You Can't Afford To Get This Wrong
Behind The Book: Race & Writing and why we get mad at the "only one"
I was talking with a friend and fellow writer a few days ago about our relationships in the writing community. Both of us are people who have built a lot of our careers in collaboration with other writers - particularly women writers of color. We discussed how these relationships seemed to shift as our careers grew. Most of the people we had known over the years cheered our successes just as they always had, and just as we have always cheered theirs. But some did not, and some relationships that we had thought were solid and built on mutual respect and support had suddenly shifted drastically or even disappeared. I have seen people whom I once considered friends, now speak resentfully of my work and my success. This brief chat with my friend has had me thinking about who we cheer on, who we don’t, who we resent, and who we ignore - and what this has to do with privilege and oppression.
When you write on issues of race and gender, you receive a lot of harassment and hate for your work. If you want to have a long career, you learn to deal with it - well, most of it. I’ve been doing this work for a while, and there are few things that an individual white person can say to me that would put me in my feelings for more than a minute or two - if at all. But when it seems to come from your own community, that can be really tough. And when it comes from your own personal circles, it can feel pretty devastating. I have spent many an evening crying over the harsh words or unexplained coldness from some of my peers. I’m human. I like people, and I want the people who I like and respect to like and respect me. Sometimes - especially on social media - it can seem like those of us who write and speak on issues of race and gender spend more time going after each other than we go after white supremacy or patriarchy. And it often seems like when we do go after each other, it’s with much more personal ferocity than we reserve for the systems that are killing us.
I am not anti “call-out” and I don’t actually believe in cancel culture. This isn’t about how we try to get people to stop causing harm to others. This isn’t about the passion with which we call out sexism or transmisogyny or other harmful bigotries.
In my discussion with my friend I was almost immediately thinking of my own behavior. The truth is, there are some other Black people who write and speak on issues of race and gender who irk me - like….deeply. When their name is said in association with mine I grimace a little inside and really hope it doesn’t show in my face. I don’t like them for various reasons: their scholarship or perceived lack thereof, their open celebration of capitalism, their seeming lack of awareness of their own privilege… I could go on and on. And while I try my best to never show it publicly, I’m sure it has to show on some level in my interactions with them, online or in person. So while I was talking with my friend about people who seem to hold resentments toward us, I was quickly reminded that there are likely others out there who are having similar conversations about me.
Today I was browsing twitter which is…never a good idea. I pretty much left that platform altogether last year except to share links to articles and newsletters that I’ve written because it is so toxic a space. I briefly browsed my twitter feed and sure enough, there were multiple people that I like and respect going after other people that I like and respect. The online discussions quickly turned rather personal and nasty and almost immediately others were drawn into the fight. This is a pretty regular occurrence on this particular platform and I will say that I think that it happens more often on twitter than just about anywhere else because twitter heavily rewards that behavior more than other social media platforms do. Regardless, it was very dispiriting to witness and once again reminded me that I had planned on writing this very newsletter.
But what is this really that I’m talking about? Because critique can be so many things, harassment can be so many things, meanness and pettiness can be so many things. And when we are really in our feelings because it’s coming from a peer, it can be hard to tell which is which. I want to tease this out a bit - without the promise of any definitive answers, just observations - because I think that it’s important that we all try to understand what we are doing and why.
I think there are a lot of reasons why we publicly and privately seem to hold our greatest resentment and vitriol for those in “our group” - whatever that group may be. Here are a couple of reasons I’ve seen and experienced:
Familiarity with their work: I’m sure there are countless gawdawful white supremacists writing essays and making youtube videos that I could be oh so angry about - if I ever wanted to spend my time engaging with that work. But I don’t. My work is hard enough as it is, and I value my mental and intellectual health too much to spend that sort of time steeped in the ignorance and hate of others who can provide me with no benefits whatsoever. But others who do similar work to me, or others who do work that I follow because it impacts my life? I am much more familiar with that which means that any issues to be found in the work are going to be ones that I’m more aware of.
Their relative power within your circles: If you and others in your community actively follow this person’s work, or are affected by people who do, then what they do can often seem have a larger immediate impact on your life than others. For me, what another Black writer or speaker on race says or does impacts my work in ways that the work that many others would not. They can shift conversations on race and tactics for how we address racism in ways that can make my work easier or harder. And as a Black woman, I’m impacted by these shifts outside of my work as well. But this also means that people who have power within our circles can also impact us with their behavior outside of their work. A Black writer on racism who seems to have all their work on point, but then they regularly spout classism or sexism online, is going to impact your circles the way that someone not respected within your community will not (I will also note that if their classism or sexism is also almost guaranteed impacting their work in important ways that may not be immediately visible).
