Since the election I’ve been listening. Reading, hearing what people are saying.
I thought I was progressive before. And I was, but my definition of progressive had crystallized 15 or 20 years ago and I had only kept up with the discourse on a superficial level since then. My social justice awareness developed within the liberal California college environment of the 90’s, and then deepened during the 5 years I lived in Switzerland. I cared and cared and cared, but with a focus on the issues that dominated in those different environments.
Then I ended up in Norway and had 5 babies in 13 years and focused on that. My caring was devoted to them, and my activist thoughts, those I had the energy for through the haze of sleep-deprivation, focused mostly on birthing and breastfeeding and the right to autonomy over one’s body during these processes. And gender issues, the school system, family issues, parental leave, and so on. And slowly, in sync with my growing fluency in Norwegian language, I began to gain a deeper understanding of the wider issues going on within my new country of residence as well.
The rest of the world was outside this bubble. The US was way outside this bubble. I still cared, but I only got glimpses of what I should be caring about here and there. A friend’s photo from protests in Chicago. A link on facebook to an article another friend wrote in New Orleans. The news, filtered through the small number of websites I could find that didn’t disgust me with their overly obvious bias.
But this winter I was shocked into focusing on US politics again. I knew a lot about the US’s foreign policy issues of these past years (you know, living in a “foreign” place and all), but the domestic issues were more hazy. So I admit I’m one of the shocked. There are many voices out there saying this isn’t new. This racism and bigotry was rampant before and it’s only people with privilege, those who didn’t experience it directly, who can be shocked it exists. And I agree. In that sense I was wrapped in a bubble of privilege over here in Norway and I didn’t realize how extreme it had gotten, or how extreme it was all along, just not focused on in the environments I was part of. I knew this strain was there in US society but I didn’t know it was strong enough to lead to this election result. I’m sorry for not seeing that more clearly before.
And some voices are also saying, the only good side of this election was that the racism and bigotry has been brought out in the open, which might hopefully wake more people up to join in the struggle against it. And I agree with this too. And along with that sentiment comes anger, that it takes this level of assholery to shake the privileged out of their bubbles to join the fight against oppression. Where were we before? (In our bubbles.) Why don’t we care about injustice before it spits in our face and threatens us directly? (Because it’s easier that way, and because we benefited from it. Hard to face but true.) Will we use this momentum to push for real change, or will we fall back into old patterns once the immediate threat is over? (I don’t know what to say, I really hope not the latter.) Are we gonna stay with the struggle for justice or become complacent? (I can only answer for myself. Stay.)
So I’ve been listening.
And I learned that my way of caring was outdated. That the discourse and terminology I knew how to use was stale and superficial. That the conversations had continued without me and the issues had evolved and deepened and changed. I learned new terms which have helped me understand other perspectives on the human experience. I learned that many of the terms I already knew have nuances I was unaware of. And I learned I have a ton more to learn, so I have to keep paying attention.
I learned that ally is almost a dirty word in some activist circles. That it’s not a label one gives oneself, but an action one strives to achieve in each individual situation. In each situation you choose your behavior, and if you see injustice around you, in any big or small way, you choose your actions to be on the side of justice, to turn the situation towards equity and away from oppression. And then, in the next situation, you have to assess and react and make that choice again. Striving to be an ally is about constantly choosing, constantly working to be on the side of justice, each day, each individual situation at a time. I’ve used the term ally in a self-labelling way before and I apologize for that.
I learned that sometimes the best way I as a white person can help is to be quiet and listen. To support and amplify the words of the people who have lived experience with the issue at hand.
Listen. Amplify. Stay in my lane.
If oppression is happening (and it is) I have to listen and read and hear if the issue is being addressed by the group directly affected. I have to lift those voices up, link to them, amplify them, defend them to any white/privileged friends or acquaintances who would belittle or ignore them.
It’s hard not to want to jump in and say your piece on an issue you care about. It’s hard not to want to say “yeah, but I’m not like that” when you hear someone talking about how white people have hurt them. It’s hard, but we have to learn to hear these things and take them in without reacting defensively. We have to let those voices be heard. Let the words come from the people experiencing the injustice. Hear the message in those words without needing to have it filtered through a white perspective first. There are times we should speak, but not when our voice talks over or drowns out marginalized voices.
I see the irony in writing this post about how I’m trying to learn to hang back and just listen. I get that there’s massive centering happening in this post. (That’s what this blog is, mostly, an exercise in centering.) But I write this as a white woman to other white people, other people who may need to learn to listen. Which voices are you hearing? Where do their opinions on the subject come from, lived experience or outside-in observation? What bias do they have? Why is this voice more comfortable to listen to than another?
I want to learn more humility, to increase my ability to sit back and listen. Yet here I am writing this. Finding that magic balance where adding my voice to the discourse is more useful than not is a tricky one. So here’s the thing, after all the learning my listening has brought to me, and though I will humbly attempt to amplify others’ voices when possible, I still feel that when in doubt I have to err on the side of saying something. Because the conundrum is that in some situations staying silent means showing tacit agreement with the oppressor, or the bully, or the President. So when I feel the scales tipping towards injustice, I’ll speak. Or write. Even if I center and whitesplain and whitewash. I’ll try not to do those things, but I know I’ll make mistakes. Then I hope I’ll have the strength to accept the criticism and continue learning. But I also hope my words might reach someone who can learn from them. The blatant racist who “doesn’t see color”. Or the white people who aren’t sure they want to leave their bubble yet. The ones who unfortunately might still need to hear these things first from another white person before they’re able to open their heart to other voices. And the people like me who are trying to figure out how to care without causing harm. Because that’s what it all boils down to, I care.
Which voices are you listening to?