For any movement, group or organization, learning to fight well across the privilege gap means everything about its capacity to develop, as one activist put it, “non-oppressive solidarity.” That is, solidarity that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone falling in line with or giving into the white dude, and, here’s the kicker, even when the ideas he presents have substantive merit. Say what? Sometimes it’s less about what a white dude says, and more about where, how, why, when, in what context and to whom he says it. You know, the structural stuff.
To be clear: I write this as a white dude, pulling from my experience as a white dude who interacts frequently with well-educated white dudes. It also includes experiences of friends and others of the non-dude or non-white variety.
When two white dudes fight, it might seem like this to them:
[for the sake of it, let’s give them British accents, top hats and monocles]
“Objectively speaking, your opinion of Truth lacks basis in rational fact.”
“Indubitably, your divergence from scientific inquiry is highly problematic.”
and to others it might look like this:
[two giant monsters yelling and fighting]
“GROGG SMASH STUPID IDEA!”
“MAWG BIG STICK LEGITIMIZE SMALL EGO!”
Discursive power dynamics manifest in subtle ways. They have a way of insidiously infiltrating and co-opting interactions, and often leaving people at the shit-end of the stick wondering why they feel so exhausted, belittled, unheard, illigitimate. The dyanmics can appear so subtle that perpretrators often dismiss them as “semantics” (a defensive focus on content to ignore the structural fact that they are semantically defending their frame of reference over and against yours…their definitions are “true” and “correct,” yours are “semantic quibbling”).
Compare the following phrases:
- “The problem with microsensitivity is nothing ever gets done” vs “I think microsensitivity is a problem”
Notice the difference? Let’s look at another…
- “You’re right” vs “I agree with you”
Not, “I think you’re right.” But simply, “You are right.” Of course, sometimes it means, “I agree.” But sometimes it really means, “I have access to Absolute Truth, and I hereby declare you correct.” A complete act of hubris, yet so deeply entrenched into our psyches that we take it for granted. Some douchebags (and their mimics) try to come across as authority figures (cue the irony violin!) and ‘educate’ everyone else around them. And sometimes it happens without us trying, and has everything to do with who is talking (down?) to whom, rather than what’s being said. When white men behave like white men while they interact with others, it often feels like this:
[normal sized person]
“I think there’s a racial and patriarchal power dynamic in this space”
[large monster with erect penis pointing menacingly at first speaker]
“INDUBITABLY, YOUR DIVERGENCE FROM SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY IS HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC AND LACKS BASIS IN RATIONAL FACT”
Even when they try to act as allies, and focus subtantively on the ideas and not on the power dynamic, their response can feel like this:
“AS AN ALLY WITH NO LESS THAN THREE WEEKS’ EXPERTISE IN ANTI-OPPRESSION WORK, I HEREBY DECLARE YOU CORRECT IN YOUR OBSERVATION OF OPPRESSIVE POWER DYNAMICS.”
Which is enough to send anyone running confusedly for cover with a big, WTF? smeared across their face. Because it’s a mind-twisting experience: a substantive agreement (he thinks I’m correct!) and a shallow display of “agreement” structurally wrapped up inside the white dude declaring himself the humble arbitrator of Truth and Legitimacy, which then leads everyone else to either accept or reject his “gift” of legitimacy. Sometimes white dudes go further and use this power dynamic to frame and co-opt follow-up work:
“HERE IS FURTHER READING FOR YOU TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ON STRUCTURAL POWER DYNAMICS AND PROVE THAT I AM AWESOME AND PERHAPS EVEN PERFECT.”
“I HAVE A FLAWLESS PLAN TO OBLITERATE SEXISM AND RACISM IN THIS SPACE WITH ERUDITE PRECISION AND ACCURACY. NOW, LET’S LAUNCH INTO BRIEFING…” sure thing, Admiral Ackbar.
So, for this reason, people of color and women and queer folk often seek or carve out “women-only” or “queer-only” or “queer womyn of color-only” spaces as a refuge. Not to say that they don’t fight…they still fight. And substantively it can sometimes look a lot like white manfighting:
[two normal-sized people]
“You’re wrong in that, sis!”
“Oh, yeah, prove it!”
But structurally, it’s often not nearly as traumatic or triggering. Micro-aggressions can wear us down, so that when that well-meaning white dude says to us at the end of a shitty day,
[big dude talking to normal-sized person]
“IT’S JUST SMALL STUFF.” (not to me…and there’s a lot of it)
“YOU JUST HAVE TO BE LESS SENSITIVE.” (so my feelings aren’t legitimate?)
“DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU.” (why are you telling me what to do?)
it’s no wonder that people who ordinarily exercise extraordinary grace and patience and resilience finally snap and say stuff like,
“OH SHUT UP YOU PRETENTIOUS NARCISSISTIC DOUCHEBAG!”
Especially if this is the first time in a while they feel safe expressing themselves, or things have just gotten so bad, they’ve stoicly endured so many degrading provocations, that their suppressed need to defend and express themselves finally outweighs their need to survive in a hostile world.
[big man above turns pouty]
“…how am i narcissistic for offering her solutions?”
Because, good sir, you assume your “solutions” are based in a Legitimate Reality that maps directly onto her life experience as helpful and useful, because You Say So. And it often doesn’t map, and they often aren’t helpful. And even when it does map and they are helpful, stop fucking assuming so. Because it means you aren’t shutting up and you aren’t listening, and if you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning and relating. You’re just projecting and imposing shit on others.
Sometimes solidarity looks more like:
“Hey, how was your day?” (genuine curiosity)
“That sucks, what happened?” (genuine empathy with genuine curiosity)
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Ok, well, I’m hear to listen if you want to vent.”
“let me know how I can help. what do you want to do now?” (sometimes, no one knows)
You know, listening and accepting and offering support on *their* terms, not *yours.*
White men and people of privilege generally have extra work to do to put themselves on an equal level with others. We have trust and respect to earn. And that’s the way it should be — because that’s the way it works with everyone else who doesn’t have access to our privilege. And it can take a long time to acheive that trust and respect. Sometimes it never happens. Sorry, dudes — blame the racial patriarchy, not the people struggling through it.
On the flip side of that extra effort, white men are also often not used to being held to account for our microaggressive trespasses. To us, someone holding us to account for something feels like an “attack,” which means we get defensive, we shut down, go on autopilot, puff out our chests, bully our way through the conversation and don’t hear important feedback about the feelings and concerns or constructive suggestions of others:
“i need you to be more collaborative and less condescending if you want to be my ally”
“WHY DO YOU HATE ME?” (translation: “why do i feel so horrible?” Because this stupid patriarchal society coddled and emotionally babied you up to this point, and you’re not used to a real interaction)
or one of my personal favorites:
“i need you to take responsibility for hurting others”
“FINE, I GET IT, IT’S ALL MY FAULT! GEEZ.”
and just like that, it’s all about him. All about how *he* feels hurt as a result of someone expressing how something he did hurt them, a result of asking him to behave differently in the future. All because we’ve been trained and socialized from birth to confuse difficult conversations with personal and even physical attacks. It’s an accountability shield, and when we follow him down that path, it makes his feelings more important to deal with than everyone else’s, which means others have no “legitimate” feelings about their experience with interpersonal power dynamics, let alone the space to air them. Hence the creation of spaces free of white men. We all bring enough internalized crap into the room with us — sometimes it’s just too much to have to deal with the external onslaught at the same time. So it’s nice to have spaces where people don’t have to put up with at least some of that external privileged hostility for some of the time.
[large spectacled white man]
“WHOA, WHY SO ANGRY, M’DEAR? JUST DISCUSS THE IDEAS AND AVOID PERSONAL ATTACKS, PLZ”
[translation: just accept what i have to say, how i say it and never try to hold me accountable when i talk down to you]
“NOW, AS I WAS ‘SPLAINING, YOUR ANALYSIS OF RADICAL QUEER FEMINIST THOUGHT SEEMS TO LACK CONSIDERATION OF THREE CRITICAL COMPONENTS…”
It’s hard to get into this stuff, because it means questioning whether so many of the people we want to consider “allies” really have the capacity to build solidarity. This disruptive behavior does not result from innocent ignorance. When women or people of color offer their precious time and energy and vulnerability to give us an insider perspective into their experience, do we listen, accept, learn, probe, identify, develop, relate, transform? Or do we dispute, dismiss, correct, command, reject, belittle, delegitimize, reframe? Ultimately, it’s not about the the topic or even individual incidents of trespass, but about someone’s ability to demonstrate courageous vulnerability and abandon their implicit allegiance to white male supremacy. Someone’s ability to trust another, especially when it’s uncomfortable to do so and a slap in the face of their fragile ego. And until someone can demonstrate that acceptance, then it’s hard to imagine them doing anything other than undermining a liberation movement from without or within.
