I truly believe that words hold inherent power, and to be mindful of that power is essential to creating an inclusive, intersectional, sustainable, and love-focused movement toward equity and equality for all people. This essay is derived from some of my Facebook posts and Twitter semi-essays I’ve written in the past few weeks, and I wanted to type it up in a longer-form essay for those that may find this format easier to read.
My goal in this essay is to examine common phrases used within activist circles and to evaluate their impact upon the marginalized communities involved within our civil and human rights movements. Most of these phrases are used in responses to other people’s experiences within emotionally charged conversations, and the goal here is to examine the impact of these response phrases. Then provide a script on how to avoid falling back on these harmful phrases.
This analysis is not in any way, shape, or form a call to “cross the divide” and talk to white supremacists, and I want to be clear on that point. This essay is also not an examination of methods of de-radicalization of white supremacists and/or neo-Nazis (as that is an entirely different discussion. Yes, words can be used de-radicalize them, but for the vast majority of us, that is not our path to take. None of us are obligated in any way to de-radicalize those that oppress and threaten our right to exist, and that is valid for our well-being and safety).
At this point in time, the majority of us should not, for safety and ethical reasons, converse with people advocating genocide. By not allowing them to overtake our conversations, we can start to break down their platform within society’s idea market. This is part of the reshaping the story of society to not allow hate speech free reign of our media and our societal discourse. We need to defeat white supremacist ideology, and ways to do that has been written by far wiser folks than me, such as Bree Newsome, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Son of Baldwin, and other prominent activists and writers. In terms of societal discourse, I’ve already spoken in a different essay about methods to reshape the story of society, so I will not digress further from my stated goal in this essay. I simply want to be clear on our topic within this particular essay.
Communication within Our Civil/Human Rights Movements
To return to my original goal, let’s discuss how to engage each other within our activist circles in a loving manner by examining the impact of common phrases.
As we talk with each other, it can help to take a moment to pause and think about the impact. To find a way to craft our rage or pain or grief into a tool to push forward our goal toward a more loving, equitable, equal, and sustainable society. For those of us fighting to dismantle the white supremacist capitalist imperialist cisnormative patriarchy — all of us are on the same side. The words we say to each other should be measured in its impact. Our intentions and explanations of such cannot erase that impact we have on other members of our marginalized communities.
In many activist circles, there is this idea that in order to have a voice one must have a certain level of commitment, of which is not determined by the abilities of those targeted but by the person judging them. Instead of communicating and discovering what we all bring to the table, the activist judges others through phrases that demand the same if not higher amount of commitment than their own. This hyper focus on commitment and participation is used to determine who is valid enough to speak. It disregards the targeted person’s capabilities, their talents, their autonomy, and assumes a harmful character that deliberately silences the targeted person’s voice. In marginalized communities, this is devastating, especially for those that already may have little to no voice.
I want to call attention to the impact of those words. If someone makes a choice you don’t agree with, there are ways to challenge each other without engaging in the use of silencing tactics. Often these phrases are said out of defensiveness or to “convince” someone to participate in a specific manner, but this “convincing” uses shame, guilt, and erasure. Regardless of intention, this failure to recognize the impact of these phrases does not mean we are free from their consequences. These phrases cause harm to the targeted person.
When we say, “if you don’t vote, then you don’t get to complain” that is silencing.
When we say, “if you don’t march in protests, then you shouldn’t have a voice” that is silencing.
When we say, “if you don’t attend x amount of meetings, you don’t get to talk” that is silencing.
All of us have our own struggles that we must navigate in order to contribute what we are able. What we contribute is still valid, even if it does not measure up to what others think activism should look like. There are many tools in our toolbox. Yes, it will take time and research/energy for our community to understand how all of us can work together toward our shared goal. Through conversations in good faith, all of us can find a way to disrupt the privileged powerful in ways that work within our capabilities and talents.
Instead of reacting with anger at someone failing to participate at a specific level of activism, instead ask, “why do I feel the need to say this? What is preventing them from being able to participate? Is there a barrier? How can we break down this barrier so that they are able to participate within their capabilities?”
