“How dare you!?! How DARE you?!? How dare you call ME a racist!” These words echo through the crowd in the shaky, cell-phone videos of Black Lives Matter activists who took over the podium at last week’s Bernie Sanders event in Downtown Seattle.
When I first heard about the event takeover, I cringed. Not just because of how I knew it would be perceived and received my the majority of white liberals in Seattle. No, I cringed, because this tactic offended my sensibilities. In my head I was already mansplaining why this kind of incivility isn’t changing the conversation for the better–isn’t shifting conditions for Black people; isn’t addressing the heart-change that needs to occur hand-in-hand with systemic change.
I think like this, because I have been taught to think that I own the system. I have been taught that I know the best way, the right way, and that my version of what keeps me comfortable in crucial community conversations is the definition of civil discourse.
The cardinal sin of the two Black Lives Matter organizers was that they did the one thing worse than being an actual racist–they called people racists. Horrors!
There is no worse possible crime in the small, fragile world of our white social consciousness. And the worst way to commit this crime is to do so while expressing authentic emotions of pain, suffering, and anger at a lifetime of oppression. Add on top of this being black women, taking over a microphone and platform reserved for a white-haired, white, male politician, and cue up the outrage.
I say this sarcastically, and I say it in all seriousness. This feeling that I have of being offended because they’re derailing the best current hope for significant political change, just goes to show that my rubric for change is centered on me in my privileged experience of whiteness. Change for who? I’ve been troubled by Sanders’ apparent expectation that his past record working for civil rights should be enough credibility around race in today’s climate. But the whole enterprise of whiteness in our political system is set up to make me think that Bernie’s the good guy.
But a USAmerican president needs to be able to listen to, and engage in the complexity of this USAmerican problem. I honestly think that Bernie (if not completely hogtied by an obstinate congress) could make things a lot better in this country–by my standards. But my standards don’t take into account that we don’t talk about having jobs crises or income inequality as national problems in this country except when they occasionally creep up as problems for white USAmericans. Then they become center-stage issues.
Why? Because white guys own the center stage, that’s why.
Meanwhile, in LGBTIQ-land, part progress and part commodification as target audience means another meaningful moment in our queerstory is finally being told–only, of course, it’s being told as his-story, as per usual.
And by his-story, I mean the story of a white dude. Sure he’s gay, but this is still USAmerica. I wasn’t alive when the riots began at the Stonewall Inn. But, through digging, and searching, I’ve learned the stories. Trans women of color threw the first bricks and fists. While white folks in suits and dresses had marched in tidy lines with polite picket signs, seeking to be treated with respect and civility, those whose bodies and lives would never be “civil” enough took to rioting in the streets. So why has Hollywood decided to tell the story of Stonewall as if it were primarily about the experience of a white man?
And here’s where our language exposes us: those who are unable to be seen as civil–that quality of never bringing discomfort to those in power–are, by definition, un-civil-ized; savages. It’s the myth that “our” way is the “right” way, and the way of those “not like us,” is less than. This thinking runs so very deep in white culture. It is this systemic, linguistic, and internalized bias that makes us ALL racists.
And why is that SOOOO offending to be called a racist? Because it’s uncivilized to call someone a racist–which is to say, it makes me question my status as basically decent, and thus it makes me feel feelings that hurt, and so I get uncomfortable. And in that moment when I feel bad, that’s mirror neurons firing. And that’s empathy for another human being trying to take hold. But I’ve been told that my comfort is more important than your oppression, so I dissociate from that human feeling of empathy and double-down on the assertion that being called a racist is a worse offense than me staying cocooned in my comfort and not addressing my actual participation in and benefits from a racist system.
The reality is that if I choose to listen to the empathy, this uncomfortable task is never going to be done, no matter how many civil rights movements I participate in throughout my life.
I know that white people experience hardship and oppression. God knows, I seek out films that have positive gay protagonists–films that don’t depict gay white men that look like me as werewolves, or serial killers, or monsters. But I don’t get to re-write the events of our common story to put someone who looks like me at the center of our real-life story when that’s not really what happened. Tell me why there’s uproar over Black Santa and Black Spider Man but only whispers on the edges of the conversation when a cute, young, white man is placed in the center of a real-life story that wasn’t his?
If it is true that all lives matter, then there should be no problem whatsoever with shouting at the top of our lungs–for as long as it takes to bring equity–that Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter. Brown Lives Matter. Native Lives Matter. Female Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter. Immigrant Lives Matter. And yes, of course, White Lives Matter. None of these truths cancel out the others. It’s just that only one of these has been codified in our constitution, in our customs, in our language, in our economics, in our religious institutions, and in the fabric of our society. So, there is serious inequity (a word that shares roots with the word iniquity), and that doesn’t get changed by pretending everything is equal without taking the time to understand and change things in reality.
This truth must be acknowledged, confessed, felt, and brought forward for accountability, by those of us who are white: white male lives have long held militarized power in center stage and oppressively forced our definition of civil-ized discourse on our society.
Debates are won by the party who defines the terms of the debate–Especially when that same party has controlled the labor that built the house, held the pen that signed the laws, carried the weapons that enforced control, written the checks, and monopolized the airwaves. Just because something is civil in terms of what keeps me comfortable as a white man, doesn’t mean it isn’t also heinous and unjust.
I don’t know the best way forward. That’s the only place that I know to start from.
I can’t keep operating out of the implicit messages of society that tell me I am right, just because I happen to have been born on center stage, with all the gun-rights, privileges, and conversation-defining responsibilities thereof. My white penis doesn’t make me the most human human. It just makes me unfairly advantaged at this point on our collective timeline.
Hear this, my fellow white folks: being ignorant of our biases is not the same thing as being objective. It is intellectually dishonest to ignore the voices of those who point out our errors. And it is inhumane to cling to our comfort through dissociation from feelings of empathy that could lead us into curiosity and compassion when we hear others tell us that we are part of a problem that is causing pain and suffering for our fellow human beings.
While I like the post-modern socialist idea of disassembling the stage altogether, I recognize that that’s the equivalent of blowing up the ice cream truck as soon as I finish standing at the front of the line and sampling all the flavors. Maybe it saves everyone from getting diabetes in the long run, but in the immediate reality, I’m the only one with any calories in my stomach.
So, perhaps what I need to do is feel my uncomfortable feelings when the discourse feels uncivil. Those feelings might be telling me something about my biases and blind spots. And if I listen, I just might learn some new ways forward through this mess, from people who’ve seen it with more clarity than I have.