Being Polite is a Privilege: What (White) Liberals Need to Know

It often begins like this: I run into an issue with an authority figure who is a gatekeeper to a service or safety net I need to survive, or someone of some esteem in my town or an organization I do some sort of business with.

It may be that my healthcare benefits are temporarily shut down due to supposedly not getting in required paperwork on time (even though I sent it weeks in advance and have the certified mail receipt to prove it arrived before it was supposed to). Or, it could be that my affordable housing complex have again raised my rent and questioned the validity of my disability in insisting I either move or take on work my health situation won’t allow — and when I protest, or bring up code violations, I am told if I don’t like it I should move.

Other times, it’s when I am attempting to simply assert my own relevant life experience into the dialogue of something that has bearing on me personally or for which my academic or family background may offer some valuable insight. Yet, instead of my viewpoint being welcomed or respected I am immediately shut down.

For instance, this past summer the moderator of my town’s neighborhood mailing list repeatedly insisted poor people are poor due to their own inherent laziness and unwillingness to participate in the political process through voting and advocacy work. He also added (as did another on the list) that poor people not voting were to blame for the current political climate and the rise of Trump. When I chimed in as a person who grew up on welfare with a poor family and who is still low income to offer a counter-narrative to their assertions, I was mocked and chided.

I had explained that there are many valid reasons poor people sometimes can’t or don’t vote — from active voter disenfranchisement due to race and class (as was prominently seen in just this last election in places like Georgia, North Carolina and North Dakota), to people not being able to take off work (or if technically able, not willing to risk the pay cut or the wrath of their supervisor and/or co-workers) to polling stations not equipped to accommodate people with disabilities, to polling stations being too far away from people’s residences and them lacking access to adequate transportation to get there — all of which were roundly dismissed by the powerful old, upper-middle class white men on the list.

(As an aside, I also mentioned that Trump’s election being due to so-called “working class” or “working poor” voters, is actually mostly a myth. Trump voters were by and large white and wealthy. It should also be mentioned that while Republicans overall tend to more proactively try to cut safety net programs as compared to their Dem counterparts — poor people have continued to struggle under both Democratic and Republican rule in this nation. My family fared just as poorly — in many ways worse — under Bill Clinton’s policies of ending welfare, escalating de-unionization and mass incarceration — as they did Reagan’s and both Bush’s.)

Not to mention, there are plenty of poor people who can and do vote and go above and beyond in being part of the political process, even with the odds stacked against them. I mentioned my own time as an environmental advocate working in Washington D.C. and the coalition work I witnessed of those attempting to shoot down the nefarious 2005 Budget Reconciliation Bill that gutted entitlement programs. However, the United States is now primarily an oligarchy. So even when poor people attempt to be an active part of the political process, our concerns and needs are still routinely ignored or dismissed in favor of wealthier interests.

I shared this thoughtful input with my town list. And despite that I not only have extensive lived experience on these matters, but also have worked as an economics journalist who has reported significantly on issues of class and labor, and have spent time lobbying on Capitol Hill and getting a behind-the-scenes peak, this moderator and his supporters didn’t budge in their prejudicial assumptions, much less find my perspective even minimally interesting or valuable.

What’s more: I got scolded as being too abrasive in the tone of my rebuttals and “playing the victim” — even though I spoke very little of myself and remained remarkably civil considering the list moderator was more or less spouting some pretty insulting stereotypical garbage about families like mine. They didn’t see me as experienced. They saw me as poor and so my viewpoint intrinsically flawed and inferior to theirs (tell me if you get the irony here).

This is often what I come across when I attempt to interject in such discussions of class: I am branded as rude, abrasive, “difficult” and brusque— even if the topics I am addressing aren’t abstractions to me but injustices that are actively threatening my survival, both short- and long-term.

