My Favorite Meta is Irony
FWD: Reply All: Dear White People
I went back and forth about writing this piece for quite some time. I mean, the internet is littered with white people telling other white people how to be better allies. It is also littered with white people telling other white people how not to be allies. For me (and I’ll be so bold as to assume for most of you, as well) this semi-performative, circular dialogue is disheartening, emotionally confusing, and frustrating. It isn’t just that this call and response bears distinct parallels to the infuriating protest censorship we’ve seen this year, either. Many of us are so affected by this debate because, at its core, it represents the logical conflict going on within a large portion of white mainstream America right now; the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that we must play our role, juxtaposed with confusion as to what that role actually is.
Can I speak on this? Should I? Do I belong in this conversation at all? Am I just taking up space? Where do I even start? These are just some of the questions many of us ask ourselves as we stare across the battlefield that is modern American politics. Breathe easy, though; I’m not here to give you another finale judgement on how you should or shouldn’t contribute. In fact, the main reason I take issue with so-called ‘progressives’ shutting down potential allies is that they usually do so in such a resounding, incontrovertible way that all of those thus condemned never manage to crawl out of the self-righteous blast-zone that remains.
This kind of take-no-prisoners approach to activism is exactly what we need to avoid, because if this election has taught us anything, it’s that shaming, belittling, and mocking those of competing or potentially misguided opinions does not work. It in fact serves to support the systems of hate and oppression it purports to oppose. And, when our perceived self-righteousness is prioritized above the practical considerations of the matter at hand, we lose. Always.
Contrarily, it’s necessary to recognize that, beneath all of this self-defeating contempt, there are very real concerns when it comes to people who claim to be allies. The worry so tonelessly expressed in so many places is that people like us will slap on self-congratulatory little badges, name ourselves Allies of the People…and then change the channel. It’s not an unreasonable fear. Whether it was KONY 2012 or Frenchified profile pictures or all those godawful #thoughtsandprayers, white mainstream America generally has a pretty terrible track-record when it comes to meaningful, impactful activism. We get worked up and incensed and motivated and ready and vocal and then, whether due to internal conflict or the simple passing of time, we move on.
(For those of you who have been active, relatively rare though you are, that section wasn’t for you. This pat on the back, though, is. There you go. Do you feel the validation? Good. Now we can move on.)
Look, I’m not going to tell you the right way to protest. I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should wear that safety pin. I’m not going to tell you how to protest Donald J. Trump. In fact, if I make any pronouncement here, it is simply that we must not allow our fear of doing harm to supersede our responsibility to do good. If you take nothing else from this article, please take that.
But this article can’t end there, can it? That’d be lame, and my editor needs a certain word count. So, since I can’t supply you with the hard and fast “hows” of it, I can at least try and get you in the right mind-set to decide for yourself. From this point on, everything that follows will be an attempt to clear out the self-doubt and misgivings that are so prevalent in majority white America right now, and hopefully give you firm ground upon which to stand. Let’s get started with the realization that…
This Isn’t Your Game
Many of you who take the time to read this will (probably) be like me. Likely you’ll have some type of background in political discourse or social activism. You may have been active for the Bernie Sanders campaign, or been With Her, or maybe you just share a lot of articles on Facebook. Some of you will probably even have collegiate education relevant to the cause. Hell, could be you were that kid in PoliSci 101. But, while this training and experience will serve us well in becoming potential allies, we must realize that this is not our game. We are football players dropped into a rugby match. We are tennis players doing the breast-stroke. While we may be able to run and jump and hit and swim, we do not yet know the rules, we do not know the roles, and we only fleetingly know the stakes. So, all of that intellectual and rational muscle-power that you’ve built on papers and presentations and classroom discussions? It all means nothing until you’ve learned how to play the game — less than nothing, if you somehow manage to trip up your would-be teammates with tone-deaf articles and fumbled attempts at activism.
