© 2014, Rev. Audette Fulbright. All rights reserved. To obtain permission to use, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today we’re going to talk about some things that make most of us uncomfortable: rage. Oppression. Being called out personally. Recognizing our own privileges. As we gather on the eve of what many expect to be an announcement tomorrow or soon about whether Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, will be indicted, not to be looking at these issues together as a Unitarian Universalist community would be a moral failure of the most severe kind. After all, the only word repeated more than once in our 7 UU principles is the word “justice.” We are called to justice. It has been said that the work of ministry is the “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whether you arrive today feeling afflicted or comfortable, I hope by the end of the service you will feel better equipped to understand and move and act in the world for justice.
I was born female. The gender assigned to me at birth by the doctors’ observation of my physical body has largely conformed to my experience of myself: I also self-identify as female. By these measures, I have what is known as “cis-privilege.” The prefix “cis” comes from the latin cis, meaning “on the same side of.” It is the antonym of the prefix “trans,” which means, of course, “on the other side of.” I have cis-privilege because this body-gender identity complementarity means I have experienced the world in a way that is normative: those of us who have comfortably inhabited the gender identities of our body and birth have dominance – culture is built on our assumptions and our experience. People who have a trans* experience of the world – those people who have to teach, tell, re-form or create alternate pathways in order to find a more whole “fit” for their gender identity – have a very different experience. What I wanted to begin with this morning was a story about some of my experiences as a woman. But I can’t begin the story there, because it is never that simple. So let me identify where I begin this story: as a white-passing, cis, currently able-bodied woman of middling economic privilege, high education and class privilege – and although I am bisexual, in this story and in my marriage, I also have heteronormative or straight privilege. Those are just the basics. But hold onto them. Whatever you may be thinking right now, those pieces are not superfluous – they are essential to our reflection this morning.
When I was in seminary, I first began listening to my love, the feminist folk/rock singer Ani diFranco. I was also dating a man who ran the board on privilege – he had and still has them all, although he might argue a little about his place within economic privilege. I was singing along to a song where Ani describes a host of sexually abusive things that had happened to her from the time she was a child, just because she had a female body. Not one abusive thing: many. And as she sang, all these experiences from my own life clicked into place. I had never really put them together – to survive them, I had alway kept them in disparate little pockets, a one-off here, a “just that guy” there…I was crying. Later, when my partner came over, he didn’t understand why I was upset, and when I tried to explain that I was suddenly experiencing the pain of a lifetime of gender and sexual based oppression, with all good intentions, he began to try to explain my experiences away. The song that reframed my experience ends tellingly – Ani sings, “girl, next time he wants to know what your problem is/ next time he wants to know where the anger comes from/just tell him this time the problem’s his/ tell him the anger just comes…”
That night, my sorrow and pain crystallized sharply. I was furious. My partner did not, could not understand my experience. It was nothing like his own. His privilege had insulated him from it. And instead of listening and trying to understand, he decided to try to tell me I didn’t understand my own experience, was making too much of it, and of course, that he himself was not abusive, so I should change my feelings or at least not splash them on him. He didn’t mean to be hurtful. He wanted to help. He made it all so much worse, because his inability to see me and believe me when I shared my experience only exacerbated it all a hundredfold.
This is the nugget I want us all to hold in our hands this morning. We have all been on both sides of oppression. Oppressions are not equal: let me make this exceedingly clear. Some oppressions or moments of oppression are more dangerous – as Matthew Shepard’s death shows, or anyone living where ethnic “cleansing” is taking place, or as any Jewish person might attest. Some oppressions are more endemic and pervasive, as trans*people or pretty much any person of color can illustrate all too well with examples from their lives. But we all have been on both sides of an oppressive moment. Maybe when we were children, and adults held all the power and our choices did not matter. Maybe when we were the only liberal in the Wyoming room. But here’s the point: when someone is sharing that their experience of the world is dramatically different because they do not experience a privilege I experience, it’s my job to listen. To hear. And most of all, not to try to explain their experience away, to deny it because it makes me uncomfortable or because I feel personally implicated in the group or groups that hold oppressive power.
