Friday, June 12, 2020

Trying to Build a Better World and Burnout

I have been reflecting on the fact that for much of my adult life I was driven by a vision of how the world could be a better place. It was coherent, complex, accounted for a lot of details and potential problems, and workable...up to a point.

The breaking point, as it often is, was the ability of individuals to muck it all up, and people's general inability or unwillingness to resolve conflict or to deal with people who are operating in bad faith.

Understand, I put a LOT of energy into this. My first job was working for Greenpeace. I was involved with the environmental and anti-globalism movements, feminist activism around motherhood, and Occupy. On another track, I helped start and run various Pagan organizations and events, and ran a teaching coven for ten years.

 At some point, I gave up. I still do political work, but it's mostly damage control. I'm not trying to create anything new. I'm just trying to keep it from getting worse. Which is probably why I have less energy and enthusiasm than I used to.

Don't get me wrong; I show up for certain causes, like Black Lives Matter; but they are driven by other people. I resist getting too deep into any activist group, because neither trying to adapt to an existing organization with fatal flaws, or trying to build up something from scratch only to have it blown up by someone whose ego is a stand-in for gasoline and a match, are scenarios I ever want to repeat. It's not even that I've never succeeded in building something that lasts; I have. It's that the losses are too costly.

I don't want to feel this way. It's a serious problem. But I do.

Aside from the fact that some of them are friends of friends, I find the accounts of the activists in this story entirely plausible because I've known people EXACTLY like this guy. Grandstanding, co-opting group work, leveraging charisma (including sleeping around, and it's often the men who do it) to gain positions of power, running people off who don't agree with them, ignoring what everyone agreed to because they think they know better, starting fights with the police that other people have to finish...all of it. They are quite often some flavor of bigot as well, in a "but I'm one of the good guys" whiney-ass way. Those people are incredibly destructive. They don't have to all be informants, most of them probably aren't. Some of them are super-dedicated radicals. They're destructive nonetheless.

 I have quite frequently been the thorn in that person's side, the boring-ass consensus-process bitch who insists that we actually follow the rules we all agreed on that were designed to keep the group from being cetera. I have suffered quite a bit for it too. I'm angry, and I'm tired.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Arguing With White People

The author and her husband, standing in front of Preservation Hall in New Orleans
I spent a lot of my adolescence and beyond arguing with my father about racism. Basically as soon as I was old enough to understand the concept, I started challenging him about some of the stuff he said. It was probably in our top five disagreements along with the place and role of women, when he thought I should get up on a Saturday morning, and mowing the grass which I flatly refused to do. (Cut grass makes me itch and break out in red welts).

I have argued with plenty of other people about it, too. I have heard it all. I have heard weird shit you would never have thought of, because the ideology of white supremacy runs deep in this society and it has its own mythology and apologetics. There's a social ecology that supports it that is complex and has tendrils extending to many areas of life, including education, the church, literature, and yes, law enforcement and the judicial system. It has to; you can't maintain an artificial imbalance of power without a whole lot of propaganda. The same, incidentally, applies to sexism, homophobia, rigid gender ideology, et cetera. And the completeness of it is what makes it seem "natural."

It can be extraordinarily difficult to have those conversations, and not just because of fear of making a scene or being "that person" at work.  Those are real fears, albeit ones people need to learn to address and move through.  One of the gifts my father gave me is that he didn't get angry or punish my admittedly snotty adolescent righteousness, so I got to get past the scary part without any repercussions except being expected to remain civil and back up my assertions.   But even if you did not have that kind of fortune, or you do in fact suffer repercussions when you decide to start opening your is absolutely crucial that you do so.  For the lives of others, and your own liberation.

The other big problem is that it's like fighting sand in a windstorm.  It's everywhere, it gets into everything, and you tend to wind up tired and angry with nothing much to show for it.  Do it anyway.  The results you get hardly ever show up immediately, but they build up over time.

Listening to people who are at the pointy end of white supremacy and reading about the subject is essential, especially the specific history of racism against African Americans in this country and how it functions. You can't argue a case you don't understand, and your feelings (shaped by the same white supremacist cultural propaganda that I mentioned earlier) may not be a reliable guide.  You don't have to re-invent the wheel, either, and people have spent many decades and lots of thought on analysis of the problem.  You can benefit from all of that for the price of picking up some books or following some blogs.

On the other hand, I think for white people trying to talk to other white people about racism, we need to carry the ball ourselves past a certain point.  People of color often spend their whole lives thinking about the subject, have formal education on the topic in many instances, and have lots of experience arguing with white people about racism....but it's still different when the call is coming from inside the house.  Or not as different as people might think, in some cases.  I don't think people in general really realize how quickly and sometimes violently other white people will turn on you, though the white people who died during the Civil Rights movement and the current existence of a website dedicated to doxxing white women who date outside their race should offer a clue about that. Again I say:  Do it anyway.  Just realize that your fears can be valid and exaggerated because of white supremacist cultural brainwashing at the same time.

One advantage you have is that you can easily speak in terms that other white people understand...though it has limits.  There are plenty of black people, who because of their upbringing or profession, can do that too.  Biracial people frequently have lots of experience trying to get their white relatives to see the light, unfortunately. Sometimes people enter interracial relationships either despite their parents' vehement opposition, or in some cases because of it, which can lead to some screwed up family dynamics.  Even when it's not that pointed, just because someone loves their biracial children or grandchildren it doesn't mean they have thought very deeply about race, and it is a topic that requires reflection before you can have any chance of getting the sand out of the gears.  All of the biracial people I know, including my husband, have stories about wtf moments with family or friends.  They also all know how to bridge the gaps and speak in language that their white relatives understand...and have run into situations where that simply was not enough.

Then there's the advantage granted to you just by being the person you are, in the body that you're in; what is otherwise called "privilege."  It's not a magic wand or a cure-all (as any white person who grew up poor can tell you) but it is power nonetheless.  It's a little bit of extra authority sprinkled on your voice and actions.  It won't fix everything, but that's not your job.  Your job is to speak.