A few days ago, I read an excellent article in Very Smart Brothas by editor-in-chief Damon Young entitled “Polite White People Are Useless.” Being a polite white person myself, my first reaction at seeing the title was that slight rise of defensiveness in the pit of my stomach– you know what I’m talking about, white people. That feeling of “BUT BUT BUT.” “But I don’t do this” “But I don’t mean it like that” “But I’m not racist” “But #notallwhitepeople” The feeling that immediately informs me: HERE LIES YOUR COMPLICITY IN WHITE SUPREMACY. Pursue this. Sit in your discomfort. Listen and learn.
Sometimes that feeling means it’s something I’m doing myself. Sometimes it means it’s something I’m letting pass unchallenged. So I used my discomfort as intuition and clicked on the article. In the article, Damon Young defines “polite white people” as “white people who call for decorum instead of disruption when attempting to battle and defeat bias and hate.” I let that slide at least half the time I see it on social media. “It’s just Facebook” is something I personally disagree with vehemently. Ideas put into the world do not wait for a particular venue to have their impact. Yet here I was, using “it’s just Facebook” as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Ugh. Here lies your complicity in white supremacy.
While I was processing this, I encountered the inevitable calls for “calm” and calls against “constant outrage” in my various feeds, all from cishet white people with Christian heritage. I began to think deeply about this in the context of the VSB article. What do these people actually mean when they ask us to tone down the “outrage machine” or when they tell us an issue is “just a distraction?”
What are these issues about which we should be “calm”?
We’re battling literal Nazis. (“But they’re such a small group.”)
The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 demonstrating that white supremacists were infiltrating law enforcement as a deliberate strategy and nothing was done about it due to conservative backlash. (“That doesn’t sound right.”)
And now several metropolitan police forces are quietly dismissing hundreds of thousands of cases (900,000 in New York alone), and paying out millions in settlement dollars due to police officers planting evidence (repeatedly in Baltimore) and arresting innocent people of color to meet quotas (“But they were caught, so, good, right?”)
The Trump Administration attempts to block police reform and coddles white supremacists. (“You can’t fight every little thing.”)
One of the worst natural disasters of our lifetimes has devastated Texas, causing an urgent humanitarian crisis. Thirty-one people have died and tens of thousands have lost everything and are living in packed shelters, yet now is the time Evangelical Christians (who make up a full quarter of our nation’s population) saw fit to release a document condemning all LGBTQ people and all Christians who support the human rights of LGBTQ people. By current estimates, there are about a million LGBTQ Texans, and LGBTQ people of color make up 55% of that. (“Evangelicals always hate LGBTQ people, so what does it matter?”)
I am barely scratching the surface.
Calls for “calm” and posts denouncing the “outrage machine” are difficult to hear when it’s your family on the line. White Christians overwhelmingly voted for a man who ran on hate and support him as he governs from a place of hate. Hate of journalists; hate of women; hate of Mexicans; hate of Black people; hate of the disabled; hate of Muslims. He has a long history of racism and of courting white supremacists. While bigotry and racism are not new in this nation by a long shot, what we are seeing is a cultural moment where it’s become fashionable among a certain group of people to express these views openly. Now racism is an open badge of honor for some, a winking disingenuous pretense for even more. From the right it’s “I’m not racist; I just think the Confederate flag and Confederate statues are our heritage”; from the left it’s “Identity politics are holding us back; economic justice will solve racism, so we don’t need to work on it directly unless it’s obvious racism. And of course by that I mean racism that is obvious to me as a white man.”
This upswing in white willingness to be either openly and actively racist or to cast an abdication of responsibility for white supremacy as a greater good has already resulted in violence. Violent racists are emboldened by everything from outright encouragement to a lack of resistance. This new willingness to either openly express active bigotry or support it winkingly while pretending to oppose it extends to sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, homophobia– everything people mean when they decry “identity politics.”
With all that in mind, what does it mean when people with privilege call for “calm” or an end to “constant outrage”? What does it mean when people with privilege scold others for responding to “distractions”— a label used almost exclusively for issues of concern to marginalized populations? What does it mean when people with privilege tell others to stop reacting to bigotry? Specifically what are they asking for?
What could they be asking for but silence? Less vocal insistence that the human rights of targeted populations be achieved and protected? A respite from open resistance?
When you ask targeted populations “aren’t you tired of the constant outrage?” it’s like asking someone getting beaten in an alley if they’re tired of getting hit. OF COURSE we’re tired of constant outrage. But what choice do we have? And if you have the cultural privilege that gives you a choice, it means something specific when you choose “stop reacting to distractions” or “I’m sick of the outrage machine.”
Decrying “distractions” and “the outrage machine” is just another aspect of privilege fragility. “I cannot take the discomfort that comes with your struggle for human rights, and I want to be the gatekeeper who decides what’s important enough to fight and what we should let pass.” When people with privilege set themselves up as the gatekeepers who decide what merits outrage and what does not, we are actively preserving that privilege. Gatekeeping is a major function of cultural privilege.