Let’s look directly at rage. In the article that originally inspired me to tackle this difficult subject directly, GenX UU Tim deChristopher stated flat out that it was the Boomers’ failures that have made the climate situation not just a concern but a crisis that will deform our lives – our GenX lives, and the lives of many generations to come. And he said he was angry about it. I imagine this feels personal to many of you. And then he said the thing that needed to be said: that being able to express rage is an essential part of the work to change and heal. As a Southern woman and a UU brought up under the tutelage of my elders, I had been enculturated differently. Nice white educated people understand: being angry just doesn’t help. We need to be nice and kind and considerate and work with hope and love toward all people. If we have feelings of anger, we need to deal with those privately and always remember to be nice to everyone. I didn’t think that explicitly – it was just my basic assumption about how the world worked, and when someone went off-script on that, I thought they were “doing it wrong.” Obviously, this is one right way to do things.
Nowadays, I spend at least part of every single day in communities that are highly and intentionally diverse. I spend some portion of every day listening to and talking with people who are diverse across the spectrum of possible diversity — people of different racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities; people from different countries, different backgrounds, people who are differently abled; people with mental and physical illnesses; people from different generations and economic backgrounds, people who are and are not parents, women who have had abortions, are sex workers, have different religious beliefs and backgrounds. Here are the things I know we have in common: we all identify as feminists, and we all have access to computers and converse in English. Having said that, even our identities as “feminist” are frequently, frequently different from one another. This community is built and is sustained by a key principle: intersectionality. We understand that we all have privilege in some areas, and experience oppression in others, and it’s essential for us to be responsible for ourselves in community spaces.
This is my core spiritual work now. It’s really, really difficult, but it’s also exciting and transforming. I see and experience the world so differently now. When I first was exposed to intersectionality, I know there was a sense of “holy cats.” It just looked like a minefield – a million different ways to be a “bad person.” Sure, maybe I was checking my racial privilege pretty well, but crud – I was making heteronormative assumptions right and left. Or maybe I had done some good work understanding and appreciating my cis privilege, but then I carelessly referred to some public personality as “crazy.” But here’s what I’ve learned: doing anti-oppression work is not about being “good” or “bad.” And it’s not constricting, or at least, not for long – it’s liberating. I’m always learning, I am always making mistakes, and this work is not about me. It’s about being a part of a world where really hearing and listening to different voices creates something that simply isn’t possible any other way. It is a bright road I am walking toward justice.
But what about anger? This is perhaps the first and most important thing I learned when working in intersectional space: oppression makes people angry. And that is a healthy, reasonable response to oppression. And it is not the job of someone experiencing oppression to moderate for the comfort of those either being oppressive or benefiting from oppression. In discussions and debates on the internet, discomfort with anger and the attempts of others to control the expression of outrage is called “tone policing,” and this is one of the take-aways today. Tone policing is frankly a central feature of white, middle-and-upper class, educated and more frequently, liberal interactions. It deeply assumes that when working together, everyone should make nice and hopefully, be comfortable – by which we mean, people who don’t conform to the dominant cultural norms need to change or get lost. Dominant cultural norms mean, be white, be straight, be cis, speak in the language of middle and upper class white English speaking people, be able bodied, and do not expect accommodations for any illness you may have, mental or otherwise. Also, we often basically expect you to have some disposable income. Or, you know, income. And housing. Those are the assumptions that are in place, especially when we do not discuss them. So back to tone policing. Tone policing is when we tell someone that they need to express themselves more nicely. That they will get farther with us and everyone else if they are polite. That they should not express their anger because we – I – and not the direct cause of that anger. (As an aside, as soon as I do that, even if I wasn’t a direct cause of the anger or oppression before, I just became an oppressive source in that moment.) One of the best pieces I have read on tone policing says this:
“It’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.
Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction. Tone policing is a way of not taking responsibility for [messing] up, and it dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational.
