Candidate is “Looking at” Genocide Option, Others Basically Okay With That

The leading conservative politician of  a major politic party is taking questions at a rally.

“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Jews…our current president is one,” states the first questioner.  “[W]hen can we get rid of ’em?”

The politician does not challenge the question.  He vaguely validates it, says, “We’re going to be looking at that.”

The media does not take offense either.  They only criticize the politician for not defending the president against the slur of being called a “Jew.” No other politicians take a firm stand against the statement.

Though this may sound like a scene from Germany circa 1939, switch “Jews” for “Muslims” and what you have is an exchange last Thursday between Donald Trump and a questioner at a New Hampshire rally and Friday when the media was totally unbothered by the suggestion of a Muslim genocide.  Instead the media were bothered that President Obama was being called a Muslim, in effect acknowledging that being called a Muslim is an insult.

How can it be okay in America in 2015 for any mainstream politician to consider the suggestion of genocide? How can this level of hatred be so normal that even in reporting the story, the media does not find this request – getting “rid of” Muslims – alarming?

Have we learned nothing from history?  

America was founded by refugees of religious persecution.

Sixty years ago we fought the Second World War against an evil regime which carried out massive religious genocide.

And now, in 2015, the suggestion of perpetrating genocide against a religious minority seems normal enough that a mainstream politician and the media are both completely unphased.

What kind of America are we building?

What kind of America have we already created?


7 Ways #BlackLivesMatter Improves on the Civil Rights Movement

“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

Tef Poe was right.  In fact, it’s better.  Here are seven ways that Black Lives Matter (BLM) improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

1) Women to the Front

There were important female activists in the civil rights movements of the 1960’s – Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Mamie Till are just a few – but those standing out front were men.  Not only Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but also were their mentors, and lieutenants, an closest advisors were men.

By contrast, Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.   Two women, Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, stormed Bernie Sanders’ podium last month.  Another woman, Tia Oso, carried out a similar action in July at the Netroots Nation conference.  When delegates from BLM met with  Hillary Clinton in August, Daunasia Yancey was the first to speak to her.

Women have not just gained parity within BLM, they are leaders at ever level of the movement.  There is no other major American organization – inside or outside of activism – that can claim such a record.

2) Queer Leaders

Not only was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s led by men, it was led by straight men.  Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin were the exceptions, not the rule.

The exact opposite is true of BLM.  Two of the three BLM cofounders - Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors – identify as queer. DeRay McKesson, who  has become the mainstream media’s preferred BLM spokesperson, is gay.  All three founders of Ferguson-based collective Millennial Activists United are queer – and two of them are married to eachother!

3) The Radicalism of Love

Empowerment of women and LGBTQ people is only the beginning of the radically inclusive ethos of BLM, which explicitly seeks to right the injustices of past black movements.

Co-founder Alicia Garza writes:

“It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call[s] on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.  Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

Being inclusive is not only morally right, it is strategic. Inclusion means BLM has widened their base.  It means they are not putting up artificial barriers to talented and passionate people who can help their movement grow and succeed.  It means that they are powering their movement on collective love, a far more solid and durable motivator than the toxic intolerance that is motivating much of mainstream politics.

BLM was founded on the value of love.  The phrase itself was born within a post Garza made on Facebook, “a love note to black people.” It ended, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”  The Assata chant, which is often intoned at protests, also embodies this ethos of collective black love:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

5) Fuck Your Respectability Politics

Inclusion goes to the heart of BLM’s rejection of the respectability politics that were so critical to the rhetorics and aesthetics of the 1960’s civil rights movement.


Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (1964)

We all  have those images of college students pristinely dressed in blazers, skirts, and heels, of both Martin and Malcolm in their plain black suits, white collared shirts, and skinny ties.  Their authority also came from formal religious affiliations, Dr. King with Christianity and Malcolm X with Islam.

In the most prominent criticism of BLM, civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds writes in The Washington Post that:

“The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter…The demonstrations are peppered with… profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. “


DeRay McKesson & vest (2015)

While Reynolds is arguing for respectability politics because she found it effective, by arguing that sagging pants are inappropriate attire for a protest she is buying into white racism, the idea that black people must demonstrate their value by assimilating the respectability norms of the white bourgeoisie.

This is position is anathema to BLM.  According to co-founder Opal Tometi:

“[w]hen we say #blacklivesmatter – we mean all Black lives matter – regardless of gender or sexual orientation, immigration status, physical disability, income level, criminal record, etc.”

