I’m on a crusade here. I’m sure I’m right, and if you don’t agree, I figure I’m probably gonna shame you or piss you off with this post, because you’re either ignorant or an asshole. Your initial reaction will determine which.
Or maybe not. Maybe that isn’t what’s going on here. Maybe you just got a little knot in your stomach hearing me say that, having seen it before, steeling yourself. You were concerned you were about to be worried by a social justice warrior intent on being your teacher and your boss, assigning you unfunded mandates with a side of groveling as homework.
And yes, I used the word worry in the old fashioned sense, as in to create a blister or aggravate a wound. Because that’s what this behavior does. Because it’s worriers in the mental sense (“ooh, I’m not doing this ok, I need to do better, EVERYONE needs to do better, I need to help them!”) that then become worriers in the irritating other people sense.
See, I just don’t even know about this social justice stuff anymore. I’m finding myself so tired of the outrage cycles on the Internet. For some people it’s designed to be clickbait – pick a controversial topic or lead, disguise it as an informative think piece or “everyman” reaction, and watch the hits come in. It’s professional trolling. For others it’s amateur trolling, wanting to feel important and get a reaction with no differentiation between negative and positive attention. And for too many it’s a way to bully carefully, feeling the sense of power that is lacking elsewhere from a safe distance where nobody can smack you if you grab too much.
And then there are the people who really care about the issue and accidentally act like pushy condescending judgy people about it while following the formula. They are the people I’m calling the worriers. This is a post about them, and for them and their friends and the other people who have to deal with their behavior. Which is almost all of us. So this blog post is for everyone.
So now that I’ve determined that the post is for everyone, I’m gonna say that the person who started all this was Beyoncé. It was all her fault, really. She had to do this edgy Super Bowl halftime thing and put out this video where she drowns with a New Orleans cop car in Katrina after dressing her and her baby in the best southern outfits, saying no to shooting, and feeding her dude Red Lobster because he was good in bed. And it was all so spicy it didn’t even need hot sauce. It truly was well seasoned enough.
And I loved the video. Watched it half a dozen times. It reminded me of home, New Orleans. She talked about creole culture. She sampled New Orleans entertainers. She talked about the white alligators at the Audubon zoo. The imagery was amazing. It made me homesick. And it made me a Beyoncé fan. Because yes, I was never too into her before. But this, this had an edge that felt both authentic and very thought out. I respected it.
And then a bunch of people (some white, some black) came out with all these blog posts saying “white people, this song isn’t for you.” And I took issue with that. Because I totally get that the song isn’t about us, but it doesn’t mean it’s not for us. Art is universal. It’s for everybody. And we each take our lens of experience to it. That’s what’s beautiful about it. And a good artist or poet or songwriter tells about 30% of the story and let’s you fill in the rest with what you’d like to see. And Beyoncé did that. And some people, like me, watched it and remembered how New Orleans cops had their cars flood in the storm and that they had “appropriated” cars from the Mercedes Benz dealership and how Mercedes was pissed, but the next year outside the Superdome had the best ad I’ve ever seen in my life. It simply said “New Orleans’ finest drive Mercedes-Benz.”
So yeah, I watched the video and smelled the hurricane smell, remembered the sunflowers sprouting on all the lawns in the months and years after. Because that’s what happens when neighborhoods suddenly get abandoned. Birdseed flowers grow there. But some people watched the video and saw nothing. Some people saw horrible scary things. They were the ones who said “I don’t get it, I don’t like it, it is bad.” And I get the response of black people who didn’t want to hear “this isn’t art, this sucks” to say “shut up, we weren’t asking for your opinion and this show wasn’t about you.” And I’m pretty much ok with that. It’s part of dialogue. It’s an understandable reaction. But then people took it further. Like some white people are protesting a damn halftime show that the NFL did, like their right to whatever was violated. That’s foolishness and those people need to get a life. Then there’s the white social justice worrier response, which I’m seeing a lot of – to bolster all these thinkpieces by social justice bloggers saying why Beyoncé’s song wasn’t for any of us white people and how we need to obey the directive and shut it.
But I didn’t shut it. I hadn’t been told to yet. I ran my big mouth like usual. I watched the game and the video with my boyfriend and an Ethiopian friend and I think I shocked her a little by then showing her a couple videos of Messy Mya and Big Freedia for context. She wasn’t so enamored with them. She liked Beyoncé. We talked about the white alligators at the zoo.
The next day I chatted online with a creole classmate of mine from high school who’d written a reaction piece to the song. I thought it was good. And a lot better than that Slate Magazine piece accusing Beyoncé of culturally appropriating New Orleans and Katrina, which annoyed me so bad I’d rather not link it. And then I realized I was nervous linking my friend’s post here (even though it’s good and you should read it), because she’s talked about the song with a white person who wasn’t supposed to have opinions on it, and she let me have opinions on it without consequence.
Because the next day I found out I wasn’t supposed to have opinions on it. That the song wasn’t for me. And so, me being me, posted a Facebook status update that I liked it but did have an opinion on Red Lobster, with their seafood not being up to par. And that’s a south Louisiana joke we all have, except we’re not joking. When you live on the gulf you have high expectations for seafood and you eat a lot of it. And you don’t eat at Red Lobster. And then I had a couple white people gently correct me that the song wasn’t for me to judge. And they didn’t find my red lobster joke funny. And that clued me in that a social justice thing was going on, and then yesterday I wasn’t surprised to see the Internet covered in bandwagon blog posts by white people about how they were ok that this song wasn’t for them. And they were getting hits and lots of social media shares on those pieces, which meant they’d made not having it be about them, about them. You see what I did there? You see what they did there? Yup. Me too.
So now that you have background, I’ll just say more stuff happened, with somebody saying that Beyoncé’s hot sauce wasn’t for white people either, and that’s when I’d had it, as I will be damned if somebody pulls the Tabasco (or Crystal’s) out of my cold dead hands. The spices belong to EVERYONE in south Louisiana, black and white alike. It may very well be the one thing we all share and love equally. So I said so. And that ended up with me losing a friend and getting told she wished me well but she drew a hard line at my behavior, which was racist.
So first off, I just wanted to say that I’m feeling kinda over white people in social justice, and while I was sorry to see her go, I wasn’t sorry at the concept of someone into that going. I felt relieved, actually. And I realized I’d like it if the rest of them left too. Because I’m tired of young middle class white people explaining race to me. And how to be an ally. And what disability really is. And what gender really means.
And I was just done with that crap.
So what does this mean? Well, I’ve devoted a lot of my own time, money, and identity to social justice causes. And as I am a white person who got a degree in social policy with a concentration in poverty alleviation, this is a big deal decision to me. So why go to the dark side now?
Well, let me explain.
I realized that the power dynamics were off, being appropriated if you will. It started off with the subtle growing annoyance at my fellow white social justice people. That they like to explain things to you that not too long ago they didn’t know. Which means they like to talk a lot. (Ok, ok, I am kinda one of those people in that sense, I realize) But they don’t bother to ask about your lived experience, just make assumptions that you don’t know what they didn’t used to know and now they’re enlightening you, with pressure to either take it or be lectured and shunned. And they don’t check to see if you want to hear it. There’s no getting your consent before pouring a big spoonful of this medicine they say you need. It’s patronizing and annoying and pretty invasive.
So I saw it’s not actually social justice that’s happening. Its just plain old fashioned proselytizing when done this way. It’s a lot like the Jehovahs Witnesses going around and trying to speak to you about Jesus, if, when you said no, they threw the tract in your face and called you a heathen as they made a note to forever shun you and talk trash about you to everybody they knew.
And nobody likes that sort of behavior except other people who engage in it, and the ones engaging in it are extra super concerned about optics, because they certainly don’t want it to happen to them. So there’s all this pressure to look right and act right and they genuinely think they have to, for their own souls and others, so they can be a good human and/or get into heaven. So ultimately you see that if someone is proselytizing to you it might be a little bit about you, but it’s mostly a lot about them and their identity and what they see themselves as part of.
And here they are white knights rescuing the black maiden from racism. You can help aid them in the rescue, or be the evil dragon guarding her if you want, and then they can slay you and be great.
Why does it always come back to slaying, that’s what I want to know?