“There’s this post-modern obsession with this notion of ‘allies’ — ‘how do i be a good ally?’ The great Ruby Sales says, “We don’t need allies…allies, y’all can check in and out. ‘It’s not my struggle, i need to wait for my leadership…’ We need freedom fighters. The difference between ‘ally’ and ‘freedom fighter’ is you’re willing to put your body on the line. You’ve got blood in the game. Are you willing to put your body on the line, because you understand that you have something spiritually at stake — that your soul is in jeopardy because of racism, that it does something to your humanity, that you are less human…the white folks I trust are the ones I’ve been to jail with…” — Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
When someone who wants to be an “ally” puts their body on the line, then they move past shallow “allyship” into the realm of developing solidarity. When we’re willing to put ourselves on the line, little (but important) constructive critiques of oppressive interactional dynamics don’t alienate or drive us away. Instead, they challenge us, exercise us, build us up, make us stronger in the same way we exercise our bodies to become better, stronger people. Ever been a bit sore after a good workout? No pain, no gain — and after the soreness subsides, you’re stronger, faster. The same workout gets easier.
White men who want “solidarity” without pain and mutual struggle do not want solidarity — they want appeasement. And they’re not only fragile, they’re lazy. Let’s face it: Closeted white male supremacy hasn’t infiltrated liberalism and progressivism. It IS liberalism and progressivism. A left-leaning articulate, well-educated white male can rationalize his way into a paper sack and call it Kingdom Come, with almost limitless capacity for self-delusion. Perhaps this explains why I most often see microaggressions coming from the well-to-do…
the folks that can actually speak to the white working class (namely radical white working class people) are few and far between, and that many are actively silenced and ridiculed for their backgrounds by affluent white organizers. While much has been done to point out the inherently racist issues that plague many progressive and radical organizations, almost nothing has been done to point out the inherent classism that runs rampant on the left. — Dave Strano, http://libcom.org/library/rednecks-guns-other-anti-racist-stories-strategies
I did not write this post to tiptoe around while looking for “potential allies.” I did not write this post to appease fragile, well-educated white male egoes. I realize it will offend some — perhaps many — white people (men, especially). I look for people who can read my use of “douchebag” as both self-critical and light-hearted. I look for people who can do more than agree with me — people who can also see how this essay might apply to them. I have yet to see any amount of education instill this ethic in someone. I’ve only seen the opposite: in the absence of this ethic, “education” only serves to further undermine our capacity to connect and build solidarity while enhancing our capacity for socially (self)destructive behavior. On the other hand, I have also seen education amplify and empower the ethic in many people who take it with them into the education process.
This essay serves for me as a reminder of the need to set firm boundaries wherever possible and shit-can (compost) people from my life who continuously manifest and do the work of the very systems and institutions I seek to destroy. It’s not anyone’s responsibility to educate anyone on this stuff, either. Even when it’s one white dude talking (down?) to another white dude…sometimes the dude-in-question just doesn’t want to listen, no matter how knowledgable, experienced and articulate and sensitive and careful the other person might be. No matter the presence of penis and absence of melanin. And if someone doesn’t want to listen and learn, then they need to go away and do some more fundamental work. We can (and probably should) tell him that, and he (probably) won’t listen. We can, however, set the boundary, and expect him to call us all sorts of “feminazi reverse-racist discriminator killjoys” for not allowing his subtle (sometimes whiny) rampage to go unchecked. Often times, a white dude would rather be a white dude than a traitor to his white male supremacist identities. In such cases, the boundary we set, as our last desperate act of tough love, is the only thing that will get them to seriously consider the previous feedback we’ve given them. And if not…then it’s even more evidence in support of setting the boundary in the first place.
Setting such boundaries has offensive as well as defensive potential:
“The task is not to win over more whites to oppose ‘racism;’ there are ‘anti-racists’ enough already to do the job. The task is to gather together a minority determined to make it impossible for anyone to be white. It is a strategy of creative provocation” (Noel Ignatiev, http://racetraitor.org/abolishthepoint.html)
White men who openly refuse to identify with and support whiteness and masculinity as others publicly manifest it start to chip away at the social constructs of white male supremacies. It confuses and complicates the process of social control, makes collusion with oppression more difficult, because members of the establishment can no longer assume “ally” or “enemy” of us based on physical appearance. This does not, however, mean adopting a form of neo-blackface privileged mockery of black identity. When we abandon white masculinity, the allegiances and identities we embrace will constitute and carve out new, alien spaces replacing traditional and false “male v female” and “black v white” dichotomies. And the establishment will do everything it can to suck us back into those dichotomies.
