Back when I was first becoming involved with feminist activists as a collective group, I met a white woman who, by all accounts, was respected in the local First Nations communities. When I asked her what worked, she said, “White people come in wanting to lead, wanting to fix things, sure they know just what to do. But we don’t. We aren’t the experts, they are. And whatever the consequences are to an action? They face them, not us. So I just do what they need me to do, follow their lead, and use my white skin privilege to open doors, get what they can’t.” Others added that she had spent years at this, gaining trust and proving she was worthy of it. She was committed to helping First Nations people, and when she was needed she showed up. Every time. She was aware of the different strains of politics among those she used her privilege for, and she stayed out of the political battles.
I thought she was pretty wise back then. In the next few years I would come across innumerable authors, feminists of Color, who said the same basic things. Yeah, she was really wise.
Across my life as a feminist I saw men claiming to be our allies stepping into the same entitlements as did white women working with — really for — people of Color. I have seen white men (and men of Color, too) come into feminist groups and be allies: most only for a short while, a few for a long time, and a very small few still worthy of the title at this writing. Male privilege is just too comfortable to let it go. I suspect it’s similar for white feminists who work to be allies to people of Color — most of us succumb to the comforts of privilege after a while, and maybe we can be hauled out of our cozy recliner-lined den of entitlement, and maybe we can’t. But if we’re honest we know it’s always there and accessible to us, with a big sign on the door that says Whites Only.
My friend, the one in Part One who had loosely formed an anti-racism group, thought that there were many men who got the man/woman question, as she put it, quite well. I’ve spent a great deal of my activist life in groups where women led because the issues were women’s. I’ve watched men as they wrangled with feminism, with just how empowered women can be and still keep men comfortable — with just how much of a challenge to sex roles and hierarchical “gender” traditions men will actually allow! That’s not feminism. That’s not at all ‘getting’ the man/woman question. It’s expanding the territory women may roam while making sure men still own the perimeter fence. And the electricity that arms it. And the right to keep women within it. Most men fail feminism. (And still try to claim it; see The Illustrative Value of ‘Pro-Feminist’ here.)
I suspect most whites fail anti-racism. At least on the first 30 serious tries. How many of us will persevere to get it and be useful to people of Color? And how much of the giving up will be because we never found anywhere we fit well enough to try more? I understand both sides here. The neophyte comes in with unchecked attitude, unconscious familial biases and a vocabulary to match, and the desire to do good. Three things. The marginalized see the first two, and react to those; survival, and certainly self-respect, have depended on seeing these things. The privileged see the last of the three and react to that.
We had a vocabulary, once, to work through all this. It’s going away: I defend ‘privilege’ even as other feminists roll their eyes and whisper asides to one another. We need this word! And we need to expand it back to where it once was, including its unearned benefits, the things we cannot help (while skin, being of the male sex, born into money), plus those behaviors that show we expect to earn better treatment: our entitled words and actions.
We need the words whose definitions were hashed out in late night meetings between activists who considered the ramifications of every slant, who solidified meanings so that they framed (before framing was a concept) the issue in the necessary way for the richest political meaning. I came in at the end of this era, but participated in some of it. By the 80s when the culturally-comfortable ones wanted to hold onto that comfort, reversals came into play: “reverse sexism,” “reverse racism.” A lot of us — understanding these are themes on a hierarchy and therefore can’t be reversed with any logic to them — opted for re-phrasings: male supremacy, white supremacy.
What is beyond belief to me is that we now have to fight for the word “woman.” If I say woman = adult + human + female I am more likely to be told I am a “hater” than to find agreement. And we now have to fight to show that women-as-women actually matter. We once objected to the phrasing “battered woman” because it passively obfuscated the perpetrator, invariably a man, and focused blame onto the woman who was the victim. Now the mainstream phrase is “domestic violence” and women have become simply “people.” We have lost so much ground.
