After Charlotttesville: An Open Letter to White People
Dear White People Who Care About Justice,
In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, there have been lots of frustrated comments filling your newsfeeds from people of color--myself included--about "white people" in general. In response, many white people have responded with some version of #notallwhitepeople. I understand that defensiveness, and thought I might respond using my own privileged experience as an example.
Even though I am a person of color, and have/do experience different forms of oppression, I am still privileged in comparison to some other groups. I am an American-born, cis-gendered, straight, educated, able-bodied (do we still say that? See! Privilege!) man--and a minister.
Sometimes I come across language on the Internet (or in personal face-to-face interactions) with women that express their frustrations with living in a male-oriented society: "Men are the worst!" Sometimes I stumble across a frustrated tweet from transgendered people: #FuckCisPeople. Sometimes I come across a meme that lumps all Christians together as hateful bigots that want to suppress the rights of non-Christians and support the abuse of children. Statements like those are difficult for me to hear, and trigger a defensive response inside.
But if I am honest with myself (and I try to be) I have to confess that men are generally oppressive and abusive to women, even if I think that statement does not accurately represent the ways I try to relate to women. I have to admit that, oftentimes, cis-gendered people are insensitive and willfully ignorant of the violence and discrimination that transgendered people face everyday. I have to accept that the history of the religion to which I subscribe is one of terrible atrocities and has caused people a great deal of pain.
I try not to be a participant in the oppression that is common for straight, cis-gendered, male, Christian ministers; but, in many ways, I just am. I am complicit in the systems that oppresses women, ignores trans people, marginalizes immigrants, and more--oftentimes without my intention or knowledge. I may not be the worst kind, but I am still an oppressor.
Furthermore, when a woman says that she doesn't trust men because they rape, responding with "not all men" is really a way of saying "not me." But the conversation is bigger than me. The conversation is about the group that I belong to, and it is true *enough* of the group that I belong to for the statement to be made in general terms. This may be a mindbend: but it can be true that men rape, even though I don't. My individual "innocence" is such a small thing in comparison to centuries of violence done to women by men.
Insisting that we only talk about individuals in these conversations about justice/injustice is to render the conversation impossible: no one can speak about everyone. Perhaps that is the point in demanding we not use generalizations: that we don't actually want to talk about these things. Generalizations have their limits, but they are not useless. They make the conversation manageable.
When I say "not me" to the legitimate frustration of people who have suffered because of people *like* me, I am changing the subject. I'm maintaining the oppression they experience everyday by centering my feelings and concerns over their pain: I am keeping the essence of their lament on the periphery.
I'm saying that what matters, more than their suffering, is that they learn to articulate their oppression with a precision that doesn't implicate me. I am forgetting (or ignoring) that when people are hurting, they speak tersely and forcefully and with urgency. It is unreasonable to expect anything else at a time when such great societal wounds have been poked at by the events of this past weekend.
Using my own privilege as an example, I think it is best to remember that when women, or LGBTQ people, or non-Christians, or whomever speaks in generally negative terms of a group that I belong to, that I have never lost anything when their criticisms have not been very nuanced. I still retain all of the privileges of being American-born, straight, cis-gendered, educated, Christian, and male. But when I center the conversation on my experience and feelings, I swat their voices back into the margins. I become a guardian of the social order that refuses to hear them. I am silencing them. I lose nothing. They gain nothing. Everyone loses.
But if we are willing to listen to those that are further from the so-called "mainstream" [sic] than we, then ground can be gained for everyone. When the marginalized are pulled to the center, and we move toward the margins, we are blurring the lines altogether: we are literally recreating the world. When we do this, we are all laying hold of our highest humanity.
We can begin doing this by saying "I understand." I understand why some women say "Men are terrible." I understand why some transgendered people say "Fuck cis people." I understand why some non-Christians say "Christians are regressive." I understand why some feel that "Ministers can't be trusted." I understand that if the shoe doesn't fit, then they are not talking about me. But more importantly, I understand where that sentiment came from, and I can affirm whatever truth is there. It is only "divisive" if I choose to pull away.
So then, I would ask you, dear white people, to listen. Listen to people of color, even when our tone is charged with frustration and our analysis of the world slices our reality into squares instead of triangles (and leaves on the crust).
I'm not asking you to feel guilty or ashamed of yourselves. I'm asking you to do the heavy lifting when it comes to nuance (internally!) in the racial conversations happening in the wake of Charlottesville. I'm asking you to put your defensiveness in the margins, and center the voices of people of color. I'm asking you to really take stock in what is to be lost or gained in allowing people to talk about their oppression in ways that may even implicate you at times--sometimes even unfairly.
There are black people who simply don't trust white people anymore. That may be hard for you to hear. But can you understand it? There are black people who have mixed feelings about much of white Americas response to Charlottesville? Can you understand that? I'm not asking you to sit down and invite someone to bludgeon you with their rage.
I'm not asking you to put yourself in a position that you cannot handle emotionally or psychologically: please, don't be a masochist about this. But also, don't be cowardly. Be strong and courageous. Be wise. Listen. Try to understand. Investigate further in books and peer-reviewed studies and documentaries. Then come back and listen some more. The main thing is to make whatever contribution we can--great or small--to our collective freedom. This is the way to solidarity. This is the way we overcome.
With love from the shallows of the margins,