Etiquette for Change-Makers
When I was a teenager my aunt gave me a pin: “well-behaved women seldom make history.” I was living in the suburbs at the time. I thought that pin was pretty badass.
The phrase was coined in 1976 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich during the second wave of the Women’s Movement. It captured women’s desire to break out of the respectability politics that had kept them disempowered for so long. The phrase continues to be popular, as a recent Etsy search bears out.
Yet when two black women decided to be impolite in their agitations for black lives last weekend, the crowd would have preferred well-behaved women. The mostly white crowd made it clear they preferred that these black women not make history:
Enter the Concern Trolls
Then the concern-trolling began. A comment on The Guardian website is indicative of the polite, yet condescending, progressive response. “Disruptions like this do a big disservice to a great cause,” writes hren007. “Anything you’ll say in these minutes will be overshadowed by the fact that your hijacked the microphone.”
This white preference for “order” over “justice” is not new. It’s a depressingly old patten. Martin Luther King phrased it well in 1963. “I must confess,” he writes in Letter from A Birmingham Jail, “over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
What happened in Seattle, however, is even worse than the responses King was speaking of. These are not moderates pictured above booing Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford. They are progressives. They are Bernie Sanders fans.
However, the greatest problem with progressive white concern-trolls is not their condescension. It is not that they were on the wrong side of history. The greatest problem is that they were wrong. To put it simply, being impolite worked. In the past four days since the Seattle action on August 8th, the following events have occurred. Positive effects began that same day.
- August 8th (evening): Sanders names a black activist, Symone Sanders, as Press Secretary. Her first official action is to introduce him at another event in Seattle.
- August 9th: After an event in Portland, Sanders went out of his way to meet with Black Lives Matter activists.
- August 10th: Sanders’ campaign adds a new set of racial justice policies to his campaign platform, including action on physical violence against black people, disenfranchisement, and economic exclusion. The platform won praise from Deray McKesson who has emerged as a media spokesperson for BLM.
- August 11th: Black Lives Matter activists get invited onto the stage. They open Sanders‘ event in Los Angeles.
And that’s just in the past week.
Lessons for White People
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” This phrase is just as true today as it was when Frederick Douglass wrote it in 1857. Black Lives Matters activists know this truth and they are willing to act boldly for their own liberation. They are not worried about white feelings.
So white people, let’s look inward instead of criticizing black activists. Who among us is fighting for our causes with the boldness and certitude of Black Lives Matter activists? Yes, kayaktivists are using direct action to try to block oil drilling ships from leaving northwest ports. They are hanging from bridges. But most white activists are too timid to risk derision, anger, hostility, or arrest for the causes we care about. We prefer to be polite. We have a lot to lose, and on some level we know it.
Black people are pushing American political culture forward. It is time for white people to catch up. If we continue to be well-behaved, history will pass us by.
image: The Conservative Tree House