White Progressives and the Chamber of Secrets
Politics lead to passion, especially in a heated primary season. Passion leads to our mouths or keyboard-attached fingers firing off quicker than our brains or hearts can monitor. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past. Yet, I fear this type of engagement is the biggest threat to the political revolution many of us are working for.
Quite certainly, we have to be the media, and run counter-intel to the corporate media cartels with their 24-hour spin cycles and lies. Most definitely, we have to be out and proud with our support of true Progressive policy and praise of consistency on those issues. Unabashedly, we need to utilize new media and social media to further our cause. Uniformly, we need to make certain we do so respectfully and honestly when engaging others in those quests.
I’m an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter. I have been since the day he announced. However, I feel the need to debunk a meme that is going around. I need to do so for my own conscious as well as to bridge into a greater point: lack of etiquette and empathy by white Progressives who speak before thinking are a danger to the revolution. That’s a broad statement, and possibly unfair to one group, but I will expand on it soon, if you stay with me.
There is an internet meme going around comparing the Black Lives Matter direct action against Bernie Sanders in Seattle last summer to the recent direct action protest performed by Ashley Williams against Hillary Clinton. The goal of the meme is to paint the Sanders reaction superior. I feel that is disingenuous.
I was live tweeting the Seattle Social Security celebration. I was in tears as Kshama Sawant enthused the crowd with talk of expanding Social Security, and related economic racism to those who would privatize our social safety net. She gave cold, hard facts about minority groups and their need for Social Security as an only means of retirement. Sawant explained how the attacks on Social Security were attacks on these minority communities. Then she introduced Bernie Sanders. As he took the stage, a direct action by Black Lives Matter activists also headed towards the podium.
When the young women who interrupted Bernie that day came front and center, yes, Bernie offered them his hand. He handed them the microphone. He helped find another microphone. He yielded the stage and listened. The meme gets that much right. Yet, the crowd’s response was not as the meme says. Those young women were booed and heckled. On one hand, I understood the crowd’s response as they were fired up in support of Social Security benefiting people of color most of all. On the other hand, I was embarrassed at the attempts to silence these young women and their important action.
Live tweeting the event, I was attacked online from all sides. White progressives berated me for sympathizing with an attack on the wrong-candidate. Black activists fired off tweets at me for somehow diminishing the message of the direct action as I was trying to just report what was happening. Conservatives who took glee in infighting on the left sniped at me too. There were plenty of racist, anti-socialist and anti-Social Security tweets at me too. I tried to engage with folks who I felt I shared policy with, Progressives and Black activists. None of that went well.
With white Progressives, I made the cardinal mistake of debating with white Progressives, or politically charged people of any group. I tried to correct their opinions by stating the facts of what I just witnessed. There is no counter to “the wrong candidate is being targeted.” You just have to let them blow off their steam and settle down. I shouldn’t have tried to get them to understand why the crowd was rude to those activists. I should have just listened.
With Black activists, I made the cardinal mistake of a white Progressive trying to build a bridge. I recited the talking points Kshama Sawant had made and explained Bernie Sanders’s record. It wasn’t about Social Security or economic inequality to them. I should have just listened. I shouldn’t have tried to share videos of Bernie saying “Black Lives Matter” even before he announced for President. I should have listened.
With the racists and Republicans, I did what every Progressive who isn’t running for office or trying to sell something should do, in my humble opinion; I hit the block button.
Personal attacks came at me via Twitter for a few days from all sides. I won’t lie, it took the wind out of my sails quite a bit. I’d been trying to be active on issues of police brutality in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, both in writing policy and in protest. I wavered in my support wanting to avoid confrontation or being told what a bad ally I was. I was a bad ally for wavering.
I was active in trying to help with the newly established Bernie Sanders campaign and movement, through designing print and web materials and organizing in the community I was living in. I wavered out of fear of having to defend my sympathies and support for Black Lives Matter after they had singled out and onto Bernie. I was a bad Progressive for wavering.
I kept podcasting on these issues, because I cared about them, but I likely became overly sensitive about language and what I could say and who I could endorse. Luckily, some good guidance was about to come my way and help me find my way.
Last August, I found the Benjamin Dixon Show on YouTube. He gave a wonderful speech to white Progressive Bernie supporters on how not to berate black folks about Bernie. I took it strong to heart, not only for his message, but how important it is to listen to other folks. I may have read between the lines, because of what I was going through, but Benjamin Dixon inspired a new approach for me on how I report and discuss. I asked Mr. Dixon for his input on this piece:
“The biggest secret of all is that we all have been and can be wrong. And we can do so simultaneously. For example, Seattle: The white progressive crowd was wrong for many reasons the least of which is not thinking about the implications of how they treated two young women. But those two young women were wrong in that their protests had no new specific end and was, in my opinion, merely a means.”
