What follows is a very lightly edited transcription of a Twitter rant I went on this morning.
One of my heroes is a white woman who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. She’s someone who was hugely active in the movement at great personal risk and with great effect. I was honored to get to know her.
Once, years ago, she invited me to a panel she was on. A campus roundtable on the civil rights movement. There were three people on the panel: Herself, and a black professor and a black student leader from the campus. She gave a speech I don’t remember much of, as did the prof. Then it was the student’s turn to speak.
The student excoriated her. Attacked white people in the movement generally, and her in particular. Angrily. Vituperatively. Eloquently.
I was mortified. Horrified. I don’t remember the Q&A, how anyone responded. I just remember being shocked and so upset. Later, at dinner, I said something like “That must have been really hard.” She was confused. Asked what I was talking about. I told her. She looked at me, the penny dropped, and as best as I can remember, she said, “Well, he’s a nationalist.”
She didn’t feel betrayed or wounded or defensive. She wasn’t angry or embarrassed. At the same time, though, she wasn’t dismissing him. She understood his position. She’d had the discussion many times over the course of decades. She’d read what he’d read. It wasn’t new. She understood his position, and either respected it or didn’t. (Probably some of both, though that’s just a guess.) But the path he was on wasn’t the path she’d taken, and that was okay. She didn’t need to bring him around. That wasn’t her job.
If you’re a white person doing anti-racist work, “Listen to the voices of people of color” is crucial advice. Maybe the most crucial. One reason I’ve never told this story in print is that I don’t want it to seem like the moral is “You do you, white people!” But the reality is that just listening to people of color can never be the end of the journey. Because POC aren’t monolithic. (And for a hundred other reasons, but that’s a big one.)
But here’s a thing: If you’re white and a person of color thinks you’re racist, it’s not the end of the world. Your life isn’t over. They may be right, they may be wrong. (They’re more likely right than you think. Remember that.) But it’s not the end of the world.
Chait’s argument is that “racist” is so anathematizing — his word — that its intemperate use is not legitimate speech. And that’s bullshit. We win by having these conversations, not suppressing them. We, as white people, move forward by feeling that hot flush of shame I felt that night, and figuring out what to do with it.
Some people of color are jerks. Some women are jerks. Some gay people and trans people are jerks. Because many many people are jerks. But incivility isn’t the problem there. “PC” isn’t the problem there. Jargon and hashtags aren’t the problem.
If being online doing this work is too much, don’t do it. If you need help, lots of us want to help. I want to help. But there’s no way to get everyone to like you. There’s no way to be the perfect ally to everyone. There’s no cookie at the end of the tunnel. There’s no place where nobody thinks you’re an asshole. That’s not the goal.
The goal is to do good important work. The goal is to help make things better. The goal is to keep learning. The goal is to fuck up less and help more. The goal is to not hurt people through ignorance or malice or carelessness. The goal is to help to build something beautiful.
The goal is not to build a space where everyone loves you. Because not everyone is going to love you. And that’s okay. It has to be okay.