Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways that the movements for social justice of which I am a part deal with mistakes folks make publicly. I’ve been thinking and talking with my friends about how quickly we shun and publicly shame our folks that are in a different place from us politically, how our cynicism is serving to limit us. And then Ngọc Loan Trần at Black Girl Dangerous gave us Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable:
We have to let go of treating each other like not knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.
And we have to remind ourselves that we once didn’t know. There are infinitely many more things we have yet to know and may never know.
We have to let go of a politic of disposability. We are what we’ve got. No one can be left to their fuck ups and the shame that comes with them because ultimately we’ll be leaving ourselves behind.
Can I get an amen?
Now some folks will say that this is about the internet – just after I wrote most of this piece, a whole discussion sprung up under the #twitterfeminism hashtag in response to a piece deeming twitter feminism toxic – but I’ve been seeing this dynamic play out in our movements for social justice long before I was ever on twitter. Sure, the internet can be rough. Yes, we have a lot to learn about treating each other with dignity when we aren’t experiencing each other in person. But internet feminism, including twitter, has also given a platform to voices we would rarely have heard from otherwise, has created community for folks in places or circumstances where finding each other is difficult, and has catapulted historically marginalized conversations into the mainstream. This is a fact that cannot be ignored, and to suggest that a feminist space that has fostered and amplified the voices of women of color is toxic in its entirety is misguided at its very best. And let’s not pretend like folks consistently see each others’ full humanity in person either. This is about our movements everywhere.
I am so ready to let go of the America’s Next Top Radical model of social justice; it’s unsustainable, unproductive, and frankly a pretty bad strategy. It seems as though some of us – us being folks invested in the advancement of social justice in some way or another – are calling folks out sometimes not to educate a person who’s wrong, but to position themselves a rung above on the radical ladder. What’s worse, both in real-world organizing and online, this behavior is often rewarded: with pats on the back, social status, followers. We’re waiting and ready to cut folks out when they say the wrong thing. We’ve created an activist culture in which the worst thing we can do is to make a mistake.
Of course, it’s not all so simple.
A while back, I was reading a piece somewhere I can’t recall about tools of survival that no longer serve us well. Cynicism, I think, is one of these tools. For folks doing activism on the margins – women of color, queer and trans folks, sex workers, disabled folks, immigrants, those of us that fall in several or all of these or more marginalized categories – I know that our being so guarded comes from a place of being repeatedly and consistently hurt. Hurt by activism that works to further marginalize us. Hurt by projects that leave our communities behind. Hurt by good intentions that never were and never will be enough. We’ve become cynics in order to shield ourselves from hurt we can’t afford, to not waste time on folks that never included the full liberation of our people in their agenda. We’ve become cynics because, in order to survive, we’ve had to shut some folks out.
The thing is, survival is not enough. We need and deserve so much more than mere survival: we deserve to thrive. And to thrive, we have to do something scary: we have to get a little (selectively) vulnerable. We have to make an effort to be a little less guarded.
I’m not here to suggest that I’m not implicated in this dynamic, or that I have it figured out. It’s hard to move away from it. To not get a little more jaded every time I hear a cis person say that they don’t care what pronoun you use with them when I know for a fact that shit ain’t true. To not become more of a hater every time someone tells me I speak really great English even though I just got done telling them I’ve been here the better part of two decades. To not just give up every time a person of color gets asked where they’re really from.
Nor am I suggesting that folks living in marginalized identities owe education or anything else to folks who hold power over them. You’ll catch me swallowing broken glass before you see me personally addressing the racism of a white person I don’t know and am not invested in (a girl can only take so much). But I’ve been guilty of writing off folks because they said something transphobic, or something ableist, when as a cis person and an able-bodied person the better thing to do may have been to address it honestly, with an open mind, and head on. Not writing off our people, folks that are part of our communities, because they fucked up once? Spending time educating someone on an issue that you’ve had the privilege to get educated on? That’s what operating in solidarity looks like. This is about investing in folks with whom we are in community, resisting the urge to walk away from a nasty comment not because it hurts you deeply or rehashes personal trauma, but because confrontation is awkward and you’ll get cred enough for writing that person off.
Calling folks out in good faith – or calling in – is absolutely necessary. We cannot stand by as people leave the most marginalized folks in our communities out of the conversation, say things that are hurtful, and create projects that continue historical legacies of oppression. It’s important not just because folks need to be educated, but because the ways we organize and the stories we tell affect the lived realities and material conditions of everyone around us. To not confront oppression when you’re in a position to do so is to be complicit in its perpetuity. But it’s also important to ask ourselves why we’re jumping in. It’s cool to be angry – I’m angry as hell, and in a world in which there is so much to hate, I tend to be a hater – but when we’re trying to advance a conversation, it’s important to think about what’s going to be constructive. On the same tip, we need to learn how to react when being called out – how to meaningfully apologize, and how to move forward with new knowledge. To realize that making a mistake does not make us the living worst, and that we can move forward if we take critiques seriously and acknowledge the serious hurt our mistakes have caused.
It’s hard, and a consistent battle, but I don’t see a way out of it. We’ve long been really good at critiquing and saying what we don’t want, but to get to a world we DO want, we have to be able to dream really big. I fear that the ways that cynicism operates in our call-outs (and activism more generally) is limiting our ability to do so. How can we dream utopias if we are so afraid of being wrong? We have to be able to make mistakes. We have to experiment, we have to fail spectacularly, and we have to be able to trust that our community will let us know with tolerance when we’ve done so. I’m not sure that I am all the way there yet, but I don’t think there is another way.
Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today. – Malcolm X
Verónica is a hater, but she’s working on it.