I recently discovered that in my state, ‘gender’ has erased protections formerly based on who you love, on being Lesbian or gay. Somehow the duo of “sex/gender” is supposed to cover what’s commonly called sexual orientation (het/bi/Lesbian — but we all know it only comes up if it’s judged deviantly not-het!). Lesbian is now somehow subsumed under sex/gender. So, really, which is it, a sex? a gender? Good grief! This is a literal erasure of Lesbians!
Another thing I learned from feminists is that good allies, solid allies, matter. It’s tough to fight the battle alone, even for a short time. Sisters (and sometimes brothers) in the struggle make it bearable, even when you’re being pushed back. Having others to laugh with and share activist irony with is indispensable. Laughter is vital. Finding others who share bonds with you, and who share feelings of responsibility to the group and to each other and to honor, itself, is important.
In this era, the unfortunate label Social Justice Warrior (or SJW) sums it up too well: this is someone who doesn’t necessarily believe what is being defended, has absolutely no depth of argument — although the depth of the indignance makes up for it — but rather is signalling his or her virtue to like-minds. Or hive-minds. Critical thought, and the ability to listen to opposing viewpoints, once the hallmarks of a liberal-arts education and of a thriving community, are entirely lost at the university level now. I have even seen activists my (advanced) age advocate for the firing of people who hold opposing views. Job termination for dissent! IF the belief means they cannot do their job appropriately (say a Buddhist as a Baptist minister) or IF they hold that people lower than they are on the hierarchy are acceptable targets for mayhem and murder, that’s different. Please realize that plenty of people in the US Midwest believe that those who practice Wicca should be fired, or worse (and Jews are questionable, too) — this is not a good bandwagon to be chasing.
Unfortunately this era is one of deepening hate, permission to hate and even hurt those who can be Otherized, especially those down the hierarchy. Especially those who are visible to white oppressors like Black people so often are. (And, actually, women: the man behind the Montreal Massacre of 1989 was angry at feminists, and shot women, almost exclusively.) Unlike massacres, though, the mayhem and murder of Black people often goes unreported unless Black people provide video and force the issue. No wonder the police don’t want their actions videotaped, and in many places, including my state, it’s been made illegal to film cops. Which brings up another activist point.
What are we willing to risk? The one time in my life I ever thought about a life that could do more than my own, I realized that there are people — and issues — for which I’d step in front, risk my life to save theirs. The one in question is a friend, a young Black man I got to meet in person at a conference on the East coast. We’d been part of an activist assemblage on the Internet for several years. I mentioned this to him in passing, because it surprised me, too: his future was so incredibly important that I would have stepped in front of him to protect him from an assassin’s bullet to the best of my ability.
While it might be extreme, here, I have a history of stepping in to aid or shield, of quietly hurting bullies in childhood, of stepping into the middle of fists when smaller and female people were getting pounded in adulthood. I don’t necessarily think in these situations, I just do. I don’t want someone to die because I stood by, helpless and ineffectual and afraid. I don’t think I could live with myself. With one young-teen child in the car and someone else driving, I moved to the seat beside her, becoming a human shield to protect her as we were forced to pass a burning vehicle on a busy freeway. I didn’t think of it, I just moved. But I do this with my permission, too. I evaluate later, and I can accept my actions.
What might we risk? At one extreme there is the bullet, or the explosion from a car fire. At the other is uncertainty, not knowing quite How To Get It Right. In between are lesser penalties — going to court for filming police brutality enacted on Black bodies, plus personal failure and looking absurd. I think we can map out the process, prove good intentions over time, and ask for understanding as we work — hard! — to try to understand that which we really can’t but still should try to get. I suspect that part of ‘good intentions’ is talking about risk, and the courage to take it. I can draw a good portion of the map for male supremacy. I can’t for white supremacy. All I can do is work to unlearn the entitlement and unpack the ancestral baggage I bring in with me. And prove beyond any doubt that I do care.
But, honestly, what I need to communicate is a vocabulary that speaks truths and listens before judgment. Can we find this, share this, and even if it means more hammering, can WE be the activists who create the framing this time through? Please understand it will only work if me and mine aren’t made invisible. Or maybe worse, irrelevant.
(All links here accessed October 2, 2017.)