Kindness matters, whatever your argument
Why we must reclaim the Be Kind message
“Be kind.” It doesn’t seem to be a popular message at the moment. There’s a devastating social justice crisis happening, and anti-racism work is absolutely the most important thing any of us could be doing right now. But there’s a large section of the White population who aren’t doing the work, and it’s not because they don’t believe in it. It’s because they’re scared. Why? Because all too frequently, as people try to do right, and inevitably get it wrong, they’re faced with recrimination and shaming instead of education and information. Name-calling and vitriol is sadly common in conversations online right now, and it’s preventing White women from getting involved. There is urgency and justifiable demand to address racial injustice. But like it or not, kindness matters if you want to get all of the voices to say the right things.
How not to convince people to speak up
Kindness matters if you want people to add their voices in any debate. Being unkind achieves the exact opposite. I’ve been involved in many online discussions about racism in the weeks since George Floyd’s murder. As a White middle-class woman (of working class roots) I’m probably one of the people who needs to do more for Black people; I should be one of the allies. And I am. I’ve never knowingly been racist, but as I read and listen I’m realising that my own solidly white upbringing has conditioned me that way. I fully understand the concepts of White supremacy and White privilege, and how they damage black people. I get how it works, and why it’s a problem. I also know that I need to be vocal about it. But.
I’m not perfect, and I’m learning. The very fact that I am part of the problem should foretell that I’m going to get it wrong plenty of times before I get it exactly right. And when I get it wrong, there’s a type of response that is always going to silence me. I’d go so far as to say that it’s designed that way. And it usually comes from White women, not Black.
“Your silence speaks volumes…”
Many months ago I was targeted on Twitter by some people I don’t know, who told me (they didn’t ask) what I needed to be saying online. They expected it of me, because I have a largeish following there. I disagreed with some details of their standpoint, so I refused. And they decided I was racist. “Your silence speaks volumes.” they trotted out, as if to say that I never call out racist remarks in my family, or advocate for the Black woman struggling to get her child’s school to accept his care plan. They knew me, because of something I didn’t say on Twitter.
More recently a White woman called me racist because I said this same thing again on Instagram. She tagged some other people she knew would be angry and invited them to join in the pile-on. And here’s the important point: I can’t remember a single one of those accounts. But I do remember the people who told me respectfully that I was wrong, and explained why. Those people called me out politely, knowing me to be a good person, and understanding that speaking up includes helping others to a different place of understanding. I learned a lot from those people, and I’ve changed my stance for the better. You might despise me in an argument, but if you want to change what I do in future, kindness matters.
Why White women are preventing White women speaking up
I read an email from Janet Murray yesterday that really stuck with me. In it she explained how she’d had a similar experience to mine, and how vicious some of the comments she received were. She said:
.. it wasn’t easy to hear the message above the shouty/trolly behaviour.
And it’s difficult to have a conversation when someone is shouting at you.
Or trying to humiliate you.
That last line is exactly what I’ve been dwelling on myself recently. It feels like the key objective of some of these self-appointed White spokespeople is to humiliate. To put someone else below them in order to inflate their own sense of importance in the discussion. I’ve seen many of these conversations happening, and every time I’ve seen the attitude of these White women to the person getting it wrong completely alienate them from ever wanting to try again.
Why the silence accusation isn’t helpful
I absolutely understand that staying silent when something terrible is happening is not an option. But I think that assuming you know someone’s views on racism from their Twitter account is counter-productive. Throwing the silence accusation at them is at best going to inspire anger – not action – in the recipient. And all too often it leads to the atrocious distraction of a personal fallout that has nothing to do with the original issue.
At worst, calling someone out with “Your silence speaks volumes” is likely to create the opposite result to the one desired, sending potential allies into retreat, and to yet more silence. It alienates them from the very situation that needs their attention, putting them either in the camp of angry self-righteous denial, or into a place where they are so fearful of getting it wrong that they say nothing at all. And that kind of silence is devastating.
What is tone policing?
I’m happy to be corrected on this one, but I’ve come to learn that tone policing involves telling people how they should speak if they want to be taken seriously. I get this. Centuries of oppression have taught black people that being polite doesn’t get them listened to. Some of the people taking me to task on my Instagram post quite rightly pointed out that I needed to change the way I looked at things. Their message was very clear, and they pointed me to resources I could use to educate myself. But the people who said I was tone policing? The White women who show up to every post where there’s a chance that their involvement might augment their own profiles. The ones who – when faced with a plea to be kind – see an opportunity to belittle the author and chalk up one more win for themselves.
