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“Cold” is a Relative Term

james-cameron-finally-explains-everyones-biggest-problem-with-titanic(Gina Faldetta)– “If your activism makes your oppressor feel comfortable than maybe you should reevaluate your activism.” This quote recently intrigued me because of its relevance to my life here at Amherst. I’ve been told that the messages I try to send about social issues would come across better if I worked harder to communicate them in a calm and perhaps friendly manner. It’s not that I doubt this is true–yelling at people only serves to put them on the defensive rather than listen to your cause. But I question whether the impetus should be on the oppressed to hold their listener’s hand while explaining to them the systemic violence that they and their culture have endured for centuries.

William Herman recently wrote a guest article about this very issue, calling for us to “be aware of how all forms of our speech may leave others outside in the cold.” But in doing so he equates his hurt feelings to the historical and systemic oppression suffered by two Jamaican women, referring to both his and their circumstances with his “outside in the cold” analogy. This comparison allows him to criticize these women for “lash[ing] out” at him without having to actually acknowledge that he comes from a place of privilege. (If he does not identify as white because of his Jewish heritage, he should at least acknowledge his white passing privilege. And saying “how do you know… that I identify as a male?” does not excuse one from having to acknowledge one’s male privilege and is, in fact, appropriative of trans* identity.)

But the real crux of the issue, and this is one I’ve thought about based on countless interactions with people at Amherst, is of silencing the voice and expression of the oppressed simply because they might hurt someone’s feelings. This lack of distinction between being unpleasant and perpetuating an oppressive social dynamic is essentially privilege denial, and is extremely detrimental to the creation of a community of social equality.

I’m not saying that people with certain social privileges don’t deserve respect or kindness – of course, we all do. But someone being rude or unpleasant to you is not remotely similar to the type of widespread cultural disrespect that affects the everyday life of, for example, people of color in America.

So, the question remains: do individuals attempting to enact social change and overthrow social systems that oppress them have to do so by communicating nicely to people who are subjugating them? My answer, right now, is no. I understand that it is most effective to communicate in a collaborative manner when trying to explain social issues to people who could use some enlightenment, but under a circumstance in which someone is directly perpetuating your oppression, it is well within your right to approach them with whatever tone you see fit. I am not condoning violence or verbal abuse but I find that it shows a deep lack of understanding when someone expects an oppressed individual to not express anger or similar emotions in the very face of their own subjugation.

Wearing a wig of dreadlocks or cornrows is cultural appropriation. It may be fun for a white person to put on a wig with a black hairstyle or texture but given the fact that black people in America are constantly discriminated against for their hair, wearing that aspect of others’ cultural identity for one night is appropriative and thus is a perpetuation of historical oppression. And if people with that historically oppressed identity express anger when dealing with someone who is directly perpetuating their community’s oppression, I challenge anyone to argue that that reaction is not valid and should not be respected. In asking an individual from an oppressed culture or identity to approach that kind of situation in a calm and even in a warm manner, one is refusing to acknowledge the real effects of one’s actions, especially through using the classic cop-out of focusing on intent as opposed to impact.

Maybe getting angry isn’t the most effective way to enact social change. But being a person of color interested in enacting social change does not obligate one to behave exclusively in a manner that will directly and undeniably further their movement. For example, as a feminist, I am not a robot who can always remove myself from the oppression I experience as a woman. If someone says something disrespectful to women around me, I want to enact change in making them understand why that was wrong, but I am also directly experiencing hurt from that statement in real time. I’m sure the women William Herman writes about in his article were going through that same combination of feelings.

I also think there’s something inherently wrong with the way we think about discourse on social issues. We tend to consider talk of social issues to be mere discussions, debates, and conversations. But speaking out against oppressive power structures is in many ways a revolutionary act – it’s people actively trying to overthrow the status quo by revealing its underbelly of inequality. Pretending otherwise, saying “that was a good debate” after someone tries to explain white privilege, is an attempt to ignore an act of revolution.

Ultimately, I think by criticizing expressions of anger from people of oppressed communities and identities, we are not only invalidating their experiences but also missing a valuable opportunity to help work towards social equality. If your privilege allows you to approach social issues objectively and communicate with people about them in a more inclusive way, you should take it upon yourself to do so rather than merely criticizing others. We also need to recognize that speaking out against systems of oppression is one of the most effective everyday ways people can push back against those systems. The beauty of this is that anyone can do it, and all we need to do is listen. So the next time someone points out something that’s “offensive” (which we should really recognize as meaning “actively oppressive”), whether they do it passionately or not, we should listen. This is truly the best way that we can overthrow social structures of inequality and foster a better, more inclusive community.

About Gina Faldetta

You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.

12 comments on ““Cold” is a Relative Term

  1. Sharline Dominguez
    November 18, 2013

    Beautifully said. I believe we had a conversation about this earlier in the semester, so I’m so glad to see that you wrote an article about it. As Dorothy Day once said, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system”

  2. Asgeir Nielsen
    November 18, 2013

    THANK YOU for writing this; William Herman’s article is classic tone policing that serves only to perpetuate cultures of privilege and oppression and I’m glad someone put in the effort to call it out for what it is. The fact that there wasn’t immediate and widespread outrage in response is disturbing to say the least.

  3. Anonymous
    November 18, 2013

    Thank you Gina!! As a white male, I recognize that being called out on privilege can be a difficult thing to hear. Even as someone who has been doing this work for a while, I still have defensive reactions when my friends who are women call me out on my white male privilege. It does get easier over time, especially when we recognize that this defensiveness is actually socially constructed as well. As in, systems like white and male supremacy maintain themselves by white men ignoring and denying the fact that we benefit from systems like this and constantly putting more emphasis on intent rather than impact. In places like Amherst and Hampshire, we can usually assume that people are not trying to do harm to others, however this fact is irrelevant if harm is actually done.