The feeling of betrayal: We often feel connected to those whose work we follow and respect. When those people also claim to be doing that work on our behalf, some of that connection is genuine. I do not believe that you can claim to represent people whom you are not connected to. And so often we support work of people who have built those connections, or at least seem to have. So when they do something that harms us, offends us, or just runs counter to our own beliefs or preferences - we can feel betrayed. We can also feel betrayed when success can seem to, or threaten to, pull people so far out of our socioeconomic circles that we can’t see how they could still be connected to us. If you were actually in more intimate circles with this person (say a writing group or speaking circuit) that distance that the person has to move before they can seem unrelateable is much shorter than if you are following their work from farther away. But either way, this can really hurt in a more personal way. Not only are you impacted by what they are doing, but you can also feel abandoned - even lied to. And you can feel like your past love and support was made an unwilling accomplice to the turn that their work has taken.
They are more reachable: Yes, we all despise Ted Cruz (if you don’t, hi - you seem to be lost. If you hit that back arrow in the upper left hand corner of your screen it will take you out of here so you can find your way elsewhere). But Ted Cruz doesn’t claim to be accountable to his own wife, let alone the people whom he’s actively working to demonize and disenfranchise for political gain. We could argue and yell in his direction all we want, he will not care. But the people in our circles? The people whose work we follow? They are supposed to care. They are supposed to listen. And so we are often more vocal toward them with our critiques and complaints. Simply put: we have more power there. And sometimes….maybe….we overcompensate a little for all the other people who upset us who won’t listen.
We are rewarded for it: As I said earlier with regards to twitter, we are often rewarded online for speaking out against those in our circles in a way that thoughtful, loving conversation isn’t rewarded. The internet hates nuance. The internet is like a Republican House candidate: it knows that you respond to fear and anger with much more speed and reliability than you would to hope, love, or even basic curiosity. It knows that in a world where we all feel disempowered, that serving up daily outrages with reachable targets is the best way to get people absolutely hooked on the false sense of power that yelling at somebody on the internet can give you. It is a trap that we can all fall into without even knowing it. We’re scanning Instagram trying to see where our friends are eating lunch these days and suddenly we’re searching the profile of a complete stranger because someone made a post highlighting that they liked somebody else’s racist comment a year ago. There are people who’ve built entire social justice careers off of serving up small targets of outrage to people who are tired of feeling powerless. Often, the less that your work on issues of oppression touches on the systems that empower and enable it - and the more your work focuses on individuals who act badly within those systems - the more likely your work is going to find quick success in this internet age.
They have taken a place that could have/should have gone to someone else: The truth is, there is only so much space made for people from marginalized groups to be heard. The platform is very small and the amount of attention to be paid by the broader world to issues we care about or work that we do is very little. So when someone takes up a lot of the little room that’s made available and then they seem to be bad at what they do, that an be very frustrating. Our anger is often not only on the people who seem to elevate a person that we view to be wrong, harmful, or incompetent, but also with the person taking up space who we really believe should know better. We are frustrated not only by what this person is doing, but by what we imagine others could do with those same opportunities and yet won’t as long as this person keeps standing in “their space”. These issues are often compounded by gender privilege, racial privilege, abled privilege, class privilege, heteronormativity, skin-tone privilege, or other privileges and biases that may have helped place this person in the spotlight at the expense of those with less privilege doing similar - or even better - work. This is a very common frustration for me and it’s one that I try to be sensitive to others as I try to navigate what spaces I should be in, and what would be better handed over to others.
We can’t afford to fuck this up: When a few people are the “only ones” in our particular area getting attention, they end up representing everyone in a way that requires us to be more heavily invested in what they do. They impact others in the field, and others who rely on their work in an outsized way. This happens in basically any field anywhere. The only Black principle in a school district better be the best damn teacher or they are fucking it up for other Black teachers and aspiring school leaders, and the only Black coder on an IT team better be the best damn coder otherwise they are fucking it up for other coders. When shit is dire (and when we’re talking about racism and other systemic oppressions, it almost always is) we really need people to get it right. And when there is limited amount of public energy, time, and resources allocated to issues that impact our lives, we can get really angry with people who seem to be sucking up a lot of that energy, time and resources and using it a way that we disagree with or even find harmful.
I want to focus on these last two points, because I feel like when I encounter otherwise kind, thoughtful, collaborative people practically seething with anger and resentment for a peer, these last two points are either the main reason or heavily contributing factors. In my experience, it is the scarcity of resources and attention given to people in marginalized or disenfranchised groups that turns the volume up on our grievances to a volume that can make it hard to hear our own better natures. Some like to say that this is a “crab in the barrel” mentality, or “the left eating itself,” but it’s not really that.
