Oh how I have tried not to write about this, but here I am and you do not need to trust me on this but I will tell you, I write this out of pure compulsion, because I cannot stop thinking about what I think, and not because I have anything to add. So stop reading… now.
A few days ago, the ACLU posted a picture of the Stature of Liberty overlaid with the white outline of a safety pin. The ACLU asked me to make this my profile picture and so I did, having made a commitment to support them and also having only the vaguest idea about what it meant beyond agreeing that everyone should be kept safe. I didn’t start wearing a safety pin when I eventually figured out what it was all about because I have never been a wearer of attached symbols of any kind on my clothing, not ribbons of any color or flags or buttons. When I am forced to wear a sticker or a name badge it makes me extremely uncomfortable. I cannot stand the idea of people making decisions about who I am or what I think based on something I have attached to my clothing and without talking to me about it. Yes, I know this happens all day every day anyway, but when I attach an extra symbol to me it makes the knowledge of this ongoing affair almost un-freaking-bearable. No, the irony of what I just wrote in this context is not lost on me.
Please note, this unwillingness to badge-up says more about me and my personal peculiarities and, at times, failings, than it does about anyone who wears anything like ribbons and pins.
But even if I were a wearer, I live in the most conservative part of the most conservative county in the state of Georgia, USA. Within a two miles radius of my home, just going about my business, I counted over 30 Trump yard signs (and one flag and one private billboard) and not one HRC sign. Wearing a safety pin would be antagonistic, which is fine with me, really, and I am not afraid, but I had no clear answer if I was confronted, no response that felt well-reasoned to me. The safety-pin did not come with adequate talking points, to my mind.
Then came what I guess we’re calling the “backlash” and then the backlash to the backlash. People saddled up, unsaddled, then saddled up again. Me too. I was confused. I was humbled. I was angry. I felt like tossing the whole thing and letting Trump be Trump and just taking care of my family, then I felt like my skin was a giant narcissistic organ I would never ever be able to escape. I tried very hard to think clearly. Here is where I ended up. It is, no doubt, a deeply flawed take and I am sure I have failed to rise above my straight male whiteness (zero snark intended there… that’s really what I mean to say), but here it is for better or worse:
Nobody gets to tell me how to be this fuzzy thing, an ally or advocate, least of all another straight white male person; but when a woman tells me how my male assumptions feel to her or a person of color tells me how my whiteness feels to them, or a trans-gendered person tells me how my absolutes feel to them, I absolutely must listen. And when I say I must listen I mean I must listen harder than they must listen to me. I mean, and I understand what I’m saying, that I owe them something… they are 100% owed, at the very least, that I be quiet and listen hard and do my very best imitation of putting myself in their shoes. By this I mean a whole out of body type thing. And by listening I mean, as I define it under the current circumstances, asking at least three questions before making a statement.
Most days I am at a complete loss to understand let alone actively address my straight white male privilege. I fail again and again but that cannot be an excuse to stop trying. So when a person of color or a woman tells me that something I am doing not only fails but offends, the burden of proof is not on them it is on me. To me, this is where the whitewall rubber hits the road. Can I do this without feeling like I’m having to act, unfairly, subordinate? Can I do this while feeling and accepting a small taste of the subordination that has been forced on so many not like me for so long? What does it cost me in any case and what is gained? Very little is lost and what is lost is stuff easily replenished, my pride and my ego. What is gained is not redress or equality alone, but balance.
The question I ask myself about myself and the straight white male kids I know is “when, oh when, will we ever shut up and just listen… then listen again, and again?” We make all the grand gestures of inviting everyone to the table and when everyone sits down the first thing we do is start talking and if any of the diverse people we have invited to our diversity table complain about us we say, “Do you know how much this table cost?”
Yes, I know, I’ve got the guilt, but something I know is you can remove the guilt from anything I’m saying and it will still stand. I’ve tested it. What if all the straight liberal white men stopped talking and just listened?
Well, that would be a shortcut I guess. If we ask 100 people who are wearing a safety pin why they are wearing a safety pin, maybe we get 50 distinct answers. Maybe 25. Maybe 10. But my guess is that some of those answers are just fine answers, good answers even and brave, braver than me. I mean, we wouldn’t want to decide that everyone wearing a safety pin is the same, would we? No. But we can decide that everyone wearing a safety pin should listen to what people who are not straight white men say about it and, in response, listen a little harder every time we feel defensive.