I say this all as someone who still has incredible privilege — including racial (white) privilege. For those who are also dealing with sexism, classism and ableism as I am, but also have to contend with racism, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and/or homophobia — they likely have to deal with significantly more challenges and anxieties when it comes to their safety and protection than I do. As such, it’s part of the duty of my own privilege that I not only speak up when those marginalized demographics to which I belong are being oppressed, threatened or attacked — but to do so when other marginalized folks in demographics I am not a part of are targeted as well. All of us who are in a marginalized group have probably at some point (if not often) been on the receiving end of being more or less told to shut up and stay in our place. And we know firsthand the resistance we face when we dare not to listen to those trying to bully us back into the corners we refuse to stay in.

I see it often: when an unarmed person of color is shot in cold blood by a police officer or self-appointed vigilante and protesters are criticized for not being “peaceful enough.” There are the retorts that we need to all have a “civil” dialogue, as though those of us whose lives are on the line have the privilege to wait it out and engage in such discourse with those who do not even acknowledge our full humanity, much less our agency. As though those of us being threatened are even considered valid enough to be offered a seat at the policy-making table in determining our own fates by those holding the power. As though those of us under attack should for some reason “compromise” on our rights with those who financially &/or socially benefit from our continued oppression and so have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As though those in power have ever in history been known to willingly share or relinquish their power.

But it’s not just those actively engaging in the subjugation of others that are the threat — but those who also keep preaching patience and even reticence when it comes to achieving genuine equality, inclusivity and justice — even if those people are the very gatekeepers supposedly aspiring to that end goal.

I have seen that as well and it may be the biggest stumbling block on progress.

Recently, a police officer in my town was benched when it came to light that he published several op-eds advocating violence toward undocumented immigrants and those struggling with addiction. Though his badge and gun were taken away, he still is being paid on administrative leave. Unfortunately, the very groups tasked with tackling this issue from the aspect of the vulnerable (that is, our town’s Human Rights Committee) seem to instead be prioritizing the police department and looking to lift up their voices and viewpoints, rather than those who were threatened by the dangerous rhetoric of this officer.

This officer has more or less been deemed as just a “bad apple” — as though his comments existed in a vacuum and were not indicative of systemic corruption and prejudice in the general police force that largely characterizes our national landscape. The assumption implicit in this conclusion is that our town is somehow special— an anomaly to what statistics and overwhelming reports tells us about racial and class biases that exist in law enforcement.

If anything, my experience having lived here compared to all of the other towns and cities I have (as a native New Yorker, who also resided in the D.C. area, Alaska and Vermont), is that racism and classism seem more prominent here than other places, not less.

And this is not just my perception: a recent report found my town ranked number 2 in the entire state of Massachusetts for hate crimes this past year (one caveat on this is that not all municipalities log and categorize such incidents, so while we may not necessarily be number 2, we are higher than average in hate incidents for a state that already leads such crimes in the nation in a metro area notorious for its racism, something which should cause alarm and concern among the HRC).

It’s this sense of exceptionalism that threatens to perpetuate subjugation of the marginalized. Until privileged people — and in particular, white middle and upper-middle class liberals — stop being complacent, they will simply remain complicit in the same corruption and injustice they claim to have a desire to dismantle. To really incite positive reform, we must be willing to truly interrogate our own unconscious biases and risk politeness in favor of confrontation. To accomplish this, we must cease blind acquiescence to those authoritative systems that benefit from inequality. As an alternative, we should actively work on dismantling or radically revamping those very systems we have been taught since birth to place on a pedestal and offer undeserved respect. In its place, we should be putting the priority of those who have been left behind first.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who once noted that the greatest threat to racial justice and equality was not in fact the KKK but the so-called “white moderate,” who, in his words “…is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace. which is the presence of justice.”

So, next time you ask that those who are people of color, poor and/or disabled to package their concerns or complaints in more gentle language acceptable to you, or tell them that they need to practice more patience, or that they sit back and remain silent or only give voice to their worries in a manner you deem appropriate — STOP — and ask yourself why it makes you so uncomfortable and do you really want to be their/our equals or simply feel good about yourself?

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters. If you liked this piece and would like to see more like it, please consider supporting me there.

Writer w/bylines in the Atlantic, Guardian, Salon, Vice, Politico, etc., covering feminism, sustainability, health. My Patreon is @ https://bit.ly/2YrfCPA

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