January 11, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman
As social and political activists, we sometimes find our safe spaces to also function as echo chambers. Safe spaces are healthy and important. That is why our safe spaces should challenge as well as comfort us—especially if we are privileged in some way. Challenging our beliefs sometimes feels uncomfortable, but it is an important part of growth. We should constantly expand our spaces so that they are diverse and robust, instead of places where our every thought is confirmed without question. There is always more to learn. When our conversations become repetitive, instead of constructive, we may begin to act as though we know everything. We stop listening to and learning from each other. We may even start speaking over each other. This can create a dangerous pattern of self-righteousness.
We all can slip into this self-righteous pattern if we do not check ourselves. It results in “white-splaining”, “rich-splaining”, and “man-splaining”, inside or outside of our progressive communities. That is not to say that one should not have conviction in their beliefs or an unshakable moral foundation. However, it is important to avoid smugness and contempt when engaging with folks who have not had access to the same information, or who have different lived experiences.
A white person can read every book and watch every documentary about racial justice, but will never be able to fully understand or empathize with a person of color’s experience of racism.
A wealthy person can recite every Marxist text and articulate every reason why Capitalism is harmful, but should never lecture a person who has experienced poverty firsthand.
A man may memorize every known sentiment expressed by bell hooks or Alice Walker, but should never arrogantly explain feminist theory to a woman.
We must allow people to speak for themselves—even if they disagree with us, or express themselves differently, or never learned the academic buzzwords we are so fond of.
As someone who lives in a forward-thinking, activist community, I know how comforting it is to engage with people who use the same language as myself. Folks in activist spaces tend to be comfortable with phrases like “intersectionality”, “micro-aggressions”, “neoliberalism”, and “white-supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchy.” These terms are helpful when speaking to people who understand them, but less so when engaging with folks who are not involved in organizing. Using simple, direct language does not mean that you are “dumbing down” your ideas. In fact, relying on highly academic, abstract concepts can convey pretentiousness and a lack of understanding in what you are talking about, particularly if you are someone with privilege who has no firsthand experience with the subject matter. It can sound as though you are reciting a scholarly textbook when you are trying to have an earnest, sincere discussion with someone. Most importantly, these academic terms can communicate contempt and arrogance rather than empathy. We want to make as many people as possible feel welcome in our movements, not wary of a sanctimonious culture.
Jordan Malloy, an activist at the Thomas Merton Center, summarizes this with a simple question: “Is your movement accessible?” She notes that it is important to make room for mistakes and accountability. When engaging with folks outside of one’s organizing circle, one can gently correct offensive language and make room for teaching moments. I am not encouraging tone policing, as outrage is a valid reaction to verbal as well as physical violence. However, it is important to distinguish violent language, such as hateful slurs, from opposing viewpoints (or different levels of understanding) about emotionally charged topics. For those of us with privilege, we should intentionally pursue these difficult conversations, and remember that we are all at a different place in our journey to understanding. Allyship means giving time, patience, and energy when others cannot.
As community organizers, students, and justice advocates, it is our responsibility to remain humble and leave our egos at the door. Our mission is always more important than our pride. We should aim to engage folks in healthy dialogues, not create spaces to hear ourselves talk. In this new year, let’s commit to opening our ears more often than our mouths. Let’s practice an active kind of love that includes listening, forgiveness, a gracious heart and an open mind.
Mollie March-Steinman is a Spring 2017 intern with the NewPeople Newspaper.