Recently I found myself trying to explain to someone why I believe so strongly that it is the people with the least to lose — the ones indeed, who (seem to) have no fucking horse in the race at all — who have the greatest responsibility when it comes to standing up for those who are oppressed in big and little ways.
Ultimately and in the moment, I failed. I could not get this man to understand that when he happens to be in a space in which (say, for example...) a woman is being chastised, criticized or shamed for the shape of her body — for the very way in which she takes up physical space in the world — that maybe he’s wrong about it being “none of his business” because “dai, succede” and because anyway, “è più importante che lei risponde da se, per difendersi da sola”...
That maybe he is not only a person who could say something, but — as someone who is not that woman, and not a woman at all — a person who should...
Afterwards I thought of a bit in Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, where she mentions this great metaphor for racism as an airport’s moving walkway, in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race, by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.
This is how the metaphor works:
Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may ... choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.
From there I thought of Toi Derricotte in The Black Notebooks—on white people’s responsibility to speak up to, confront (or at the very least and for the love of Pete, to please just fucking sometimes interrupt) racism:
That’s when I realized that it is much easier for white people to confront racism than it is for blacks. Because no matter what a white person says or does about racism, they are still white, which gives them the privilege of being listened to without already having been judged as doubly unreliable—unreliable because they are black and, therefore, foolish, and unreliable because they are merely acting defensively, defending their own race.
She said for me to escape the pain while others are not able to made me a betrayer.
And from there in turn, I think of Vivek Shraya in even this page is white:
because i believe in the value of dialogue
and because white people listen to white people
Admittedly, I do feel resentful when white people do or say nothing at all, because of this fear you are talking about. So much of my own learning this year has been recognizing anti-Black racism specifically, how different this is from my own experience as a person of colour, and my own privilege in this respect. It has been challenging and even uncomfortable at times to know how to show solidarity. But I constantly have to remind myself that being an ally is ultimately learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That it’s more important that I use my voice and privilege, and probably mess up along the way, than saying or doing nothing.
This has also been the year when I have been saying to white friends, it’s not enough to not be racist, I need you to step up.
I think too, of a meme I have been seeing on and off these last few months. Not the famous quote about silence from Elie Wiesel, though of course there’s that too. This one is perhaps a little more “in your face”:
More constructively perhaps, I think of Ijeoma Oluo in So You Want to Talk About Race, explaining how these moments... When you have the luxury of being ‘neutral’ and disaffected, when — as Wiesel might say — you are neither the tormentor nor the oppressed... These are the moments when your privilege intersects with somebody else’s lack thereof. And they are the very places where you have the most power, responsibility, and access to making real change. The very places where you can best begin to dismantle systemic oppressions.
Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.
Because you know that system in systemic oppression? It’s not made up of structures and institutions alone. It’s made up of individuals too. It’s made up of you and me.
Of course, many of these examples and quotes are about the particular systemic oppression that has to do with racism and white supremacy. With those who are white and those who are not. But they work too — they are useful and illuminating too — when you swap in most other kinds systemic oppressions. The ones that have to do with those who are men and those who are not. Those who are straight and those who are not. Those whose bodies conform to social standards of beauty and “health,” and those whose bodies do not. Those who are from “here” and those who are not. Those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” in the world of neoliberal capitalism, and those who have not.
Finally, I think the two things I almost always think, and have been thinking for some years now:
One. That nobody is asking you to start an argument—let alone to win one. (Whatever ‘winning’ might even mean in this context...) You don’t have to get on a soapbox—not even a small one. All you have to do is interrupt the moment, even if only in the smallest, slightest — and even the kindest and quietest — of ways. In whatever way feels to you doable, sustainable, and safe.
And two. That if you can’t and won’t do this. With these moments that are here in your everyday, at hand. In these ways that are small and slight—that could not be really, any smaller and slighter. Then how are you going to do anything else?
How are you going to even begin?
[Santo Spirito, Firenze | giovedì 02 settembre 2021 ore 14:08:30] [¶]
[Beverly Daniel Tatum] [Elie Wiesel] [Felicia Rose Chavez] [Ijeoma Oluo] [Toi Derricotte] [Vivek Shraya]
[bodies & beauty] [individuals & systems] [neoliberalism] [patriarchy] [silence & complicity] [race & racism] [whiteness]