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Just About Done: On Speaking Out vs. White Retaliation

I have just about hit my break point.

Y’all know I talk about POC and LGBTQIA issues. Constantly. Recently even more so because it’s become important to me to be able to speak. To be myself. To not be silent. To not fear retaliation for the things that I think are important. The things that need to be shared, whether it’s large-scale issues or my random thoughts as I turn over concepts of society and privilege, adding another voice to the strengthening multitudes of POC that are stepping forward to speak for ourselves. My twitter has been fuckin’ lit.

The thing is, this has been a process. A journey. It started years ago. It’s been slow going. There’ve been fits and starts and even backtracks. There’ve been frustrations as I tried to talk to my majority white friends about it. Some were already educated and informed, and happy to talk to me about these things I needed to discuss as I worked out my multiracial identity in a privileged world. Some weren’t that informed, but wanted to learn and be supportive. Some thought they were and didn’t take well to a wince and a “Well, actually, um…” and things just kind of had to work out for themselves.

There’s been a fire inside me since Mike Brown died. And that fire burns. It’s painful. It’s black as poison, and it only cuts deeper every time there’s another Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Ferguson, Baltimore. It’s made me aware of things I didn’t quite see before, and it’s left me at once hopeful and hopeless. But one thing it’s taught me is not to be silent. That the only way to change a painful, hurtful, broken status quo is to speak and educate. That means when my friends don’t realize they’re saying things motivated and taught to them by institutionalized racism, that I should be able to tell them from a place of trust and mutual understanding. To trust that when I say “could you not do this, it hurts me as a person of color,” they’ll listen and understand and care that this hurts me as their friend, especially if they want to be allies to people of color in general.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it goes.

In the past few months, a situation has blown out of control. I’ve been the star of a soap opera I didn’t even know I was cast in until pretty much the closing act. I had some trouble with a friend. Someone I’d thought was an ally; someone I thought was woke. Someone I thought I could trust. Over the course of several months, they’d say things that were ignorant but well-meaning. And I’d tell them, hey, I know this is coming from a place of ignorance and not malice, but…that’s not cool, could you not? I’d try to explain the foundations behind why it was a problem, the general societal issues, hoping for understanding and getting defensiveness and snark. A couple of times I stopped, took a deep breath, turned to another friend and asked “am I overreacting?” and they said no. No, I wasn’t, and they gave me the support I needed to say something even though it was scary; it was tiring, always being the bad guy for saying hey, can you stop hurting me; it was demoralizing having to stop and soothe them because it upset them to realize they might not be as educated as they thought they were.

That’s the thing. Somehow, when we call out passive racism, when we say “we love you, but do better,” it’s always our fault. And we’re always the ones having to fear retaliation. It’s like someone stepping on your foot and getting angry with you for saying “um, ow, could you get off?” But it happens. All the time. It’s on us both to bear the weight of what’s said/done to us, and the weight of the guilt for not accepting it.

Things kept piling up. The words kept getting sharper each time it happened. Neither of us handled it as well as we could have. We had other tensions, too, things that had nothing to do with race; we’d both made some screwups with each other in the past, and both owned it. I wasn’t blameless in contributing to the tension and discord. I made some fuckups in our history. So did they. Our own life events, health issues and such, got in the way and left us unable to deal with the fragments of our relationship. But we spoke to each other one last time. Gently. Kindly. I went out of my way to tell them look–I’m going to be talking about race-related stuff. I’ve got some stuff brewing and I need to get it out. It’s not about you. I don’t want to hurt you with this. I wanted to warn you, but I need to speak.

And then we just drifted off, and I thought that was the end of it. Friendships fade. I honestly wished them well. Hell…even though they didn’t know it, I gave up hours of my time to keep their website running, because another friend asked.

And then people I’d thought were my friends stopped talking to me.

I’d moved on with my life. I had books to write. Work. A life. Friends. Uber. When I realized just who had stopped talking to me, I could guess why. And I just…rubbed my temples and kept moving on. And I thought, hey, you know, I should cool it on the racial stuff for a while because it’s just going to antagonize. I silenced myself for these people. I bit back things I wanted to say that had nothing to do with them, bottled it up until it ate at me. I still spoke sometimes about things I felt were too important to be silenced, things that I felt needed to be said, though not with as much frequency as I wanted to; about situations I encountered in my life, because most people don’t seem to understand that this shite never stops for POC. We’re hit in the face with it constantly. What’s normal life for a person in a position of privilege is like walking on hot coals for us. Maybe you’re walking on those same hot coals, but you’ve got fireproof shoes and are wondering why we’re hissing in pain when you kick the coals under our bare feet.

