When activism becomes what it shouldn’t

I want to talk about something that will poke a lot of my fellow seminary students, and maybe even quite a few people in the various social media outlets I’m on. There are a lot of posts about privilege and oppression out there. I agree, quite strongly, that these are important subjects and that people should learn about their various areas of privilege or lack of privilege in their own lives. But some of the ways that liberal/progressive (and primarily academic) culture makes me wonder if we’re doing more harm than good for those who are actually trying to learn.

Here’s something from a blogger named Hannah Wilder (emphasis mine):

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon. […] The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression.

This is something I see all the time. It’s happened to me on many occasions where I’ve said something that wasn’t correct or unintentionally stupid, and the reaction from the Activist was basically: “Sit down and shut up you vile oppressive idiot!” Usually followed by being ignored or even physically shunned. I’ve seen female instructors do this in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to the white males in their classes, cis or trans. Basically not “bothering” to call on them in class, even if they have powerful stories to tell. Most of these are men who are actively trying to learn about their role in patriarchy and how to change it. I’ve seen it happen in many groups where there’s the attitude of “Well, you’re not a Real Activist for X because you’re not Y.”

But there’s a difference between someone making an honest mistake and someone being intentionally hurtful or ignorant. For example, in the years since I’ve met and married my wife, who is transgender, I have made plenty of mistakes. Some that were hurtful to her, even though I didn’t realize it until she pointed it out to me. These were difficult conversations for us, but I learned. She didn’t yell at me, or shout “check your privilege!” at me, but she also didn’t hold back on the realities of the harm that what I said (or done) had caused. This also made me want to read more about the realities of the lives of transgender people on my own, which I have done. It has led me to do activism around gender in the Pagan community so that the Pagan community is a better place for my wife and others like her.

I have learned to be better because I have had people in my life who have been willing to educate me on this, and racism, and other forms of oppression and marginality. Do I always get it right? Do I always say the right things? That would be impossible: I’m a fallible human. But I didn’t learn anything from anyone who has immediately shut me down and told me to shut up.

And yes, there are those who are intentionally malicious and hurtful, or those who continue to hold bigoted beliefs even though they have been shown much evidence that their beliefs are wrong and harmful. Some people just can’t be talked to, and some people are just idiots (liked comment trolls…yikes…). I think, for these folks, it depends on whether you want to waste your time and energy beating your head against a brick wall.

Someone who is asking why something is hurtful and trying to understand a group that they just don’t have any experience in, however, is taking the leap to be better than who they are. They want to do the right thing and are trying to navigate a terminology and language they don’t understand that well. Their brains are being broken because they are seeing, sometimes for the first time, the system as it really IS and how they’ve perpetuated a broken and evil system. It’s new, internally icky, and hard. Being told to Google it or go read bell hooks when one’s brain is broken is like being told to knit a sweater in 5 days when you can’t even cast the yarn onto the needles. The average person is more likely to give up rather than learn how to knit and purl.

This doesn’t mean that the anger of being asked questions all the time, and about being the “token” marginalized person in groups isn’t a real thing. Hell, I get tired of it being one of the few Wiccans at a Christian seminary. Some days I just want to say “Oh, just go read the Witches’ Bible and go away!” But, I’m willing to be a person someone can ask questions of and get an honest answer from. It is something I have the will and energy to do.

The biggest thing to remember, I think, is that not everyone has the will or the energy to be all things to all people. An Ally may only have the will and energy to educate themselves and not be a jerk to other people in a particular community. The Activist may be in a place where they just don’t want to answer one more damn question about their marginality. And some people just want to live their lives in peace. Respect goes both ways here. Respect from the Seeker that the person they ask the questions of may not want to answer them, and may possibly refer them to other people and sources. Respect from the Activist to recognize that the Seeker is not being malicious and hurtful, but is honestly trying to understand. There’s a difference for the Seeker between being told “I’m sorry, but I can’t answer that for you now.” and “Go read a fucking book!” The first can be understood, the second drives people away. And for some people, it’s a matter of saying “Hey! What you said is not ok, and here’s why.” Sometimes, that’s all it takes for someone to get it.

And this leads me to community. We are not alone on this planet, and while some people may not have the will and energy to answer a Seeker’s questions, there are others out there who will. There are certain topics I just can’t talk about in a way that will do it justice, but I do know people who are willing and able to talk to people about their marginality in order to educate people. I will refer Seekers to the appropriate people who I know will be honest with them and not sugarcoat their answers, but also show compassion to the Seeker.

As a wise pastor once told me, “even the margins have margins…” and sometimes all we know how to do is to act like the oppressor because we don’t know anything else. We all know that this is a model that doesn’t work, so why, when we know about our privileges and oppressions, do we think that emulating a broken system will change it? I’d rather assume a more compassionate system and pray that it’ll work, even if I make mistakes.