Now more than ever we need to take breaks for self-care during the chaotic Trumpian news cycle. We each cannot personally react to every new horror that occurs, especially as tribalism has replaced patriotism, frustratingly making the usual tactic of raising awareness through education far less effective. On the right, tribalism takes the form of continuing to support a president who defends people marching under Nazi, KKK, and white supremacist banners as “very fine people” who just happened to show up to a march advertised with images of Confederate flags, Nazi eagles, and the names of several of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists. On the left, it takes the form of supporting people who claim that “identity politics” are destroying us, as if issues of concern to the liberal base– women and people of color– are a detour from “real” issues (i.e., the issues important to white men). This constant barrage of nonsense is exhausting. But taking a break for your own self-care is a world apart from telling others they should shut up (“stop reacting to distractions”; “stop feeding the outrage machine”).
When someone is reacting to bigotry, especially if it’s bigotry you do not personally experience, especially if that reaction makes you uncomfortable, stop and listen. Think: why is this important to this person? What experiences have they had to make this issue crucial to them? What do they need to see from me as a person with privilege? Is my voice even needed in this discussion?
Nothing positive is contributed to the discussion– or to the world–by calling for “calm” in the face of bigotry, by scoffing at the “outrage machine” when people speak out against hate, by calling bigotry “a distraction,” or by denouncing “identity politics” when people are fighting for their basic human rights. I’ve been in conversations where people have been called out for this and responded so beautifully it moved me to tears. And I’ve been in conversations where the exact opposite happened.
Discomfort sucks. Believe me, I know. But the discomfort that comes from confronting your own privilege and your complicity in systems of oppression is nothing compared to experiencing that oppression. Most of us have an intersectional identity that encompasses some of both, so let’s use that to draw on when we see others speaking out about issues important to them rather than tell them their issues are “a distraction” or “just part of the outrage machine.”
The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but an angry hemorrhoid cannot be ignored by the status quo (no matter the level of privilege). Nor will it go away unless it receives the proper kind of care and attention.
Right. Yes. Thank you. Yes.
“When someone is reacting to bigotry, especially if it’s bigotry you do not personally experience, especially if that reaction makes you uncomfortable, stop and listen. Think: why is this important to this person? What experiences have they had to make this issue crucial to them? What do they need to see from me as a person with privilege? Is my voice even needed in this discussion?”
I suggest some serious reflection. We should not proceed with calm and discourage the escalation on all fronts of this cultural war?
You want go risk everything on revolution. What possible evidence do you have that this will work to any desired effect? The progressive movement has so far failed to achieve equity at every turn. Google spent 235 million dollars to achieve this and they failed.
We have all of history to indicate that cultural war using collective guilt always ends in tragedy.
Unintended consequences are a given.
Calm is essential. Perhaps think of it as composure. Haven’t you ever rushed anyone to the ER?
There’s nothing wrong with composure. If you are the kind of person who can stay calm in an emergency, good for you! But the problem is when you dismiss and shame people who cannot stay calm. When people say things like, “Stop focusing on identity politics”, they might as well be saying, “God! Why can’t you stop being such a crybaby and making this entire trip to the ER about *your* broken arm! *I’m* going out of my way to take you to the ER and *I’m* staying perfectly calm, so sit down and shut up!” You wouldn’t say that. You would say, “I acknowledge your pain and I take it seriously, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you.”
Incidentally, I have personally rushed a friend of mine to the ER when she was having a panic attack. You know what’s surprisingly, paradoxically unhelpful when someone is having a panic attack? Telling them to calm down. Even though calming down is literally the “solution” to panic, someone having a panic attack is not helped by being silenced, shamed, dismissed, patronized, or told, “Calm down! It’s all in your head!” Even if that is literally true, it’s completely useless advice. If it were that easy, no one would ever suffer from anxiety. It’s actually a hell of a lot more complicated, and pretending otherwise helps no one.
I have driven family to the ER as they were having strokes. I didn’t tell them to do anything, I instinctively stayed calm.
Bad analogy on my part, so I will be straightforward: Asking people to reconsider acts of political violence, asking them to reconsider committing to extreme ideological interpretations of everyday behavior and mistakes to find hidden white supremacy, asking them to reasonably reconsider the prevalence and influence the Nazi movement in America is all vitally necessary in this climate.
Is it insensitive? Maybe. Does that mean we should validate *unchecked rage and paranoia*? No. Not in anyone’s best interests.
We are at the point now where Berkeley is on lock down for tomorrow’s Ben Shapiro speech. Why? Activists say yes an alt right white supremacist fascist. Don’t trust me, they are marching under this delusion right now.
Is Shapiro these things? No. The Alt Right hate him for being Jewish. I find no evidence of him being anything other than a thoroughly mainstream conservative. He does reject any interpretation of transgenderism other than the mental illness model. Does this make his very presence a threat to the lives of trans people, or does that make him an asshole?
I ask because Antifa will show up and attack people over this conflation of conservatism with supremacy with Nazism because we are losing our grip as rhetoric spirals. There are armed cops, a police perimeter, a limited audience, and will be wall to wall coverage as protesters and counterprotestors square off to stop the white supremacist or defend free speech.
Over Ben Shapiro. At Berkely.
Now is the time to calm down.
Love this thoughtful analysis. Thank you.