We can’t ignore the simple fact that when resources are limited, what we do with those resources matters. And we can’t ignore the fact that if we claim to represent others in use of those limited resources, we are then accountable to them and they have a right to be upset when we seem to misuse them. And we can’t ignore the fact that in a space of limited resources, some people will deliberately misuse resources and exploit their own privileges and the bigotries of others to gain an even larger share of those resources. We can’t ignore the fact that when we get this wrong, lives can be impacted in very real ways. We can’t ignore the fact that it can be very hard to move in the direction we feel we need to when we have other leaders with bigger megaphones yelling, “oh hey, no, everybody go this way instead!”
If we are going to take up this space, if we have been trusted with a platform and other valuable resources that others do not have, that is a responsibility that we have to take seriously. We have to stay connected and accountable. We have to make sure that we aren’t leaving resources depleted, and aren’t happy to stand alone in a space that represents so many. When we truly leave behind those who helped us get where we are, or those we claim to represent, we are compounding active harm with lost opportunity in often devastating ways.
But here’s the thing: there is absolutely no way to do any work that touches on social issues that won’t be disagreed with, or even viewed as harmful, by some people within your community. There is no way for us all to agree on priorities, opinions, methodologies. There’s no way for us to accurately or effectively represent everyone in our community who needs to be represented. There is no way to know that you are the most qualified person to be taking up space and there will never be an agreement on who that person should be. In a world that valued all of our voices and gave us more space and resources, that wouldn’t matter as much. There would be more to go around. But that’s not the world we live in.
Sometimes, when I feel like my frustration or pettiness with one of my peers has gotten to be a bit much, I do what I call the White Guy Test. If there were as many Black writers out in the world getting quality book deals, sound bites on tv news, writing gigs for major publications to write about issues of race or gender as white dudes are to pontificate on …well….pretty much anything…would I kiss my teeth every time I hear this person’s name, or would they just be one of the many people out here doing this work that I disagree with? If the difference between my real reaction and my hypothetical reaction is starkly different, then there is a good chance that I’m placing an unfair amount of the burden of the scarcity created by white supremacy on the shoulders of another Black person.
It often feels like a battle between the systemic harm, and how people act within harmful systems. The systemic harm in this situation is not only the issues of race and gender we are writing and speaking about, but it’s also the lack of resources afforded us to make real change as we battle systemic harm. This is the big important harm - the one that impacts us all in real ways. But then there’s the harm we do within these systems as we try to navigate a space designed to oppress and exploit us. That harm may be smaller but it can often feel closer and more immediate, and it can make it harder for us to tackle the big harm. And while the battle against systemic racism is one that will unfortunately likely need be fought for generations to come, we can do something about the harm someone closer to us is doing within the system right now, right?
But if that’s where our focus lies, and if we continuously act as if they are solely responsible for how the big harm is moving through them (while often conveniently ignoring the ways in which it also moves through ourselves) we let the big harm off the hook so it can continue making a whole bunch more little harms to distract us.
So if we need to keep our focus on the big shit, but we also can’t let all the littler shit go - what are we supposed to do when we can’t tackle it all? This is my approach that I personally try to stick to as I find my own way through this all:
I do the White Guy Test. This helps me figure out whether or not I’m reacting to a disagreement, or real harm that needs to be addressed.
I try to limit the amount of harm that I do. The one individual I have the most control of is myself. When I find myself getting very frustrated with a peer and the harm I think they are doing, I try to see where I may be vulnerable to causing similar harm myself and work to address that. I try to stay accountable to people in my community and I try to be very cognizant of the space that I’m taking up. I will still do harm, it’s impossible not to. But I hope to do the work necessary to do as little harm as possible, and even less as I’m made aware of it.
I try to focus on patterns of behavior or on community contributions to harm. You need power to harm people and that power is not something that people get on their own. That power is often given by some and then used to take more from others. So where as a community are we enabling that harm? What can we do to change our behaviors or expectations to reduce that harm and future harm?
I try to focus on work that I want to elevate and celebrate. If all of my time and energy is focused on people whose work I can’t stand, I’m going to miss out on the joy that can be found in appreciating and bringing attention to the great work of others.
I try to expand space. The greatest solution to a problem of scarcity is…more. More time, more money, more attention. So where I find myself lamenting what people are doing with the limited resources available to us, I try to see where I (often in collaboration with my peers) have the power to create even a little more for others. How can we create more space and opportunity for each other? How can we focus our demands on systems to create more space and opportunity as well?
