Whoa. When I put together that post – which, let’s be honest, the original intended audience was like ten very earnest white ladies who occasionally buy me mimosas and pumpkin spice lattes – I had no idea what was about to happen. Let’s just say a) I’m a little blown away; b) my blog stats are 100% fucked forever; and c) I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on what I left out, why I left it out, and exactly how many people are ready to crawl up in someone’s DMs and lambaste them for leaving nuance out of a 101-level post. So let’s grit our teeth and dive back in at a more nuanced level. For those of you who are just getting up to speed here, some of this stuff may be frustrating or not make a lot of sense yet, but I can just about guarantee you an AHA! moment with all of it at some point in the future. I’m still focusing on the able-bodied white ladies, because that’s the most significant data sampling I have, (plus, like, I am one?) so bear with me. You’re smart enough to extrapolate these lessons to your particular situation, or to leverage them for the well-meaning white ladies in your life. Comments will remain on until the first dude pops up and makes a damn fool of himself (non-fool dudes, you are of course welcome).
Well hello there! I see you! With your Ta-Nehisi Coates and your bell hooks and your super-diverse Twitter feed (has Taye Diggs followed you back yet?). You’ve got five or ten POC that actually speak back to you on a regular basis, you’ve got a grounding in social justice vocabulary and theory, dudes are starting to ask why you’re such a bitch now, and basically you are one woke-ass white lady.
Hang on. Wait.
What did you just say? Yeah. I get it. Black people are super cool and you want to be part of that in-crowd. But that doesn’t mean that you just get to adopt dialect and mannerisms, there, Ms. Dolezal. You’re not “woke.” And every time a cis white woman says “YAASS, QUEEN” Beyonce’s baseball bat hand starts to itch.
My last post was about how not to make a damn fool of yourself while you figure out what you’re doing here; this one’s going to dive into the ways you’re about to make a damn fool of yourself when you think you know what you’re doing. Because, my well-meaning friend, you’re not done learning just because you’ve unpacked the surface layer of your privilege. I’m for sure not done. Again, this is pretty much all shit that I’ve screwed up, so don’t think I’m holding myself up as a shining example of How To Feminist. Basically I exist so that you all can learn from my fuckups.
For ease in talking about these things in your anarchist knitting circle, let’s stick to the numbered format.
Lesson one: Some things are not, and never will be, for you, no matter how much you love them.
By now you probably know enough not to dress up as “slutty Indian Chief” for Halloween, and you would never, ever wear blackface. But what about cornrows? They look so cool, and it seems like a way to keep your hair neat and tidy for days on end. And you know a friend who’s really great at braiding hair. Sorry. That’s still cultural appropriation.
Appropriation is not cool. And you can do it almost unconsciously, because as human beings we like to adopt traits that we perceive as being “part of the in group” or we emulate mannerisms of people we admire. Also it can be pretty fantastic when you hear a term for a thing that you didn’t know had a pithy descriptor, like #squadgoals or basic. But doing these things, and doubling down on your “right” to do these things, makes you a jerk in two major ways:
First, it’s really shitty to the actual marginalized groups who are just trying to live. It’s a reminder that you can be them with no consequences, but they can’t even be themselves. One easy rule of thumb is: are there living people who are looked down on as “backward” or “uneducated” based on looking or talking the way I’m about to make myself look or talk? Am I just taking something that a marginalized person has had to fight for all their life and is justifiably proud to be able to wear or do? In a world where Black women’s hairstyles can be a matter of getting a job or not, do you really need those dreadlocks or cornrows?
Second, you’ve probably got the nuance of it wrong anyway and you look stupid.
This is not the time to bring up “what if I dress as a Viking?” First off, viking is a verb. Second, there are no medieval Norse dudes being denied jobs because of their kickass beards and wickelbander.
Lesson two: stuff you should definitely not say, even though you have the best possible intentions.
I’m not just talking about using AAVE or that new slang term you picked up on Twitter (although don’t). I’m talking about the thing you’re definitely going to think of saying in that intersectional feminist group you didn’t flounce out of when your feelings got hurt because you got over yourself and apologized.
