Recently there were a few days when I was constantly involved in at least one argument with at least one white man at a time on Facebook. The arguments were about whether the Charlottesville white supremacists should be protected as free speech by the first amendment, and whether Tina Fey’s “sheet caking” sketch missed the mark. Because I know you’re wondering, here are my very brief opinions on those things:
1.) Fuck protecting hate speech. It’s violent in nature and acts as an incitement to violence, and we end up protecting the people threatening marginalized communities without protecting marginalized communities themselves. That said, I do recognize that this issue is much more complicated than I’m making it out to be here, and there are real, important, ongoing discussions to be had about it.
2.) On Tina Fey: People were hurt by the sketch, period. I have heard from several black men and women that they found it offensive and hurtful. Everyone I’ve seen arguing in defense of it are white people. And no, it’s not that people just aren’t smart enough to get the joke, you arrogant asshole, it’s because the satire in this case was not effective. If Tina was, in fact, making fun of the white people who sit on their couches eating cake instead of taking action (and frankly I’m not convinced that’s what she was doing. I think she was just expressing the very relatable emotion of feeling overwhelmed and depressed and wanting to eat cake because we don’t know what to do, and I wish she would have done that without encouraging people not to show up and letting nazis yell into the empty air or whatever it was she said), it didn’t land. IT HURT PEOPLE. Goddamn it white people, just LISTEN. Why are we so determined not to hear other voices?
While more than one of the men I was arguing with said, “This is why I don’t engage in these discussions on social media” or “facebook isn’t the place for these conversations” when things got confrontational or difficult, I respectfully disagree. I do agree that engaging with trolls is counterproductive, and that maintaining our sanity and perspective on what’s important (like the people around us) matters. For me, that means taking breaks from social media when I need to. And I do respect others’ decision not to engage online. Now, if you are thinking “I’m just not a political person,” perhaps you should consider fucking off,* because that is some bullshit I’m not going to get into right now.
When it comes to political discussions/arguments, online is often where they happen. We have to learn how to have these discussions in an online setting, because that is how most of us interact. People love to say the internet isn’t real life, but as I once heard my hero Ijeoma Oluo say, online interactions ARE real interactions. This IS real life, people. Sure, it’d be ideal to get together over beers, but that simply isn’t an option most of the time. In fact, only one of the men I was arguing with online even lives in the same state I do. We have to learn how to have a productive discussion online without forgetting each other’s humanity. This means being civil, but not fragile. And to be fair, that is fucking difficult.
I’d like to focus for now on the fragility part. It is painful and difficult to hear people’s outrage, especially when it is directed at you because of something you said. I do think these conversations would be more productive if people were civil and friendly, because it’s easier for all humans to respond to that kind of communication, but I also think we need to hear people’s outrage. We need to hear people’s pain. We need to recognize that the pain being expressed is due to generations of injustice. I know it’s difficult. Trust me, I have often felt defensive or angry as a first response. We are humans, and it takes a very conscious effort to hear other people when they aren’t necessarily being “nice” to us. It’s OK to make mistakes with this. It’s not OK to shut down and stop trying, and it’s not OK to tell people to stop being so angry. But also, what an amazing opportunity to learn and grow, if we can move through and ultimately beyond our own fragility. It’s liberating and beautiful. Which is NOT to say that I’ve moved through all of my own fragility and now I’m on the other side. Ohhhh noooo. Not even close. I’m working on it, and will always be working on it. But I have had a couple instances in which I was able to hear difficult feedback, process it, feel shitty, and ultimately learn from it and move forward. I have also had instances in which people were more interested in activism oneupmanship and proving they were more “woke” than me because of some question I asked than having a real conversation, and that is a different thing than being called out for saying something problematic. Having a safe space to ask questions is important. Find that space, but if you’re a white person, make sure you’re not putting the burden on the shoulders of people of color to educate you if you’re trying to figure some shit out. Let me reiterate: SAFE SPACES TO ASK QUESTIONS ARE VITAL. We are not all in the same place with this stuff. We all have things to learn. We need to embrace each other where we are and help each other move forward. Activism oneupmanship is not helpful. And while I know I am angry and loud in this post, I hope it doesn’t come across as oneupmanship. I am not better than anyone else in any place on this road.