So, how do we minimize the groping about and maximize our collective learning curve? Well…
Listen Before You Speak
I know it’s a bit cliché, but this time it isn’t as simple as you think. Whenever possible, we should be actively listening to the forerunners of our current political situation. Seek out and listen to not just the leaders of marginalized communities, but any member therein. While it is unfair to expect them to have any or all of the answers to your questions, it is only through interaction that we become fully able to understand and contextualize the ramifications of our current situation. So engage in dialogue and emotions with an open and attentive mind, doing your best to minimize your ego and pride and that inherent urge to apply your own predispositions to their experiences. Do not get offended or slighted when marginalized peoples speak harshly of the oppressive groups which you, by birth, are a part of. Realize that yes, even if you have disagreed with a lot of that oppression, you are still very much a part of it so long as you are not actively and continuously working to end it. And, even while you work against it, realize that your ability to do so is largely facilitated by the privilege you enjoy because of it. Those who you engage with and listen to have been fighting this fight every day, and without the help of that privilege. Please make sure you appreciate what that means before moving forward.
Appreciated? Good. So, we’ve established that we should prioritize the voices of the peoples most affected by any given oppression, yeah? Now realize that it is not your right to demand they speak. While our path to resistance has been clear-cut and paved by our privilege, that mobility mostly came to pass by bulldozing the shit out of marginalized peoples’ rights. For every step you take forward on the solid, even ground of privileged majority, they’re hacking two through the underbrush of institutionalized prejudice. Simply put, they’ve got enough on their plates without needing to hold our hands while we stumble about like some soccer-mom who thought Uggs were good hiking boots.
“But wait!” you say, “How can we listen if they won’t speak?”
Simple. By learning to listen to the things marginalized peoples have created. Literature. Dance. Art. Music. All of these are ways in which we, as potential allies, can take our education into our own hands without adding more weight to the perpetually over-burdened. Seek out authors of other cultures and communities. Learn to listen to music, rather than just hear it. Appreciate dance in the context of its history and cultural importance, instead of just for entertainment. When we learn to engage with culture rather than just consume it, we take a step towards being stronger allies. This is important on several levels, but primarily because if you do not take efforts to understand a person well enough to understand how and why they need assistance, then you aren’t actually interested in helping them; you’re simply trying to mollify your own discomfort at witnessing their need.
Now, obviously it’s important to realize that while this engagement with marginalized cultures can be a powerful tool for learning, it can never be confused with actual, personal engagement. You do not know what it is to be a black man in America because you’ve had Life of Pablo on repeat for a week. You are not an LGBTQ ally because you’ve read Fun Home. And the issue here isn’t just the obvious one of false equivalency; the larger issue is that almost all forms of art, by their very nature, exist in the past. There is an unavoidable time-lag between when a piece of art is inspired/created and when you interact with it. In order to fully understand the circumstances of oppression as they exist in the present, we must continuously seek out and facilitate interpersonal conversations with those being oppressed. Taken in this light, the purpose of engaging with and appreciating culture is not to qualify ourselves as experts, but to inform ourselves to the point where we can meaningfully and respectfully become part of that culture’s current dialogue. To think we can jump into the conversation of activism without doing even the bare minimum of preparation is arrogance, pure and simple. Further, it’s a fault born of the expectation that our schooling or rhetorical experience is sufficient to prepare us for any argument, regardless of content.
So, read, listen, watch. Do your homework. And when you get the chance to participate in a discussion first-hand, do so respectfully, relying not only on your personal abilities but also on the relevant information that you have equipped yourself with. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
In the next section we’ll get into the heart of it, and for many of you it might cut a little deep. I ask only that you swallow any indignation and hear it out, because it’s important that you know…
You Are Not The Leader
I’ll repeat this for ya’ll in the back: You are not the leader. This isn’t me chastising you. This isn’t a philosophical comment. It’s simple, basic logic. You, as a member of the privileged demographic in modern America, are fundamentally incapable of leading. This is not because you are mad, bad, or even dangerous to know. It doesn’t even really have anything to do with your character or skills. Simply put, the reason you cannot possibly lead is because the cutting edge of any struggle against oppression is determined first and foremost in the thoughts and communities of those oppressed. Any knowledge we — as people outside the attacked demographic — receive, is necessarily secondhand. We can read every book under the sun, attend every march and rally and meeting, dedicate our entire lives to resistance…and still come second. At best. So, when I tell you that you aren’t the leader, I’m not telling you to relinquish the throne or bow out to allow marginalized people to lead. You were never in charge. There is no limelight. You aren’t ‘allowing’ anything.
