Drop Apocalyptic Thinking and Get in the Streets: On White/Male Voices Stifling Resistance
A lot of white dudes are writing and sharing apocalyptic articles about how doomed the political situation is in America, and suggesting that policies like the immigrant ban are “headfakes” meant to cause “resistance fatigue,” rather than moral crises in their own right. You’ve probably seen this one. And this, and this. When we saw these articles, we were demoralized. We felt like throwing up. We lost sleep. We went from feeling a sense of shared purpose and meaningful collective action after witnessing and participating in the beginnings of a powerful and beautiful resistance with people (especially marginalized and vulnerable people) marching, protesting, and agitating, to worries that we should view any idea of meaningful action with suspicion, for fear of being manipulated by a chess-master administration. While some of the dire scenarios laid out by these articles are within the realm of possibility, and while we agree that the situation in our country is disturbing, we need to analyze the troubling emotional effects of these particular narratives, and also to be aware of who is writing them and from what position. We read critiques of the apocalyptic articles (here, here, here, here, here, and here) and then we asked: Why is it that only white men have been saying this and none of the women, people of color, or queer people we know have? Why is it that we have not seen a single “we’re fucked” article written by a person of color (male or female)?
DISTANCE, DOOM, AND PRIVILEGE IN THE WHITE AND MALE VOICE
In liberal white circles, people are shocked by the first weeks of the Trump administration. We’ve noticed many white men and women are sharing news stories and apocalyptic pleas for their peers to take the threats of fascism seriously. Remaining aware of the real threats that face our communities and our country is important, as long as this awareness leads to active, engaged resistance. But too often, these pleas do not culminate in calls to collective action, they culminate in a weary and scared, “We’re fucked.” The “we’re fucked” response that is plaguing so many liberal white men, in particular, is even more pernicious when it is used to shut down others, who are often not white men, and who are trying to engage in movement building. Calls to action are met with a fatalistic, “That will never work. Let me tell you why.”
One of us recently had an intense discussion with her liberal white husband about the liberal white man’s sense of doom. He argues that it’s all tied up in toxic masculinity and the lack of support that men get from each other. That when leftist white men intellectualize about the problems facing the country, or engage with memes and humor, they are met with social approval and engagement. On the other hand, when they amplify marginalized voices or go out on a limb to suggest constructive action, they contradict the social expectations of masculinity and are met with social disapproval.
Social expectations of masculinity, especially in elite liberal white circles, reward presentation of “objective” facts and empirics, as well as cleverness and being one step ahead of others. (No small wonder men get accused of mansplaining so much.) Recently, this is manifesting as explanations about why certain types of collective action cannot work. We cannot stop the cabinet picks. We cannot keep Gorsuch off the Supreme Court. Bannon’s on the NSC and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our protests of the immigrant ban are what Bannon wanted us to do, to create “resistance fatigue.” Or in the words of another article, this executive order is a “headfake, and we’re falling for it.” We’re fucked!
In addition to this, the idea that “apocalyptic” events can be observed and predicted from a distance — abstractly, and with action seen as an option to be weighed strategically, rather than as a necessity — rests on privilege. So does the adrenaline-fueled tone of certain white male writers in envisioning our society’s collapse. We saw a different version of this in the primary when white men went on record saying that Bernie supporters should vote for Trump out of a desire to just “burn it down” and “bring the revolution,” romanticizing an image of destruction. They seemed to assume that they wouldn’t be the ones caught in the flames, but would be safely watching the fire from above.
Many white men are not taking into account the social resources, motivations, and history that female, People of Color-led, and other marginalized groups draw on, and aren’t taking into account the limitations of their own perspectives. What this means is that, on the left, the voices of women and people of color and queer folks and other marginalized groups are in the process of being shut down by white men who are ostensibly using empirical facts to proclaim our doom.
