When Civility Becomes Complicity
It’s the “you can’t sit with us” heard ‘round the world. As the Trump Administration brazenly tears families apart, detains them, then deports them often to their deaths, the public is beginning to respond in any small way they can that these policies — and the people who enact them — will not be tolerated.
Last Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen was met with protest when she attempted to dine at a Mexican restaurant. Later that week, the owner of a Virginia restaurant asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave at the request of her staff, some of whom identify as gay. These events combined have reignited calls from many white liberals to rise above the shameful actions of the Trump Administration and allow them to eat in peace. This has left many wondering how much they’re expected to tolerate for the sake of being the bigger person and that maybe all this civility is not the answer.
- When someone tells you who they are, believe them. This administration has been blatant in its disdain for immigrants of color and has actively enacted policies that threaten their lives. If you are a person of color living in this country, it is rational to be afraid of members of the administration and its supporters and to want them to keep their distance because they pose a real threat to your livelihood. For example, in May, ICE agents enjoyed a breakfast in a Michigan restaurant before detaining three of the kitchen workers. Asking members of this administration to leave a restaurant is not only an act of resistance, but also self-defense.
- There is not a single strategy that will end this. The most common reason people call for civility is out of fear that anything less will further alienate potential allies in this fight — if they get kicked out of restaurants, they won’t come to the table. There’s a couple problems with this logic. The first is that anyone who doesn’t understand the difference between denying marginalized groups the rights to which they’re entitled and publicly shaming voluntary members of an oppressive regime will continue to be hateful and bigoted regardless of whether or not we let them sit through a meal. Second, stop assuming that you’re the first person to pitch the “hey, have we thought about politely asking them to cut the bullshit?” idea. You’re not. We have. It didn’t work.
- Oppression has never been defeated with civility. I’ll blame this on our public school system, because when teachers finally get to black history each February, they tell stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. who kindly and quietly asked for basic rights for black people and were immediately awarded them. This is not how that worked. That’s not how any of this works. From the Arab Spring to the Civil Rights Movement to the Apartheid Movement to the American Revolution, freedom has never been achieved with nonviolence alone, but rather with acts of disobedience, rule breaking, shouting, and yes, violent protest.
- Civility is a tool of white supremacy. Angela Davis was once asked if she “approved of violence” in the context of her role in the Black Panther Party. She responded by stating that anyone who asks a black person that question is ignorant of the violence that has been wreaked on black people since the first person was kidnapped off the shores of Africa. Indeed, white Americans have a long and fraught history of inflicting violence on minority groups in an effort to solidify our power. But violence alone cannot achieve supremacy. It also requires those who witness this violence to ask its victims to continue to bear it in silence, thus maintaining the peace and order the white majority enjoys.
At this point, maybe you’re still wondering what’s so wrong with asking people to be nice to each other. It’s not what you’re asking but who you’re asking. My challenge to everyone who so desperately wants civility is to ask yourself why. What is the worst possible outcome of the Trump Administration having to order in from now on? What are the consequences for people feeling shame again for supporting and enacting racist and dangerous policies? And finally, do those consequences represent an actual threat to those who are the most marginalized or rather to your own sense of security and order?