But being emotional does not make one’s points any less valid. It’s also important to note that, by tone policing, you not only refuse to examine your own oppressive behavior, but you also can blame that on the other person, because they were not “nice enough” to be listened to or taken seriously.
And the kicker:
Tone policing assumes that the oppressive act is not an act of aggression, when it very much is. The person who was oppressed by the action, suddenly is no longer a victim, but is “victimizing” the other person by calling them out. […] But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.” (http://groupthink.jezebel.com/on-tone-policing-why-its-bullshit-and-why-you-need-to-1148310719)
Here’s what I have learned in intersectional space: that I am responsible for myself – for my own choices, words, actions and experiences. When I make a mistake, it’s my job to take responsibility for it and make appropriate changes – and making mistakes does not make me a bad person. It makes me a learning person. If someone lets me know that I am making racist, classist, sexist, genderist, ableist assumptions, my job is to listen and learn – not get defensive and explain myself and why what I’m saying is really ok because I have good intentions. More on this at the end. Most of all, my job, when others are sharing their experiences of the world, is to listen and try to understand. It’s not my job to interpret their experiences. It’s definitely not my job to tell them that their experience didn’t happen or they probably misunderstood it.
I want to make three points today, and I’ve made two of them. One is that the work of justice requires intense self-reflection and understanding where we have privilege and where we may be experiencing oppression – because as that last story shows, even oppression we experience may be oppression we practice. Second, that rage and anger are healthy and reasonable responses to oppression. I am not saying that having out of control anger or rage is ok, and I’m definitely not saying that violence against one another is ok – though sometimes violence does emerge from long-standing and ongoing experience of oppression. Here’s the last point: when we have and recognize privilege, people of good will often begin an important kind of work: the work of companioning or being an ally. The work of being a good ally is worth about 20 sermons in its own right, but I want to end with just one piece: our voices. When we have privilege, what that means is that we are heard, seen, and have power in some situation. The first and most important work of being an ally is to listen and understand, and then see how we can leverage our own power so it is shared with communities and people who are marginalized. In other words, we want to support the work and message of marginalized people, rather than lead or speak for or assume we know what their experience is. One of the most powerful practices in intersectional communities is that sometimes, a particular subgroup of marginalized experience will ask to have a conversation where empowered or otherwise privileged people are asked very specifically not to comment – just to listen. So for example, women of color will say they want to have a conversation together, and they do not want white or white-passing people to comment. Without any exceptions in my experience, two things happen. One is good, the other is really hard. The good thing is that these threads are powerful, and I personally have always learned from them. The other is that without any exceptions, some white or white-privileged person will begin to comment and then, being called on it, will say that their feelings are hurt that their opinion is not welcomed, and usually they then both tone police and cite their own experience of oppression as reason why they should be welcomed to speak. But please understand: oppressions do have a hierarchy. Being male, being white, being straight, not being poor and being well-educated are the most oppressive norms. That does not mean that being a rich, educated, straight white male makes you a bad person. Not at all, and this is so essential to understand. What it means is that the more one conforms to that set of privileges, the more power you have and the more the world is set up to benefit you. The less you conform to that set, the more challenges and hurdles you face. So sometimes, it is very important not to talk, but only to listen and try to understand someone else’s experience – and not to deny it, and not to jump in and say “but I’m not like that.” When it comes to anti-oppression work, it’s not about me personally, what I’m like, how well-intentioned I am and how hard I work at being a good ally. It’s not about what I intend. It is about the experience of oppression and what people who are oppressed need so that they can have power and influence over their own experience. Let me just say that once again: anti-oppression work is not about me or you and how good we are. It is about understanding the reality of oppression and trying our best to understand what people who are oppressed need so that they themselves can have power and influence over their own experience.
I had so many more stories to tell, but we need to close, so let me end with this: Be bold in doing justice. Know that anger is a part of the work. Remember your privilege. Remember that being a good ally means it’s not about you. And thank you – for everything you do, every time you try, and for bringing your experience to the table of humanity. Amen.