My passions (and vendettas) have led me to lend my talents and testimony to many local organizations fighting injustice. All social justice groups are flawed in some ways – we are only humans trying to help other imperfect humans. However, some orgs and non-profits with the goal of helping targeted minorities are inexplicably headed up, even in 2018, by white, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical men.
Most of them start out with noble intentions. They have a transformative college class, an indirect experience, or read Chomsky and/or Zinn, and then the rage kicks in. Rage that doesn’t necessarily belong to them and they can’t ever fully understand. Unfortunately, when white men with no ax to grind get het up about injustice they assume the way to help is for them to be in charge of activist groups and efforts. And don’t think for a second that non-intersectional white women are immune to this impulse either.
At a time in my life before I was diagnosed with an invisible disability, I really wanted to help lift up the downtrodden because I felt my privilege put me in a unique position to do so. I went to school to become an “inner city” high school teacher, but in the teacher education program at college I found myself uncomfortable with how we were taught about economic and racial inequality. The tone was condescending and we were given assignments wherein we went out into predominantly black neighborhoods to study them like they were specimens or a different species altogether. From all the shade I saw the few black teaching students throw at our old white male professor, I could tell they disapproved as well.
It’s fine to utilize privilege if you are a luckier member of the same demographic, but cross-demographic advocacy, while vital, can be problematic. At some point I realized all high school kids are evil monsters and the black community doesn’t want or need my help. I dropped out of the teaching program with one semester to go and finished up my useless English degree.
Now I’m involved in criminal justice reform, not because I feel guilty about what people of color deal with, but because I’m an especially lucky member of another demographic also targeted by police and the system. I’m appalled at what black & brown people experience, but I can never truly know enough about their perspective to loudly insert myself into their campaigns for change – and the idea that a white person(s) would take charge of their activist space is disgusting, but it happens. A lot.
But because I’m an autistic woman, I’ve directly experienced police brutality and entrapment in various broken institutions. However, I’ve still had to convince the far less oppressed people in charge of activist efforts that I’m worthy of speaking and taking up space when it comes to these issues. Some of these “interviews” have been darkly hostile. For instance, not many white guys invested in helping black people are aware of disability issues and a few have been bigoted towards me – an intersectional feminist covered in police brutality scars.
Truly, there are no completely safe spaces yet. Say a social justice bro corners you in an inappropriate manner and shows you the kind of guy he really is when the other do-gooders aren’t watching: lots of women and minorities won’t say anything about it to other members for fear of thwarting the cause or being accused of doing so. Especially if that ableist white man is threatened, territorial, and totally in charge of the space.
Every time I join a new organization I go through this heartbreaking process of “winning over” the white male (or normal female) leader. It’s not like these are paid positions and most orgs purport to be accepting of all people willing to help – so why am I having to fight so hard? Why do I feel oppressed in places where everyone in the room has read Chomsky and Zinn? (BTW, Chomsky is also on the spectrum bros.) Speaking the social justice gospel isn’t the same as embodying it. Open-mindedness doesn’t stop at one or two new realizations – it means continual self-examination for missed blind spots.
So to the well-meaning minimally-oppressed out there: Thank you for your time, talents, and work, but the minute you begin setting requirements for participation and excluding those with a greater stake in the cause, you are falling back into the ideological mire you brag about having escaped.
Perhaps you’ll heed a message from a fellow white guy, so . . .