Activist, Educate THYSELF: The Importance of the STFU&L Phase

Hey. You. Shut the fuck up...and listen.

I know it doesn't sound very nice. And it's not. But it was exactly the slap upside the head that I needed not too long ago, and I am forever indebted to Renee of Womanist Musings for saying it. I came to the blogosphere naively full of completely-unexamined privilege, discovered WM, and when one of her characteristically blunt and no-nonsense posts on whiteness prodded me right in the privilege, I flipped and argued with her, telling her it "wasn't really racism" and that she was taking things way too personally. She turned right around and told me in no uncertain terms that, as a privileged young white woman, if I wanted to be at all taken seriously, I needed to shut the fuck up and listen, for a good long time, to those who had lived the experiences she was talking about.

I felt like a puppy who had just been scolded for getting into the garbage! My pride was stung, my privilege smarting from that solid whack on the nose. I nursed my privilege for a couple of weeks, not reading her blog at all. I don't remember what it was that prompted me to return to her space. Maybe it was just the nagging guilt of "She's probably right, you know..." that I felt more vividly the more I thought about it.

But I returned. And it was probably three or four months of reading, processing, shutting the fuck up and listening, before I began to comment again. I sought out Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack list, read Womanist Musings and TransGriot and The Angry Black Woman, began to note examples of what these bloggers talked about in my daily life, and, in short...educated myself. I learned how to behave as a privileged person in the space occupied and owned by the oppressed class. I learned how not to appropriate, and how to defer to the lived experiences of those with less privilege than I when talking about what is and isn't oppression. I learned, basically, how not to be a privileged asshole.*

And right now, after another dustup on Feministing Community, wherein a man came in and put up his first post basically saying "Hi feminists! Please prove to me that harmful sexism still exists in Western cultures by telling me how you experience it." and many of us took affront at this wielding of male privilege in a feminist space, I feel the need to pass on Renee's wisdom. Shut the fuck up, dude. Shut the fuck up and LISTEN, before you start spouting off. Educate yourself by shutting up and listening to us, by seeking out reading material on your own, by LISTENING to what has already been said. Not by demanding, no matter how politely, to have your hand held and information spoon-fed to you.

I know it's less fun this way. The STFU&L phase is not over in a day. It takes time, and effort, to educate yourself on the experiences of a life you've never lived. But this is how it's done. The first step is to learn...by shutting the fuck up and listening while other people talk.

*Not that I'm any less privileged now than I was before, but I am not generally an asshole about it these days, or if I slip and am called on it, I check my privilege and listen. So still privileged, but not a privileged asshole.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.

I trip all over myself when it comes to the race issue, because for years I was taught; 1. you're not racist, so shut up, just ignore race as if it doesn't exist and all is well and 2. we don't talk about that because it's rude for white people to talk about racism and in fact, probably means you're racist.

Problem is, with a mentality like that surrounding me, I never learned anything. Now I'm so ashamed about the whole thing I'm AFRAID to explore it.

It's kind of a rotten place for me because I want to learn more about it but don't really know where to start. It would be nice to talk more about it because I want to be able to recognize and eliminate my own racist tendencies but the whole shame and fear thing keeps my lips pretty effectively zipped and besides, to whom do I go to talk about that? I know of places on the net where I can ask people to help me out when I'm having an issue being a feminist newb or a fat acceptance newb, but when it comes to the race thing... I don't want to be derailing other people's conversations with "um hi could you please point White Privilege Dummy here to the 101?"


It's complicated. I even feel like this is probably missing the point in some key way. I really, really want to listen, but I can't even figure out where people are talking much of the time, and it makes me feel like a failure as an ally.

WitchWords said...

I think what you were taught growing up about racism is applicable to a lot of privileged white people. I know I got some variant on both of those; hell, even now I talk to white people who say that by making a big deal when someone says something racist around me, I'm somehow *part of the problem*.

I would recommend a long soak in Womanist Musings, TransGriot, and Angry Black Woman, to start with. Subscribe to those three, read them. Read the comments. Go back and read the archives. Watch Jay Smooth videos and how he talks about race. When you flip through the blogarounds at Shakesville, or Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday on Feministe, or Drop It Like It's Hot at Womanist Musings, look for posts on race and posts by PoC, seek those out and read them. Read everything they link to.

If you have questions you don't want to derail by asking, try Googling. In this day and age, odds are someone has answered the question you're asking.

And if there's a question you really, really, really can't find an answer to, I would recommend that you first ask a more experienced ally, instead of jumping right over to asking PoC to play "Mystical Negro", as Renee says. You won't get as good an answer from an ally as you would from a PoC, but the asking at least comes without the same power dynamic of privileged person able to demand information from less-privileged people.