Tone, especially in the written word, it’s a really hard thing to get across. And there are some people who I completely disagree with, who have approached me with such a gracious tone, I actually entertain their argument. It actually makes me think about the decision I’ve publicly made.
So why are so many people intent on using the concept of tone policing to shut down anyone who doesn’t agree with them. It’s absolutely an example of the silencing behaviour they claim to be against. They might as well type “I don’t like being argued with so I’ll see your Be Kind, and raise you a Tone Policing.”
Silence in one place doesn’t equal entire attitudes
I’m sick of being told who I am because of something I haven’t said on Twitter. Or because I posted a picture of myself on Instagram enjoying my garden and my dog. People I’ve never met (White people) have messaged me privately to tell me that my Sunday glass of wine and my happiness caption is wrong, when black people are suffering. One of them threatened to unfollow me if I didn’t start posting about George Floyd’s death on Twitter. People I don’t know, who’ve never seen me take my mother to task over her decades old tendency to stereotyping courtesy of the Daily Fail. Who don’t see the debates that happen here over dinner, or the learning we willingly take from the perspectives of our children.
What lies behind silence
Here’s what I hear other White women say – the good ones. “I want to help. I want to say the right thing, but I don’t yet know how. And I don’t want to get it wrong, or make it worse. But behind my contemplation there is not contempt. There is study and learning. There are private conversations with family and friends, where I learn more, and teach a little. There’s a panic that I’m not good enough, not ready.”
And there’s a fear that along the path of learning, they might come across one of these condescending women who will browbeat them back into their place of comfort, where they will just go back to being silent. It makes me want to howl in frustration and rage. Because I know them – I know how good they are, and what a useful addition their voices would be.
Why hating on other women isn’t the answer
Janet, who I quoted above, also led me to Ryan Holliday’s take on why kindness matters if you want to change the world. His article pretty much says exactly what I’ve just spent 2000 words trying to explain:
This game of “behalfism” where we are offended—often in advance—on behalf of other marginalized groups has become utterly absurd…. no amount of yelling or condescension or trolling is going to fix any of this. It never has and never will… If you can’t be kind, if you won’t empathize, then you’re not on the team. That team is Team Humanity, where we are all in this thing together. Where we are all flawed and imperfect.
Why staying silent isn’t an option
Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines right now. This is too big.
I’ve searched the internet for thoughts on silence in racism and found both sides of the debate. This article – History won’t be kind to those who stay quiet – explains the need to speak up very clearly. But it isn’t specific about which platform you should use, or about whether it’s alright to call someone out for not getting into a particular aspect of a debate they feel unqualified to talk about. It’s complicated, and so far I just cannot get my head around the rights and wrongs of it.
I can’t link to it, but there’s also an article titled Don’t Say Nothing (search it on tolerance.org) which does explain things better, I think, for white people who might be struggling with this question as I am. The author is a teacher who talks about facilitating the conversation about racism so that everyone feels able to contribute, learn, and disrupt:
Even as a black teacher, I have to set a tone for my students that signals that it’s safe to talk about race.
How do we make White people engage wholeheartedly?
So I’m asking a question, and it’s genuine. Can we take away the automatic judgement so that a population of White people feel equipped to rise up and help? And I’m not talking about the person who won’t challenge racist attitudes with their families, or who won’t speak up against injustice in their communities. I mean the person who is afraid to put it in the public domain and invite public judgement. Can we empower them, rather than tear them down?
Because that surely has to be more productive than a whole group of allies sitting in silence?
How to educate yourself on racism as a White person
I’ll end my appeal for kindness with the words of brilliant Black author Layla F Saad, whose book Me and White Supremacy has been the best investment I’ve made in the last few weeks. Layla says:
The purpose of this work is not for you to end up living in shame. The purpose is to get you to see the truth so that you can do something about it.
I highly recommend you buy it, and do the work in it. Then I recommend you get friendly with the block button, start speaking, and delete all the people who are only really in it for their egos.
Where to learn more about anti-racism and black history
I do know that there is an onus on White people to change the structure of our society that allows racism to pervade it. I’ve learned that through some of the reading and film in this list, and I’d urge everyone reading this to work their way through it. Because even if you don’t feel able to speak, you need to understand more than you currently know.
Finally, if you have teenagers they might like this list of films and TV to learn about Black Lives Matters and the impact of racism and social injustice.