Let me get one thing straight. I’m not blogging about this to air a personal grievance. I’m blogging about this to talk about white retaliation, and what it does to people of color. Privileged retaliation, and what it does to marginalized people, period.

I had already silenced myself out of an ingrained fear of retaliation. And yet I found out that it was pointless, because retaliation happened anyway.

This person that I let go, this person I thought was my friend, turned to other friends and made themselves the victim. They talked about “what [they] had to deal with” because I had called them out. They sneered at my explanations as lectures. They shared curated bits of our conversations slanted to make themselves blameless. They used white tears to make me out into someone terrible. They pounced on every tweet I posted or RTed about racism and assumed it was about them (it wasn’t), making comments about subtweeting and passive-aggressiveness, and used that to incite ugly, derogatory conversations about me behind my back. They even pounced on my friends for RTing the things I said, mocked them behind their backs because it’s apparently criminal to agree with a person of color making a statement about racial issues. I was made out to be some manipulative, Machiavellian villain with a deliberate agenda, out to make them look bad. Some pretty gross racially motivated things were said about me. Any time I spoke about race, that was cause for a supposed ally to mock me about it, and incite other people, people I had thought were my friends, to mock me about it because they weren’t racist.

Let that sink in a bit.

They mocked a person of color for talking about his thoughts on racism and privilege, to prove they weren’t racist and were such a good ally they were above criticism or questioning.

Not to mention they said I made up crazy accusations.

I want you to read that again.

A person of color asks a friend to understand that they’re hurting him, and is mocked to others behind his back as crazy.

Do you understand the privilege inherent in doing that? Do you understand the harm you do by taking the legacy of systematic and institutionalized racism, and dismissing someone dealing with it and suffering from it as crazy? Do you understand that those tactics have been used to silence POC voices, absolve those in privileged positions of responsibility, and maintain the status quo for centuries? Do you understand that these are the kinds of mindsets that drive people to violence against POC, and push POC to the edge of despair?

Do you understand that this is how you break people just enough to keep the legacy of racism in place?

Because this person exercised their privilege, I was demonized for being hurt. Because this person exercised their privilege, I was mocked for daring to speak up about something so important to me. Because this person exercised their privilege, another friend was attacked just for being friends with me – not to mention her agency, choice, and intelligence devalued because of the constant implications that her problems with how they treated her in their own relationships were somehow tied back to me. Because this person exercised their privilege, I was criminalized for speaking of my experiences, exercising my voice and my right to exist. Because this person exercised their privilege, I lost friends. Because this person exercised their privilege, my books lost review outlets. Because this person exercised their privilege, my mental health suffered, because trust me, throwing in anxiety and depression doesn’t make this any more fun. Because this person exercised their privilege, I restrained myself from being who I need to be.

Because this person exercised their privilege, when I stood up for myself I was slapped down with the full retaliatory force of what privilege can do.

This is the difference. Privilege hurts a person of color, and the person exercising that privilege is consoled for it. Is made out to be the blameless victim. While the person of color is silenced out of fear of retaliation; while the person of color is made out to be terrible; while the person of color is demonized for having anything to say about socialized and institutionalized racism. When the privileged person recognizes themselves in the things a person of color says about racism and privilege, it’s construed as a personal attack instead of honest and real thoughts on the core problems driving these issues. And because privilege takes POC conversation as an attack, because privilege feels targeted when any of the problems discussed ring true…that incites retaliation.

And it’s ugly.

There is no winning when that deck is stacked against you. When privilege already gives the other person the benefit of the doubt and a solid foundation to stand on, and they manipulate that to make sure the non-privileged have nothing to stand on at all, nowhere to turn, nothing but the sense of isolation that comes from knowing you’ve already been made the bad guy and very little can ever change that.

Here’s the thing, though.

I’ve already lost so much that I have nothing to lose. I have nothing to fear from speaking out, because the damage is already done. The friends are already lost. My reputation has already been tarnished. And no, I’m not naming names. Because it’s not about naming and shaming. It’s about calling out the personal and very real effects of privilege through this example of something that’s been hurting me, damaging me deeply. It’s about putting a face and a voice to the effects of this, and making this real for you because it’s real for me. It’s about making you understand that this is what people of color deal with constantly, and it’s grinding us down to the bone. It’s about calling out allies who are only allies in name, and then sneer about the struggles of people of color behind their backs while still patting themselves on the back for being socially aware. It’s about not being silent.