Posted in Uncategorized.Tagged .

11 thoughts on “When activism becomes what it shouldn’t

  1. “Someone who is asking why something is hurtful and trying to understand a group that they just don’t have any experience in, however, is taking the leap to be better than who they are.”

    So much this!


  2. Yes. Exactly. And with my social anxiety added in, it’s completely overwhelming, trying to figure out what being a good person in the context of activism even means. What you are describing is *exactly* why I never describe myself as an Ally. Because I can’t promise to read all the right books and blogs, to know without having to be told, to always be up for fighting on even my own behalf, much less everyone else’s, and I definitely can’t speak with anyone else’s voice than my own. So if what I CAN do isn’t enough, and I’m just in the way if it’s not, I guess I’d better get out of the way.

    Which is also how the marginalized-in-some-ways-but-not-others end up feeling especially fucked by this phenomenon. They’re already told constantly in the contexts where they’re *not* privileged that they need to shit down and shut up, and now they’re being told in the contexts where they *are* privileged that they need to sit down and shut up, leaving nowhere safe to speak.

    Intersectionality is a tangled mess. If compassion isn’t the key to detangling it, I don’t know what is.


    1. I should clarify – I totally get it that the need for privileged folks to take a back seat and let the marginalized folks have their space is real, and legitimate. I’m not saying “how dare those marginalized people take safe space away from less marginalized people!”

      I’m observing a pattern of feedback loops on triggering each other when people of different marginalized natures try to negotiate for safe space.


      1. I totally understand. That’s what really bolstered this rant in the first place. I don’t want to take away from people’s need for space, nor do I want a cookie, but if someone who’s trying to figure it all out has no safe place to ask the questions then change won’t happen. If you’re going to get righteously angry at someone and not explain it to them, then what are they going to learn, right?

      2. The metaphor in my head is a bridge across a chasm, where the bridge is closely monitored to make sure people aren’t crossing it from the progress side. But nobody on the regress side can step *onto* the bridge in order to progress if anyone *on* the bridge is struck down.

        There needs to be some way to recognize which direction a person is walking, before deciding whether to strike.

        But I think this is true of any social learning process, not specific only to people trying to learn their way out of political mind traps. There is a strong tendency in general to tell people they’ve fucked up, but not tell them how to do better next time, or sometimes even WHAT they did wrong.


      3. You wrote:
        “There is a strong tendency in general to tell people they’ve fucked up, but not tell them how to do better next time, or sometimes even WHAT they did wrong.”

        Yes, exactly this. I do think it’s appropriate for a person’s response to show the hurt and anger it caused, but just leaving someone flapping in the breeze with no reasons for why something they did was wrong will not change behaviors. Lashing out is easy. Change is hard.

  3. I am not a regular reader of this blog. Someone who is sent out the link to see if any of us would be interested in the conversation. Yes I am interested in the conversation. I am a POC Queer person and a progressive Christian. I have seen this happen. I myself have been asked by allies to explain something. I would advise you to pay attention to the marginalized groups you are working with and your peers who are working with you in doing the work. I am pretty sure you will find a person who is willing to answer your questions. If you want a safe place to discuss the issues, then perhaps you should create the space. I am going to assume you are from a privileged group. As a POC and other social locations that make me not part of the dominant culture, I am impressed and generally compassionate when I see an ally trying to make change and showing that they are “doing the work” and still have questions. Good luck to you and please do not become discouraged and decide to stop trying to make a difference in the world.

    1. Yes, I am from a privileged group, and I am very lucky to have safe people to talk about these issues with. I do have my own intersectionalities (I’m queer, fat, poly and Wiccan-Christian) and I make myself open to others to talk about them. I do have one question for you, though. You wrote:

      “If you want a safe place to discuss the issues, then perhaps you should create the space.”

      How do you define this? I think I get what you’re saying here, but I ask because this can be interpreted by others in not-so-good ways. For example: in the work I did around the Budapestian Dianics and transgender women’s inclusion, one of the common responses was “Well, transgendered women should make their own rituals!” While that’s not a bad notion in and of itself, it also came off as a “separate but equal” kind of mentality and caused more pain and anger. Change only really seemed to happen when trans and cis women had conversations and rituals together. If there’s safe place for discussion, yet the people who are effected by the whatever marginality aren’t there, then I would think that the conversation would be pointless.

      1. Fair question. What I am saying is to create a discussion group of some sort composed of privileged people that are truly interested in educating themselves and invite others who are not privileged to be part of the group discussion. Let them know what you are trying to do. The worst they could say is no thank you. Continue in your activism. Do not give up. Good luck.

Leave a Reply