“I don’t see color, I just see people.” Great, that’s great for you. You know who doesn’t have that luxury? People of color. See, the actual fact is that people are treated differently because of their race. When you say that you “don’t see color” what you’re actually doing is denying and ignoring whole swaths of their lived experience (we talked about this, right? believe people.). I know, y’all. I was raised with Mr. Rogers and “we’re all the same on the inside” and “prick me, do I not bleed?” too. But it’s not helpful to the dialog we need to be having about race.
“We need to come together. Why are you being divisive?” Unity can be a serious silencing tactic: by insisting that a group speak with “one voice” you run a major risk of that voice being us loud white people. And if you think about it, no really, think for a minute: is identifying an existing divide so that it can be bridged the same thing as being divisive? No. It’s not. If you want unity, you change. Don’t demand that marginalized people come to you. (See also: why I don’t feel like reaching out to Trump voters to bring the country together on their side of the fucking line.)
“I’m on your side!” Don’t say it. Prove it. Either be on someone’s side or don’t. In fact, if you find yourself about to say this, I’m going to hypothesize that someone has actually just told you that you’re not on their side. Either move your position or don’t, but don’t tell someone you’re on their side when you just proved you weren’t. They’re not going to be impressed.
“But all people experience…” No. No no no. This is some #alllivesmatter shit. It sounds good. But if all lives mattered the same amount and in the same way, we wouldn’t need to say #blacklivesmatter. This also comes back to trusting people on their lived experience, and to if it’s not about you don’t make it about you. Stop trying to drag the conversation back to broad, unhelpful generalizations, and take a hard look at what it is about the original statement that’s making you defensive and uncomfortable. Sit with your discomfort. Do the work.
Don’t pick a fight over the names of things. Racism doesn’t have to be called “racialized tension and prejudice” even though it would have made you more comfortable as a baby intersectional feminist. You sucked it up and learned and so can whoever you’re worried about – or you can just take them aside and explain the damn thing. Don’t come into an established space with established vocabulary and try to push that 101-level-reset button by bringing the fight back to what things are called rather than what to do about them.
Lesson three: the burden of education. This one’s personal, of course, because it’s the thing I’m literally (literarily?) writing about. And it highlights a thing I didn’t do super well in the last post (because, again, intended vs actual audience, holy crap).
As a 201-level feministy type person, you are gonna see a lot of floundering brand new feminists. And that’s great, isn’t it? Well, kinda. Because they’re stumbling around putting their feet in their mouths and with the best of intentions (oh, you cringe a little there, right? you can see you in them?) hurting people. So let’s talk about the two things you shouldn’t do and one thing you should.
I know you’re dealing with a lot and the world is awful and you’re marginalized on some axes. Maybe you’re working three jobs and wondering if that’s going to pay the rent. Maybe you’re trans. Maybe you’re queer (y’all as a nonhetero human I hate the word queer so much I really think it’s automatically othering but the other option seems to be alphabet soup right now) or you’re disabled. BUT. People with fewer axes of marginalization have more energy. And energy can translate directly to patience, or at least the ability to explain one more time that Becky is not a racist slur; being called Becky has never resulted in someone losing employment or housing. If you have that energy, use it to call in. Definitely don’t use it to tone-police how others call that person out.
Don’t put the burden of education on marginalized people. Look, marginalized people can spend basically their entire life having to explain and justify their existence in very simple, kind terms to their oppressors. Maybe it’s your nonbinary cousin patiently telling Grandma once again that they really would prefer a different pronoun. Maybe it’s one more black woman having to tone her reaction and presentation way, way down at work to avoid the “angry black woman” stereotype, and then being told in your feminist group that she should “just lean in.” Whatever it is, they don’t need to spend time and energy explaining what they already know one more time (but if they do, and you can compensate them for it, do that, because you will not get a free master class in race theory like that any time soon.)
But, and this is a thing I didn’t do super well yesterday, center the voices of marginalized people as you help with the 101-level education. Who noticed I only had white male authors in the privilege section? Another thing I did poorly was making sweeping statements without sourcing them. As a white person (and to a certain extent if you’re a white-presenting person of color) I don’t have personal experience with many of the things that new intersectional feminists need to know. One way to do this is that when you use links for education, try to make sure that the author is from the relevant community. Another way is to say “what I hear from my friends in the relevant community is…” So, what I hear from my friends of color is that they’d appreciate it if white women took on some of the 101-level work and freed them up to do more, but that we still need to be centering and uplifting their voices rather than holding ourselves up as some kind of authority on the subject. We’ll never be as good at it as someone with personal experience.
