‘Not All White People’ and Derailing Conversations

This is an entry from the department of Things That Activists of Color Have Already Explained More Than A Million Times. But I just saw someone shove their foot into the shoe again yesterday, so I guess I can’t hurt anything by trying to explain it too.

It’s practically a Law Of The Internet that when a Person of Color says something about racism, at least one white person will barge into the conversation to assure everyone that ‘not all white people are like that.’ Bonus points if they go on to explain that making negative generalizations about white people is ‘racist’ (spoiler: it’s not).

That’s a tiresome way to behave, and you shouldn’t do it. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

If what someone is saying about white folks and racism doesn’t apply to you, then it isn’t about you, and there’s no reason to make it about you. If you’re feeling a driving need to make it about you anyway, ask yourself where that’s coming from. If what they’re saying really doesn’t apply to you, then why are you feeling defensive about it?

Maybe you think you’re just standing up against prejudice and generalizations, because you learned during Black History Month back in school that it’s wrong to judge people by their skin color. But the thing is, racism isn’t a two-way street.

As white people, we have the enormous privilege of not having the actions of other white people held against us in any meaningful way. For example, when a white guy attacks a federal building (or a post office, or a school, or a women’s clinic, or a museum, or a theater, or another federal building, or another school), people don’t start treating all white guys like terrorists.

And while there are stereotypes about white people–some of them even negative!–they don’t impact our everyday lives the way stereotypes about people of color impact theirs’. We don’t get paid less or denied jobs over them. We don’t get stopped and frisked over them. Trigger-happy racists don’t gun us down over them.

generalizations about white people hurt feelings. generalizations about POC end our lives. there’s the difference.

— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) July 21, 2013

So when you equate generalizations about white people to generalizations about people of color, you’re not just asserting your privilege to shape the discourse around racism; you’re also demonstrating a staggering lack of empathy. You’re acting as if your implicitly limited understanding of racism is more accurate and ‘true’ than the lived experiences of people who actually face racism every day.

We accept that young children will be self-focused, and will sometimes fail to take other people’s perspectives into account. But interrupting other people’s conversations to insist that they praise you for mastering basic concepts stopped being charming shortly after you learned to tie your own shoes. If you’re still doing it when you’re supposed to be old enough to use a computer without supervision, you are embarrassing yourself.

So please. Do not insist that your effort to treat other people with dignity and respect–which really is the bare minimum of what’s expected from decent human beings–is so remarkable that you need to interrupt other people’s conversations to demand praise.

Everyone already knows that ‘not all white people are like that.’ But if you’re barging into conversations to make them about you, chances are pretty good that you’re exactly like that.

If people don’t react to that with cookies and praise, it’s not because you’re white. It’s because you’re being clueless and rude.

‘My Quakerism’ Responses, Take II

My Quakerism Will Be Feminist and Anti-Racist or It Will Be Bullshit got shared around on Facebook again after I wrote what I thought was the wrap-up. It’s now sitting at more than 700 unique views, which is, um. A lot more traffic than my blog posts usually get.

The overwhelming majority of the second round of comments got approved. I really appreciate the support, folks. It means a lot.

The comments that got moderated mostly fit into one of these two categories:

1. The commenter wanted to debate the existence of ‘reverse racism.’

Those were not approved because, per the comment policy on the original post, I didn’t want the conversation derailed.

Having to stop and explain basic concepts (like the definition of racism) to every new person who walks in the door is a huge obstacle to those trying to discuss racism beyond the 101 ‘this is a real thing in the real world’ level. If you can see this post, then you have the technology to educate yourself about these issues, using either the links in the original post or your favorite search engine. If you need a basic introduction to racism, I strongly suggest you seek one out.

Why am I spending an entire paragraph telling you to google it instead of just explaining why reverse racism doesn’t exist? Quite simply, because the expectation that I will answer the question is born of white privilege.

As white people, we live in a world that privileges our opinions about race and racism, while downplaying as ‘biased’ and ‘anecdotal’ the lived experiences of those who experience racism firsthand. If someone shows up at our Quaker Meetings and says ‘you guys are racist’ and we don’t want to hear that, all we have to do is ignore them. They can’t do anything to change us or our communities without our participation, so if we don’t want to leave our comfort zone and listen to them, we don’t have to.

People of color do not have the privilege to walk away. Racism affects them every day, in ways both great and small. It’s not something they can ignore when it’s inconvenient or stressful (which it is for them more often, and to a greater degree, than it ever is for us).

When you have the privilege to walk away from a conversation and the other party doesn’t, you control that conversation. You get to decide whether the other person is ‘too emotional,’ or whether or not you like their ‘tone.’ You even get to set the standard of evidence you’ll accept before acknowledging the facts they live with every day of their life.

