There are certain reactions to my personal and political beliefs which I am met with repeatedly, from many different people and sources. Though I often feel they are leveled at my identities as a Black and queer person, they are always a means of degrading the lessons my life as an oppressed person has taught me. What bothers me most about these attitudes is not only their ubiquity, but the ways they thwart any real conversation. While I welcome and rely on critiques of my perspectives, these reactions don’t respect my beliefs through engagement, but dismiss them. A careful look at them illuminates some fundamental cultural myths which are consistently used to combat real change, and justify the positions of oppressed people in our current order.
Anti-racist organizer Debra Leigh famously lists 28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors and her responses to them, noting that the beliefs and assumptions she lists “indicate a detour or wrong turn into white guilt, denial or defensiveness.” (See also Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists by Jona Olsson, whom Leigh cites.) The attitudes and assumptions I list here are, I believe, retreats into resignation to the systems in place, and ways of delegitimizing the needs of oppressed communities. They demonstrate a comfort with the status quo, and a fear of change which fails to acknowledge the stark realities with which so many of us live. I wanted to treat these attitudes as spaces for inquiry–to get to the root of why they crop up so often, and why they fall short of a genuine engaging with radical politics. But I also wanted to codify my own responses to them, in hopes of gathering my thoughts, to prepare myself for when I am met with these reactions in the future, and to provide what I hope will be helpful reflections for others who regularly receive similar reactions:
1. If you want to be listened to, you can’t come across as angry.
Anger comes from repeatedly having one’s voice dismissed, ignored, and insulted. It is not born from bad judgment or immaturity, but as a reaction to disrespect and belittlement. I give myself permission to be angry, because of the deep injustices endured by my people over multiple generations, injustices which go consistently unacknowledged, unaddressed and uncorrected. I give myself permission to be angry, because that very anger is understood to be hostility, while the continued legacies of incarceration, impoverishment, and colonization of my people are not. Moreover, my concern is not how I come across, for anyone who is intimidated or turned off by my anger does not share it. Power believes I am illegitimate and less than a person, and to convince it otherwise requires taking on its values and methods, to which I am deeply opposed. I choose to speak, therefore, to other oppressed people, those who understand my anger, and hope to rely on it not to lash out but to galvanize our communities to create new movements for justice which threaten power rather than pandering to it.
2. You can’t be anti-everything.
I’m for a lot of things! I am for my community, sex, art, music, laughing, dancing, my family, my ancestors, the dignity of all people, the health of the planet, and unlimited access to basic resources. I am for every one of us feeling safe and respected, having the ability to question and to voice our own needs. I am pro-women, pro-queer, pro-trans people, pro-immigrant. I am pro-workers and pro-housing. I am pro-bodies, pro-youth and pro-elders. If you think I’m anti-everything, maybe you ought to question what that everything consists of.
3. This is too much to think about all the time.
To be preoccupied with how our world needs to change is a lot for anyone to think about, and having the ability to put it out of mind, even temporarily, is a kind of privilege. Many of us ask these questions not because we like to, but because we have to. Our grappling with the systems in place is not about rebellion, but survival. We are forced to think about it when we wonder where our childcare, healthcare, meals or dental care will come from. We are forced to think about it when we have to improvise a way to get home that will not result in harassment or violence. When the only education available to us is punitive and under resourced. When our legal status bars us from voting, earning a living wage, or providing support for one another in the ways we deserve. When the communities we rely on for our own sustainability reject us. When incarceration and violence from the state are more familiar than protection. These are all times when we are forced to advocate for ourselves, and in so doing invent new ways of living which challenge the world as it stands. You can struggle along with us, or not. We don’t have a choice.
4. You sound like you’re advocating violence.
I am, but not against individuals, communities or the environment. It is the systems in place–the nation-state, militarism, consumer capitalism–which advocate these things. In the current order, violence is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. When it is enacted in the name of security, patriotism, and the safety of the powerful, it goes largely unquestioned. When it is lucrative, or is exercised against poor and working people, women, young people, or is understood as being committed by one marginal person against another, it doesn’t seem to be frightening. Only when we talk of overturning the state, demanding access to elitist institutions, and resisting the systems which deny us human rights and basic resources, does violence become a fearful accusation oppressed people are made to bear. I do not advocate violence against people, but I do advocate it against the structures which do us violence.
5. You have to start somewhere (i.e. within the legislative system, corporate funding, privatization, academia, etc.).
I strongly agree that we have to start somewhere. However, too often we are encouraged to begin within the exact channels, systems and institutions that have created the conditions against which we are struggling. All change takes time to be realized, sometimes many years, sometimes many generations. Beginning that change, or continuing it, takes patience, small steps, and the enduring of as many moments of frustration as those of encouragement. We have to start somewhere. Let’s start in our communities. Let’s start in our homes and neighborhoods. Let’s start with ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our friends. Let’s begin with asking what movements precede us and how we can rely on their wisdom. Let’s start by building solidarity between oppressed people, not with the institutions that oppress. Let’s put our faith, time and trust in one another, and not the systems which generate the very inequities we hope to combat.
Identifying these attitudes and the assumptions behind them helps us to assert the legitimacy of our needs, and empower ourselves to keep discussions going when they are attempted to be shut down. Reflecting on them encourages us to continue challenging power in the ways we already do, and to look to one another, not the systems in place, to learn how to do it better.