Lesson four: the utility of shame.
This one’s going to be controversial, I know. And some of the reason for that is going to be that I’m deliberately using the word “shame” in its most colloquial sense. There is a whole nuanced discussion to be had on “shame” vs “guilt” vs “discomfort.” This is not the place for that; what I’m addressing in this section is the proliferation of “shaming her for doing racist things won’t change her” comments I’m seeing as more white women Kool-Aid Man their way into intersectional feminist groups.
If you’ve already processed the shame vs guilt discussion, you know that what we’re really talking about here is not “shaming” but “actions which are designed to induce guilt” – bear with me, because I’m gonna use “shame” instead. It’s the word that’s getting thrown around, so it’s the word I need to address.
OK, deep breath. Here we go.
Not everything that’s bad can, or should, be illegal. Not all of the ways people hurt other people should be subject to the judicial system. So how does society inoculate itself against harmful but technically legal actions? By making people feel bad for doing them.
Let me repeat that for the cheap seats: when you do a bad thing, even inadvertently, you should feel bad. (Now go actually watch that Brene Brown video up there and understand that ideally you should feel guilt for doing a bad thing and not shame for being a bad person. But that’s not the problem of the person calling you out.)
If you do a racist thing and you don’t feel bad, it’s because either you’re a bad person or you have no idea the thing you just did was racist. You’re here and still reading, some 2,200 words later, so I’m going to assume you’re not a bad person. But now it’s society’s job to apply cultural pressure to make you feel bad so that you won’t do it again. It’s useful pain, like touching something hot, getting burned, and then knowing not to touch the hot thing. Real shaming is about making the person feel bad for being who and what they are, not about telling them that they did a bad and hurtful thing.
Now, here’s the point in the conversation where calling out starts to resemble shaming, so pay attention. The person being called out, instead of feeling bad about the act (remember, this is how society protects itself from bad acts: by making them painful to the actor as well as the victim), thinks “well, that person must have just misunderstood. I’m a good person!” and starts to dig an even deeper hole for themself. Tension and tone escalate. Bad feelings everywhere, from legitimate injury to petulant tears.
So what do you do when you or someone you know has that bad feeling?
(Remember how I said up there that we should try to center other voices in our explanations? this one’s from Serena, a WOC living in my home state.) “[W]hen you are being called out there is a reaaaaaaaaaally high chance you are wrong. Before exposing more and more of your shitty thought process, it might be a good idea to go do some reading or ask a trusted friend who cares about you (preferably a white ally because people of color are really tired) what you did. Being called out is not a time for a debate. It’s a time for introspection, and when you have something new and intelligent to say, resume the conversation. Why is this a good strategy? Because you didn’t know why the original thing was so offensive in the first place. That’s a sign you are in over your head. Don’t cause more pain after this moment if you can avoid it.”
Lesson five: you can’t bake your own ally cookies.
This lesson really came to the forefront in The Great Safety Pin Debate of 2016. Yes, those are all separate links. Yes, they’re only to one side of the debate. Yes, I’m aware that one time when you were [in an elevator/on the bus/shopping] a [POC/gay man/trans teen] came up to you and told you that they appreciated you wearing the thing. But some of the most egregious, racist, non-ally doubling-down I’ve ever seen has come from people with a safety pin as their profile picture. And here’s the thing: they genuinely believe that they’re good allies. That they’re not racist or homophobic, and that they’re a person who can be trusted by marginalized people.
See, this is what happens when nonmarginalized communities decide how to help marginalized communities without asking that community what it needs or making sure there are vocal members of the community at the table. Cis het able-bodied white people aren’t the best equipped to decide what’s a meaningful gesture of support, and they’re not the best equipped to determine if they’re being good allies.