I’ve also come to loathe the social justice hierarchy I’ve heard disparagingly referred to as “survivor Olympics.” It reduces you to a formula made of race, gender, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and the known level of maltreatment people like you have suffered and whoever is seen as lowest on the totem pole about the given topic wins the right to speak and have everyone else bow down. And in theory that’s not so bad, right? It gives room to people who are usually shut out, right? Well, sometimes. In actuality it has incentives built in similar to the setup of “testimony” in church – a lot of people who shouldn’t be overplaying their hand and telling fish stories are, while people who are survivors of less recognized or valued but similarly harmful things, or who choose not to share their traumas, are being kept quiet. And the people who assign themselves ally status often are the worst, making themselves coats of many colors, a pastiche of all the sad stories and history books and tweets they’ve read, and acting like they step out of some holy text, a prophet for a new and better way, guiding and caning as needed with their shepherd’s rod, adding more jewels to their social justice crown. And it squicks me out.
To use a personal example, in addition to feeling preached at and judged by self-appointed people who don’t have a right or a solid foundation, it’s also just awkward when they assume I haven’t had close friends or neighbors or classmates or members of my family who are people of color, or been in regular majority minority situations. Or that eating government cheese as a kid is something I didn’t do, and Katrina flooding wasn’t a thing I lived through. Or that I’m not quietly working on issues of disparity and unmet need around me because I haven’t already noticed it and I don’t already care. And in my case they’d be wrong on all those counts. But they don’t ask me, so they don’t know or don’t care, and I get the standard “you’re a bad ally” lecture on social justice talking points if I’ve said something that somehow deviates from what they’d say, the “ally” script as they understand it to be.
And I’m rather tired of people seeing me primarily as a white girl with a degree and telling me about my privilege when they don’t know a damn thing about it. And I don’t want to play the game, tell them to go take the ACE test, see what they score. I got a 7. I get to live with what that means and I can talk about it if I want, but I owe nobody an explanation. Also, to throw out another number, only 11% of people who grow up in poverty go on to get a bachelors degree. There’s not a number I could find for people who go on to get masters degrees, but I’m assuming it’s a small number, lower single digits. So I occupy an odd little space, very privileged for my background, very underprivileged compared to my classmates and colleagues, and it is the opposite of being in the middle. And in social justice spaces obsessed with these survivor olympics it regularly leaves me misunderstood and also kinda lonely, hearing nonsense on all sides because what do you do with someone who is privileged and not privileged all at once? Usually you keep it simple, say no and don’t let them play the raindeer games unless they agree to quit with the divergence.
But it’s not of high consequence. It’ll all be ok when they don’t (because usually we don’t), and the subsequent shunning makes you special, admired among your peers, since you can all bond over calling them names, become better friends and solidify the group, like middle school girls saying Stephanie really does smell bad and shouldn’t be invited to the sleepover.
But these people think they’re not being bullies, or proselytizing about authority as a religion. They’re nervously and conscientiously doing what’s right for the underprivileged, spreading the good news, expanding the church…err, safe space. Anyone can worship and find a home there. And nobody decent leaves. Only bad backslidden lukewarm broken people who cling to their privilege leave.
And I’m like…Oh wait, I’ve been here before. It’s like Kimmy Schmidt at SoulCycle.
So fine, I left. I wanted to leave. It was another church where I didn’t want to pray. I betrayed your tribe. I’m indecent. I am that racist ableist trans-antagonist bad ally piece of condescending white trash you always thought I was. Are you happy?
Well no, I know y’all aren’t. Because it only feels good when you call me these things, when it’s about you. I know your name calling is a form of lalochezia, a cool new word I learned that means expressing vulgar or foul language as a means of feeling pain relief. But if you direct that at other people, your temporary pain relief causes pain, radiating outwards. And that’s why you are accidentally being part of the problem, not the solution, and your notions of social justice are faulty and corrupt.
And I’m seeing that the core issue is that you have to love yourself before you can do a good job of loving or helping anybody else. And the dirty secret of social justice warriors and worriers is that most of us struggle with that. We feel so much guilt and shame over what we were, what we still aren’t, that it gets in the way of love. But we need it.
Because just like at the core of the faith, God is love, and bible-beating fundamentalists forget that, the core of social justice is also love.
I can love you and myself and Beyoncé’s latest song. And I can work hard to make things better. And I can go eat fresh Gulf shrimp with glittering tails that I put hot sauce on, when I pull it out of my bag.