While both Martin and Malcolm’s signature outfit was a conservative suit, DeRay McKesson’s signature outfit is a blue vest so famous that is has its own Twitter account.   When BLM activists engage in actions – even when they meet with presidential candidates – They opt for a simple black t-shirt, often with the word “bulletproof” on it.

6) Social Media Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Black leaders of the 1960’s were constrained in their sartorial aesthetics by the fact that they could not engage in mass self-broadcast.  They needed to appeal to the prejudices of the white liberal bourgeois media in order to get coverage for their struggle.  They lacked the self-broadcast mechanisms of Twitter, Facebook, and cell phone video that have been so critical to BLM.

As an example, the photo above of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X was taken by Marion Trikosko of U.S. News & World Report magazine.  The photo of DeRay McKesson was taken by McKesson himself using his smartphone and was published via his own Twitter account, @deray, which has 228,000 followers.

BLM activists do not need to accommodate white prejudice to gain a wider audience for their ideas, and they are refusing to do so.

7) Leaderful Means Unbreakable

Finally – and most crucially – BLM improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s by being leaderful.  This means, according to Purvi Shah:

  • Being “high impact, low ego
  • Being “brilliant, humble and thoughtful”
  • Struggl[ing] with love,” despite internal and external stressors

It also means that while not everyone will be a leader, a leader in BLM could be anyone.  Though DeRay McKesson and the founders of BLM are visible, they do not control or dictate the actions of the BLM activists.  The 26 chapters of BLM are largely autonomous.

As outlined in The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, flat and leaderful organizations are more adaptive and harder to defeat than hierarchical organizations with one leader at the top directing the movement and being a sole focus on media attention and public trust.  This is because any one leader is not critical to the operation of a leaderful organization.

Leaders who personify the movements they lead endanger themselves and their movements.  This is why the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were so catastrophic.  They were so loved, so revered, had such unparalleled capacity to push the movement’s goals, that when they were killed no one else was able to take their places.

Though BLM will hopefully never experience the assassinations of fifty years ago, their structure of leaderful decentralization makes them more resilient and harder to defeat.

Proving the Skeptics Wrong

In his influential 2010 work of cyber-pessimism, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker compared the civil rights movement to contemporary digital activists and found contemporary activists wanting because of the supposed weak ties inherent to social media use.  He famously intoned that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”  History has proven him quite wrong.

BLM is innovating on the civil rights movement not only in the technology they use, but in their ethics, in their aesthetics, in the composition of their movement.  Theirs is not just a new civil rights movement, but a better one, stronger, more inclusive, more radical.  If you can’t get with it, get out of the way.


Header Images (l to r): Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963 (by Richard Avedon), Alicia Garza and fellow Oakland activists in 2015 (Kristin Little)

Body Images: King and X (Wikipedia), Deray McKesson (@deray)

Derailment: A Field Guide

Why Does Derailment Matter?

Derailment is important because it’s a weapon against social change.

People who support social change need to know how to identify it and how to combat it.

What Is Derailment?

Derailment “diverts a discussion about one issue into a discussion of another issue”*.  It is a tactic of misdirection that deflects attention away from complaints about the abuse and wrongdoing of those in power and towards a different topic that does not challenge those interests.

Why Do People Derail?

People derail for the following 4 reasons:

1) Feel Accused

Description: These derailers believe that the topic of discussion is a personal indictment of their own wrongdoing.  This sense of being accused may be real or imagined.

Example: A man might derail a discussion about sexual harassment if he believes he himself is being accused of sexual harassment.

2) Material Interests

Description: In this case, the change implicit in the critique would reduce the power or wealth of the derailer.  Even if an individual or group is never explicitly accused of wrongdoing, they might suffer from reduced position or resources if change to the abusive or unjust situation occurs.

Example: A firm that builds drilling equipment for the oil industry might seek to derail legislation about climate change.  Even though these manufacturers are rarely accused of wrongdoing in the climate change debate, their livelihoods would be harmed if limitations on drilling occurred.

3) Worldview Challenged

Description: In this case, the topic is forcing the derailer to make an uncomfortable reevaluation of their worldview.   Rather than make this reevaluation, the person defends their worldview by derailing the conversation.

Example: A white person might derail a discussion of police violence against people of color because they wish to continue believing that police are a force for law, order, and moral uprightness.

4) Agents of the Above

Description: The derailer in this case is acting on behalf of groups or individuals who fall into the above three categories.

Example: We don’t know Megyn Kelly’s personal feelings about Black Lives Matter, but when she brought up black-on-black violence in her interview with Cornel West last week (image above), she was furthering the conservative agenda of her employer, Fox News, by derailing critique of racist policing.

What Are the Types of Derailment?

