Recently we have been inundated with celebrities that have made what many consider colossal mistakes in the public eye. From Kathy Griffin, Bill Mahr, Kylie Kardashian (well damn, really all the Kardashians), Elizabeth Banks, and even Cardi B, celebrities have been caught in a web of racial, gender and political missteps.
In a 24 hour and truthfully, a 24-second news cycle, you can be on top of the world one minute and dragged within an inch of your life the next minute, all for saying or doing one wrong thing. (Before I go any further, this blog is not about people that are clear cut racists, homophobes, Islamaphobes, etc. This is not a blog about excusing continuous bad behavior or blatant disrespect. This is a blog about everyday people that have made some unfortunate faux pas and now find themselves on the wrong side of the movement. Usually, the mistake is one that is online, screenshotted and shared across the world before the offender can even wake up and grab a hot, steamy cup of Folgers.)
We have seen this with celebrities and even locally in my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, two institutions came under fire for artwork that was racist and anti-Semitic. Beyond institutions, I have even seen this play out with local activists and well-meaning White allies that are doing their best to “check their privilege”, use the correct acronyms, go to the right meetings, make the best protest signs and do what they can do to stand up for racial justice, only to find themselves vilified and called racist because they have said something incorrectly. And often it is something they do not even understand is wrong.
I remember a few months ago I was asked to speak at a Black Trans Lives Matter event, honoring and bringing awareness to the many trans women that have been murdered in 2017. When I was asked, I immediately said yes. I write and speak for the liberation of all Black people. However, after I said yes, I felt this immediate swarm of anxiousness that I would use the wrong pronoun to describe someone, that I would use a word that was antiquated, that I would say, “girlllll” in my ‘hey sister girl vernacular’ and it is taken as me misgendering someone. As I prepared my speech I felt with every click on the computer keys, I was navigating a landmine. Thankfully the speech was well received, and I lived another day not to be dragged online.
However, in my anxiousness I wondered, is there room in the movement for mistakes? Do we allow people the space to make mistakes, to learn and grow? Or are we quick to jump on the ‘let’s drag them’ bandwagon?
I will be the first to admit that I have participated in the ‘let’s drag the unaware offender’ bandwagon. But over time I got to thinking, is this behavior productive to the movement? Recently, I have made a conscious decision to not jump on every bandwagon but to think about a few things in my process. I believe the following steps can allow room for mistakes and continued growth.
1. Do I know this person? Before you jump on the bandwagon to drag someone within an inch of their life, ask yourself, “Is the person that made the comment someone that I know? Do I know their character? Is this someone that would say or do something to hurt people or have they made a misstep?” One online or even real life mistake does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
2. Am I getting caught up in the online drama? Who doesn’t love some good online drama? It is interesting and often adds enjoyment to a typically dull evening spent scrolling through Facebook. But before you chime in and give your two cents, ask yourself, “Am I getting caught up in drama that is not productive to the movement?” “Will this matter tomorrow?” “Am I allowing someone to take me out of my character?” “Am I adding anything that will be productive to this conversation?” Every post does not need your comment. If you are not adding something that is productive perhaps it would better not to say anything.
3. Does this person really mean any ill intent with their comment? Many times, people say or do something that they have no idea is offensive. Before you “read” someone, have you considered that they just may not know that what they have said or done is problematic? Gay, homosexual, trans, transgender, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+, POC, WOC, Black, African-American, Latino, Latinx. Native American. Indigenous People. Don’t label me. Do label me. Don’t use pronouns. Do use pronouns. Don’t call me Black. I’m not a color. CIS. Non-binary CIS. In an attempt to include everyone, the list of labels and acronyms are endless and not everyone knows what the new acronym of the month is and which one is acceptable. Even when you ask around just to be safe, the answers vary. Language is fluid and ever changing. What was acceptable to say 10 years ago is no longer acceptable now. Because things are ever-changing, allow room for people to learn and grow. Try to assume good intentions with someone that is seeking to learn and contribute to the movement and may have inappropriately said the wrong word.
