Politeness is a Strategy for People With Less Power to Remain Safe From Further Harm by People With More Power

Dear white boysI find myself wanting to repost this, because it represents something that has been really powerful, pervasive, and personally problematic in my life experience – the idea that the white male perspective is logical and rational, and, therefore, beyond reproach and, by implication, that that which involves emotion is inherently illogical, irrational, and/or dismissible. I encounter this phenomenon a lot and it is oppressive.

Yet, I was hesitant to repost this tweet, because the person who wrote it (Ava Vita Ciccarelli) doesn’t mince words and I fear offending some of the very beloved white men in my life, many of whom I have had this experience with, at one time or another.

I have found it very difficult in my life to name things that aren’t working across lines of power – race, class, and gender, especially. It is hard for me to name specific racial dynamics that are happening in the moment between myself and white people. It is hard for me to name specific gender dynamics that are happening in the moment between myself and cis men. It is hard for me to name specific class dynamics that are happening in the moment between myself and people who have substantially more access to resources than I do. In the places where two or three of those intersect, it becomes that much more difficult. I am practicing it more and more, but it is not easy and the fear that I may alienate someone with whom I deeply want to be in connection (friends, lovers, partners, colleagues, neighbors, clients, etc.) creates a powerful prohibition in me that sometimes has implications not only for my well-being and ease of relating but also for my safety.

Naming these things is profoundly taboo in our culture.

“Politeness,” which often involves keeping quiet when people are causing harm or offense, is a strategy for people with less power to remain safe from further harm by people with more power.

I am descended from many lines of people who were able to stay safe from harm by not giving offense to the offender by naming that offense or harm was done. Anything could happen if you told someone with more power than you that they were harming you. Alienation, loss of relationship, withholding of resources, insult, embarrassment, humiliation, censure, defamation, blacklisting, banishment, bullying, threat, rape, assault, arrest, murder. Anything can still happen. I think of Sandra Bland, dead in police custody under mysterious circumstances after she expressed her honest truth to a police officer about the fact that he was harming her without any right to do so.

The knowledge that anything can happen lives in my body daily. There is a man who hangs out on the street where I work. I practice friendliness toward the people I encounter on my way around town. I smile. I nod. I say hello when people greet me. That results in a great deal of men wanting to interact with me in ways that are over-familiar. Today, I was walked to my car by someone who often greets me and I was hugged three times, without regard for mutuality and at the end of the third embrace, I received a peck on the neck. After the uninvited kiss (and having reached the relative safety of my car), I managed to eke out some kind of statement that indicated that it was over-familiar, but it had been over-familiar and non-consensual from the first. I couldn’t find a way to safely deflect the attention, because anything could happen if I did so, so I did not.

I have strayed from the topic of logic, but when I have tried to delete the paragraph on why it is so hard to refute things across power differentials, I keep coming back to it. It feels essential to name the analysis of risk that is present under the surface of people in positions of less power relative to one another.

I don’t bring this up because the examples in my personal life in which I have clashed with a white man who in that moment believed in his superior logical position were as extreme as to make me fear for my physical safety. In most of them, I feared other things. Alienation, loss of connection or relationship, insult, embarrassment, humiliation. But, because the threat of worse consequences lives inside me, all the time, it can be very difficult to speak up and it can feel laden with risk, even when risk of violent reprisal in the specific circumstance is nil.

I posted my dilemma, because while I actually think it is important to talk about this thing (this assumption of logic that simply comes from being in a privileged and dominant social position), it feels risky to do so, and the risk feels important to be naming, also.

I really appreciate the author of this tweet finding a way to name something that is hard to name – and, in doing so, pushing back against the power structure that holds that in place. She did so in her way and I am glad she did so, inspiring me to open up an internal conversation that is useful for me to have with myself (and, by the miracle of the internet, with all of you). Still, I am not 100% comfortable with the language that the person who wrote the tweet uses. I am not sure if my lack of comfort is because I am so accustomed to accommodating people with greater power or because there may be some assumptions going on in the statement that I would not wish to make or because I think that if I present someone I love with that language, I will lose relationship. I would like to find my way of languaging about this oppressive assumption that the white male perspective is logical (and that other perspectives are not) in ways that are clear and honest and direct and have, at least, the potential to build relationship, rather than to alienate the listener. Most of the time, the listener is someone beloved to me, someone with whom I would wish to address with the utmost respect.

I want to find a way of saying something about this truth that I could say to someone beloved to me when it arises, something like, “I hear that you believe in the logic and the rightness of what you are saying, but your perspective is also informed by your social location (your maleness and your whiteness) and the privileges inherent in those positions and that may cause you to have some blind spots in your being able to see things and relate to truth emerging from other perspectives. My point of view has logic and reason, as well, whether you are able to see it from where you are standing, or not. It is not a given that messages with restricted expression of emotion have less bias or even less emotion guiding them than messages expressed with more affect.”

But I’d like to be able to say that in fewer words (and without the word “affect”). You may have noticed that being concise is not my strong suit.

Any suggestions of how to do it clearly and compassionately with fewer characters?

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