Graphically, all derailed topics look sometime like this before they are derailed:

  1. There are two parties: A and B
  2. A has more power than B
  3. A has committed some abuse or wrongdoing against B

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 8.03.03 PM

There are seven ways to derail this type of topic, each of which seeks to undermine or modify some element of this model.  They are:

  1. Rationalist Derailments
  2. Minimization Derailments
  3. Victim-Blaming Derailments
  4. Table-Turning Derailments
  5. Ad Hominem Derailments
  6. Narcissistic Derailments
  7. See No Evil Derailments

Learn them so you can identify them when you see and hear them.  Then call them out for what they are: efforts to silence criticism of the status quo, protect those in power, and divert attention away from change.  (See an alternative list here.)


1) Rationalist Derailments

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Description: These derailments seek to identify a flaw in the logic or evidentiary basis of the challenging topic.  These types of arguments are particularly popular with men and conventionally-educated people, since they are taught they are more logical than other groups.  It is also common among people who do not think they are not prejudiced, because they are attacking the argument rather than the speaker or group making the complaint.

Example: “All murders/homicides are terrible. But if we run the numbers….”*

2) Minimization Derailments

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Description: This form or derailment also seeks to blunt or undermine the argument itself.  Unlike the rationalist derailer, however, the minimizing derailer attacks the argument by minimizing its importance.

There are a number of tactics minimizers use.  They may claim that the wrongdoing or abuse was “just a joke” and not a serious threat.

Another common tactic is to play Oppression Olympics and minimize the suffering of (B) compared to a group that is even worse off.  This is the tactic my own father used when I tried to talk to him about the rights of sweatshop workers overseas.  “Would you prefer they were starving subsistence farmers?” he asked.  “At least they have jobs.”  Counter to his line of argument, the existence of a graver wrongdoing does not negate the presence of a lesser one.

Examples: “It’s just a joke.”  “Why are you making such a big deal of it?”  “These people are actually lucky. [X Group] has it much worse.”


3) Victim-Blaming Derailments

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Description: This derailment is ingenious and extremely popular, even though it makes very little sense.  In this common derailment, the derailer suggests that the victim of oppression, rather than the oppressor, is responsible for the victim’s suffering.

When this derailment is used, it often means that the derailer cannot deny that some suffering occurred (poverty, murder, unwanted sexual intercourse).  Since they cannot deny the suffering, instead claim that the injured party (B) injured themselves or incited the more powerful party (A) to injure them.  This argument of this derailment is “stop hitting yourself,” and is just as ridiculous.

Examples: Blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming black people for being the victims of violence (black-on-black crime derailment), blaming rape survivors for being raped.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.28.10 PM

A special sub-type of the victim-blaming derailment is the Victim-Perpetuating Derailment

Description: Here the derailer acknowledges that party (A) did at some time abuse or engage in wrongdoing toward (B).  However, at this point (B) is guilty of perpetuating or even augmenting that wrongdoing.  The derailer is arguing that the speaker is creating the injustice by pointing out its existence.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Ignoring injustice perpetuates it.  Speaking about it is the first step towards remedy.  This is  precisely why the discussion is being derailed.  Derailment aims explicitly to silence those who speak about injustice in order to prevent remedies that will change the status quo.

Example: “Stop talking about racism!  That just perpetuates racism.”


4) Table-Turning Derailments

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Description:  If you thought the Victim-Blaming Derailment was crazy, this one’s even nuttier.  In the table-turning derailment, the person being accused of oppressive behavior claims that, actually, they are the victims.

This derailment diverts the original discussion by completely flipping the dynamics.  The abuser has become the abused.  Their narrative becomes privileged.  The victim becomes the abuser.  Their narrative is sidelined and undermined.  It’s so crazy it might just work (and it does).

Examples: The reverse racism argument that white people are the true victims of racism, meninist claims that women are actually oppressing men.


5) Ad Hominem Derailments

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Description: Ad hominem means “to the man.”  It refers to personal attacks.  This derailment is popular because it is the laziest and easiest derailment.  The derailer doesn’t need to make any critique of the argument or the context.  They just need to find some defect in the person making the argument and point it out.  The laziest of these derailments is to make a criticism of the person’s appearance, which doesn’t require that the derailer even think about the person, but only look at them.

The slightly more sophisticated derailer will criticize the speaker’s character.   This derailment works because people will often not believe a claim made by someone who has been identified as flawed.  For example, the speaker may be called overly-sensitive or angry.  The implication is that the content of the critique is driven by emotion rather than fact.

Counter to this logic, anger is actually not connected to the validity of an argument.  In fact, if I am arguing about a serious injustice that is being minimized or ignored, that’s a completely valid reason to be angry.

