Activism, Feelings, Language

Some scattered thoughts in light of a few events I’ve attended in recent weeks and of what is currently going on at my old university.

To be an person of color is often to be a teacher by compulsion, by un-intention. For many, sometimes well-intentioned, people you exist as an educational resource. They don’t notice the resources you expend to explain to them every little thing. They don’t understand why you are exhausted by explaining– because emotional labor is invisible and uncompensated, always.

People who are considered white in American definitions of whiteness, who complain that the rhetoric of anti-racism, the mantras of intersectional feminism, the chants against white supremacy, are depriving them of their right to speak and be good activists too do not account for the fact that one lesson from a teaching moment does not an advocate-expert make. They presume that to be a good activist means to speak for everyone, when truly a good activist is one who knows who they can genuinely speak for. “It’s so hard to speak for everyone,” is the automatic reaction to the charge that white liberal activism on women’s rights, on LGBTQ rights, etc erases the narratives and struggles of minorities. Therein lies the problem, that you think it is your right, your duty to speak for people who are more than capable of speaking for themselves, who want to in this instance, for once, actually be the teaching moment. “Nope! I’ve learned my one lesson, thank you, more than capable of speaking about the black struggle now. Thanks for the chat.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to a discussion group on intersectional feminism that was open to all, regardless of gender identity or race or ethnicity. And I watched closely as it devolved into a long back and forth of white fragility, a series of white raised hands and white anxieties about being bad allies, about damaging the unity of the ‘movement’, about why white empathy is met with ingratitude. I watched as an event about the feminist struggle for women of color became an event in which women of color too silently listened to white others speak about feminism and “people of certain communities”. I watched how non-white girls couldn’t bring themselves to say the words white feminism for fear of being aggressive, even as they tried to explain why white feminism is problematic. I watched another teaching moment unfold. I found myself teaching as well. I don’t know for sure if anyone learned a thing by the end.

The experience of failed attempts at solidarity remind one why solidarity is so important. It also reminds one of what a losing battle we are currently fighting, of all the emotional work being dissipated as heat, of the need for more efficient machines.


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