    I appreciate these conversations and wish that ideas of privilege would be discussed more openly without the constant defensiveness and guilt attached to even thinking about the fact that as a white person I benefit from white supremacy and that I can appropriate other cultures. Privilege makes itself invisible, which makes it even more difficult to confront and to talk about, but as you say, if we choose to address it and start discussing it, we will be involved in revolutionary actions.

    Thank you again for writing this, it is a much needed voice.

  4. Liya Rechtman
    November 19, 2013

    This really needed to be said and you really hit stride here. Thank you for reminding me why its okay to be angry.

  5. Critical dialogue is privilege??
    November 19, 2013

    So basically you’re always right? Nobody can tell an ‘activist’ they are wrong – if they find a tree racist, its racist (no discussion, we must tear it down)?
    You say social issues are not a discussion. Are they just orders? Seriously. If you’re never wrong, and those found guilty in the unaccountable witch hunt are always wrong, then I wonder what’s the use of the critical thinking part of our Amherst education…
    Makes me think when it comes to intra-activist dialogues… who is most right and those are the sexist/racist privileged ones just “shutting them up” and “silencing” them (because that’s what dialogue is ?)
    When Liya wrote her post here on the BSU’s “broad-based shaming”, was she silencing them and “tone policing” as some comments here suggest? Members of the BSU felt offended – who is right here?

  6. Anonymous
    November 19, 2013

    I don’t think your messages are lost on people because you don’t communicate them in a “calm and perhaps friendly manner”, but because they are often tired and confused diatribes against things that should be relatively low on a social activist’s list of priorities. Amherst Confidon’t and your consent piece were not exactly intellectual works of art.

    • Anonymous
      November 20, 2013

      Couldn’t have put it better myself

  7. annacse
    November 19, 2013

    yes yes yes thank you, Gina

  8. Anonymoose
    November 19, 2013

    I’m afraid there will soon be a day when I as an atheist will not be allowed to say the words “Christmas tree”, because that would be inadequate cultural appropriation. Christians would not be allowed to say it either, because this derogatory term objectifies a living being that a tree undoubtedly is, and ties it to one specific holiday, thereby perpetuating religious discrimination. There is also the issue of the word “tree”, of course – while trees cannot speak (on second thought, they’re already doing this in the name of people who CAN speak for themselves), the vocal activists KNOW that said trees would prefer being addressed as Arboreal Entities. However, while we’d have to treat trees with the respect they deserve, given our non-photosynthetic, mobile privilege, trees wouldn’t have it easy either – they’d have to check their cis tree privilege in relation to people who identify as tr- I mean, Arboreal Entities. And thus begins the vicious cycle of the dreaded oppression olympics. :)

    Since the author of this article herself opposes tone policing so vehemently, don’t tone police me when I say – shut the hell up already.

    I hate to HAVE to end my comment with this – I’m a near-militant supporter of equal rights for everyone; I spoke out publicly against racism, sexism, homophobia, mobbing, and all other forms of abuse in an environment much, much more hostile to minorities than the Five College Consortium (Americans, you have no idea how easy you have it). But I am sick and tired of getting HURR CIS STRAIGHT WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE HURR DURR thrown at me as a reply whenever I say something someone doesn’t agree with. I am sick and tired of people who don’t really want to solve the problem because they only have a purpose and feel fulfilled if there’s something to bitch at or about. I am sick and tired of people who focus on trivial little things instead of seeking ways to empower the oppressed on a larger scale. I am sick and tired of people who don’t want to see the good in the world and associate with it.

    This article contributes nothing to the cultural exchange, equality or whatever cause it stands for on this campus, or anywhere for that matter. The point of this article is a self-serving, circlejerky “lol I can find something sexist in everything” Tumblr mentality.

    This comment doesn’t contribute much either, but it does bring to the table something many people are likely afraid to say.

    I’m sure things would be so much better if we could all just stop with the bullies bullying bullies bullying bullies (ad infinitum) and be friends. This is partly why I’m not signing this one. I don’t want to be that one guy who lashed out at you over the internet once. I don’t want to introduce more negativity. I wish we could all be friends. ;_;

    • Anonymoose
      November 19, 2013

      In the first statement in parentheses, “they” refers to the activists. I should proofread more.

  9. GRG
    November 20, 2013

    I don’t think Will was implying that the hurt he felt was equal to the hurt the two women felt, although I agree with your criticism that passing as white is a privilege Will failed to acknowledge.

    That said, in light of my experience with discourse at this college, particularly in the past year or two, I feel it necessary to point out that there’s a big difference between making your oppressor feel uncomfortable and making someone who thoughtfully and respectfully disagrees with your particular ideas about social justice feel disrespected, shamed or silenced. I’m not referring to Will’s account in particular, but just in general I feel that there has been a lot of the latter going on around campus, particularly in less formal discussions. So I felt it important to make that distinction. Wouldn’t you agree?

    I also think the “Critical dialogue is privilege” commenter makes some good points about campus dialogue in general, though I’m not sure if they are valid as direct criticisms of this article in particular. I do however find it a little ironic that that commenter uses somewhat of a disrespectful tone in criticizing an article that downplays the importance of respectfulness in talking to one another.

  10. Bonnie Drake
    December 2, 2013

    I appreciate this article for reminding me that it is okay to be angry and to voice that anger. My point of contention, though, is that not everyone who slips up, whether it be cultural appropriation, language, etc. is deserving of having anger directed at them. If someone is willfully oppressing others, then of course anger is deserved, but if it is simply an accident, then respectfully pointing it out may be all that is needed. I think there is a key distinction between the two situations that needs to be addressed.

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2013 by in Gender, Race and tagged , , , , , .
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