Example: “Danny–You’re a total loser,” “he is just so pathetic and easy (stupid),” “I’d look her right in that fat, ugly face” (Donald Trump tweets and comments.)


6) Narcissistic Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.10.55 PM

Description: These derailments are in a way the most innocent kind.  The derailer may not even realize they are derailing.  The derailer simply shifts the conversation to themselves.  I’ve called them Narcissistic Derailments and their spirit is well-expressed in this awesome tweet:

This is a very common type of derailment for an ally to engage in unconsciously.   Allies (C) are generally people whose power is between the person or group accused of wrongdoing (A) and the group doing the accusing (B).  If allies keep the focus on the group with less power, their allyship is helpful.  If they turn the attention on themselves, they divert attention away from the group making the claim and do them harm.

We are all naturally interested in ourselves and will see any issue from the perspective of our own experience.  However, as allies we need to police these reactions and keep the focus on the groups were have allied ourselves with.  This time it is really not about us.

Example: “I hear what you’re saying about the problems of [marginalized group].  As a member of [less marginalized group], I have similar problems. Let me tell you about them.”


7) See No Evil Derailment

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.22.06 PMDescription: This is the most dangerous type of derailment, since by appearance it is the most benign.   Even sophisticated public figures like Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton have made the mistake of committing this type of derailment.

So why are these comments, which seem to embrace the values of equality and fair treatment, really so horribly damaging?  It is because this derailment erases the abuse and wrongdoing, pretends it does not exist.  If an injustice is not acknowledged it can never be righted.

Example: #AllLivesMatter, “I don’t even see race, I’m colorblind”

How to Fight Derailment?

Of course, derailments are rarely used individually out in the wild.  For example, what about this combo move?

Black Person: “I get stressed every time I see a police car in my rearview.  Driving is just too much.”

White Person: “Why are you so upset, Bro?  The cops pull me over sometimes and nothing bad ever happens. ”     

This is indeed a powerful derailer.  Let us unpack the many derailments he has deployed in so few words:

  • “Why are you getting so emotional?”: Ad Hominem attack (focusing on the individual’s emotional state, not the content of what they are saying), which also sets up a Rationalism attack by implying that the person is speaking from their heart, not their head.
  • “The cops pull me over sometimes…”: A classic usage of Narcissistic derailment.  Dude, we are not talking about your interactions with police.  We are talking about this black person’s experience with the police.
  • “…and nothing bad ever happens”: And here the Rationalist derailment appears.  The derailer is using the evidence that they have never had trouble with the police as evidence that the back person hasn’t either.  At this point, the conversation has been derailed to the extent that evidence of a white person’s experience is seen as valid evidence for disproving a black person’s experience.  It’s ridiculous and infuriating.

Here’s how the black person could respond.  With a Rationalist derailment, using statistics, facts, figures can be an effective rebuttal.

Black Person: “Well, Dude, if I appear emotional it’s because this is a frigging terrifying situation.  Also, we’re not talking about your experience.  We’re talking about my experience. Black people are being killed by police at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people in the US.  If you don’t believe me, check out this article in The Guardian.  Also, never ever question my experience of my own life again.”

And then the moment of truth comes.

If this Dude is merely ignorant, then he should apologize immediately.  If he doesn’t apologize, or even gets defensive, you know you are not dealing with a friend, but rather a narcissistic and irrational racist who would rather attack a friend than question even the smallest part of his worldview or try to empathize with an experience not his own.  Kick him to the curb.  At least you provided a teaching moment, even if Dude was unable to appreciate it.

What are your strategies for combatting derailment?  Tell me in the comments.

original image:

Seeing the Good in People

The Lesson Was Your Reaction

There was wine.  There was a train.  There was laughing, potentially loud laughing.  And then the laughing stopped.  Then there was a hashtag and talk of a boycott and a 100% apology.  I think we all know the public details of the encounter between the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club and the Napa Valley Wine Train.

So, what’s the broader lesson?  The lesson is your reaction.   There were conflicting accounts about the behavior of the women on the train.  In the absence of proof, who did you side with?  Who did you see as the offending party?  Who did you leap to defend in conversations at work or on social media?

Be Aware of Power in Social Conflict

On Facebook (yes, I too debate people on Facebook) someone said he preferred to “see the good” in the employees of the train.  He preferred to assume they weren’t racist.  I found the women’s story to be more credible.  

In truth, we were both seeing the good in people, we are just seeing it in different people.  I was assuming the best of the women kicked off the train.  He was assuming the best of those who kicked them off.