If you’re thinking that all of this is a bit harsh, you’re right. It is. And, if you’re anything like me, a boot in the ass is sometimes (often) necessary. But let me be clear here: just because you aren’t leading the charge does not mean you shouldn’t try and keep pace. All of those leadership skills you’ve gathered and honed — and in some cases paid tens of thousands of dollars for — are not useless. While you cannot be the leader, you can still be a leader, so long as you realize the limitations and scope of that leadership. Specifically, by interacting with those at the front of the charge in a healthy and respectful way, you are thereby equipping yourself to relay those interactions to the demographic of which you are a part. Mind you — and I’ll emphasize this for good measure — in no way are you ever a surrogate for marginalized peoples or their voices. But you can, in a very real sense, become an ally.
Now, I realize that hierarchical structures of any sort set off alarm bells — and for good reason. Divisive politics and exclusionist institutions have perpetuated oppression and subjugation throughout the history of, well, everything. But while this idea of inherent leadership may bear some resemblance to those systems, it is a necessary recognition of our own limitations and capabilities within the available systems of resistance. As I said before, and will reiterate once more, as individuals outside of those demographics directly affected by systems of oppression, we are inherently incapable of being The Leader. A hierarchical system taken in that sense is not a demotion but a simple acceptance of fact.
And trust me, I get it. Most of us who view ourselves as natural leaders seek the position primarily because we believe we can do what’s best for those we lead. With that in mind, though, we must realize that in this instance what’s best is for us to accept our supporting role as our rightful role, and then fulfill that role as best we can. If you’re having trouble with this transition, remind yourself that true leadership in any sense is a form of servitude. By eschewing primary leadership you are better serving the communities which most need your help. And, if at any point you seek to usurp a leadership position from someone outside of your limited demographic and personal experience, you are, in effect, saying that you know the minds and needs of those marginalized peoples better than they do. That your ego and pride are more important than their ability to represent and govern their own identities. And that makes you an asshole. And in the spirit of not being an asshole…
Intervention is Not Enough
Some of you, I know, are waiting for practical instructions. For the “Top Ten Ways to Arm-Bar that Racist Dude on the Subway”, or the “Hottest New Accessories to Show You’re Woke!” And, while I do make fun of them here, some of the practical instructions circulating our feeds have real merit and value. You should learn how to safely de-escalate a situation. If at all possible you should seek out bystander intervention training in your area. These skills are invaluable for handling first-person instances of discrimination.
More importantly, though, we must recognize that making these reactionary efforts our main contribution to the fight against oppression is not enough. Those who perpetuate hatred and prejudice love reactionaries. Feed on them. They recognize, unlike most of us, that reaction to an instance of discrimination can only ever halt that specific instance. By prioritizing the ability to respond to and diffuse instances of discrimination and hatred in our immediate, personal lives, we neglect the larger, systemic issues of oppression. So no, I won’t tell you my favorite headlock to deal with misogynists, or my wittiest come-back for Islamophobes. Instead I’ll try to express the importance of being pro-active in the fight against hatred. To make you realize that by actively engaging with and appreciating marginalized cultures, you are helping to create a society in which instances of prejudice are prevented, rather than just opposed.
I realize that none of these things bring the same exhilaration as shutting down some punk on the commute from work (nor are they as social media friendly), but they do have much further-reaching effects. Just like one of the main issues of prejudice in modern America is the way it is being normalized, we must in turn fight to re-normalize the multi-cultural. Our final goal should not be merely to dismantle systems of hatred and discrimination, but to make love and acceptance the pervasive norm. So yes, practice your arm-bars and verbal Jiu-Jitsu, but more importantly make it a practice to step outside of your culture, even to step outside the idea of cultures as being defined solely by their struggles, and hopefully learn something about the people you’re trying to help.