— Benjamin Dixon, The Benjamin Dixon Show
I learned my lesson, hopefully. I try to be passionate about social justice, criminal justice, economic justice and my values, without fear of what others think, but always listening when someone comes at me with respect. Sometimes listening when they come at me with disrespect. No one deserves to be dehumanized for fighting for humanity. I don’t engage. I either listen or ignore, and that decision is made based on if the other party treats me with value. I tried to change the tone of my own podcast, to try and talk about empathy alongside the issues more often. I try to apologize, honestly and earnestly, when I offend someone with bombastic language online. I never direct bombastic statements at anyone. I try to only offer “fact-checking” to people I’ve interacted with previously online. That’s how I’ve chosen to move forward as someone interested in many layers of politics. After all, I come at a lot of these issues from a place of privilege. Just because I think capitalism is the root cause for both systemic racism, misogynistic prejudice, the decline of the middle-class and so much more, doesn’t mean people who deal with those issues every day of their lives has to agree. I’m just one guy, though.
All of these months later, I still see these same patterns of discourse between white Progressives and Black activists. Despite post-Super Tuesday polls showing that young African American voters are joining young voters in other minority intersectionalities in supporting my candidate now, I still see white Progressives Twitter-lecturing black folks. I still see black folks Twitter sniping at white Progressives who speak up on issues of social justice, criminal justice, and economic justice. The rift is real and rife with genuine disrespect.
Twitter is the social network with the most generational and ethnic crossover, and my favorite, but these issues are not unique to Twitter. It’s just a sample group, really. Still, I feel these examples of lack of respect, no matter the online or real life forum, come down to a form of etiquette.
I first joined Twitter in 2008 with a different account than I’ve used since 2009 under my own real name. I don’t hide behind a fake avatar or personality. I am as real as an internet presence can be. My original account was strictly used for campaigning for Barack Obama and against Hillary Clinton. It was then that another Obama supporter taught me about “Twitter etiquette.” Despite spending much of the Obama Presidency’s first term using my personal Twitter account for poop jokes and trying to get people to listen to my music, I’ve tried to remember the basics of “Twitter etiquette.” I have failed on occasion, as I am human, but I offer the following in hopes we can all interact with more humanity.
10 Rules for Basic Twitter Etiquette
1. Don’t @ everyone who disagrees with you.
2. Don’t @ someone you’ve never interacted with before with something unkind.
3. Don’t lecture people you don’t know in real life about their life experiences.
4. If fact-checking a stranger, send sources, not your opinion.
5. Deescalate drama. Don’t escalate drama.
6. Treat everyone with the respect you wish to be treated with, even if they’re being rude.
7. Understand that everyone is in control of their own timeline. Nobody owes you attention.
8. Don’t be offended if you are ignored, unfollowed or blocked.
9. Don’t be afraid to ignore, unfollow or block.
10. Remember it’s just the internet, not real life.
In my most humble of opinions, there are two groups breaking these rules of etiquette more than any other: supporters of Hillary Clinton and white Progressives. Let me first explain why I single out Hillary supporters and separate them from Progressives. I have never sent an @ to a Hillary supporter I don’t know on Twitter. I get a dozen cruel tweets from strangers supporting Hillary a day. My comrades online report quite similar. As I type this, the same Hillary supporters who pushed a “Bernie Bro” narrative are attacking Jane Sanders with vile, sexist comments online and accusing her falsely of racism. As for Progressivism, well, Hillary is not a progressive. Still, our political differences shouldn’t undo basic civility. I’ll show my evidence. You show yours. With respect. Unless we’re making Trump jokes, I think we can all agree that in a world where David Letterman is retired, we all have to bond together and fill the gap he left in making Trump jokes.
Even if “Bernie Bros” isn’t a thing, my personal feeling is that white Bernie supporting Progressives have been attacked by Clinton supporters online so much that they talk to everyone who isn’t in alignment with them the same way now. What they are doing, however, is alienating Black activists and undecided voters with hubris, unkindness and lack of respect. If you’re trying to win people over to the revolution, mansplaining, whitesplaining, Berniesplaining or any other type of ‘splaining is pretty much always the wrong way to go. Not everybody needs you to explain stuff to them, no matter how fired up YOU may be. See the rules above, and try to consider that you don’t know anything about another person’s, let along another culture’s experiences. Don’t take it from me alone, though, listen to my friend Anoa:
“Social media has become increasingly toxic over the last several years. I think we need to employ more common sense engagement. It is so crucial to respect space and understand that not everything is acceptable everywhere. A part of movement building is learning the rules of engagement within this coalition, we have to respect the voice of others. That cannot happen if we disregard the real concerns raised by people from within the movement. Finally, this need to raise Bernie up as if he is morally superior, only comes off as tone-deaf and condescending. We are missing the mark unnecessarily.”
-Anoa J Changa, African-Americans for Bernie Sanders
Much like how when someone offers you a breath mint, you likely need a breath mint, when someone tells you to check your privilege, you likely need to check your privilege. Except, the latter is more important. Much like considerate people have a breath mint before going in for a kiss, considerate people check their privilege before trying to engage any intersectionality’s activists. Except, the latter is more important. We have to remember to get Altoids if we’re to be taken seriously as being on the same side. We have to remember to use our Altoids if we want to be considered serious suitors.
Before you fire off an angry tweet to me about how any other group can be just as rude: no shit. This is my missive and I’m using it to voice one of my concerns. I invite you to write your own if you disagree, or feel alienated by a certain group of should-be-allies, not just say mean things to me on the internet. After all, I think we could all agree that the world needs more independent media. Get to it. Write. Podcast. Vlog. Do stuff. Send me your link instead of saying something mean to me. I’ll read the link. I’ll watch your video. I’ll block the disrespect.