In so many of today’s social conflicts there is a conflict of interpretation between people of differing levels of power:  union workers and corporate bosses, undocumented people and conservative politicians, women who call men out for sexism and men who claim sexism doesn’t exist.

Challenge Your Defenses of Those in Power

If we defend the side in power we are defending the status quo, whether or not it benefits us.  We are siding with the big guy against the little guy.  There’s nothing noble in that.

Sometime those in power will, in fact, be right.  Often, they won’t.  But if your default position is to defend those in power, check yourself and reassess.   Look at the conflict from the position of the alleged victim instead of the alleged perpetrator.  Listen to what the person with less power has to say.  And then make up your mind.


Image: Book club members outside the wine train earlier in the day (source: CBS This Morning)



White Nonsense First Responders: Open Thread

Use the comments section below to share your experiences confronting racist nonsense.  You can suggest ways to respond, ask for advice on how to respond, or just seek emotional support.

White people made white supremacy and it’s our responsibility to fix it.  Let’s help each other do that work.


#WhiteNonsense: Is Black Lives Matter Racist?

Note: With 38K views and 10K shares and growing, “Sensible Responses to White Nonsense” hit a nerve. There is clearly a need by white people to challenge their peers on racist opinions that are (quite frankly) ridiculous. “Sensible Responses” is a smorgasbord of nonsense and responses. Yet each individual piece of nonsense also deserves its own spotlight and clear talking points, beginning with this post.  My hope is to nourish a groundswell of white people fighting white nonsense. This is our fight. This is our power.


White Nonsense:


Black Lives Matter is racist because they are “only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence”*

Your Response:

Short Answer:


  • No, they are not racist.
  • To support one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.
  • When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.
  • It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

Long Answer:

1) Racism has a variety of definitions.

There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism.  Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, Racism = Bias based on skin color + Control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

2) Fortunately, you can respond without choosing one.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.

3) To show support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.

As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes.  If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.  I am just expressing that these groups are experiencing a particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  I am lifting them up because I support them, not because I oppose others.

4) This is true even if some black activists have (understandable) anti-white bias.

Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.  They are uplifting the cause of black people because black people are subject to a range of injustices within our society.

5) Being passionate about one particular cause isn’t bias, it’s what drives activism.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love.  Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts.  This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of activism, human rights, and human progress.


* Denotes direct quote from a white person

original image:

Choose Your Own Activism Adventure (With Cake)

An activism campaign is like a Choose Your Own Adventure where you know the social change goal you want to achieve, have control over your own actions, but have no control over how the external world will respond.  How can you make the best decisions possible, given this uncertainty?  You use the tools of theory of change, strategy, tactics, and tasks.

Together, these nested elements will help you analyze your context, choose a path, choose actions to move along that path, take those actions, and reflect on the effects to take more effective action.

Components of an Activism Campaign

What are these activism campaign components?  How do they fit together?

  • A theory of change is a series of causal steps between the present and a future goal.
  • The theory of change will imply a number of strategies to achieve that goal, each of which will take a different path through the causal steps.
  • Each strategy will be implemented through a number of tactics, actions meant to cause the changes laid out in the theory of change.
  • To carry out each tactic, practical work is needed.  This practical work is a task.

The relationship between these four pieces is illustrated in the diagram below.  As you move from theory of change to tasks, the elements become smaller and more concrete.

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Social change is really complex, as you know.  To move through this process for a real social issue, such as prison reform, institutionalized racism, gun violence, climate change, or transgender rights would take many many blog posts to explain.

The purpose of this post is to explain these steps so you can quickly see how they fit together.  For this reason, we are going to choose a much simpler goal to achieve: creating an emergency wedding cake.

A Delicious Example


fancy professional cake

Here’s the set-up.  You’ve been helping your friend plan her/his/their wedding in San Diego.  You arrive in town at 8am from your home town of Portland, the day before the wedding .  At 10am the baker (an old friend from college) calls you to say they are stuck in the Cleveland airport due to a snow storm.  Their flight has been delayed until after the wedding.  There’s no way they are going to be able to get to San Diego in time to make the cake.

Here is your theory of change on wedding cake creation.  (See more theory of change visualizations here.)

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The theory of change shows many paths to your cake (goal).  In fact, theories of change are known for being twisty and complex, because they are supposed to take into account the complex context in which you are trying to achieve your goal.  This theory of change illustrates five possible paths to achieve your goal.

