights, equal treatment, equal representation, equal consideration. For me, that’s not just some easy history class recitation. It’s immutable fact. I have empathy for my fellow human beings who are being oppressed, no matter what form that takes. That empathy requires me to stand up when and where I am able. That may not mean much, all by itself. It’s a very small droplet in a very large ocean, especially when the town in which I’m frustratingly stuck is practically Wonderbread, USA. But it still matters.
I may be disabled, but I can still amplify the voices of black people who speak out on the various social media sites I utilize on a daily basis. Perhaps I expose one white person to something that makes them unpack their own privilege, or previously unexamined ignorance. Perhaps I get one previously cis-sexist person to recognize the harm they’re doing to transpeople. If I’m very fortunate, I can manage that much. In the meantime, I can keep on speaking out, keep on amplifying.
I may not get out much, or see many people in real life, but my biological family is almost entirely made up of a bunch of people who are bigoted at pretty much every point on the axes of oppression. At Christmas dinner last year, when the talk turned to Ferguson, the things my father and aunt were saying made me physically ill. We left, and they were informed as to the reasons why we refused to be around anyone spouting such insidious justifications for hatred. Maybe I didn’t change their minds at all. I kind of doubt it. But I can absolutely refuse to associate with anyone who behaves this way. If they care about me, they’ll be willing to have a conversation, and examine the reality from outside their normal lens.
I can call out any and all instances of racism, transmisogyny, and other bigotry and prejudice and unexamined privilege I see, in online forums. I can educate.
But, as Elon Jame White mentioned in the ThisWeekInBlackness Prime broadcast dealing with #TheEmptyChair, this shit is exhausting. There is such a dizzying array of rampant oppression going on in our country, and it never sleeps. When you step in to speak against it, you will meet resistance. You will have your resolve and will and empathy tested, again and again. You will tire of hearing the same horrible stories. You will tire of arguing the same tired old oppressive rhetoric that the oppressors have been using since time began and an ‘other’ existed. You will be attacked, shouted down, spoken over, condescended to, and bullied. It is inevitable.
It is okay to take a break.
I know, we often have to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. Individual stories of oppression only get traction through publicity for so long. It’s understandable to feel the need to run yourself into the ground, trying to stay right on top of every tweet, every DM, every news story, every untold horror. Sadly, though, no matter how many of these stories you amplify, there will almost assuredly be more, in the next breath. You can’t stay on top of it every waking moment. All that’s going to do is invite burnout, and then someone, somewhere has lost a valuable, meaningful ally. You can take a step back, take a breather, get some rest, and do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries, before wading back in. Unfortunately, racism isn’t going anywhere, not in the time it takes you to eat, shower, and sleep, or even take a vacation and unplug for a bit. Rape culture isn’t going anywhere. Misogyny isn’t going anywhere. Cis-sexism isn’t going anywhere. Ableism isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going to hurt the progress of any of these social issues that much, by taking care of you for a minute. Or a week. Not doing so, however, could take you out of the equation, entirely, much sooner than you may have bowed out, otherwise.
So, no. Don’t just care about and speak about the issues that affect you, but do make sure that you take the time to deal with the ways in which all of the issues affect you. We all need those voices being amplified.