4. Can this incident be used as a teachable moment? While it is not the job of the oppressed to teach the oppressor, some moments are teachable moments and you usually can spot someone that truly has a desire to learn. Remember someone took the time to teach you. But be aware, no one is open to learning if you are cussing and name calling. It is always acceptable to state your opinion, thoughts and beliefs directly and forwardly without cussing someone out. Also remember a moment of going off can lead to a lifetime of trouble. The same way their words are cemented forever on the world-wide web, so are yours. Trust me there have been a million times I wanted to serve someone the same evil, racist drama they were serving me but it doesn’t benefit me to come out of my character. When I my poem Formation went viral, people went back YEARS to read and comment on things I had posted. It was an eye-opening moment for me. Part of me felt like they were really attempting to verify that I was the person I was representing online. People are watching you, reading you and often taking their cues from you on how to treat problematic situations in the movement. Your words can be the deciding factor in someone taking the plunge into social justice. Are your words motivating people to join the movement, leave the movement or stay away from the movement? While you may not have signed up to be a leader sometimes the very nature of your lifestyle causes people to look up to you.
5. Is it necessary for me to drag this person online? While I know dragging someone gets a lot of likes and comments, is it necessary? While it may not get you the attention and retweets you desire, it is okay and oftentimes more productive to have a conversation offline. There is something magically organic when people can just talk without the eyes of social media watching. To be honest, most people chiming in are not commenting to diffuse but only escalate a situation that is often fueled by lack of knowledge and not ill intent. Also, be leery of someone that always feels the need to point out the mistakes of others. Some people enjoy seeing the movement in a state of confusion. Before you write the next New Jim Crow response, pause, and ask yourself, “Why am I responding to this and will what I say benefit the readers and advance the movement?”
6. Have I gathered all the information? Sally said that Sue said that Jerome said that Curtis said that Bobby said something racist yesterday. And then all hell breaks loose. Because we take the word of those that we labor with as truthful, we often never question their statements made online. However, I am finding that some people feed off drama and their lives are not complete unless the movement is in disarray. They will yell fire in a crowded room and sit back eating popcorn while watching everyone scramble. While it is great to trust the statements of those made online, it is wise to go to the source and ask them directly before you assume ill intent. Many things can be avoided by simply having a direct conversation and deciding for yourself how to proceed.
7. Give people space to make mistakes. No one came into this world knowing anything. Everything we know is because we were taught and/or learned from the knowledge that others have placed into the world. It is not our job to point fingers because someone is genuinely not aware of something. If someone makes a mistake give them a moment to correct it, to sincerely ask questions about their behavior and learn from it so they do not make the mistake again. Do not shame others for making mistakes. Remember it is them today but could very easily be you tomorrow.
8. Allow people the space to discover and fight for justice the way they choose. Who made you the judge of determining what fighting for liberation should look like? Many problems arise because someone has appointed themselves the Grand Master of Social Justice and feel Sally should be doing what they determine instead of doing what Sally is doing. Relax. No one is the President of Liberation. Their way might not be your way but people are attempting to do something and that is what matters. Allow people space to find their fit and do not drag them because they are fighting for liberation differently than you.
9. Remember we are all in this together. A house divided against itself cannot stand. If we are fighting for liberation, it is imperative that we are not fighting one another. Will we have challenges and disagreements? Of course, we will. We are all human. Instead of stoking the flames of drama, have you considered speaking directly to the person that you are having a disagreement with? If you have done that and you still have not found common ground it is okay to separate. Not everyone in the movement will be best friends, but it is possible to have a mutual respect for the work that everyone is doing. Try not to speak ill of them on or off line. When asked about them encourage people to speak to them on their own so they can determine if they want to be involved with them.
Remember, we all will make errors, but I believe there is room in the movement for mistakes. Liberation work should be a safe space where we allow people to learn and to grow. No one is perfect, and mistakes will happen. Let’s not be so focused on the “dragging” that we forget we are laborers together and what is most important is healing and rebounding from a mistake so that we all stand tall to fight another day. As George Bernard Shaw said, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”