No is a Complete Sentence


[This is part 3 of a three part series on privilege. See parts ONE and TWO here. I also apologize for the delay - I was attending the STORY CHICAGO conference for work and it wiped me out.] When I posted Wednesday's post about how you should react to people calling you out on privilege, I got the expected pushback - that privileged people can't learn if the oppressed don't educate them! (this commenter had a much more creative way of phrasing it, but that's what it boils down to).

This isn't true. The oppressed are not obligated to educate you on what you did wrong. To invoke the common analogy: if you're standing on my foot, I'm allowed to tell you to get off my foot, and you should get off my foot! It doesn't matter if I say it nicely, tell you why, or educate you on how not to stand on other people's feet. The immediate, pressing need for the oppressed person in that situation is to stop being hurt. End of. Everything else about where the conversation may go from there is superfluous.

But, that doesn't mean that said commenter's words didn't make me think about all the different ways we try to police the oppressed into catering toward the privileged. We tell women that if they'd just say their argument in a nicer way, we'd be more inclined to listen (an idea my own experience and the experience of others has proven to be utterly false). We tell the oppressed that it's just a joke, ignoring the interplay between power and oppression that makes a joke about their plight not just bad, but downright scary.

This is the world in which the oppressed function. So, today, I wanted to put forward a few encouraging words to those who are doing the calling out.

First, there are a lot of people telling you not to. A lot of people (like the commenter) will try to gaslight you into thinking it's not that big of a deal and that you must cater to their needs over and above their own. This is false. It is only ever your decision to call something out, and how you do so is your choice.

Additionally, there are days I simply don't have the spoons (or energy) to call out the microaggressions of oppression that I encounter. Even a "hey, that's not cool," is sometimes too much to muster in light of what the damage control would entail. That's okay - you don't have to do everything. There's an odd pressure that you must call everything bad out all the time - I definitely felt it when I first got involved in social justice writing and online activism - but, first and foremost, self-care is important. If you are not up to the task that day, it is okay. It is okay to not be okay.

This doesn't mean you're letting things slide or that you're a bad activist. You are placing your mental and emotional health over and above an obligation to some larger force, and that, ultimately, will help you be a better activist - in other words, you'll learn to choose your battles wisely.

Second, there's no right way to do it. You don't have to fit within a narrow kind tone to let someone know that what they just did is not cool. Each situation is different, and, often, an angry, "HEY GTFO!" is all you need. Only you can judge based on your relationship to that person.

Remember that your feelings are valid. The first thing the privileged will try to do is say, "It's not that bad. Get over it." I've been tempted to say that myself as a privileged person. But your feelings of hurt and anger are valid and important.

Now, in a related strain, the privileged person may, too, feel hurt and offended. After all, as I said, it sucks to be told that something you did hurt someone else. And it sucks to realize that your world is shifting under your feet and you no longer have the expected power that you had before. But there is a difference between the distressing growing pains that the privileged experience as their privilege recedes, and your immediate, constant pain as an oppressed person, one upon whom aspersions have been hurled since day one. It is an interplay between power and pain - the pain the powerful experience as their power recedes is nothing compared to the pain they inflict upon others as they grapple for that power again.

Everything in the world tells us to prize the pain of the privileged over the pain of the oppressed. And calling out reverses that - it prizes the oppressed's pain, elevates the experience of the downtrodden, over the temporary growing pain of the privileged. But when you call out, everything in you will push back to acquiescence, to falling back in line to the hierarchy in which your pain is sublimated and ignored. But it is much more freeing and healing to realize that your pain is valid, too, and deserves respect too.

And if the person learns (hallelujah!), they may ask you to forgive them. Indeed, in the church, this call may come before any actual learning has occurred. As the wronged one, forgiveness is in your hands. No one else can make you forgive or push you to forgive. You may not want to, and that's okay, too. Things don't heal overnight and you don't have to heal on their timetable.

I wrote my notes for this entry while listening to writer Anne Lamott speak on Thursday night (I was exhausted and my mind was whirring in different directions), and was taken away from my note-taking when she said this: "No is a complete sentence." There is power in realizing that you have the ability to say no, and to have that be all you say. When a privileged person comes in and says something privilege, you have the power and the ability to simply say, "No."

And that, truly, is a great thing, though it may not feel like it at the time.