Are there folks in our society who have been so oppressed for so long that they ought to get a free pass to act out however they want to for as long as they need to?
Woke folk are saying privileged people need to shut up, for once, and let the traditionally marginalized classes orchestrate the resistance.
It sounds totally fair and reasonable, but it’ll never work. If we take time for the oppressed and marginalized to enact their retribution and recrimination, the cycle will never stop.
The hard work we need to do is more like character acting. It’s how I behave as a parent when I’m exhausted and dispirited, and just I pretend everything’s okay, because that’s the only way to get to fine. We have to play the role of conscientious, egalitarian democrats (little d) until justice prevails. Every single one of us needs to shed our entitlement to righteous exclusion. Today. Nobody gets a free pass to create outsiders.
I’ve been telling my kids since they were little: We ALL are brown. That’s only partly about race. It’s more about our common humanity.
I’m a first generation German American, who has strayed well off the path of condoned femininity. I also have no breasts. I also identify as bi-sexual. Though the tribe of my birth is comprised largely of educated, multi-lingual, politically conservative, European Christians, I’ve found my spiritual anchor in a brilliant, talented, passionate woman from an entirely different cultural universe, who swears like a sailor, and smokes like a chimney: ample reasons for judgment and exclusion from several of my circles.
(Ironically, she comes from a family culture where acceptance is assumed. You don’t have to be “good enough” to belong. You don’t have to prove yourself by demonstrating the approved virtues or the accepted cultural mannerisms of the tribe. If someone in the family loves you and invites you in, you’re part of the clan.)
I am irreligious: spiritual, but enthusiastically, thoughtfully, and deliberately agnostic – convinced that my belief system merits as much respect as yours. I am the mother of two children of color –one Asian, and one African American – whom I have loved and cared for as my flesh and blood since their infancy. What happens to my children, happens to me. I am the mother of a young Asian woman and a black man coming of age in Trump’s America. My heart is brown.
For as long as I can remember, due to the intersections of some of these identities, I’ve experienced hateful looks, dismissal, rejection, silent judgment, scorn, derision, and exclusion (both for attributes that I cultivate and for ones that I can’t change) – even from members of my own tribes. Sometimes I’m acutely aware of the discrimination; sometimes I’m only dimly aware; sometimes I simply accept it as my reality.
At the same time, I know that many are more oppressed and more excluded than I. Many have grown up in entirely marginalized cultures. It would be reasonable for me to take the advice of the community organizers who are saying, “Show up and shut up. Let the habitually oppressed guide the remorseful, well-meaning privileged folk, for a change.”
But sometimes showing up is just me speaking up when someone is demeaned or dismissed. There’s no waiting to be guided. I have to act. Or not act. I can’t be fearful that I might be wrongly righteous. I can’t second guess whether my way of standing up would be approved and certified by a majority of the truly oppressed.
I’m still learning to find an authentic, effective, and sufficiently courageous voice with which to challenge entitlement and abuse. I haven’t yet found the sweet spot, where I know reflexively whether any given battle is worth the cost, or whether it will just make matters worse in one direction or another. I’m still scared I’ll piss off a person of privilege, causing them to feel affirmed and emboldened. I worry about inviting the scorn of those who fear I’ll disrupt their gravy train. I know that at some point I’ll say something wrong and sound like an ignorant, privileged, white girl, angering the folks I meant to stand by.
Still, the older I get, the more I err on the side of challenging entitlements to power in day-to-day interactions – especially from privileged people, who pretend to do their work for the good of the marginalized, but won’t stick out their necks to risk their own entitlements.
Staying neutral, keeping the peace, minding my own business, accepting the party line: these tactics keep me safe in the short run, but I feel how they affirm the abusers and fortify the status quo.
As Frederick Douglas put it:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
While an intersectional lens is clarifying, it also exposes the complexity. It’s impossible to rank people on the basis of who is most oppressed. Who exactly should show up and shut up is not as simple as it sounds. The admonitions to demand justice always, and to show up and shut up are hard to write into the same marching orders.
As long as I’m expected to silence myself for the sins of the righteous excluders who happen to be members of one or more of my intersecting tribes, I can’t carry any torches. And nobody benefits from that more than the already powerful.
I choose, instead, to risk my status and privilege to help create a more fair and balanced community.
Regardless of how legitimate are our claims to injury, it’s impossible to build a just, diverse, and thriving civil society on a framework of righteous exclusion.
Our only option, if we want to reclaim American democracy – of, by, and for the people – is to live the understanding that we ALL are brown.
• The featured image is one of a series of illustrations I did several years ago for a project that never took off. It’s available in several iterations at Cafe Press.