Anonymous said...

Over here from Shakesville, hope you don't mind my butting in.

When RaceFail '09 reared its ugly head, a number of resources popped up as a result. I've managed to collect a number of them, mostly for later reading on my own, which I never got around to deleting.

* The Racism 101 Primer should actually have most, if not all, of these, and is definitely a good place to start.

* Racism 101 on LJ is what first popped to mind for me, and is also a good place to start. I definitely suggest going back through the archives and checking out tags. Likewise, Question 101 recently launched.

* Baby-Stepping Away From Racism is basically a white woman's experience trying to deal with racism on a personal level, and possible ways for other white people to go about doing so.

* Links for Clueless White People; another collection of links on the subject.

* Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, on not just taking the "shiny" parts of a culture.

These links are by no means comprehensive, they're just some things that I started out with and that I thought you might find informative. Now I'm going to shut my white mouth and go re-read some of them ^^a

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering.

Sigh. Of course I HAD to start on my journey by doing the very thing you just told me not to do (see, see! I SUCK, I KNEW IT). Wish I'd had this to read a few days ago. I messaged a WOC whose opinion I respect because I was feeling squikky about something race-related and I wanted to know if I was completely missing the point or had a legitimate reason for squikky feeling... I messaged her in part because she's one of the few people I read who addresses the issue, and also because I respect her opinions just in general, but I'll be honest, it was also because I trusted her to say something if I was being racist, either in my squikky feeling or just by asking her, without ending all correspondence with me over it. I shouldn't have counted on her to be my teacher.

She hasn't answered, and I wasn't expecting one for a while if I got one at all anyway (we all have lives and I'm pretty sure she's a busy lady) but now I'm damn sorry I even asked. :P

I guess part of it is I wonder if I even am asking the right questions at all... or maybe I'm too dopey on the subject at this point to have even earned the right to have a question.

Mostly I don't feel very... worthy, I guess. Like I've been so stupid for so long I ought to apologize just for being here, because what, where have I been for 27 years?! That's not... it exactly, but it's the best way I can describe the feeling at the moment.

WitchWords said...

Those are some excellent links, Socchan, thank you!

Sugar, you don't suck. You're just new to it. Everyone fucks up in the beginning; hell, this very post I told you how I told Renee that I knew better than she did what was racism and what wasn't! Tell me that's not a damn big fuckup to make, and yet I have done my best to move on from it and learn. You have the right to questions, but the thing is that the onus is on you to find the answers, not just jump in and start assuming people will answer - particularly the people in the marginalized group in question.

And yeah, you'll run up against a lot of guilt in this journey. But again, I'll go back to Renee's words: If it's not about you, don't make it about you. If someone critiques some aspect of whiteness that you don't participate in, don't get upset, don't take it personally. You bear a lot of privilege as a white person. There are two ways you can deal with it: ignore it and continue on the status quo, or learn about it, work to mitigate its impact, and use it to work towards its own end.

If you want to talk about this personally, feel free to email me, my email's on the sidebar. :-)

CaitieCat said...

Sugar, one of the things I use to get a handle on my own privilege is to remember that privilege is something granted by other people. We can't stop them granting us privilege. The best we can do is to try and educate them to stop doing it, and to make our best effort not to benefit from the privilege others accord us.

For instance, if I visit my fiancee, I fly down from Buffalo to Baltimore, which is near her home in the US. When I walk through the security lines, using my cane, and being a pale-skinned and blue-eyed woman, I can't control the fact that the screeners aren't going to racially profile me as a threat. I can't control that they may view a woman who looks Muslim as much more likely to be a threat. What I can do is point out my privilege where I can, and use it as much as possible to destroy the system of privilege entirely.

It means when I'm hanging out with a group of white people, and one of them tries to make a racist "joke", I need to be willing to say, "No, I'm not part of 'you', I'm part of 'them', and you're damn right it offends me." That's using my privilege (assumed to be willing to discriminate based on my appearance) to attack the very privilege being accorded.

And as Jadelyn wisely says, don't forget, we all make mistakes. It's how you respond to your mistakes that counts. :)

WitchWords said...

We can't stop them granting us privilege. The best we can do is to try and educate them to stop doing it, and to make our best effort not to benefit from the privilege others accord us.

This is the succinct, precise way of saying what I was trying to get at in my last paragraph.

Don't feel guilty for having privilege; you didn't choose it and you can't help it. But you can choose what you DO with it, once you are aware of having it, and that's what matters.


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