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?”)
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.”