We’ve reached a point in the social justice community where our relationships with each other need to be reevaluated. This is not a dictate against anger, I understand anger. We have many things to be angry about, though I believe we should be thoughtful about it, I’m not going to tell anyone not to express anger to the powers that be. Instead I want to talk about how we treat each other within the community because we’ve reached a place that is destructive and it’s a difficult hole to get out of.
I believe that we spend more time shouting at each other than we do shouting at the people with real power. We need to have conversations about privilege within our own community but we have reached a point where we assume that anyone who identifies even the slightest bit differently is somehow the enemy. We don’t treat each other with compassion and we don’t adjust for our audience. If one of us says or does something problematic but has a track record of trying to learn, understand and fight, then we should respond as a loving educator would, we should not cast them out. It matters whether or not we know that someone is trying to be a good person, because being a good person who has internalized or misunderstood oppression is very different from being a bad person who is oppressing people. We’ve all had times where we were ignorant to some part of the world and most of us were lucky to encounter an adult who was patient and kind about it, but instead of paying that forward in our own community we’ve come to the belief that we are morally justified in hurting each other.
We also very much limit the perspectives that we will allow on the floor, anyone who deviates is swiftly chastised and dismissed and we are never able to deal with our own problems and blind spots when this happens. The social justice community is dominated by elitely educated members of oppressed groups, most of whom grew up with financial privilege. I’ve seen this group condescendingly lecture the working classes, I’ve seen them dismiss their concerns and I’ve seen them break up broad coalitions among the poor to further their own view of justice. We are so quick to show up in these communities and impart knowledge that we got from books instead of learning from them. I talk about my racially diverse working class community all the time because I think it illustrates something I’ve seen to be fundamentally true about the working classes, which is that they treat community and race differently when they are given the opportunity to do so. You need each other in poverty, you don’t survive without your neighbors, so you better learn to get along even when you don’t like their politics or you are prejudiced against their identity. It’s not that we never talk about race, or gender, or sexuality in the ghetto, in fact we discuss these things more, but it is that poverty transcends these discussions because nothing else matters when you are hungry. We deal with real oppression here, we are literally struggling to survive, literally being harassed by cops, literally been run into the ground by our employers and this makes us more interested in immediately ending those injustices than we are in discussing them or having contests over who is more oppressed. Every group has advantages and disadvantages from their social position but we need every single person and their advantages to survive. I could talk the cops out of arresting my male friends and my male friends kept me from getting raped. Poor whites enjoy some advantages because of the color of their skin but they are also rendered invisible and don’t have the community that nonwhite people have and that I envied growing up. We knew the ins and outs of this but it didn’t matter because at our core, we were struggling for life. So sometimes my Mexican friends made sure I had something to eat because their family was always happy to feed me, and when the authorities were treating them poorly I stood up and said, this is wrong because I had the ability to do so. And I didn’t think about how it would affect me or who it would piss off, I did it because it was the right thing to do and because they were my family.
