I Am Not Your Rent-A-Negro

expecting marginalized peoples

Source: CisHits                                                                                                                                             .

As much as I am personally invested in daily discussing race, class, sexuality, and gender honestly, openly, and as generously as I can, I still do not do it on demand or even on request.

Because I do speak very openly about race in particular, I receive a lot of inquiries to help or to teach or to give guidance to white people (in particular) about how they can improve their hiring practices, their dating mojo, their etiquette, or their organization’s racial skillfulness, among other things.

This is extremely challenging emotional and practical labor which I do not enjoy nor wish to volunteer for. Furthermore, I often experience requests for that kind of assistance as an experience of entitlement that is, in itself, racially loaded. These days I don’t want to even respond to these requests with a conversation about why the answer is no. It is hard to hold my boundary around it and explain it all skillfully, compassionately, and empathetically to some dear friend or well-meaning acquaintance when I’m feeling triggered. That is tricky, complex labor that I am not volunteering to do.

When I am speaking across difference to someone in a position of greater power than myself about the particular experience I have as a person in a more marginalized position with respect to that particular power, it is complex, intricate, nuanced, and often wearying work. I do it when I wish to and when I am in a strong place and/or when I am feeling generous and willing, and mostly, I do it on my terms. Love you as much as I do (and I do), I do not do it to benefit your business or your sex life or your conscience.

I imagine there are people and books and organizations and websites that are devoted to helping folks develop these skills. I hope that you will kindly pay good money to some individual whose chosen work it is to do this labor, and not just reach out to me (or others) as your one black (or whatever category you’re looking for support with) friend to ask all the questions you are wanting to know the answers to.

I am afraid this message sounds unfriendly. I think my tone may be sharp when it comes to this, because I think it isn’t understood what the cost of the interaction is. The cost is significant to me. The reason you may be met with silence when you ask this labor of me is because I have not found a friendlier way to talk about it. My silence is friendlier than my words about it would be.

Sometimes it comes up in another context – with myself and an intimate partner – and here it is more complicated. My white friends, lovers, and partners have asked me to let them know if they say or do something that is triggering on the basis of race, in particular. Sometimes, I am going to be able to do this. Oftentimes, I am not. Even when I would wish to. Sometimes, it is just too hard or too slippery to talk about or I’m feeling alienated or unsafe and the safest thing I can do is to pretend that nothing happened while I regroup and try to remember that you are not a stranger and are not an enemy but a friend who, like myself, is the product of profound amounts of conditioning. I haven’t succeeded in overthrowing all of my conditioning, so why should I be expecting you, dear beloved human, to have overthrown all of yours?

This explanation is in lieu of an apology for my silence.

Thank you for listening.

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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?

Please Look For The Blindfold Covering Your Eyes. Then Remove It.

Please look for the blindfold covering your eyes. Then remove it. Underneath that blindfold, there will be another. Remove that blindfold. Underneath that blindfold, there will be yet another. Keep removing blindfolds until your eyes are uncovered. Allow the eyes to adjust. Bring them into focus. See. Don’t just stop at just “seeing.” Look around at the injustice, the inequities, and the lies. Integrate this information into your understandings of the world. Help your friends, family, neighbors, police forces, and lawmakers remove their blindfolds. Help them see. Help them look. Help them understand. Put your understandings together with the understandings of others. Make change. Make a difference. Make it better.
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Cartoon by Ann Telnaes: