On Vulnerability, Integrity, Blogo-splosions, and Bloviating

25 02 2009

I’ve been thinking about that post I put up a few days back. About vulnerability and anti-racist work. It’s gotten kind of a lot of views, at least relative to the 4 people who read this regularly. And I’ve been trying to pin-down what I don’t feel like I really got to with what I wrote there, and why it felt incomplete. The answer I’m starting to formulate is sort of convoluted, but we’re going to see how it goes if I throw a couple of ideas out on the table and just try to put them in a meaningful juxtaposition.


Mandy Van Deven, of Feminist Review and co-author of “the post” – the one that has upset a lot of people over the last week and that I refuse to refer to as “drama” because that sounds really minimizing and real people with real feelings  and real lived-experiences of oppression were really hurt – sent me an email a couple days ago. She asked me for permission to link to my post in their apology. I said yes, and we had a bit of a back and forth about the recent goings-on in the feminist blogosphere. She mentioned a couple of things that stuck out to me. 1) That I might perceive her reaching out to me as an attempt to garner more white feminists to “be on her side” and 2) That I might not want to be associated with her at all, to “lean” away from the *bad*anti-racists in an effort to make myself look better.

Neither of those things occurred to me. Perhaps partly because I wasn’t planning on leading the charge in her defense (or “their defense”, I suppose, but only Mandy emailed me), and partly because I don’t know her or her writing, don’t read Feminist Review (not as a rule or anything, I just never have before),  and don’t feel particularly strongly associated with her as it is, so it hadn’t occurred to me to disassociate from her.

And I know that that last sentence could sort of be read as though I’m doing exactly that. Saying I don’t need to disassociate myself from her while pointing out all the ways in which I’m not associated with her. But my point is rather, this: I learned a long time ago to stop taking personal offense every time people, in critiquing whiteness and racism, railed against white people. I was taught – repeatedly – that if someone wasn’t talking about me or something I’d done, then they weren’t talking about me. The pretty basic “it’s not about me” message got through, or at least I like to think that it did. And it’s a good rule to follow to avoid jumping into hyper-defensive mode every time whiteness or racism is criticized. But the flip side of that is that constantly reminding myself “it’s not about me” can mean just leaving the blinders on, and not realizing when someone else’s behavior is something I *could have* or *would have* done.

This whole to-do in the blogosphere has reminded me of the myriad times and ways in which I have allowed my desire to “be a good anti-racist” get in the way of meaningful work and engagement. The times when I have been so focused on “getting it right” that I’ve completely screwed up, and hurt people in the process. I’m not necessarily saying that that is exactly what happened for Mandy and Brittany. I don’t know what is or was going on for them, personally, but this whole shebang has gotten me thinking, again, critically, about my own behavior, and about broader dynamics in play.


There are a lot of people who are doing anti-racist, and anti-sexist, and anti-heterosexist/ -homophobic trainings. I’ve been to some, and I’ve facillitated and/or lead some. There’s often talking about “unpacking the knapsack” and various methods for examining and critiquing our personal privilege and power. I think that this is all really valuable in a lot of ways, and has certainly been useful for me in informing an analytical framework and worldview.

But there’s also a fundamental limitation anytime we start talking about “trainings” (which, btw, I keep mistyping “trainights” – which I think is a sign that it’s too late*). Because you can learn things like how to identify offensive language, common racist stereotypes, and a few guidelines for “good ally behavior.” But the real challenges that white people trying to be anti-racist end up facing don’t come out of a handbook. There’s isn’t an easy choice between option A) B) or C) in any given circumstance in which one is confronted with racism or the opportunity to critique whiteness. It seems to me that it is, fundamentally, about integrity and responsibility and humility. And yes, the ability to identify the ways in which oppressive power manifests itself is important to identifying *WHEN* a situation is problematic, but it doesn’t necessarily always point to the correct path. There isn’t always one “correct path.” There usually isn’t an easy answer, and it is absolutely a question of exercising judgment.

And on the note of answers, and exercising judgments – there will almost always be multiple of both.


As the recent ‘feminist’ blogo-splosions have demonstrated, even (or perhaps particularly) when it’s a question of the ways in which actions or events perpetuate racism, the critiques and opinions from every side are going to be varied. Even those coming from people of color, or women of color, or even radical women of color who may often agree with each other. Because – shock of all shockers – not all POC think the same. Which, I mean, should be really painfully obvious, but often is totally ignored by all stripes of white people – anti-racist, activisty, ally types included. Because if the goal is “don’t do/say/be/perpetuate racist/racism” and people have differing opinions on what constitutes racism or racist behavior – who do you listen to when there is no magical person of color to give you the ultimate wisdom and guidance?

Especially when we are SO used to the existence of a magical person of color able, willing, and ready to satisfy our need for easy answers and avoiding hard work.

I’m being a little snarky here, but know that the snark is also directed at myself. I’ve definitely been in that space: thinking that I was doing good anti-racist work, only to be confronted by the reality that individual people of color with whom I was attempting to work in solidarity disagreed on the value of the work I was (/we were) doing. And then, suddenly, I was really unsure if I should continue to do the work. And one specific instance I’m thinking of now was also complicated by sort of messy personal relationships between a fellow white ally/activist and some of those voices of criticism. Was the criticism about personal relationships? Was the work that we were trying to do eventually going to cause more hurt and pain than it would mend or repair or do good?** Was the bad outweighed by the good? Should we listen more closely to those who supported and agreed with us (and may also have been motivated by personal relationship dynamics), or more closely to those voices of criticism? When we, as allies, are trying to make sure that our work and actions are informed by the needs and desires of those with whom we are working in solidarity – what do we do when those needs and desires aren’t uniform or singular, as is so often the reality in the complex, multiplicituous world we live in?

