My Turn: Women should never silence others fighting for their rights


Saturday, January 27, 2018

I was not at the Women’s Rally in Greenfield last Saturday, I traveled to New York City to march. I got home late, checked Facebook, and was enjoying all the updates about various protests when I came upon a post by a local Facebook friend. She had not been at any of the events, but was upset by the photos of signs she interpreted as mean or disrespectful. Later in her comments, she called them “vile” and “ineffective.” Several of her friends immediately agreed that we should keep things nice. Apparently, these “mean” signs lack “integrity and grace” and the people carrying them are no better than Trump.

I responded, sharing what it was like to be in New York City, how empowering it was to share smiles and fist bumps and high fives over the signs of strangers of all kinds, empowered by one another’s resistance. I tried to help them see that in less-white/ straight/privileged spaces people’s anger may be more visceral, their expression of it more visible and we need to make space for it. I talked about tone policing, and urged the women who were criticizing how some of us chose to express ourselves that day not to silence other women.

Nothing worked. There was a lot of trying to explain away or distract from the hardest parts of the issue. There was persistent defensiveness and textbook white fragility. When an indigenous woman posted, she was silenced, and I left the thread. I will not participate in a forum in which a white woman feels entitled to shut down conversation when an indigenous woman’s truth is too hard.

I have been thinking ever since, about what was said, why it made me so angry and what can be learned from it. These are the things I feel need to be stated and heard if we want true progress in this movement:

1.) People who show up to march in protest get to say whatever they want, however they want to say it.

2.) Social progress is made when people name what is happening. If what is happening is ugly, naming it might not be nice to hear.

3.) Visual and performance art (including political signs) have a long history of shocking people’s senses and inspiring change. It’s not always easy or enjoyable to look at. That’s not why it’s there.

4.) The words on people’s signs are automatically ‘effective’ because they shared their truth and that is enough. If they move or motivate someone else that is effective, too. If they end up on the news, and they show the world that we are angry and fighting back, then that is effective. If they make one person feel less alone, that is enough.

5.) It is not the job of the oppressed to make their struggle palpable for the privileged.

6.) It is not the job of those fighting for their rights and their lives to curb their language, or soften their truth to spare you a hard conversation with your children. When we go into politically charged spaces, I tell my kids why the protestors are angry and that their expressions of anger are theirs to choose, not ours to judge. My children have never had a problem with this.

6.) Women should not silence other women who are fighting for their rights. Ever. Especially not by suggesting that we should be more polite in how we fight.

7.) White people should have nothing to say but “thank you” to people of color who are marching with signs, regardless of what the signs say. Thank you, for being willing to show up even though we have appropriated nearly everything you’ve touched for centuries. Thank you, for giving this movement your time and resources even though you function in a system that robs you of them every day. Thank you, for being willing to march beside me. I recognize that, though I am working to be part of the solution, I am also part of the problem.

8.) Better yet, say nothing! Don’t ask people of color to process your feelings with you at all. Listen to them and then do the work.

9.) Tone policing is racist, sexist and homophobic. It may not be intended that way, but it flat out is anyway. And it is silencing. Arguing later that tone policing was simply sharing how you feel is white fragility.

10.) White fragility is what got us here. Tone policing is what got us here. Trying to play nice and stay polite and not “stoop to their level” is what got us here. If we want something we’ve never had before, we have to do something we’ve never done before. Let’s start with intersectionality.

11.) Part of intersectionality is getting outside your comfort zone and sitting with what that feels like, instead of asking those less privileged than you to make it more comfortable for you.

12.) White, straight, cisgendered, not-disabled people need to recognize that this movement belongs to ALL of us, but that the consequences if it fails, do not. The consequences will fall on the shoulders of those who have always carried the burden of inequality. Did you know that the life expectancy of a black, trans woman is 35? People sitting safely behind computer screens should let that sink in, and remind themselves of it before suggesting how the black trans women who are still alive should tell their story, how angry they are allowed to be.

13.) When you are met with information and/or pushback from people who are walking a different path than you, people who suggest that what you are saying is damaging to them, people who are showing up in the struggle every day because they have no choice, LISTEN. Don’t judge. Don’t defend your own position. At the very least, do not silence them.

14.) If you are standing in privilege simply because you are white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or not living with a disability it is your absolute mandate and responsibility to hold those like you accountable when their actions are racist, sexist, homophobic or ablest. When they discriminate, or silence people, or disregard the input of people different than them, or attribute ideas to someone who looks like them instead of the person who the ideas belong to — it is your job to speak up in those awkward moments and to STAY in those moments. People on the other side of those privileges will notice who speaks up and who remains silent/who stays with the discomfort and who accepts the first lie that makes them comfortable again.

15.) And please know that if you chose not to speak up, you are part of the problem. You are leaving the work for those who have already been marginalized, disenfranchised and abused by the system you’ve benefited from.

Ali Wicks-Lim lives in Amherst.