There is a big difference between interpersonal safety and systemic safety. There is a big difference between an individual person insulting you and threatening your safety, and being oppressed on a larger, systemic scale. Of course, like everything, this is a general rule. There are ways in which they can be inter related. But overall, I believe in significant ways they must be understood as separate issues. So, when it comes to interpersonal interactions, a feeling of discomfort is extremely important to tune into and follow. Our gut instincts evolved for situations of interpersonal safety: if in this type of interaction, regardless of the content, someone gives us that uncomfortable sensation in our stomachs, it is very important to follow this feeling and leave the situation. In these contexts, our gut instincts tell us whether or not we are safe in that moment, and should be trusted at face value. It is exactly what they were designed to do.
But there is also another kind of discomfort- this is a discomfort that is related to bigger systemic issues and our own positions of privilege within them. When discussing social phenomenon, a feeling of discomfort is no longer serving it’s evolutionary purpose. Rather, it is serving a social purpose: protecting our own privilege and the status quo of our social norms. In these situations, discomfort is an important clue that something critical may be happening. Our framework and knowledge for how we understand the world may be about to be expanded on. Our feelings, in this case, are related to a much greater context than our bodies were meant to have to understand, and cannot be taken at face value. When this kind of discomfort hits us, it is telling us that we have hit on an essential vein. It is telling us that we have hit our deepest, most unexamined assumptions. It means that we have found the center of the place where we never knew to consider another possibility of knowing and experiencing.
This type of discomfort is full of opportunity. It is a chance for us to step back and consider. Why did this make me so uncomforable? Why is this idea, or concept, or way of being I had not considered before so disturbing to me? This is where the best and most profound new learning and understanding can take place. In these cases it is counterproductive to run away– rather this is a place to go towards. Where it makes you feel the most strange– this is the place to examine deeper.
It’s not always easy to discern what type of situation you are being presented with- whether it is an interpersonal or systemic issue at hand. We have to ask ourselves: is this a situation where my gut is keeping me safe, or where sticking with my discomfort could help me grow? In reality, it is not always going to be clear cut. There is sometimes going to be overlap. There are going to be instances where this distinction is messy to tease out. There are going to be situations where there may be aspects of both situations present. But as much as possible- try to step back, assess, and evaluate before reacting. Don’t lose these opportunities by swallowing them with defensiveness or turning your back on them in unnecessary anger.
CW: some ableist language
The most fundamental form of resistance we have is to stay alive. Despite it all. We survive, we trudge on, we stay us. It is the most basic way to fight our oppressors- but first and foremost, we must stay alive. And to stay alive, sometimes we have to let go. We have to laugh at the terror. We have to pretend the collapse is not inevitable. If we don’t forget these things sometimes, for some precious moments, we will go crazy. And we can’t allow them to drive us crazy. We can’t let this deep and heavy system of repression eat us away, or choke us into nothing. If we die, they win. We can’t let them kill us. We can’t let them destroy us. We can’t let them make the world forget we exist.
How do we stay alive in this world set on assimilating us? The only way is that sometimes we have to let go. Sometimes we have to let go of winning and just be alive. Sometimes we have to sink into the pleasure of our own bodies and not think about the world breaking down around us. We can’t let them drive us crazy. Crazy people shrivel away- isolated- withering- and then they die. And we can’t let them kill us.
We’ve suffered so much already. There are so many of us who have already died. There are so many of us who have sacrificed their lives so we might win. And yet still, we keep dying. We need to survive. We need to stay alive so the world will not forget we exist. We need to stay alive so we can pass on the stories that affirm our lives. We must be here to tell our truths. We must continue. We must survive. And to survive sometimes you have to let go- of the grief, of the rage, of the struggle. To survive sometimes means turning away from the dread- it means touching each other- it means smiling at the turmoil- it means lying quietly on our beds while the fire burns right outside our doors. Sometimes survival means taking a moment to not struggle- to let go and just be.
With politically liberal and moderate people, it seems to be generally believed that white supremacist groups are a “fringe” in our society. There is a belief that white supremacist groups are such a minority compared to the general population that we shouldn’t worry about them. Similarly, to many moderate and liberal folks, militant and radical anti racists seem “extreme” and “unnecessary” in our diversity focused contemporary society.
In my experience, however, I have found that moderates and liberals often use similar language when they talk about race as white supremacists do. When these attitudes are tolerated in liberal and moderate circles, it gives openings for the growth of white supremacist ideals.
The main example I have found frequently playing out is the argument that anyone can be racist to anyone (namely that racism against white people exists) and that white pride should be accepted alongside black pride and asian pride, etc. These ideals are supported by a “color blind” mainstream perspective on diversity and equality, where any acknowledgement of race or difference is discouraged.
So what does it mean when your so-called liberal or moderate beliefs around race are actually shared, in basic premise, by white supremacists? These lines of thinking are repeated almost exactly by neo-Nazis if you read interviews with them, examine their literature, or peruse their online forums. The fact that these perspectives are not often considered under the umbrella of “racism” is terrifying. This casual racism creates a baseline norm where white supremacists can exist in our communities under the radar, participating in casual conversation around race with the liberal and moderate majorities without detection. It creates social environments that actual white supremacists can easily infiltrate- because their less extreme rhetoric will be met with nods and agreements.
To illustrate, a few years ago Jimmy Marr (a local white supremacist in the Eugene Oregon area) posted a thread on stormfront, a white supremacist online forum, which included a picture of him playing the bagpipes on the busy corner of 29th and Willamette St., with a sign that said “black pride said the black man, asian pride said the asian man, white pride said the racist”. In his commentary on the photo, Marr said that he got many honks and thumbs up of approval. He mentioned that it surprised him when a passing black woman said she liked his sign. There is no way to know how much Marr may have been exaggerating the positive responses that he got, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t exaggerating very much. I have met a lot of folks who self identify as left wing or moderate and would likely agree with this message.
This is the heart of the problem. These likely moderate or left wing folks (it was in South Eugene, which is a notoriously liberal side of the town) who gave Jimmy Marr a thumbs up share a core belief with white supremacy: that there must be a completely even playing field to foster true equality, and therefore that racism against white people is a form of oppression similar to racism against people of color. Even if these moderate or liberal folks wouldn’t approve of segregation, or be against interracial relationships, or condone the physical assault and murder of people of color, they share beliefs with the people who do. And they create an environment in which white supremacists can exist covertly, where they can feel like they have approval from their communities, where they can organize and live without challenge as long as they are careful about not being too explicit with their beliefs.
To me, the final question is: would the way you talk about race make a white supremacist feel like you might be a potential ally, or would the way you talk about race make it very clear to a white supremacist that they are not welcome in your space?