As a woman of color living in America, every step taken towards wakefulness and empowerment means a step away from those who won’t move with you, those who suck the soul from your body with their micro-aggressions, the violence in their speech and actions, and their refusal to see themselves and critique what they see. There comes a time in every such person’s life where one must leave those institutions, people, and relationships behind. It’s always a painful process, and it’s one that I have had experience with ever since I left my abusive boyfriend of 5 years, when I was 22. Many years later, I decided to boycott a creative community that I had been part of for the better part of a decade after they declined to crack down on incredibly harmful misogynistic as well as culturally insensitive behavior.
Being part of an oppressive community is an abusive relationship. When you speak up about the abuses, if you are a marginalized member of society you are vulnerable and you will be scapegoated. When you’re scapegoated and attacked for your stance, for your self, for your very being, this may push you closer to the point of leaving, of doing something good for yourself and for your soul.
And they won’t like it. They never do.
When I announce I’m finally quitting that job with the racist employer, or leaving a place that rewards cultural appropriation of astonishing levels that hurts and offends me personally as a PoC, white people and bad allies of all stripes invariably display resistance.
“It’s not that bad.” “You should stay, change it from the inside.” “He’s fine, he’s fine, you shouldn’t punish yourself, it’ll hurt you more in the long run to leave.” They often reference what will be best for me — that I shouldn’t shoot myself in the foot by sacrificing such an amazing asset, such a worthy connection, despite my claims that I’m being worn down slowly, that I can’t take these racist outbursts, this active and passive misogyny, that holding my tongue will probably give me cancer some day. So, it is preferable that we minorities seek to ally ourselves with people of power and privilege, even with those who abuse it, rather than seek to be free. The people who speak these words are, without exception, relatively privileged people who benefit from the oppressive system in one way or another. This leads me to draw a couple of conclusions.
First, oppressive people and communities often benefit from our presence as minorities. It makes them appear less terrible, and it validates any culturally appropriative, misogynistic, and otherwise reprehensible behavior. Token minorities are a big boon to any organization or community. In this day and age, in our liberal and diverse cities, nobody wants to actually be an all-white, all-male creative community (due to selfish reasons rather than a sense of moral obligation, I presume) yet many strive to continue operating like one, choosing to retain their outdated values, their hierarchy and their ignorance. Privileged people are attached to these things. They are attached to power, no matter how liberal and progressive they claim to be, no matter how many marginalized people they claim to open their doors to.
Conversely, they will not benefit from our departure. Such people and places have no problem with the one-way street of being blessed with our presence and giving absolutely nothing of what we need back — respect, visibility, a platform for our voices to be heard, maybe even a position of power within the community — maybe even the ability to make important decisions. So when we threaten to leave, citing their bad behavior, they balk. They don’t want to lose their token minorities. Even more, they don’t want to be seen as the bad guys! They just want freedom to be the bad guys — and not be held accountable. One of the worst fights I ever had with my ex-boyfriend, which ended with him trying to break into my apartment several times over the course of a night, began with me telling him he was a bigot. This was so incredibly offensive to him — a white man who had been spewing some really reprehensible shit about South Asian people — that he went on the rampage. He wasn’t angry because he disagreed fundamentally with my assessment; he was angry that he was exposed, his self-image questioned. Most importantly, he was angry that I had dared to challenge him, that a woman of color had asserted her agency in judgement of him, rather than the reverse. White anger and fragility is so predictable at times, so thoroughly useless when directed against us. Its only purpose is to preserve a false sense of self, an image presented for both one’s own ego and for the world at large.
On that note, my second conclusion is this: if such people were to support us leaving, they would, by definition, be validating our perspective and our decisions, and therefore they would need to believe us. Which means they would be wrong, and we would be right. All of a sudden we’d be worthy, autonomous individuals and minority groups, with power of accountability, with the power to judge them and act upon those judgements. In other words, they’d have to accept us as humans on par with their own humanity, something some of us have been waiting for our whole lives, something they can’t do without realizing how awful they have been and how much pain they have caused, realizing that we should in fact leave and they deserve to be left, something that would crack their self-image and their entire world-view were they to let the concept penetrate. Tough stuff.
The only other way for them to agree with our decision to leave would be to boot us, with no apologies. But then they’d be showing their asses, and nobody wants to do that; and so we find ourselves at square one again.
Third: The attitude of “staying and creating change from the inside” has one fundamental flaw. It assumes that the oppressed must be granted humanity and respect by the oppressor, and that they must work for this honor; that they cannot bestow it upon themselves, that they cannot find it outside of the hierarchical structure. It assumes, unlike Audre Lorde, that the master’s tools can actually dismantle the master’s house. It assumes that our vision of power and dignity is the same as theirs, that we do not know better, that we cannot provide, for ourselves, what it is that we fundamentally need.
Lastly, leaving is always hard, otherwise this problem wouldn’t be so familiar to so many. This is the way the system was constructed, and the way it continues to operate. We are needed in positions of submission and obedience. They need us to occupy the margins so that they can be centralized. Without us they would have nothing to control, no culture to steal, nothing to spice their gourmet food with, no trophy to validate their superiority. (Flashback to high school when a white British classmate, complaining about all the Asian immigrants in London, recapitulated on the basis that she loves Peking duck and chicken tikka masala — and honestly, she had a point. Who wants to be stuck eating only white people food? Not I, and not, apparently, anyone with tastebuds.)
They need us, for these reasons and many more. They don’t want us to leave, but they don’t want to give us what we need either. This is the hallmark of an abusive relationship. The very act of leaving challenges the status quo and sends ripples through the power structure, whether it’s a community of many or a community of two. It’s a threat to the establishment, whichever way you cut it. That’s why they don’t want us to do it, and it’s why I do.