Identifying Strategies

What are these five paths exactly?  Do we know them by a different name?  Yes, we do.  Each path is a strategy.  Let’s describe them:

  1. Big $$$ Strategy: This is the simplest strategy, though also the most expensive (as is common in life).  You find a local pastry chef and pay them as much money as they require in order to make a wedding cake on really short notice.  You end up with a beautiful and expensive cake.
  2. Some $$ Strategy: Now we are beginning to negotiate our requirements based on available resources, as also happens in real life.  For slightly less money you can hire someone with some baking skill (maybe a caterer instead of a pastry chef).  They will provide you with a competent – though not super fancy – cake at a reasonable price.
  3. Know-a-Chef Strategy: It is possible that you could get the pastry chef to do the cake without paying a lot of money if you have some relationship to them and can ask them as a personal favor.
  4. Aunt Cheryl Strategy: Another relationship strategy, this one likely even cheaper.  You ask a family member with baking experience (Aunt Cheryl) to make the cake.
  5. DIY Strategy: If all else fails, you could always make the cake yourself.  You have no skill as a baker, but you can follow a recipe.  This would also be relatively cheap because you only need to pay for ingredients.  But it could also come out horribly wrong, because you really don’t know what the fuck you are doing.

So, these are your pathways through the theory of change.  These are your strategies.  Which one will you choose?

The criteria you want to use to pick your strategy is one that offers maximum benefit with minimum cost.  You most beneficial outcome is the “fancy cake” and your lowest cost is to get that fancy cake at low or no coast through a personal connection to a pastry chef.  That’s strategy #3.

Identifying Tactics

What tactics will you use to carry out this strategy?  How will you identify a local pastry chefs with a personal connection to you?  (You don’t know any as of now.)  Here are some tactics you could use:

  1. Contact All Guests: “Is There a Pastry Chef in Attendance?”
    • Benefit: Wide coverage quickly, it’s possible (but unlikely) that one is a pastry chef
    • Cost: Everyone freaks out because there is no cake. Also, it’s unlikely that one is a pastry chef (ie, you’d be wasting your time).
  2. Contact the Original Pastry Chef
    • Benefit: You already know her and trust her skill.  She probably feels super guilty about being stuck in Cleveland and not being able to show up.  There is a decent possibility she will know people in her profession in San Diego.
    • Cost: Worst case scenario, you pay full price to this local pastry chef, but you may not have to if our Cleveland connection can get you a discount.
  3. Contact the Venue
    • Benefit: The wedding is being hosted in a venue that often hosts weddings.  These staff at the venue are sure to know local pastry chefs.
    • Cost: This isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.
  4. Contact Locals for a Referral
    • Benefit: You are not from San Diego, but it’s likely that someone in the wedding party is local and knows someone who got married recently who could give you a referral.
    • Cost: Again, this isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.

You decide to go with tactic #2 since the potential benefit is highest (a fancy cake at low cost) and the risk is negligible.

Tasks: Doing the Work

Implementing a strategy means doing tasks.  As you move from theory of change to strategy to tactics to tasks, the element get increasingly simple and increasingly obvious.   This is because by making choices you are removing options.  Less options mean easier choices.   You already chose a strategy and a first tactic.  Now you just need to decide how to implement it.  You need to contact the baker.  How will you do it?  Email is an option, but since time is of the essence, why don’t you call?

Your Tasks:

  1. Go back through your recent calls and find the number of the pastry chef.
  2. Call her and and ask her to contact a replacement in San Diego.

That’s pretty easy.

You call the original pastry chef in Cleveland and ask her if she knows any great pastry chefs in Sean Diego.

Congratulations, she does! (See how this is like Choose Your Own Adventure?)

Now you can ask her (guilt her) into calling that chef on your behalf.

She will.  Yay!

Unfortunately, the one pastry chef she knows is already baking for another wedding and can’t take on your job.

Changing Tactics

When a tactic doesn’t give you the outcome you want, you will need to move on to another tactic.   In activism, it is almost guaranteed that your first tactic will not result in achievement of your goal.  So don’t be discouraged if a tactic doesn’t work.  Expect it.  Evaluate why it it didn’t work, and move one on to another tactical option.

Among the tactics above, only contacting all the wedding guests seems like an obviously bad idea.  Contacting local wedding guests or contacting the venue to get a referral to a local professional pastry chef could both be good options.

Often the best tactic is not obvious.   When you are unsure which tactic to choose, add another criterion for evaluation.  The current criteria are Benefit and Cost.  You could also add Time and Financial Resources.  Getting a referral from a guest may be less expensive than getting a referral from a venue, but it will almost certainly take more time.   Since the staff of the venue work with caterers all the time, they could probably hook you up with multiple chefs quickly, but you’d also probably pay a high price for that convenience.  Is time or money a bigger constraint for you?

