Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Activist Olympics

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality

Anyone familiar with this blog knows about “oppression olympics”, in which people who are victims of various -isms attempt to trump each other by declaring that their particular type of oppression is more damaging than another’s. Well, I seem to notice a trend going on, which I will call “activist olympics”.

It seems to me that in “white anti-racist” circles (a term which I despise) there is a lot of competition to prove who is the most openminded, the best activist, the least offensive and the most willing to admit their white privilege. Every time I read an article online about “white anti-racist” activism, it seems like there are dozens of responses from white people about what the person did wrong, how offended POC should be by this particular person or brand of activism, and how the activist is “showing their privilege”.

And when the “white anti-racists” are done with their critiques of the person who performed the activist work in question, they retreat into their corners, read a book, write a blog, and do nothing to promote justice in any concrete way.
Now, I am NOT saying that “white anti-racists” should not be held to careful scrutiny when they perform activist work. What I am saying is that this single minded focus on the details of their words and deeds takes focus away from the outcome of their activism. And, constant debate about the merits of various types of activism leads to a potential activist becoming paralyzed in inaction. Basically, if a “white anti-racist” wants to spend time criticizing another, equal time should be spent actually performing concrete activism. Maybe, instead of just tearing apart other “allies” we should use their mistakes to improve our own activism. Maybe, instead of trying to “prove” that another “white anti-racist” is doing something WRONG, we can suggest ways to do something RIGHT. It seems like that is sorely lacking in the “white anti-racist” community.

It seems to me that a lot of people who call themselves “white anti-racists” believe that they have a corner on knowing what is and is not offensive to POC. The way the story usually goes: A white activist tells a story about how they interceded in a situation where a POC was being abused by another white person. They give a general overview of the situation, and then the other white folks who read about it dive in and pick the story apart to tell the person how awfully they offended the POC involved (as if the white folks KNOW whether or not the POC were offended).

Then they proceed to talk about how the activist was “showing their privilege” by getting involved in a situation and being patronizing towards the POC involved, I don’t know, maybe they feel it is better to leave the POC hanging and not do anything at all out of fear of being perceived as a “white savior”??

It seems like if a white person does not get involved, other white people want to call them out for not being an activist. But if they do get involved, the other white people want to accuse them of being “white saviors”. Meanwhile, the POC who was actually present for the events in question is pushed aside while the “good white folk” debate about whether the activist’s actions were offensive to that POC.  As if they know what they POC was thinking. As if they believe that the POC involved had no voice of their own and could not possibly express if they were actually feeling offended.

Now, my argument has been construed as meaning that I believe that an ally does not deserve to be critiqued. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that a bunch of white folks sitting around and discussing the minute details of someone’s activism and making assumptions about how POC will feel about said activism is non-productive.  If a person is an ally and believes that another ally acted incorrectly, then why not go out an use that example to improve your own activism instead of spending hours telling the person how wrong they were to get involved, and assuming that POC will feel a certain way about the situation because a white ally thinks they should?

Let me make this abundantly clear: I am NOT referring to the criticism of allies by POC. I am referring to the tendency among people who claim to be allies to spend more time critiquing other white allies and claiming to know what POC feel about their actions then they actually do performing any sort of activism.

I have often fallen into this pattern myself. I will be the first to admit that often when I read the words of a “white anti-racist”, my first response is often to pick out the small details of what they did wrong rather than focusing on what they did right. It is as if something inside me doubts the intentions of other white people to such a degree that I cannot seem to grasp the concept that they really ARE dedicated to justice. Instead, I want to pick out the details of where they went wrong, and how it differs from what I BELIEVE an ally should or should not be.

Now, I am also not saying that allies should not hold each other responsible for the things we do wrong and the mistakes we make. What I am saying, is that allies should not be competing with each other to “prove” who is the “better” ally. We should be cooperating with each other and providing CONSTRUCTIVE feedback, rather than never ending scathing criticism with no suggestions for improvement.

I just see this tendency on the part of “white anti-racists”  and “allies” to assume that they know how POC feel about other white people and their attempts at activism. Sorry, but if I get involved in some sort of activism with a multi-racial coalition, and the only people critiquing me are white people who tell me I am not doing things the right way, I have to wonder... who are these “allies” that believe that they know what the POC I am working with are feeling? Do they think that POC do not have voices of their own, and cannot speak up when an “ally” is doing something offensive?

Of course, I am not above reproach when it comes to this topic. I am so cynical about other white people that I am constantly have to suppress the desire to see myself as a “super ally” who is SO MUCH more genuine about her desire to affect change than these OTHER white folks! Shoot, maybe that is how this whole article sounds.... like I am trying to “prove” what a great ally I am!

I have to admit... while I understand that POC have no responsibility to “educate” white people about how to be anti-racists, I have an issue with the idea of a bunch of white folks sitting around and deciding what POC are or should be offended by and then spreading the word to other white people without ever actually getting the input of a POC.

There is also this assumption on the part of “white anti-racists” that there is only one set of standards that all allies must abide by. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken about my feelings about activism, only to be shut down by “white anti-racists” who want to tell me I am wrong, and that I need to study Tim Wise in order to understand how to be a TRUE ally.

Well, you know what? Being an activist is NOT about being PERCEIVED as being correct and doing the right thing. It is about actually GOING OUT AND DOING IT! I will be the first to admit that I have spent many years trying to figure out how to “do the right thing” without APPEARING INCORRECT that I have not actually gotten off of my ass and done the things that I would like to do.

No matter WHAT, a “white anti-racist” does, no matter how perfectly they follow a certain set of unwritten “rules”, they are going to, at some point, act in some way that some person will be offended by. The thing is, that should not stop one from actually going out and fighting for what is right.


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NOTE: I did include "write a blog" when I said that many do nothing "concrete" to promote justice, but on further reflection, I do believe that writing a blog is, while not the "ultimate" form of activism, something a bit more concrete than just reading a book or doing nothing at all.

I know some of us, myself included, have issues that do not allow us to be out on the front lines, for example, attending a protest rally, and the awareness we can reach by writing a blog is a positive thing.

I do believe we all can and should do more though, bloggers included. "