Through communication and honest questions, we find a way to uplift and engage each other in ways that work within our capabilities and talents.
This requires hard work, yes, and part of that is being aware of how we use words. Especially in moments where we may feel defensive or triggered or angry. Defensiveness is an instinctual reaction for when we feel uncomfortable or upset, but we cannot stay there. We must reach across that line of uncomfortableness, to sit with each other, to learn and grow with each other. To understand the impact we had and they had on us, to communicate both our experiences, so that all of us have a voice in our fight for freedom and justice.
There are a lot of people out there that want to disrupt our communication with each other. These people are not interested in using words in good faith (and if they do not use words in good faith, then that is toxicity and it is important and valid to safeguard yourself.) Those that fight in solidarity with us are not the enemy. Yes, remembering this is hard in emotionally charged conversations or when we are invited us to examine how we used our words or actions. I believe these conversations are worth it. For we grow stronger together.
Use of the term “Dividing our Community” and is true impact
Another phrase I want to tackle is perhaps the most common phrase I see when politically and emotionally charged debates rage through our movements and social circles. I really want to stop and take a look at the phrase “dividing our community,” and its true impact on marginalized individuals within our communities. Often, this phrase is said when a marginalized individual is speaking up about their experience with a specific activist/agitator, organization, agency, or other societal structures. This person could be trying to articulate a negative experience or perhaps attempting to do a call out on a harmful behavior in order to educate those involved on why the behavior hurt. Yet, often the response isn’t to listen, but to use the phrase “dividing our community.”
I will be blunt. This is a form of gaslighting. It silences the targeted person, it degrades them, and it can easily lead to mob harassment. We really need to take an honest look at its impact.
People bringing up issues and experiences that they have faced is valid and should be respected. Even if others haven’t had a negative experience with that agency or organization or individual — their positive experiences are not more valid and worthy of recognition than the person speaking up. We are all valid in our experiences. No individual, organization, agency, or group is perfect, and thus may cause harm to the marginalized communities within which they work. When this happens, the marginalized voices should be respected and listened to in order to understand and enact change.
We cannot fix problems within our communities unless people feel safe enough to speak up about them.
Using the phrase “dividing our community” whenever folks try to speak up about negative or painful experiences that an organization, activist individual, or agency caused — that breaks the sense of safety and silences them. This is not okay.
I’ve seen this phrase used against trans folks who speak up about LGBT organizations that have a checkered past with supporting trans people.
I’ve seen this phrase used against black people who bring up police brutality.
I’ve seen this used against indigenous folks who bring up the abuse they’ve faced within activist communities.
This phrase serves no purpose other than to intimidate and silence those who dare to speak up about their experiences. This is really not okay.
If anyone finds themself tempted to say it, stop. Ask, “Why do I feel the need to say this?”
Then ask, “Do I view this person’s view as valid? As valid as my own?”
Next, ask, “Am I taking this personal? What are they trying to communicate to me?”
Take that step back to breath, ask these questions, and navigate through the emotionally charged situation. Often the person speaking up is doing so from a place of pain, and saying “you are dividing the community” pushes them out of the community and back into silence. It upholds the status quo that is the very thing we are fighting against. We want to build a world that is loving, just, equitable, equal, and sustainable, and people speaking up about their experiences as we organize deserve to be heard with respect and dignity.
If harm is caused through words or actions, that will require a different approach, a call out, which others have written about this in ways far better than I. For this essay, I wanted to examine how these phrases used in response to emotionally charged conversations can have a harmful impact that demonizes and silences those for whom we claim solidarity.
By being more aware of the impact of these phrases, hopefully we can create a more inclusive, intersectional, and stronger community, where everyone feels safe enough to speak and work in solidarity toward our shared goal of equity, justice, equality, and sustainability. To build that future, we need to uplift rather than denigrate, to challenge without tearing down, to speak without silencing others.
Solidarity, friends. Be kind in the comments. This is a post about changing behaviors as these phrases are far too common in these emotionally charged times. Speak your truth with awareness of the impact of your words. All of us are valid, our stories are valid, and we are all here together to learn, to grow, to fight the good fight. Let’s get to work.