Changing Strategies

Let’s say that you contact multiple local pastry chefs through different avenues of referral and they are either not available or way too expensive.  You are not going to get a pastry chef to make that cake.  Time to try a different cake strategy.


cute little homemade cake

When a tactic doesn’t provide the effect you want, you change tactics.  When a series of tactics don’t achieve the effect you want, it’s time to change strategies.  Changing strategies means that you decide to achieve your goal using a different path.  Though changing strategies can be time-consuming, you need to be honest with yourself if your current strategy isn’t working.

Because you know that you can’t bake, you decide to ask other guests that you personally if any of them have baking skill.  A few do and you help them.  You choose a simple but yummy design.  It’s not fancy, but everyone thinks it’s cute.  It tastes good too.   Although your campaign didn’t go as expected, you still achieved your goal through analysis, action, and reflection.

A Collective Adventure

As you can see, designing an activism campaign requires a lot of skills:

  • You need to be creative and observant to develop a theory of change.
  • You need to be analytical to look at the many paths through the theory of change and pick the one that offers the most benefits with the fewest costs as your strategy.
  • You need to be creative again when you are deciding which tactics will allow you to carry out that strategy.
  • You will need a number of skills to carry out your tactics, ranging from poster-makers to live-tweeters to bridge aerialists.
  • You need to be hardworking and well-organized to ensure all the tasks necessary to carry out a tactic are accomplished.
  • You need to be cool-headed and unsentimental when evaluating whether or not a tactic or strategy is working.  If it isn’t, you need to make a change.

Who has all these skills?  No one does, obviously.  That is why activism campaigns are carried out by teams.  Now you have some idea of what an activism campaign entails.  The next step is getting others involved.  The adventure is yours.

photos: Flickr/Wicked Little Cake Company; Flickr/Thomas Hawk

8 Anti-Racist Commitments

For many white people, racism is the elephant in the room.  It’s there even if we ignore it.

Today in downtown Seattle I came across an action by participants in an activism camp called Localize This!.  They had a great flyer of commitments for white allies. I’ve remixed and reproduced it below.  Their original list is here.

  1. I commit to reflect on topics that may be uncomfortable.
  2. I commit to promote cooperation over self-interest.
  3. I commit to recognize the concerns of people different from me.
  4. I commit to educate myself on issues that contribute to oppression.
  5. Even though I may unintentionally say or do something racist, I commit to view mistakes as opportunities for learning.
  6. When challenged on racism, I commit to working on my own defensiveness by calmly listening even if that is not my first reaction.
  7. I commit to including the interests of oppressed groups while making decisions that affect them.
  8. I commit to disrupt the status quo in order to share power and privilege with all people.

Sensible Responses to White Nonsense

Trigger Warning:  This post and the comments below it contain various expressions of racism paired with arguments against the logic contained within them.  These expressions (labeled “white nonsense” in the post) are nevertheless hurtful and offensive and readers should proceed with care.


I recently decided to start responding to white critics of Black Lives Matter.

Black activists are busy.  They have a revolution to run and do not have time to be dealing with white nonsense.  But I do.  Below are some common critiques of Black Lives Matter, along with appropriate responses.

Remember, white allies, it’s better to call in than call out.   Calling in makes instances of white ignorance and insensitivity teaching moments, instead of fuck-you moments.  While fuck-you may feel good, calling white people into being decent and empathic human beings is to everyone’s advantage.

BLM activists, if I get anything wrong, please let me know.

Critique 1: But the Violence!  (ie, misplaced outrage)

White NonsenseIs violence ever acceptable? Looting innocent business owners, firing shots at police, etc. in Ferguson. Carving the name of the cop who shot Brown on the skin of a pig, roasting it and then eating it’s head in front of the Ferguson Police Dept? Angry and rude is far from this level of violence that is being carried out.*

Reasoned Response: Which violence are we choosing to talk about? The cause for these protests is the shooting of unarmed black people, yet that is not the violence that seems to be most upsetting to you. Why do you think that is, [Meredith]?

White Nonsense: I am in no way in defense of the abuse of police power or the mistreatment of innocent blacks. But to fight violence with violence is not the answer. Innocent people are suffering from these protests. This is inexcusable and to make excuses for it is dangerous.*

Reasoned Response: [Brad] I know that the anger of oppressed people can be disconcerting and upsetting, whether it’s symbolic acts, words, or destruction of property. They are angry at the institutions that protect us and do not protect them and they are angry at us for supporting these institutions. The question is, which violence offends us more: the smashing of a police car or the murder of a black child? If the answer is the former, which it is for a lot of white people, then that needs to change. We need to shift our empathy and identification from the institutions of oppression to those who are oppressed.


