I had a great discussion with some friends the other day, and I felt like writing about it. It’s no secret that I care a lot about social justice, even if I’m far from an expert. So of course I heard about Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech (meh) and her elaboration afterwards (ugh). I don’t want this post to be about her comments though, so I’ll just redirect you to Amanda Marcotte’s great overview at Slate instead. The key thing Arquette is:
And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.
As if there aren’t women of color, or women who are queer, and on and on. And as if people from other marginalized groups don’t have their own battles to fight. This rightly pissed of a lot of people.
I try and follow a diverse group of people in social justice on Twitter, and I was paying close attention to Elon James as this was unfolding. During this dustup, James, along with many other black Americans, got into a bit of a Twitter war with a group of white feminists. Here is a pretty core conversation thread:
How this ultimately played out was pretty amazing, at first for it’s stupidity and then for it’s brilliance. Without recapping everything that happened, let’s just say that it led to one of these white women claiming that James was trying to start a race war. Yeah, let that one sink in for a minute. At this point James and friends ran with it, and it was beautiful. Just do a Twitter search for #RaceWarDanceOff. It’ll be worth your time.
At the core of the argument is that liberals in general and the feminist movement in particular are thoroughly whitewashed. The discussion on Twitter was largely one of white feminists trying to tone police black social justice advocates, saying “we should be working together, not fighting.” The implications of this viewpoint are pretty horrid: that white problems are more important that black problems, that allegiance is “owed”, that racism is a thing of the past in liberal circles. It’s such a glaring case of erasure.
In an ideal world this viewpoint would be correct, though. Yes, we should all be working together, but we should be working together because we are in agreement that all of these issues are intersectional and we need to be working on all of these fronts, including within our own ranks. This in-fight is a sign that even people well versed in social justice can still be blind to issues of social justice. That is what needs to be fixed, not that people in liberal circles are disagreeing with white feminists and need to just quiet down.
Intersectionality should be at the core of any social justice movement, not tacked on as an afterthought.
This shouldn’t be a game of oppression olympics, and this shouldn’t be a game of erasure. I think the way to make the most effective social justice group is to focus on the needs of those in your group least like yourselves and to learn from those that came before you.
Greta Christina gave an excellent talk a few years ago at the Secular Student Alliance entitled “What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement.” I highly encourage everyone to watch the below video, because it talks about movements that are most likely not the movements you are a part of.
The most important part comes towards the end, which I will quote in full here:
And I want to close with one more lesson that the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement…This is a lesson that atheists can learn, not from the successes of the LGBT movement, but from one of our biggest failures — a failure that has come back to bite us in the ass time and again.
Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.
And by now, I mean now. We need to start on this now, so we don’t get set into patterns and vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies that in ten or twenty years will be damn near impossible to fix.
What can we learn here from the LGBT movement? The early LGBT movement screwed this up. Badly.
The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. The public representatives of the movement were mostly gay white men; most organizations were led by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders had some seriously bad race and gender stuff: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.
And we’re paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness, where nothing anybody says is right. And we still, after decades, have a strong tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, iconic representatives of our community.
That makes it hard on everyone in the LGBT movement — women and men, of all races. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. For instance, the LGBT movement has a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black communities… since those communities can claim, entirely fairly, that the gay community doesn’t care about black people, and hasn’t made an effort to deal with our racism.
We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screw ups.
We’re repeating history here, yet again. We have to fix it. Otherwise, the feminism in tech movement will pay the same price that the LGBT movement did, and that the atheist movement is paying now. The first step is to listen when other people in our group are telling us what we did was hurtful.
We have to realize that we are all privileged in some way. If you are reading this, then that means you have access to a computer or phone and access to the internet, which is a form of privilege in and of itself. We are also all unprivileged in some ways too. We are all a combination of privilege and lack of privilege.
We also have to remember that different lack of privilege can manifest and impact different people in different ways. For example, I’m underprivileged by being a bi atheist, but at the same time these are things I can (and sometimes do) hide. It’s not the same if your a woman or black. Black and Latino Americans have to police their own behavior in public for fear of being unfairly ticketed/arrested or even killed by overzealous police, while white women and LGB people don’t. People who are not male are at much greater risk of sexual assault. And on and on.
These different lack of privilege are not necessarily equal, but at the same time they are not on some linear scale of “more” or “less” privilege either. Trying to directly compare who has it better or worse does a disservice to the challenges that different groups face. These differences are multi-faceted in a thousand different dimensions. And of course what about people who fall into two or more of these groups? It’s not “double” the lack of privilege. I feel that trying to determine who has it better or worse only serves to normalize the experiences of vastly different groups. It ignores what makes people unique.
The first step in coming together and working to solve our social issues is to understand and appreciate our differences, not pretend they don’t exist. To acknowledge how different types of privilege have different implications, not erase them under a single banner of social justice (as Arquette did). No, the first thing we have to do is listen.
Jamie Utt wrote a great article on listening as a privileged person, and I urge everyone to go read it. I’ll add on a few thoughts of my own too. Listening is a learned act. It’s not something you can do overnight if you’re not used to it. I’m a much better listener than I was 5 years ago, but I still catch myself jumping to conclusions, only paying attention to the caricature in my head, and so on. We all can be better, and it takes time and effort. We all need to get over ourselves and recognize that pretty much everyone is a terrible listener.
So when you encounter someone you don’t agree with, try and approach it from the perspective of “my interpretation of this person as evil/conniving/dumb/whatever must be based on a misunderstanding.” Assume you are wrong and work from there. Sometimes you won’t find common understanding, but at least you tried, and hopefully learned something in the process. More than likely though, you will have found an ally. A new dimension to social justice. A new way of approaching things. A new way to make the world better.