One of the ways that privilege manifests itself is white people entering conversations about racism and taking it as a matter of course that we can change the subject. If we still need the basics explained to us, we ask, fully expecting that everyone else will stop the conversation they’re trying to have and educate us. If we decide we want to ‘play devil’s advocate,’ we can just start doing it, without even considering whether or not the other party wants to be our partner in an academic debate about the truth of their lived experience. If something that comes up in the conversation upsets us, we can refuse to discuss the matter further until the other party apologizes–which often leads to the absurd circumstance of white folks demanding people of color apologize for saying that racism exists, and that white people perpetuate it. If our conditions are not met, we can just walk away, insisting that the other party is being ‘reverse-racist’ for not considering our feelings.

If you actually care about racism–if you want to be an ally to people of color, and create spaces that are welcoming to them–then step one is not exercising your privilege to walk away. If someone’s calling you out, listen. Think about what they’re saying. Participate in the conversation on their terms. If that takes you out of your comfort zone, then step on out, and accept that discomfort as the gift that it is. Always assume that what someone is telling you about their lived experience is their truth. If listening to that truth makes you realize your actions haven’t matched your intentions, acknowledge it. Apologize. Do better. Do it enough, and your comfort zone will grow. Take another step.

If you listen and you still can’t reconcile their truth with your own, keep listening. Remember that you–and everyone else–has been conditioned to privilege your experience of a situation over the experiences of people of color. Resist the urge to do that. Assume that you’re missing something before you assume that the other person’s truth is invalid.

Early Quakers didn’t speak of the inner light as a warm, fluffy ball of love. They saw it as a hard light–one that shines on us and illuminates our flaws so that we can see and work on them. They acknowledged that spiritual nakedness as a gift from God–and it is. It’s the unwavering belief that every one of us is capable of doing better. Embrace that. Listen. Educate yourself. Don’t hide your light under a bushel on the assumption that you can’t.

Everything I just said also applies to men and sexism (and straight folks and heterosexism, able-bodied folks and ablism, cis folks and cissexism, etc). Which brings us, in a round-about way, to the second category of comment that didn’t get approved:

2. The commenter suggested that I’d be much happier if I’d just [forgive everyone/stop letting assholes rent space in my brain].

The idea that people can’t make us feel inferior without our consent is meant to be empowering, I know. What it actually does is place the responsibility for both hurt and healing squarely–and exclusively–on the injured party’s shoulders.

Recent anti-bullying campaigns have finally started wising people up to the idea that ‘just ignore them and they’ll go away’ is not a winning strategy. It is, as I explained in point 1, a strategy that only works for those with social power, not those who are hurting for lack of it.

Forgiveness is part of the healing process. It’s pretty hard to heal when the wound is constantly being re-opened. My community is hurting me, and I’m not a failure for asking them to stop.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. But I’m not speaking up because I’m angry. I’ve been angry–and silent–for years. I’m speaking up because my silence on these issues does not serve God. I’m speaking up now because I’ve finally found enough grace and trust to believe that doing so will make a difference. I’m no longer willing to pay my faith community the insult of assuming that I have to rise above our failings because we can’t face them.

F(f)riends should be honest with each other.

I honestly believe that Friends can do better.

‘My Quakerism’ Post Responses, Thus Far

My last post got a bit more traffic than I was expecting.

It saw just over 200 unique visitors in the first twenty-four hours, and it’s now up to 300. That’s, um. More traffic than I normally get.

First of all, I just want to say that I’m a little floored by the response. It’s really gratifying to hear from others who feel the same way about these issues.

I also put myself out there in a pretty major way by telling my own story, and spent most of the weekend physically sick with dread that someone was going to be a jerk about that. So far, no one has been. My defenses on that front are still jacked up to 11 and are likely to stay that way for a good long while, but I’m starting to have hope that they won’t have to be forever. Which is…’nice’ isn’t the word. There’s probably a German portmanteau for “this s— sandwich tastes much better than it could have.”

A big thank-you for all the supportive comments, hugs, re-tweets, and hell-yeahs. They mean a lot. I do want to go back and respond to comments, but it might be a little while before there’s room in my brain to do so.

One common thread I’ve seen in a lot of the response is a desire for next steps–how do we build a more feminist, anti-racist Quakerism?

I have Things To Say about that, but I think it’s important to recognize that the conversation is already happening. So before I kick off a post on that topic, I want to finish assembling a list of references and links to ongoing efforts to improve Quaker spaces.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to have a conversation with me about feminism and anti-racism in Quakerism, let’s do it. Shoot me an email. I’m also a big fan of Google Hangouts. If you’re in the DC area, let’s grab coffee. I’m on Twitter as @leeflower, which is probably the best way to get in touch with me if you don’t already have my contact information.