Again, for the cheap seats: You don’t get to determine whether you’re an ally to a community. Ever hear the term “feminist to fuck“? Now, don’t say “I’m not an ally until you decide I am” because that puts the burden back on the community to re-examine every single nonmember and hash out some kind of determination (remember last time we said communities aren’t monoliths? yeah, probably everybody can find someone who’ll say they’re doing ok). “I want to be an ally” and “I’m trying to be the best ally I can” will get you pretty close to where you want to be.
Back to the safety pins for a second. Boy oh boy were some white people pissed when POC told them the pin was meaningless. I could pull quotes from Facebook all day, but you’ve probably seen them yourself. Here’s part of why these conversations went so poorly: “Allies” decided on a gesture of allyship without consulting the people they were supposedly allying with, demanded thanks for the gesture that hadn’t been asked for in the first place, ignored repeated suggestions about what would be actually helpful, and then got pissed when the thanks wasn’t forthcoming.
I gotta tell you, it feels fucking great when you get ally cookies. When a person in a marginalized community thanks you for your work. I was creeping my own FB yesterday and saw that a Black woman had linked my post to a white one like “read this and then we can talk real talk” and you guys that was such a good feeling. Heck, I got an actual ally muffin once. It had blueberries.
Tell you something else, it can feel real bad when you fuck that up (see above, shame). And it can seem exhausting to be told one thing and then the other. What’s the “right way” to support Black Lives Matter? Should I come march? Wear a shirt? Send money? As a white person, do I have the right to stand physically in that crowd or not? You’ll find yes and no answers to all those questions, depending on who you ask (once more for the cheap seats, communities aren’t monolithic). And no matter what you do, it seems like some people will thank you and some won’t.
That’s not, of course, license for you to decide what’s best; it’s advice to listen to the people you’re supposedly an ally of, when they’re telling you what they need. If you’re thinking of going to a local #BLM march, contact your local group, don’t just poll the Internet. Do they ask white people to stand with them, or to stand as observers to keep police in line? Ask, don’t tell.
Lesson six: sometimes you’re going to provide the teachable moment.
Remember when I talked about fucking up, and promised you that everyone does? Remember when I said that shame and guilt were the natural and healthy responses to that? Well the next thing that’s going to occur to you is to bury that poop like a big ol’ kittycat. And what’s easier than deleting your comment or post, amirite? Nobody ever has to know how badly you fucked up and how embarrassed you were. Also, deleting your post means that it won’t suddenly appear in someone’s feed three days later and make you cringe all over again!
Do not. Delete. Your. Fucking. Post.
When you screw up, and get called out, and get educated on why what you did was wrong, you’re not the only one learning. People are pouring time and effort into articulating the issue and trying to find a way to teach you that will resonate. Some of those tries were misses, but they might have been hits for someone reading along but not participating. Someone who didn’t just make your very visible mistake, but who was about to. The bigger the group, the more likely this will happen.
When you delete your post, it’s disrespectful to everyone who spent time on you, to everyone who you hurt, and to everyone who’s going to be hurt by someone else because you removed all that education from the world with a twitch of your finger. Don’t do it.
But turn off notifications for a couple days maybe.
I’m supposed to have a conclusion for you here.
But there isn’t one. There isn’t a conclusion because this learning process isn’t done, for me or for you. I’m always going to be standing on an invisible ladder. I’m always going to catch myself thinking that my experiences are “the default” and in some way representative of everyone’s. I’m probably always going to fuck up sympathy and empathy (I know, I’m going crazy with the Brene Brown links today).
The point is, yeah, you know a little. But you don’t know as much as you think you know. Use your knowledge to lift up the people who don’t know as much as you, and try to always be open to learning from the people who know more. Be open to the idea that people know more. This is really important to keep in mind for white people, and especially white men. “Mansplaining” gets tossed around a lot, as do other types of ‘splaining, but what they always boil down to is you, coming to a conversation where you think you know something, and explaining it to someone who knows more than you, usually by virtue of their lived experience. Education practically never trumps experience. Whatever you read an article about, someone else has lived. They’re the expert.
Keep that in mind before you jump feet-first into the fray. Those feet might end up in your mouth instead.
[Update: If you’re getting a lot of use out of this post, consider supporting my work so I can make more!]