It can be frustrating to be called out for being oppressive, particularly when you feel marginalised in some way yourself. Danni Glover considers how to approach the situation with grace.
This year’s Pride march in Toronto has been notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that Justin Trudeau became the first sitting Prime Minister to march in the city’s parade, taking the opportunity to announce that the Canadian government was exploring a gender neutral option for citizens’ identity cards. The second reason is that the Toronto arm of Black Lives Matter, who had been invited to the parade as an “Honored Group“, used the parade as a platform to stage a sit-in demanding greater inclusion for BME members of the LGBTQ+ community, including disabled and young non-white LGBTQ+ people. After about 25 minutes of protesting and discussion with organisers, Pride agreed that the demand to include non-white interests at the heart of their celebrations was fair.
Notwithstanding the fact that Pride as an institution owes so much of itself to queer black people (in particular trans women of colour), and the fact that a sit in is a peaceful and appropriate method of dissent when the theme of the parade is “You can sit with us“, it is so encouraging to see an institution pay attention in a respectful and open manner to a group who are marginalised even within the margins. I’m not really talking about the debate over whether the demands in question were fair (their argument that the police should not be institutionally included in the march in particular is controversial; for the record, I am personally sympathetic to the view that representatives of an institution which has been allowed to commit acts of violence should be regarded with suspicion when they demand access to protected spaces). I’m talking about how we respond to criticisms of our politics and how they manifest themselves, especially when we are well-intentioned and we think of ourselves as, in general, good. And especially especially when, on top of that, we know how it feels to be oppressed by someone who you wish would know better.
As members of the LGBTQ+ community, most of us have experienced queerphobia in some form or another, ranging from microaggressions to full-on institutional oppression. It’s not nice! For those of us who are disabled, we know that these things can compound on each other. The same goes for those of us who are poor, who are women, who are not white, and so on in a seemingly endless Create-A-Sim of identities. Although we may prioritise one aspect of our identity over another in a certain situation, for the most part we are all the things that we are all at once. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the connecting presence of various identities in one person; the word has come to mean a type of politics that allows for an understanding of the variables of identity. Black Lives Matter were not “disrupting” Pride, because they were there to represent Black interests in the LGBTQ+ community. It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.
Black Lives Matter were not “disrupting” Pride, because they were there to represent Black interests in the LGBTQ+ community. It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.
When someone calls out a failure in our intersectionality, an oversight or ignorance of who might be affected by something and how, it’s easy to be defensive. After all, you mean well, and you know what it’s like to be crapped on, right? But this defensiveness helps nobody but you. It doesn’t motivate you to make the situation better. It just insulates you against what you perceive as an attack, but what is more likely to be someone who needs you to do better. You have to be able to hear this; that’s what compassion is. It’s especially important to hear what someone is saying when they are upset. Don’t focus on their tone. Focus on their content. If you’re white (for example) then you have no idea what traumas a person of colour has attached to hearing a racial slur; you don’t have a right to their being calm about you saying it.
So you’ve listened. Now what? Here’s a hint: don’t start looking for reassurance that you’re cool now. The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s your defensiveness talking again! You should, however, try to make some meaningful amends. Start with an apology. One without ifs and buts. The person who called you out might want to offer a fuller explanation, but don’t push for one! It can be exhausting to explain the same thing over and over again to people who have never had it pointed out before, but you can take the time to google it if you like. If you have the means, you might consider financially supporting an organisation that combats the type of oppression you just learned about. Or hey, include them in your Pride parade. Whatever is appropriate in the circumstances!
When I think about the moments that made me a better activist, it is always the moments of being called out that come to mind first.
The last part is the most important: take what you’ve learned and apply it. Be better. Be more conscious. If you now know that a word is unacceptable, stop using it and stop accepting its use around you. If you’ve just learned that a structure in which you participate is inaccessible, try to change it. If you’ve realised that you make assumptions about a certain group, interrogate these assumptions, and try to unlearn them. It’s not easy. It can be downright unpleasant. But when I think about the moments that made me a better activist, it is always the moments of being called out that come to mind first. I am grateful for the opportunity to be better and (still) sorry that the opportunity came at the expense of someone’s feelings. And I applaud Toronto Pride for their alliance with Black Lives Matter.
Follow Danni on Twitter (@Danvestite)