THE BEAUTY AND RESISTANCE OF MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES AND PEOPLE OF COLOR
Marginalized groups, through their lived experiences, recognize the long-standing brokenness of things in society and, alongside it, the need to build constructive ideas for action. They know that there is no viable alternative. White people, especially white men, have always operated under the illusion of being able to depend on institutions. So when those institutions are bad, the world is over. People of color never had the luxury of trusting institutions. In fact, as Dawn Phillips of Causa Justa Just Cause says about people of color and vulnerable populations:
“We have always resisted. Resisted the lies of the two-party electoral game. Resisted police beatings and murders. Resisted environmental degradation and the evils of corporate polluters. Resisted male violence and transphobia. Resisted the rich bosses and landlords who own the airwaves and politicians. Resistance is our legacy. Resistance is our duty. We have resisted a long time. We will continue to resist.”
Vulnerable populations know that observing patterns from above without getting involved isn’t an option and that this is not the first time they and other marginalized groups have been threatened. At the same time, they are able to draw from a rich history of others from their communities finding ways to not just survive but also thrive. As Damon Young reminds us, vulnerable populations “bear the brunt of America’s antagonism.” But, we (vulnerable people) have gone through this before. We’ve resisted this before. We’ve protected ourselves before and we will do it all again, while finding time to “breathe, love, live.”
DON’T PARALYZE, MOBILIZE!
The voices saying “we’re screwed!” today are the same voices that said they knew what was going to happen on election day. They were wrong. Even if we can say that something is unlikely to happen within our institutions, those probabilities go out the window in moments of crisis like this. Our institutions are already being manipulated by those in power. We can’t throw up our hands saying “institutions constrain us!” when Trump and Bannon are gleefully ignoring all institutionalist restraints. Analyses of normal institutional constraints can be useful insofar as they are not paralyzing. Let’s use these analyses to guide our resistance, not to stop it.
In these apocalyptic articles and in many responses to them, there is a repeated image, or feeling, of the administration as playing a game of chess — and the implication that we need to play chess as well to oppose them. If you are playing chess, you are above the board, looking down. The mastermind is out of the action rather than in the midst of what is unfolding; the mastermind is watching and analyzing, rather than participating and personally affected.
A contrasting image that we see as more useful is the experience of joining a crowd at a protest. To participate, you need to temporarily let go of the “aerial view.” Which means that you may not have a sense of the whole scope of what is going on until you see the aerial photographs later. Your field of vision is necessarily limited, at least temporarily — sometimes to the backs of the heads of the people in front of you, and the signs in the air. But that’s what it means to participate. And this involves some level of surrender, moving out of what can be, for many white people, the comfortable and familiar position of being an outside observer of events.
We cannot cede the public to the authoritarian regime; we cannot afford to be paralyzed. We need to show up to boring neighborhood meetings and boring community organizing meetings. We need to work with local organizers on state and local criminal justice issues. We need to volunteer time or money to the organizations doing the real grunt work. We need to show up at local rallies to remind us and others that we’re not alone and we can still act in public. And we need to take care of ourselves and each other, connect with sources of meaning and moral-spiritual-emotional strength, as well as sources of beauty, humor, creativity, and everything else that reminds us of what we’re fighting for.
Uncertainty is hard to tolerate. But the reality is we don’t yet know which of Trump’s actions are part of a malicious grand plan, which are incompetence, and which are both — and regardless, on the ground, their impact is the same. We do know that a lot of harm can be done through the normal, banal workings of government, and that in fact much of the harm done to marginalized groups in our country’s history has been sanctioned by our institutions (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, mass incarceration, police violence, etc.), rather than achieved outside or against them. We know that, given this, we must strongly oppose and protest against harmful policies whenever they appear. If people are being harmed by a government action or order, it is never a “distraction,” but an urgent call to action. We cannot be overly inhibited by the worry that whatever action we take, we will be pawns of the administration’s machinations. This type of abstract worry will sap our energies and obscure the ways in which our actions can genuinely make a difference. All we have is doing and seeing what works or doesn’t work. Not everything we do will make a difference, but some of it will. Of course we can and should reflect and strategize about our actions, but there can be no sitting back and predicting from the sidelines without getting actively engaged.
If there is one thing we know for certain, it’s that white men will not be the leaders of this resistance. So don’t let their apocalyptic narratives shut down our collective action. Listen to and amplify the voices of the people engaged in the struggles rather than the ones observing from above.
*This piece was written collectively by women of color and white women allies