My Quakerism Will Be Feminist and Anti-Racist or It Will Be Bullshit

[Content warning: this post discusses sexual assault, micro-aggressions, victim-blaming, and ‘progressive’ sexism and racism].

Just over a year ago, Flavia Dzodan wrote a incisive piece for Tiger Beatdown. In it, she calls out mainstream feminism for the rank hypocrisy of claiming to work for the betterment of all women while refusing to stand up for, listen to, respect, and welcome women of color and other marginalized women. She said MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!

I can relate.

Not because I’m a woman of color who has to put up with a steady stream of micro and macro-aggressions from white people who claim to be my allies. I’m not a woman of color, and the intersectionality I have to deal with is a very different sort.

But I know what it’s like to be part of a movement that congratulates itself for its egalitarianism and dedication to social justice out of one side of its mouth while belittling and silencing me out of the other. I know what it’s like to put up with a steady stream of micro and macro-aggressions from people who think equality is all well and good until they have an opportunity to use their size, age, gender, and the timber of their voice to cow me into submission. I know what it’s like to look around a gathering at a sea of white faces and listen to someone congratulate us on how ‘inclusive’ we are.

Yeah. I know all about what that’s like. I’m a Quaker.

It’s exhausting, is what it’s like. It’s having to keep my guard up all the time; having to suffer hypocrisy in silence; having to live every day knowing that the love and acceptance I get from my faith community is conditional on that silence.

I have known for a long time that my silence on these issues does not serve God. I have prayed for the strength to live my witness, but I haven’t found it yet. When Quakers say ‘speak truth to power,’ rarely do they mean they want you to speak your truth to their power. I don’t think I’ll know whether I’m actually going to say it this time until I hit ‘publish.’

But here it is–this is my truth. I feel the presence of God in my heart, and he has asked me to say: my Quakerism will be feminist and anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

And so will yours.

One year, two of my meeting’s regular attenders–a young couple of color–decided to use our first-time attender coupons to check out our Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions. They came back the week after to report that practically every conversation they’d had started with the other party wanting to talk about ‘diversity’ and brag about their personal progressive credentials. One of them called it the “Oh My God, You’re Black!” conversation. We offered them sympathetic laughter.

They stopped attending Meeting shortly after that, and joined a nearby church.

I don’t blame them.

I heard a white Friend compare a space for Quakers of Color to apartheid once.

I’m not kidding.

I’ve also heard white Friends use the term ‘reverse racism’ as if that’s a real thing that exists in the real world.

When we refuse to respect and believe the lived experiences of people of color in our communities, we are contributing to a system of structural violence that lifts white people up at the expense of people of color. It’s not ok. It’s not just. It’s not honest. It’s not God’s will. And it’s Not Quaker.

So my Quakerism will be anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted at a Young Friends conference.

I was asleep at the time, and I never spoke up about it because I was half-convinced I’d dreamt it. Years later, I was going through another Friend’s old conference photos, and there it was, like a punch in the gut: a picture of an older Young Friend with his hand up my shirt, while I was asleep. And around us, a room full of other Friends–some of them adults–going on about their business as if nothing was happening.

The young friend in question went on sexually harassing me until we were both well past our high school days. Eventually he assaulted me again–while I was awake, that time. Once I’d had a few days to process that, I decided I was officially through with being anywhere near him. Mutual Quaker friends of ours have told me that it’s a personal conflict between him and me, and they don’t want to be involved.

Or they’ve just told me to stop saying mean things about their friend. That happened too.

I wish that I could trust the larger Society of Friends–my meeting, my yearly meeting–to help me heal that bleeding wound in my heart, but I can’t. I’ve been around Quakers long enough to know what will happen. Some people will be sympathetic, but reluctant to ‘take sides.’ Others will ask me, in concerned voices, if it’s possible that I led him on, and he didn’t realize. Others will demand proof, and in its absence (I don’t have that photo), they’ll insinuate that I’m a liar. Others still will just weaponize my story and add it to the arsenal they level at Young Friends when trying to paint them as irresponsible and incapable of running their own community. (For the record, the current generation of Young Friends were in grade school when this happened).

My community’s love and acceptance is conditional on my silence, and I’m tired of it. My Quakerism will be feminist or it will be bullshit.

When I was serving as clerk of my meeting, there was an incident at the rise of worship one day. A male attender tried to kiss the female attender next to him. She told him no. A few minutes later, when I invited Friends to share their prayer requests, he held forth at length about how Quakers are too ‘prudish’ and ‘uptight.’

I was the clerk. I should have said something. Instead, I thought of what happened when I tried to speak up for my own physical and emotional boundaries, and sat silently seething while he passive-aggressively upbraided her for exercising her right to decide who touches her, and how.