This is one story that’s affected me recently. But what you need to understand is that stories like this are happening for POC everywhere, every fucking day. We run up against this blind, mulish wall of privilege and scratch at it and struggle and try to be heard, to be understood. To say “you’re hurting me. Please care that you’re hurting me.”

And the response is, too painfully often, “Ugh, I’m so offended that you’re hurt. It makes me feel bad that you called me out for hurting you. Please, I didn’t hurt you. I don’t see it. I don’t experience it, so it’s not there. You’re just crazy/making things up/looking for something to be angry about/playing the race card.”

What are we supposed to do against that? What are we supposed to do when we’re constantly invalidated and trivialized that way? When we speak up for ourselves, and the only answer is dismissal and retaliation?

The only thing we can do.

Continue to speak, and damn the fucking consequences.

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15 thoughts on “Just About Done: On Speaking Out vs. White Retaliation”

  1. klgrady says:

    I’m sorry this happened…that this happens. It sucks hearing that you’re parroting ingrained racism, but that pain is necessary to heal what’s wrong with our society, and those who call themselves allies should know this.

    Keep speaking, and fuck the self-absorbed faux allies who can’t handle truth.

    1. Cole says:

      <3 <3 <3 It's just...really frustrating and shitty to have that same narrative thrown at people and used to silence them: "There's nothing wrong with me; you're just crazy." Because the fact that they have the position of privilege to speak from makes it easy to believe it, to doubt oneself. Just...gah. Thanks for commenting, hon.

  2. Erika says:

    PREACH! Preach it! Every single word you wrote here resonated with my heart, especially since I’m going through a version of that right now on in a large group. Every word here is true and I’m about to post this everywhere. Thank you!

    1. Cole says:

      The fact that it resonated tells me I made the right choice in sharing. I’m sorry you’re going through this in a group right now; I hope people can step back and treat you with the respect and kindness you deserve.

  3. Kelly Jensen says:

    I dont know you, but I want to hug you anyway, and thank you for this painful and eloquent piece.

    1. Cole says:

      I’m okay with random stranger hugs over the internet. <3 Thanks for reading.

  4. sadieforsythe says:

    I am so sorry this happened to you, but thank you so much for sharing it.

    1. Cole says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read. <3

  5. Fabi says:

    Ahh! Cole. This is horrible. I can’t believe this happened to you. I am so sorry for your pain. I wish “listening” to each other was a skill taught in grammar school.

    1. Cole says:

      I wish a lot of things were taught in grammar school. Human decency being one of them. >.<

  6. Jill Wilson says:

    I am sorry for your pain. I can’t imagine what you’ve endured (are still enduring) . Thank you for sharing. I wish I could give you a hug.

    1. Cole says:

      Thanks for listening. Sometimes that’s all it takes to ease the pressure – to know there are people out there who get it.

  7. Laura Foster Franks says:

    Wow. So sorry you went through this. I have been in the position of being unaware that something I said or did was unintentionally hurtful. More when I was younger as I grew up in a very white household/town and school…so when I first moved from this environment, I had a lot to learn. That said, I knew that by growing up in a white world as a white woman, my experiences were very different than others. And no one is to blame for this, no one did anything wrong, and no one raised me as I was intentionally to harm another…differences happen as a part of the fact that all humans are different. I have tried to be very open to people when they have told me that something I did was hurtful. I have asked for explanations when I was not totally sure why what I did was hurtful…and that did happen. But it amazes me that you were taken to task for being hurt. If I say something that hurts you, or anyone else, I apologize. Even if I don’t see why it hurt. I hurt another person which was not my intent. I am sorry you had some people in your life who don’t understand it is possible to hurt someone and not understand why. And I am sorry those people were so insecure in themselves as to see your explanations as an attack. I didn’t actually mean to write all of this in response.

    1. Cole says:

      And no one is to blame for this, no one did anything wrong, and no one raised me as I was intentionally to harm another

      This is so spot on. Many people don’t understand that when we bring up the topic of privilege, we’re not speaking about it as some deliberate malice and purposeful action, but as an institution and social mindset that perpetuates itself and affects everyone. I wish more people understood that, and it’s so good to hear from someone who does. I’m glad that when you learned things, you asked to be educated, and were considerate of others in learning–and you understood that intent doesn’t erase impact. Thank you for that. I’m grateful for you, and for people like you.

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