Want to talk to other white people fighting the good fight against racist nonsense?

Join the discussion

in the White Nonsense First Responders’ Open Thread


Critique 2: Annoyance at Hearing About Oppression

White Nonsense: I think [race is] a bit of a potential third rail in American politics. Unfortunately, I think a lot of white voters get tired of hearing about it.*

Reasoned Response: [Tom], white voters get tired of hearing about racism? That is no doubt true, just as men get tired of hearing about sexism or the rich get tired of hearing about the struggles of the poor or non-veterans gets tired of hearing about PTSD. I certainly hope that’s not true of you. That’s also not the country I want to live in. Hearing about the pain of others is a cause for compassion, not annoyance.

Critique 3: You’re Hurting Your Cause! (ie, concern trolling)

White Nonsense: Those interruptions do nothing to stop people dying in the streets, they only give the movement a bad name.*

White Nonsense: Disruptions like this do a big disservice to a great cause.  Anything you’ll say in these minutes will be overshadowed by the fact that your hijacked the microphone.*

Reasoned Response: Well, let’s look at the evidence, [Kelsey].  If we’re talking about [the interruption of Bernie Sanders’ speech] then we can see that in the week following that action:

So I’d say that disruptive tactic did help their cause.  Remember that black lives > white feelings. If you are arguing the reverse, ask yourself why.

Critique 4: But Black on Black Violence!

White Nonsense: But what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them? (source)

Reasoned Response: Regardless of harm members of a group do to each other, harms being done to that group by others still need to be addressed.  In the wise words of Cornel West (whom I once saw walking through an airport!), “we have to distinguish between state-sponsored violence and violence against black people owing to actions black people do to each other. Both are important, but they’re not the same thing.

Diverting attention away from police using this argument is a classic derailment and lets abusive police officers off the hook.  Police officers with hair-trigger tempers who have no respect for the law are a danger to everyone, so diverting attention away from their bad acts harms all citizens.

Critique 5: #BlackLivesMatter is Itself Racist

White Nonsense: What about the argument that the Black Lives Matter movement is Racist in itself by only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence?*

Reasoned Response: There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism. Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, racism = bias based on skin color + control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines Racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.  As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.

To show specific support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.  For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes. If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love. Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts. This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of human rights and human progress.

Critique 6: Racism Doesn’t Exist Because White People Suffer Too

White Nonsense: Being white doesn’t protect you from this class system, making it a blame game is absolutely racist. Being white doesn’t make you automatically rich, doesn’t protect your home, won’t promise you a job or a life.  It certainly won’t protect you from homelessness or poverty.

Reasoned Response: Identity is intersectional. This means that while some elements of our identity privilege us, others disadvantage us. For example, I am privileged by my whiteness, my middle class background, and being cisgendered, but I am also disadvantaged by being queer and being female.

To take your example, a person who is able-bodied has greater privilege than one who is not.  To accurately articulate that whiteness is being used to divide and disadvantage people who do not have this trait is not racist.  Ignoring this abuse is.

Black people are disadvantaged in our society, so are mentally ill people, so are poor people, so are transgender people. We live in a very unequal society.

Critique 7: Not All Cops…

White Nonsense First Responder: Any advice on the “not all cops are bad” bullshit?

Reasoned Response: Like “not all white people” and “not all men,”  this line of criticism really doesn’t stand up to logic.  Can you imagine if the Catholic Church had given this response to the pedophile priest scandal?  What if the Vatican spokesperson had said, “Yes, some of our priests are pedophiles, but not all of them are.  In fact, most of our priest are not pedophiles.  For that reason, we see no need to act.  In fact, we don’t even understand what you are all so worried about.”  People would have been legitimately outraged.

If there is an abusive element in any institution of public trust or power, it needs to be dealt with.  Saying there are only a few abusers (whether this is true or not) does not change this fact.

to be continued….

* denotes direct quote from a white person

Critique 4: Added August 20th, thanks to Ryan Carson for suggesting.  Edits made thanks to suggestion from David.

Critique 5: Added August 20th in response to Toby, definition of racism expanded on August 21st based on feedback from Sam and Mike Crossley.

Critique 6: Added August 20th in response to Toby.

Critique 7: Added August 24th on the suggestion of Gypsy B.

[fake name]

#BlackLivesMatter and the Benefits of Being Impolite

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.

You don't make change by playing nice.

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:


White progressives embarrassing themselves at the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle by booing actual activists.

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.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 3.56.17 PM

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.

Activists Vindicated

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 4.34.48 PM

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

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