Many of us grew up learning that it was bad to be “wrong”. In school, we were all graded on whether or not we got the right answer instead of how much we had grown and learned in that year. It’s not surprising then that as adults, we feel ashamed when we are “wrong”, even if being wrong is a key part of learning.
When you try to learn about white privilege, there are a lot of things to take in. You learn that you have benefitted from years of oppression in ways you may have or may have not understood or knew. You learn about struggles you never previously heard about or never even realised were problems. And in this process of knowing, unless you lack any human empathy, there is, understandably, sadness and sometimes shame.
You learn about “white guilt” and why having it isn’t helpful. You learn about the way white people centre their feelings in discussions. Unfortunately, this is the point where many white people make the mistake that not centring their feelings means never dealing with them. And when these feelings are not dealt with, the shame and guilt lingers and festers. We may remember the racially insensitive things we said and did and they sour inside of us.
And then quite often, when we see another white person expressing some of the same ignorant thoughts we once held, that “white guilt” transforms into white rage. On a certain level, it’s understandable. Anger is a natural reaction to feeling powerless and helpless. We do not know what it is to live as a person of colour in our societies, but, when we are faced with the truth, when faced with the reality of how deeply white supremacy has permeated into our society and how little other white people want to admit that… it is hard not to feel helpless to stop it and angry that it exists at all.
So, we take out the anger we have for the things we said and did on people who express the same ignorance we once had. And sometimes, when this ignorance comes with an unwillingness to learn and a willingness to disrupt and derail conversations, that anger is justified and warranted. Sometimes, there are people who will not stop taking up space until you push them out of it and they are not there to learn. But there are other times when the anger is less about the person who is messing up and more about the absolution of the person dragging them.
Flavia Dzodan wrote in 2011 the line often quoted across the internet: “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” initially as a reaction to the use of the n word in Slutwalk protests. Since then, many people have taken it to heart. “Intersectionality” is a term created by Kimberly Crenshaw to discuss how racism and misogyny interact, which she illustrates in her TED talk. This approach to feminism is about keeping in mind how different intersections of oppression combine to create specific frames of oppression and leave people in isolation.
Intersectional feminism is about expanding that lens beyond one focus and realising how not just race and gender affect oppression but also other intersections such as economics, religion and disability affect oppression. Specifically, when it comes to disability, accessibility is a huge issue. If something is not accessible to disabled people, it can’t be intersectional. It therefore stands to reason that any social justice movement has to be intersectional, and therefore accessible, or it is, also, bullshit.
Working with people with a learning disability has transformed my activism and brought me back to intersectionality in a way I didn’t realise I was missing. I have heard and seen way too many basic societal functions be inaccessible to people with a learning disability to believe that “Google it” is the right approach to teach everyone. Not only is the “Google it” approach not appropriate because it involves understanding how to appropriately use a search engine to find what you need (and many people don’t) but it also assumes the Google will yield the right results.
It was my experience with learning disability that made me realise how my autism could impact how I understood people and how frequently this made people believe I was being belligerent and not genuinely confused.
Audre Lorde once said that people in marginalised positions are always expected to educate their oppressors as to their own humanity and that this is a distraction. If that is the case, then the burden falls on white people to educate other white people about racism. And if that burden is ours to bare, as it should be, we need to be prepared to have the hard, long difficult conversations. And we need to be prepared to have them in a way that is accessible for others.
For as much anger as we might feel, we need to cope with it and process it rather than take it out on other white people, particularly on individuals who are genuinely trying to learn. We should be the first people willing to educate other white folks who are asking for help. We do not get to be lazy and tell other white people to Google answers that we never found through any search engine but likely only know because someone had the energy to point us in the right directly. We need to have these mind numbing, exhausting, trying and difficult conversations. We need to explain. We need to have the compassion that someone once likely bestowed upon us.
This doesn’t mean you can never get angry. We’re human. We get tired. We get frustrated, especially when the person who once seemed like they were listening is clearly not listening. But we should be at least willing to take the risk and start that talk. There is a lot of talk about white guilt, which is fair, but not enough talk about white rage. There needs to be more recognition of how damaging it can be for us to take out our guilt on other people and an understanding that those who most likely are going to be caught in the crossfire are people with cognitive processing problems or who are struggling to understand.
Not everyone is a sea lion and, for as many people as I’ve experienced wasting my time and not listening to me, cussing out other white people is not a redemptive act. We have to learn to break the cycle we have been socialised into that encourages us to believe that the only power in the world the power you take from other people. Especially when most of us only come to understand white privilege because someone else taught us.
We all have to start somewhere. And as long as someone is willing to steer, you should be willing to give them a little push.
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