How do we tell people who have capacity to build solidarity apart from the others? Growth is often tedious and painful for everyone involved, but we should see initiative, sensitivity, and clear progress over time in developing solidarity. So when we point out that someone is talking an awful lot, interrupting or talking over or down to others, do we see them becoming increasingly sensitive to this, and do we see behavioral change over time? Or does the person deny, justify and argue, ad nauseum, over and over again, treating each moment in the pattern of abuse like an isolated incident? Do we feel increasingly energized and hopeful around him, or do we feel (more, or less) drained, exhausted, depressed, fearful, fight-or-flighty?
A collaborative behavioral framework has begun to emerge from my positive and negative experiences — a list of interlocking behaviors that I think help make solidarity easier (though not necessarily easy) for everyone:
- Check your assumptions before acting on them
- Listen actively and seek to understand
- WAIT: Why Am I Talking? (how frequently/much do you talk? this is a big one for me, in case you couldn’t tell…i’m a talker!) Better yet, leave empty space for others to walk into and fill. And if someone doesn’t every time, that’s OK. Just keep leaving it empty.
- HAIT: How Am I Talking? Do i frame my opinions and perspectives and experiences as Truth and Reality? Or do I take a humble stance and admit these are my experiences, observations, agreements/disagreements, etc?
- Ask how others feel about something, and give ample space to see where they stand. In other words, ask with genuine curiosity, not intent to dispute or argue. And just let it sit.
- It’s not all about you: when someone says something you don’t want to hear, swallow your pride and question your feelings of defensiveness first, THEN seek clarity, THEN give yourself time to mull it over, THEN re-engage as necessary.
- Take initiative to educate yourself on the things that others find important. Don’t make them do your research for you, don’t make them recite articles to you or “prove” anything to you. That’s exhausting and fucked up. And if they do such a thing, acknowledge it and express genuine appreciation.
- Get right with yourself, so you don’t use activist spaces as stages to prove how cool and together and badass you are and how much you know and how “good an ally” you are. Otherwise you are co-opting space for something that’s bigger than you simply to massage your fragile ego. Learn to love yourself and interact with the world from the basis of that love. People who genuinely love themselves can hear difficult feedback and consider it and integrate it without arguing. They can learn and grow. They can tell the difference between uncomfortable accountability and assault. And I’m tired of explaining the difference to douchebags who conflate the two (which, apart from being an accountability shield, also belittles the actual, much more egregious assaults that women and people of color and others face on a daily basis…do you really want to equate your feeling hurt with the rape and murder of others?):
“Someone assaulted me today…I feel unclean…”
“YEAH, I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL. SOMEOME TRIED TO TELL ME I WAS INTERRUPTING AND TALKING OVER THEM AND ACTING DEFENSIVE AND GETTING AGGRESSIVE, BUT I CONVINCED THEM THEY WERE WRONG. IT REALLY HURT, THOUGH.”
These collaborative behaviors do not represent a solution to the question of solidarity amidst microaggression. “Haters gonna hate.” But they do help us identify behavioral patterns conducive to solidarity as well as more problematic behaviors. So where do I draw the line? This part seems the trickiest for me. I don’t know. My default behavior tends toward assuming good intentions and then holding on through discussion as long as possible until I feel completely worn and beaten down, or that continued interaction with someone seems both harmful and a waste of my energy. Sometimes I see results. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I stay patient. Sometimes I “other” the dude, even as I recognize behaviors that remind me of ways I used to behave (and sometimes still do). Often times I feel my assumption of good intentions as a form of vulnerability that leads toward disappointment and pain. And sometimes it leads to uplifting experiences and new relationships.
Some people tell me not to draw a line. They say, “always practice compassion and patience and love toward everyone.” Strong people do not need lines, they tell me. But I think boundaries serve as an example of “tough love,” a reminder to me that love comes in many forms, and whether or not a behavior actually represents “love” depends entirely on context. For example, does a tender hug demonstrate love? What if I tenderly hug someone who wants space from me? Is criticism love? What if all I ever do is support that person, and the one time I finally speak out critically it’s from a place of genuine concern because I see them acting in ways that threaten themselves and sabotage their relationships? Where, when and how do you draw the line?
A patriarchal society often considers a lot of collaborative attitudes and behaviors as “feminine,” and for a lot of men, the road to anti-oppressive solidarity lies in personal work to stop performing an internalized patriarchal masculinity identity that prevents us from behaving in courageously vulnerable and collaborative ways. We gain access to more when we publicly and privately abandon and oppose whiteness. But the hard work opens up infinite possibilities for relationships and learning and life experiences. In other words, there’s a huge personal (let alone social) payoff for the white men who want to do it. And for the rest…meh, maybe movements are better off without them until they decide to change their tune?