No one else said anything, either.

At this year’s Annual Sessions, an older, larger Friend approached me while I was alone, in the dark. He took a threatening stance and took me to task for helping another group of Friends stand up for themselves in a manner he took personally. He called me immature, and an embarrassment, and when I refused to apologize, he used his size and the timber of his voice to frighten me into silence.

These stories may seem like little things, on their own. These two men probably didn’t even think about the fact that they were using their masculinity to threaten. I’m sure they didn’t think of their actions as acts of violence. But they were. Those little aggressions add up, and they build a community in which women are not safe, let alone respected equals.

I’m tired of living in that community. My Quakerism will be feminist or it will be bullshit.

A few years ago, a Friend posted a sexist video on Facebook. One of those ‘funny’ college-humor style jokes where the ‘punchline’ is “hahaha women are lying bitches, am I right?”

I responded, “Wow. That’s really sexist.”

He told me that he and I would have to ‘agree to disagree’ about that, because his wife thought it was funny.

If that was the end of it, I probably would have brushed it off. But it wasn’t the end of it.

A friend of his who’d never met me–and who identifies as a Quaker–jumped into the comments. He posted a ‘translation’ of my comments, complete with caveman-style grammar, suggesting that I was offended because I was just like the women in the video (which is to say that I, like them, must be an emotionally immature, passive-aggressive liar). I tried to engage with him about sexism and micro-aggressions; he called me a ‘little girl’ (I was an adult out of college), and told me that sexism didn’t exist. When I asked for an apology, our mutual friend (the one who’d posted the video) asked us both to take it off his facebook page because he didn’t want to see us arguing.

I guess asking him to stand up to his buddy for being a sexist jackass who blatantly disrespects women he’s never met was too tall an order.

I stopped going to meeting, after that.

I didn’t even tell my friend how deeply he hurt me. I still haven’t, because I suspected our friendship wouldn’t survive that conversation (though he’s probably going to see this, so I guess he has a chance to prove me wrong). I just stopped going to his meeting. And shortly after that, I stopped going to my own.

There are extenuating circumstances. I’ve got a health situation that can make it hard for me to get out into the world. But even on Sunday mornings when I wake up pain-free and don’t have a hundred other things to catch up on, I don’t go. I contemplate the exhausting notion of facing more micro-aggressions amidst a community that claims to be dedicated to justice and equality, and I just stay home.

It’s not all Quakers. There are many wonderful Friends in my life who work very hard to recognize their own privileges and decolonize their minds of the racism, sexism, ableism, and other brands of injustice that we’re all poisoned with from birth. But the Religious Society of Friends–the people once called the Friends of the Truth–are supposed to be dedicated to justice as a whole. We are supposed to answer God’s call to listen deeply, to think critically, to improve ourselves, and thereby improve the world. It’s very difficult for me to be around Quakers who aren’t doing that.

Because it’s become a leading, for me. My Quakerism will be feminist and anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

EDIT TO ADD: I’ve written two follow-up posts on this subject: part one and part two. In Part Two, I discuss a basic step that Friends can take towards building a more inclusive and welcoming community: acknowledge the privilege to walk away.

A Note On Commenting: I haven’t had comments on this blog yet, but if any of my posts are likely to start a conversation, it’ll probably be this one. Since this is such a sensitive topic, and especially so for me, this thread is going to be heavily moderated. The following things are specifically not ok:

  1. If I wanted to name names, I would have. Please don’t ask, don’t speculate, and if you already know, keep it to yourself.
  2. The following things are not up for discussion:
    1. Whether or not sexual assault survivors have a responsibility to name and shame.
    2. Whether or not what happened to me was ‘really’ assault.
    3. Whether or not I’m telling the truth.
    4. This also isn’t the place for an introductory-level discussion about the basics of racism and sexism, and how they affect racial and gender minorities. If you are new to the idea that racism and misogyny are still alive and well in our society, here are a few resources to get you started:
      1. Mary Anne Mohanraj gets you up to speed, Part I
      2. Resist Racism: Racism 101
      3. Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog
      4. Shakesville– The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

Writing this post has taken a lot out of me. In fact, contemplating putting this up and linking to it where other Quakers–including the Quakers I’ve just refused to name–will see it has pretty much taken all I’ve got to give at the moment.

So in order to make it possible for me to post this, a F/friend has agreed to step in and help me moderate comments. Here is the comment policy. If your comment breaks those rules, or the ones stated above, she is going to clean it up with the Squeegee of Gentle Eldering. And if you take this conversation somewhere she can’t moderate it–to my email, or twitter, facebook, g+, etc– for the purpose of violating the boundaries I’ve laid out here, please be prepared for that to be the end of any relationship you and I have.