My Commitment to Social Justice Does Not Mean I Hate White People9/11/2014
I have always been good at making people feel uncomfortable by being extremely vocal about my views...
I have always been good at making people feel uncomfortable by being extremely vocal about my views on political and social issues. This has also led to quite a few misunderstandings, especially with people not familiar with social justice praxis.
During my junior year of high school, I carried around a copy of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler for an entire month. This was the beginning of my feminist awakening; and to this day, the play is one of my favorites. But at the time, I didn’t know how to articulate that I appreciated the way Ensler covered issues of sexual agency, body image, pleasure, and body empowerment with candor and humor. I just liked the book and wanted to see if the school’s administration would allow me to carry around a book with “vagina” on the cover. (They did.) Some of my teachers came up with an alternative explanation. My eleventh grade AP Language Arts teacher would later ask my best friend (after we graduated), “Hey, is Michelle Jackson a lesbian?”
I have slowly begun to understand that how one frames and contextualizes conversations is important. I am not arguing for self-imposed respectability politics, but I do believe that how you say something often influences how people interpret it. And if you want folks to truly listen to what you say, sometimes you have to target your message in specific ways.
Right? Right. Except when you’re discussing issues of race and anti-racism on social media networks. Then all hell breaks loose.
There are many people in the world who believe that “social justice” equates to being anti-white, anti-wealth, and anti-male. (I’m not saying who those people are, but you can take a guess.) And if you dare try to have critical conversations about racism—especially the impact race plays in nearly every aspect of daily life in the U.S.—then you are just “trying to make white folks feel guilty for being white.”
Um, what? Come again? This irks the shit out of me.
It is 2014. Despite the fact that slavery ended more than 100 years ago, men and women of color are being gunned down in the streets of their own communities. There are people who actually believe that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen and is, in fact, a Muslim socialist terrorist. And somewhere in the world, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea are making millions of dollars appropriating Black culture and Black womanhood… without actually caring about the history of Black women in the U.S.
Y’all, America has a race problem. And you know how problems are solved? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not by avoiding them and pretending they don’t exist. And it’s not by derailing productive conversations about race with your own feelings of self-pity and white guilt.
Too often, I have seen a person of color attempt to share their painful experience of racism, only to have a white person co-opt the conversation. And this happens in a number of ways:
The white girl who cries during her first Africana studies course.
The white guy who says he can’t have privilege because _______.
The white person who doesn’t “see color.”
The white person who went on a mission trip or family vacation in Africa.
The white person who grew up in an all-Black neighborhood and was made fun of for being white.I’m really sorry that Marcus and his boys were mean to you in middle school. But that is not the same thing as knowing your ancestors were systematically maimed, beaten, raped, and murdered for centuries… all in the name of financial profit. It’s not the same thing as never seeing positive images of yourself in mainstream media… or having laws specifically targeted at you because your mere existence is criminalized.
The person of color who sympathizes with the “white people are just misunderstood” narrative.
To my dear white folks, I want you to know that I sincerely love you. Really, I do. But I love social justice too. And my love of social justice does not mean that I hate you. (I’ve been to Europe twice, but I haven’t been to Africa yet. See?)
Social justice is not meant to exclude you. Indeed, I believe actively engaging white people to be anti-racist allies is necessary for social progress. (Who else is gonna check your racist Great Aunt Sally?) Social justice does not mean that I think all white people are evil, or that people of color are better and more deserving of good things. And social justice does not erase the reality that white people experience hardships—whether personal or systematic. But this does not allow you to appropriate meaningful, critical discussions about race. You are not the victim here.
My belief in social justice means that I believe in equality, in the dignity and value of all human lives. It means that sometimes not everything is about you.
It means that sometimes, you need to have a seat… and listen.
Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist living in Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has performed in New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more of her wit and work, visit her website (michelledenisejackson.com) or follow her on Twitter (@MichelleJigga).