No government has ever been overthrown by a group of insular individuals that represent a small percentage of the population. Real structural change is only going to happen when the majority of people fight for it and in this country the majority of people are being oppressed so it should be easy to bring those people together to fight for common needs. Being poor and black is different from being poor and white and we should discuss that but it shouldn’t come at the expense of actually dealing with poverty which is a problem that transcends every line but class. We should be working towards fighting for common goals that will end suffering, not dividing each other up. Addressing poverty universally helps everyone as long as all groups are represented in the discussion and we are diligent about inclusion. During The Great Depression people living in cities were given more government assistance, part of the reason for this is that at the time the majority of share croppers were nonwhite so you could exclude nonwhite poor people by ignoring rural poverty, but my family was still excluded because they were still working in the fields and they were white. Policies to correct this imbalance should address them too. Eugenics disproportionately affected nonwhite people but poor whites, like my family, were also included, speaking out against eugenics as an ideology also benefits them. Poor white people need to understand that better, that they benefit from anti poverty programs and that they should vote with their economic class but part of the reason they don’t is because they feel very much excluded by the left because we do ridicule and exclude and act with hostility towards them. It’s my job to go out and educate poor whites, I’m not passing that responsibility to anyone else but I do think we need to do a better job as a community to not be so dismissive of their suffering. Do you have any idea how ridiculous it to be lectured on privilege by someone who grew up richer and with far more privilege than you? I don’t go to poor black people and tell them what their oppression is like because that would be a terrible thing to do. I learn from their experience, I listen, I hear them and we need to do this for every member of our community even if they have privileges in some areas that we don’t have because often they can say the same about us. Growing up poor teaches you that race is an illusion and social construct used to divide people whose lives are very similar into boxes so we don’t talk to each other. A poor white person has more culturally in common with poor black people than they do with rich white people and instead of allowing these relationships to naturally come together we’ve been spending our time telling poor people that they are wrong about what they see in the world. We can discuss disproportionality without dismissing the suffering of poor white people. We can discuss the way we oppress people based on their sexuality without trying to argue that hetereonormative people don’t experience other kinds of oppression. We can discuss the suffering of women without ignoring that gender norms hurt men too or without arguing that being poor and male isn’t incredibly difficult even when you are white and straight. We don’t have to argue about whose more oppressed, I’m happy to concede the point if it means more people will be getting fed. The radical elite in this country need to become more connected to the working classes, that means actually listening to them, that means we stop lecturing them on what their reality is, and that means that we stop dividing people up for our convenience and intellectual amusement. I’m not asking you to ignore divisions or shy away from discussing them, I’m asking you to do it in a way that doesn’t dismiss or discount the experience and suffering of others. We can’t sit here and call ourselves leaders when we spend more of our time intellectually beating each other up instead of educating, and listening and acting with our privilege and power. Be angry, but be angry at the right people. Educate people in the community when they are wrong but do it as though you love them, as though they are part of the community too so that they continue to feel loved.
People who don’t feel loved, who feel downtrodden, dispossessed, rejected and impoverished and yes, this includes poor white people even though they are white, eventually go looking for love. They often find it in the wrong place and it becomes easy to manipulate them. If they come to you looking for love and you cast them out when they are suffering they are going to remember that you were the person that cast them out when they were suffering and in their mind you will as much an oppressor as the people you claim to be fighting against are. Real leadership is love, is kindness, is fighting to end the suffering of all no matter what they look like or identify with. We should be compassionate and kind, we should focus on education. No one learns by being told they are a bad person. We should especially do this when we are talking to other oppressed people. Telling poor people they aren’t suffering and oppressed is cruel and I don’t care what your intellectual justification is for it. It is my responsibility to use my knowledge, talent, wisdom and energy to fight to end injustice for all regardless of what they look like, or who they love, or what they believe. As leaders we need to be held to a higher standard and we need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard. If you can’t handle that, if you can’t control your anger then you don’t get to be a leader.
But mostly I think we need to be good to each other because this community has suffered enough. Because the world is cold, dark and cruel for the vast majority of people and for the people in our community. We can’t afford to be mean to each other, we are responsible for loving and caring for one another. We are responsible for this because that is what communities do and if we can’t provide that then we have no business calling ourselves a community. I love you all so much more than I can ever express and I want to spend my life expressing it because what we need is more love. Love is healing. Love is what the oppressed don’t get and we should be each other’s shelter, for those who have been marginalized we are each other’s mother and sister and aunt and uncle. And when your relative says something at Thanksgiving you don’t like you don’t toss them on the street and refuse to give them food. We aren’t always going to get along, my experience on this earth is different from yours and it may change the way I see things but I am always going to love and respect you regardless. I’m always going to fight for you and defend you because no one talks about my family that way, even when it’s inconvenient or I disagree with you, it won’t stop me from fighting to free you from your chains. If we don’t defend each other, who will? If we don’t love each other, who will? That’s what solidarity means, that’s what community means and that’s what helping each other looks like.