Where harm needs to be addressed, I try to avoid the whac-a-mole technique. Racism and anti-Blackness always need to be addressed, misogyny always needs to be addressed, ableism always needs to be addressed, transmisogyny always needs to be addressed. When someone in our community is doing harm, that harm needs to be stopped. This is not negotiable. But if we find ourselves trying to stop this one person here, then this one person there, and then over there - we need to ask ourselves if our response is actually effective and where all of these people are coming from and how long can we keep trying to take them down one by one before we get to tired to fight at all? What does accountability look like when both individuals and systems are actors in harm? What does accountability look like when the people doing the harm have also been harmed themselves? What does prevention look like? What does safety look like? What does healing look like? These questions can all have different and even conflicting answers, but they are questions that I think are worth struggling with if we are going to make real progress in the harm that so many are encouraged to cause in our communities.
Where I am the the target of someone else’s ire, I try to learn. I know that some people are just not going to like me no matter what I do. I know that some people will always think that there are others more deserving of the space that I take up. But just because I can’t please anyone, doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate issues with my work, or genuine opportunities to do better. Whatever I can learn from the situation will make my work better and will hopefully reduce the harm that I can do to others, even if the person giving me this valuable lesson may never be happy with me.
I keep my pettiness to myself and a few close friends. When my grievances largely fail the White Guy Test, I don’t try to get rid of them altogether - I’m a human being with feelings and I don’t think it’s healthy to pretend like we’re “beyond” petty grievances. But I don’t try to feed those grievances with public affirmation behind the cherished “mmhhmm”s that a few close colleagues can give. If you are close to me, you may know who really bugs me, but if we aren’t close, you won’t know.
So yeah, that’s what I try to do these days and so far it seems to be getting me through. Where do these feelings seem to arise in your life and how are you trying to handle them? I’d be interested to hear your perspective in the comments. I hope that whatever those feelings are, that we are at least trying to investigate them, so that we can try to reduce the harm in our response to ourselves and others. None of us can get through life alone, even if capitalism and white supremacy tries to convince us otherwise. We need each other and so we need to find a way to support each other, be accountable to each other, and hold each other accountable, while we are in community with each other. We are all we got.
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It was hard not to think of grifter and Black impersonator Shaun King through this though I imagine he’s not specifically whom you’re writing about.
Roxane Gay shared an article about how shitty Thurgood Marshall had been in his rise to power, Marshall’s loyalty to J Edgar Hoover and routing out Black activists who were too outspoken against white supremacy or capitalism. The heartbreaking part of that was about how the NAACP used and discarded Emmett Till’s mother Maime Till-Mobley, raising mother using her as a spokesperson and then kicking her to the curb when she asked to be paid.
I also was watching the Twitter storm yesterday with Nikole Hannah-Jones and the knives out approach that Twitter is. While that rabbit hole leads to Patrice Coulors $6 million dollar BLM mansion.
I read this through the lens of the Gospel of Kindness that Sharon Salzberg teaches. I can’t imagine how anyone who’s paying attention isn’t freaking out right now. The Supreme Court throwing out the Clean Water Act and Amy Coney Barrett not bothering to write a defense of the 5-4 decision says everything about the horrific abuse of power we’re all witnessing. Flint still doesn’t have clean water; we’re all Flint, Michigan. We’re dying of whiteness. Racism and capitalism and patriarchy are killing us. And yet, we’re alive. I love your beautiful ode to mindfulness and your White Guy test. Thank you for saying stuff no one wants to acknowledge. Keep going. You’re doing great. ❤️🩹
One thing I always keep in mind is that a person doesn’t have to be perfect for their words to be true. Or at least for me to get something out of it. When I read things by people I respect and they use terms I feel are problematic I don’t waste my energy being upset that they didn’t use the right word. Instead I give them the benefit of the doubt and just swap in the one I figure they meant. This way I don’t let it stop me from receiving the information of their message and I can receive the wisdom by not focusing on the ignorance.
Also I have personally experienced being helped by someone who later on I realized was very problematic. And it made me realize everyone can be helpful to someone at some point in their lives and just because they are not where you are in your exact journey, it doesn’t mean they have no value. Once I grew past where that person could teach me I simply divested my energy from them and focused on people who I could still learn something from. Trying to tell others who they should and should not learn from is overlooking the fact of individual discernment. People have the responsibility and the capability to be discerning in who they choose to listen to. And in the end people will divest when it no longer serves them.
But I also try to remember that no matter how great someone is it’s dehumanizing to forget that they are simply an imperfect human capable of being petty and acting out of trauma just like the rest of us. So I try not to expect perfection from the people I learn from, and don’t take everything they say like the word of god if it doesn’t resonate with me. It’s the way I save my emotional energy and not let capitalism win by exhausting me.