Each and every time we face a personal-political quandry; every time we are challenged to enact our values, ideals, ethics, and politics in the real world – the behaviors and choices we make are going to be more complicated than anything that could be covered in a seminar. The decisions we are faced with are not going to be cut-and-dried and it is actually impossible for anybody to put forth a singular, fail-safe method for being a good anti-racist ally. It’s too messy and too complicated – and beyond really basic ideas like “don’t use racial slurs or call President Obama ‘articulate,” we are without easy answers.


And that’s sort of why I feel like my last post was really incomplete. And what I’m trying to put together from the jumbled thoughts in my head, and from the email conversation Mandy and I had.

Because *clearly* letting yourself be “vulnerable,” as a white person, or as any person with privilege, is not going to end racism. Or even make you a good anti-racist activist. Just doing X, Y, or Z thing that some respected person did or said was a good thing to do is not going to make any of us THE BEST ANTI-RACIST EVER.

But, at the same time, I think that some of the things I wrote in that post are important and relevant to doing any sort of allied anti-oppressive work. I know that one of the things that is often most frustrating and hurtful to me about conversations I have with men about sexism is that they can operate with a distance that I can’t. These conversations can be “intellectual exercises,” and they can walk away from a “healthy debate” about sexism without having had their souls crushed.

Or maybe it’s just important to living. Because power dynamics are uneven, and do necessarily engender uneven degrees of risk and vulnerability. But that vulnerability I was discussing isn’t just about laying bare enough details of your life that someone could attack you. What I was moreso getting at was the value of integrity and honesty in the work that we’re doing. And maybe that’s just too basic. Because you can’t package integrity and top it with a bow.

But the thing is, I don’t have the answer. Not just because I haven’t figured it out yet, but because it doesn’t exist. There is no single way to “do” anti-racism. There just isn’t an easy answer.


I spend a lot of time thinking about how to live my life with integrity. Not because I’m really good at it, but rather, the contrary. I think I screw up, a lot. Integrity, to me, means behaving and living in a manner that is in accord with my ethics and principles. And that’s not always easy, and I hold [what feel like] high standards for myself (that I pretty much *never* reach), and so I tend to think a lot about how to not screw up again.

And that’s where that thought about vulnerability and accountability come in. In those times that I’ve screwed-up, I’ve often felt very aware of the ways in which I can walk away from the situation relatively unscathed. I walk through the world with a lot of privileges, and those *undoubtedly* make it easier for me to brush myself off and walk away. But furthermore, when I’m the one screwing up, I’m probably not the one who ends up really hurt. In some manner, shape, or form, another being has been made vulnerable to me, and in hurting them, I have played upon the vulnerability. It’s very rarely intentional (I’m REALLY not a vindictive person. I screw up, but I’m not malicious.), but I’ve been thinking that perhaps a way to slow myself down, to keep from screwing up again, is to make sure that I am engaging with people on more even footing. And one way in which I can see myself enacting that in my own life is with greater intention put toward the vulnerabilities I expose to people.

But that’s a really personal thing. That’s about me, the way I present myself to the world, the walls I erect to protect myself, and the already-erected walls by which I am shielded. That’s not a recipe for being a good person, or a good anti-racist, that’s another item to add to my mental checklist. When I’m confronted with a situation that challenges me to live with integrity, it’s another way to make sure that I tread slowly down treacherous paths and live with intention.


I’ve written a lot already, and I’m tired of my own bloviating. I’m a really wordy person, but even I have limits. This post also feels incomplete, but perhaps that’s because of all those things I belabored above. Because there isn’t really a complete answer, and there isn’t a tidy ribbon, and living with that insecurity is just the way the world works. And if we’re going to try to undo centuries of f*ed up-ness, it’s gonna be hard. And living with integrity in a world that is SO beset with oppression and general shittiness is also a challenge, because the right thing isn’t often easy or readily apparent. So we’ve just got to live with the incompleteness, and keep trying to do better.

*I started to write this post at approximately 2am last night, because I couldn’t sleep.

** This particular instance actually ended up being something of a disaster, but not for any of the reasons raised by the initial criticisms, and not by anything we had predicted.




3 responses

27 02 2009

So much food for thought here, Jo. I know I’ll be re-reading this, alongside your other post and Jess’s posts about her walks.

That I might perceive her reaching out to me as an attempt to garner more white feminists to “be on her side” and 2) That I might not want to be associated with her at all, to “lean” away from the *bad*anti-racists in an effort to make myself look better.

I think #1 was me trying to be transparent with you, that I wasn’t entirely sure why I was emailing you, but that your post spoke to me in some way that I hadn’t been able to sort out, and that I didn’t think I was emailing you as an attempt to “get you on my side”, but that I was open to the possibility that I was unintentionally doing this, and I wanted to be honest about that in approaching you so that you could make an informed decision. Does that make sense or was it another inarticulate ramble?

For #2, I had Jess’s post on my mind and was thinking about the “leaning” I have done in the past, and how I think we’ve all done that “lean” at some point or another either out of egotism or self-protection or some other unknown reason, and how I felt some people were doing that to me, but that I also thought others were doing a really great job of balancing their ability to be critical of me while not “leaning” (Ico, for example). I admire that. It’s a difficult balance to strike. And I think that provides a model for how to do this work with accountability and with acceptance of imperfection instead of a casting out, of sorts.

Anyway, more rambling when my mind is still a jumble.

23 03 2009
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