“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.