The impossibility of dialogue

[Happy one two year birthday to the Official Blog! I’m very grateful that Andrea gave me the opportunity to join her site, and I’m glad she’s here doing all the work that she does. Here’s to many more years.]

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took a class on racism and white privilege. My professor was unflinching in his recognition that some things about anti-oppression work are “impossible.” And while this sounds like a pessimistic view of things, I think it was very important that he acknowledged this concept and repeatedly brought it to our attention.

I chose to write about this subject for the one two-year anniversary of the Official Blog because of that importance, despite the fact that it also sounds pretty dreary. I mean, it is a bit disheartening to commemorate the birth of an anti-oppression blog by talking about everything it can’t do.

But recognizing difficulties can always do two different things: it can bring you down, and it can also help you clarify your path to better accomplish your goals. As you can guess, I hope to do the latter.

One of the “impossibilities” that my professor discussed was about the process of dialogue. Our classroom was multiracial – both white students and people of color, and within the latter group there were black, Asian, Latino, and Native students. And while a multiracial demographic can be very beneficial, it also raises a fundamental question: what was this class for?

I’ll explain what I mean with an example. One of the early and enduring issues raised in the class was the idea of safety. And by “safety,” I mean the safety of the white students – whether they felt like they could safely enter the discussion without being judged, and make mistakes without being punished.

This is an important issue for white people talking about anti-racism, and the perceived absence of safety can be a deal breaker for discussion. I expect that most if not all white people who begin anti-racist work feel a strong concern for this kind of safety.

However, this is not a new issue for people of color. On the one hand, those of us who have spent any amount of time trying to talk to white people about racism have run into this issue time and time again. On the other hand, a lack of “safety” isn’t news to us. It’s a given. People of color go around their entire lives without the assumption of safety – from racism. Whether the threat is immediate and physical, or long-term and mental or emotional, we already know that we can’t expect safety from this world. There are ways of feeling safer – being around certain people we can trust, for instance – but there is never a point at which we can say, Okay, no threat from racism here. Being constrained by white people’s fear about losing the safety they never have to question can undermine our own feeling of safety.

This is the kind of “impossibility” that my professor identified in the class. There was simply no way for him, or us, to address the needs of both groups of students at the same time. If we were to make the white students feel safe, we would have had to hold back on criticisms and make sure to keep at the level of Racism 101. If we were to concern ourselves with the students of color, we would have had to leave many of the white students behind, because they would have felt ignored or insulted.

This is specific example of a wider problem that Shrub, as well as other anti-oppression blogs, run into all the time – the question of Who is this dialogue for?

Addressed with this question, my professor would have called it impossible. There is no good answer to this. As stated above, choosing one party compromises the interests of the other in some way. At the same time, it is vitally necessary that both parties be present. If people of color are the only ones talking about racism, it will result in a lot of knowledge – but the work will be hindered if no white people join in the effort. If white people talk on their own, it spares the people of color from enduring further privileged ignorance – but there is the risk that no one will be there to hold the white people accountable, and keep their learning grounded in the real experiences of people of color.

This blog is for anti-oppression, but not necessarily only for the oppressed. (For one thing, there are hardly any people who only fall into one of the “oppressed” or “oppressor” classifications when all aspects of their social situation are taken into account.) We provide support to those who bear the weight of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. Still, we hope to teach and reach out to people on the other side of the privilege divide in the hopes of gaining more allies.

One solution (of the many that are necessary) is simply to have multiple sites for dialogue. Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog and Feminist Allies are two sites that are geared more towards men and/or non-feminists, whereas I Blame The Patriarchy is intended for, in Twisty’s own words, “advanced patriarchy-blamers.” Yet even if both groups of sites did their intended work perfectly, there would still be the problems mentioned above. A blog dedicated to “Feminism 101” would, obviously, not graduate towards more rigorous analyses as it focused on educating the (endless supply of) ignorant people. The “advanced” blogs would make entrance into feminism difficult for those with little knowledge or experience.

One of the reasons that I enjoy blogging here so much is that Andrea’s work occurs in a sort of middle ground, engaging in outreach with those who are respectful and willing to learn, yet not sacrificing the needs of those in the non-privileged groups. This middle ground, however, is constantly in flux, and must be re-negotiated to stay on target.

Sites like Shrub are best aided, not by being told what to do or how to do it better, but by those who are willing to join in the work. That doesn’t mean that these combined efforts will fix the impossibility of dialogue between privileged and non-privileged groups, but they will help the multiple attempts at dialogue be sustained.

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10 thoughts on “The impossibility of dialogue

  1. OH NOES.

    With all the excitement, I totally didn’t realize that today is my blog birthday. Crappity crap. Oh well, nothing to do about it now! Thanks for contributing even though I spaced on the day and forgot to 🙂

  2. PS. This post rocks. Like, seriously. Thank you for posting it, as I had never quite thought about it that way.

    It’s a strange little dance we try to do here, eh? Both trying to engage with those who have little knowledge of oppression work while not compromising our core of being a safe-space for anti-oppression veterans to deepen their knowledge.

    I know one of the ways I try to balance it is to gear certain posts towards certain audiences. My privilege posts, for instance, are mostly geared towards people who are new-ish to anti-oppression, but I try to do so in a way that can help veterans crystalize their understanding of the ins and outs of the issue and therefore hopefully help them to better explain it to the newbs in their lives. Other posts are completely veteran-oriented, and indeed I engage in a fair bit of criticism towards anti-oppression activists who put “their” oppression[s] first.

    I think seeing intersections and building bridges is what I feel is the most important work for me to do, whether it be between anti-oppression newbs and vets or between veterans who have different sets of oppression-focuses.

  3. Fascinating. No, I don’t have a good comment to make, I’m just being awed and fannish. 🙂

  4. Tekanji,

    Happy Blog Birthday:)

    But is it only one year?!? Because I swear I’ve been lurking at this blog for about two years.

  5. Beste: Yup, it’s our 2nd birthday. I had all these grand plans of having a picture of a cake, and getting up a post about the year in review, and all that sort of stuff. And then The IRIS Network happened. And real life got in the way. ._.

  6. Happy Anniversary 🙂

    And thanks for this post. It’s given me yet another new something to think about going into the race/ethnicity dialogue I’ll be facilitating a week from now. I’m not sure how my co-facilitator and I will achieve this kind of balance, but hopefully it’s something we can discuss with our students and together arrive at some kind of conclusion.

  7. Great post, Dora. It’s a fascinating sort of overlapping and intersecting landscape of positions that we navigate in this sort of discussion.

    Happy blog-birthday, tekanji!

  8. Thank you to everyone both for the kind words and for reminding me that, yes, March 2005 was two years ago. 😛

    tekanji: You give great examples of how you suit the discourse of this site to parties with different knowledge levels. That’s what I was referring to, and that’s one of the things I like so much about your blogging.

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