We are defined by our struggle, which is why – in some cases – we subconsciously perpetrate it in our effort to hold on to our identity. We proudly carry the torch of our oppression, like the validation of an emotionally abusive partner. We are Torch Bearers – continuously marching on each other. But how can we expect white folks to “get it right” when we violate our own damn selves?! Here, we are Reflecting the Movement.
I’m talking about how the “burns” we’ve survived have become flames we religiously wield in a subconscious ritual to protect ourselves.
Dr. King said that the white liberal that thinks they understand is the most dangerous enemy to the movement; but in that same spirit of thinking, what about people of color and allies who think they can’t be a part of the problem? Where do they fit? Oh, because they definitely have a place in this.
It’s practical knowledge that there are sexists fighting for racial justice, racists fighting for healthy climate and polluters dedicated to ending sexism. There are abusive people “fighting” abuse, and racists “fighting” racism along with sexists “fighting” sexism.
Search your feelings. You know it to be true. You’ve seen it happen in your work, but no one is in a hurry to raise their own hand in noble guilt. No one is willing to say, “I am a part of the problem in this way.” And this begs the question: Is it you, too?
They bore torches….
Once during some political education on sexism, I asked some gender non-conforming friends why I couldn’t be considered a Trans-Man. Their response was that I was a straight male and I didn’t fit the definition of a Trans-Man – which is defined as being born (assigned) female and transitioning to male; and I couldn’t help but think of how often they must have heard that same reaction, “You don’t fit the definition of a man (or woman). You don’t belong there.” Inflaming words?
They went on to tell me how they and their loved ones had been persecuted – burned – for their identities and that it wasn’t something that could just be adopted. They cursed me for my comparison. They bore torches.
Is the goal for everyone to be accepted for the identity they choose? Or for us to add different genders to the list of things people cannot be? The torch of exclusion and rejection must be put down in every way possible to make room for the light of acceptance and inclusion. We can’t exclude our way into an inclusive world.
Nor can we oppress our way out of oppression.
I had a boss once. She was so oppressive and racist with her wielding of title power, that at times, it was a running joke between co-workers just how terrible she was. What’s more is that one of the organization’s goals was to make sure that this kind of ish didn’t happen. And here was the fearless “leader” proudly lighting the way with a flaming torch.
“In our very serious and impactful work to make this world a better place, we are duplicating dynamics that give rise to many of the very isms we claim to be fighting. We are fighting ourselves with a subconscious ritual that we hope leads to success, but instead supports the continuation of our struggle in gross and subtle ways.”
I later found out that she had a troubling home life, with kids that didn’t listen to or respect her, and a lack of acknowledgment and intimacy with her partner. Her lack of power at home was balanced by her abuse of power at work – waving her torch in a panic as if to shake it out. She was burned and so … she burned.
She was unable to hear the cries of her employees as her cries had also gone unheard. She’d taken up the torch in her effort to light her way out of her own oppression; and she wasn’t putting it down for anybody. Still, we cannot oppress our way out of oppression.
She became her torch.
I was working with a person of color who I came to call friend. We were the only two people of color on an equity project covered in white people who controlled all of the funding. Despite my support of this person – always having their back – they never hesitated to criticize, or ridicule or throw me under the bus. Sometimes, it felt like they had a problem with me personally.
When I shared my feelings with her, I found out that she’d been burned by so many fellow coloreds in the past who treated her with the same criticism. In order to survive, she reconciled a changed even to her very values to the point where she no longer believes that people of color should look out for each other in white spaces. She bore a heavy torch. She became her torch.
Had she lived in a world where people of color looked out for each other, she would not have been hurt this way. But because she carries her torch with her – because she is defined by it and the hurt it caused her, she causes others the same.
I have to wonder what I’m holding because of it.
There’s no doubt about it. We’ve done good work as a community. All of those community, cause-driven, protesting, program-building, beloved game-changing comrades in the struggle toward better, we’ve done good work. But we’ve also failed.
In our very serious and impactful work to make this world a better place, we are duplicating dynamics that give rise to many of the very “isms” we claim to be fighting. We are fighting ourselves with a subconscious ritual that we hope leads to success, but instead supports the continuation of our struggle in gross and subtle ways.
So how does it end?
An intellectual understanding of your habit doesn’t mean you’ve changed it. Practice, practice, practice, Dammit!
I’m not here to say that there’s only one way to put down the torch, nor am I saying that I bear no torches. What I can say from my own experience is that you can’t intentionally stop yourself from doing harm if you’re not willing to consider the possibility that you might be doing harm.
There has to first be an openness to the possibility that there might be a torch nearby … in the hand area.
Secondly, a deep dive with a healthy environment is needed to unpack the torch. What’s there and where does it come from? How does it show itself? Who does it impact? Listen, Linda.
Third, there must be a commitment to a reflective practice over time that helps us reverse the habit of picking up that torch. We think that because we notice a habit of ours, that it just goes away or doesn’t show itself in other ways. But an intellectual understanding of your habit doesn’t mean you’ve changed it. Practice, practice, practice, dammit!
What works for me is meditation, focusing on a sensory perception, like the breath, and allowing all other thoughts and sensations to come and go as freely as the breath. This helps me practice not reacting to thoughts and influences – not being controlled by my reactions. This gives me sharper eyes to see myself and little by little, put down my own torches.
I wish the same for all of us on this journey toward real and lasting change.