The morning after I participated in the Women’s March on Washington, I read a tweet in the hotel room. I can’t find it now but the gist of it was this: If you haven’t read bell hooks or Audre Lorde or other prominent African American women writers yet, you have some homework to do for 2017.
I’ll own that, I thought. I’ll take that criticism to heart and make some changes.
Not because I was a bad activist. Not because I was failing at the #resistance. But because I want to be a little better listening to the oppressed, speaking out when it’s appropriate (and in appropriate ways), educating myself about social issues, and taking smart actions to make change.
Sometimes I do those things beautifully. Often, I fuck them up. But it’s not my goal to be perfect. It’s just my goal to be a slightly better activist than I was last week.
Here are some thoughts on that:
You must listen to minority groups if you want to help them.
I know I say this all the time, but it’s an essential part of making social change happen.
White people have thought they had the answers to black communities’ problems for centuries. Look where that’s gotten us. Men have thought they had the answers to women’s problems for centuries. And look where that’s gotten us.
When we fail to listen to one another, no amount of help will fix our problems. So when a person of less privilege than you decides to talk to you about solutions, your job is to listen, not chime in.
But you don’t have to act on every single piece of criticism that comes your way.
No two people in the resistance will agree on what’s appropriate and what’s not, or what’s helpful and what’s not. If you listen long enough and well enough, you’ll get conflicting answers on what you should be doing from within the same people group.
You can’t act on every single piece of criticism and still have enough brain power to be useful to people. You just have to pick one thing to do better. Be discerning about what criticism you take to heart and implement in your life.
Nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing here.
I’ve seen some people throw in the towel after hearing conflicting answers about what they should be doing. “If they don’t even know what the hell they want me to do, how am I supposed to know how to help?”
I get it. It’s frustrating. But it’s also lazy activism. If you’re looking for the one person to tell you How To Be A Feminist, Or How To Not Be A White Piece Of Shit, you’re never going to find them. (Also, it’s not oppressed people’s job to teach you how to not be oppressive. That’s what the internet is for.)
You have to sort through the information, make the best decision you can at the time, and learn from your mistakes. Speaking of which…
There will be times when you say or do the wrong thing.
There is no exception. You can be sensitive, intuitive, and educated about social justice and you will still fuck up. The chips are stacked against us because we were taught not to talk about this stuff when we were growing up. We’re creating the language as we go and that means there will be some misunderstandings. So when you put your foot in your mouth, know you’re in good company.
But you can’t be silent just to save yourself some awkward moments.
People’s lives > your feelings. Always. (But I’m sure you already knew that.)
So pick one thing to do a little better this week.
Not because you’re bad at activism, but because you’re committed to a life spent making the world a little better than you left it.
Find a way to follow current events that works for you – meaning you stay informed, but also sane.
Find a place to volunteer.
Teach yourself something about a people group you don’t understand.
Catch up on some African American women authors you may have missed.
Make plans to attend a march.
Donate to a cause that’s important to you.
Buy something Fair Trade instead of from Walmart.
Call your representatives. If that’s too daunting (for me, it is) send them a handwritten letter.
Start a conversation about social justice at the dinner table.
Share information on social media that could help people in need.
Find a way to graciously call out people on said social media when they say inappropriate things.
Learn about your privilege and how you can use it to help people.
You can do anything, really. Just be a little better than you were last week. That is enough.
P.S. If you want to do better this week at listening to marginalized voices, there are some links at the end of this post to get you started.