In my previous post I said that I understand why most white people don’t engage in discussions about racism or examine their own biases, privilege, etc. And I do understand. It’s painful and exhausting and scary. It is also lonely as fuck. Taking a stand and committing to working toward being an anti-racist white person means you, white person, will likely alienate other white people and possibly lose relationships. This is what I kept thinking about while arguing with some of my white male friends.
We have been taught, after all, that colorblindness is the goal, that everyone just needs to be “nice” to each other, and that real racism means burning crosses and white hoods. White people prefer to keep the conversation pleasant. We say things like, “Let’s not talk about politics,” because the LAST thing we would want is for anyone to feel uncomfortable. (Also, almost everything worth talking about is political!) I can’t tell you how many times people in my family have rolled their eyes at me for pointing out what I see as casual sexism, racism, or homophobia, how many times I’ve heard, “Jen, I think you might be over-reacting,” or “Jen, I think you’re over-thinking this one.” This is a go-to for people who want to shut down a potentially uncomfortable conversation or just plain shut me down. “Oh, that’s just Jen being over-sensitive again.” I get it. It’s easier and more comfortable. But keep this in mind: Not everyone has the choice to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
The further down this road I go, the lonelier it becomes. Many of my friends and family will continue cringing or rolling their eyes at the things I care deeply about. I will be seen as a downer. A burden. Too intense. Too challenging. Just plain too much. These well-intentioned people will continue to talk about how we all just need to love each other or how love trumps hate or how people should just “live their best lives” (never say this to me). And here’s one of the reasons that shit pisses me off: I AM FULL OF LOVE, MOTHERFUCKERS. Why do you think I’m writing about and thinking about this shit all the time? I am full of love. I’m a flawed human being trying to be better. Please don’t tell people who are angry and outraged that they just need to be loving, or peaceful. THE ANGER AND OUTRAGE COME FROM LOVE FOR OUR FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS. Talking about how fucked up things are and what we can do about it is one of the ways I express my love. I ALSO LIKE HUGS.
I must admit it is a tempting proposition to live a life of easy conversations like so many white people do (because they can). And believe me, there have been many a time when I have let problematic comments slide because I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s fun or “good vibes.” While it may not seem like it here in this safe space I’ve created for me to rant at the faceless interwebs, I am naturally a people-pleaser. I long for and thrive on human connection, and I want to be liked and loved. But I can’t look the other way, even if it means not being liked or loved. I can’t stop talking about and thinking about injustice and oppression and the part I play in it and what I can be doing and how I should be doing more. It’s maddening, to tell you the truth. I’m in pain a lot of the time (which is also largely due to severe depression and anxiety). But I believe that to be a white person in this world means I have a responsibility to give a shit. Not to mention the fact that my pain is nothing compared to the actual oppression people deal with every.single.day.
This may mean letting go of relationships with people I care about, which is heartbreaking. But to others who may be struggling with this, I will tell you what I told my mom the other day (she’s feeling the weight of racial injustice these days, and it’s causing her pain, and I’m proud of her): FIND YOUR PEOPLE. Join groups committed to racial justice. Go to Black Lives Matter events. Follow people of color on Facebook who have been in this fight forever. Listen to them. Meet and join people of color and follow their lead. Find the other white people who give a shit. You will sink if you carry this around alone and you’re surrounded by people who don’t believe you or don’t think systemic racism and oppression are a problem we can do anything about, or don’t think it’s a problem at all. Because sadly, that is often what it means to be a white person working to be anti-racist. It means realizing many of our own people will not be joining us. The good news is that it also means finding new and energizing relationships with people who see the problem and want to be part of a solution.
Find your people. Don’t back down. Speak up. You are not a burden.
*I’m kidding, I’m kidding. But seriously, if you say that shit you should think about not saying it anymore.
Image from wikipedia.