After watching this heartbreaking dialogue between drag superstar, Sharon Needles (Aaron Coady) and anti-racism activists Maura and Enakai Ciseaux, I feel pulled to share my suggestions for anyone confronting someone else on their isms (racism, sexism, classism, cisexism, ableism, homophobia… ). Being a strong anti-racism advocate, and a fan of the show, Rupaul’s Drag Race, I can see that both sides of this disagreement could have taken responsibility for this breakdown in communication. The following is directed to activists approaching someone, my next blog will be for people being approached by activists.
At 14:30 Coady shares his feelings after the discussion:
“It’s never a dialogue, it’s always me being literally barked at until I am succumbed to my knees until I say whatever it is the fuck they want me to say. So that’s why I’m not going to say it [apologize publicly]. You’re not going to bark at me to say something that I’m not even sure about. I’m not sure about anything.”
This (I think, oftentimes) is how people feel after being approached by activists. It’s important to realize the failure of such a conversation when the person just feels attacked (whether they change their behavior or not or issue a public apology or not). In this statement I can see that Coady/Sharon is not acting out of understanding, but out of following the perceived governing order and possibly furthering his belief that he’s not understood, and that activists are not to be trusted.
First, I’d like to remind us all, that people who have been oppressed throughout their lives, who are told that their very existence is wrong, are allowed to be angry, are obviously going to fight back. Emotion and resistance has always been necessary in activism. I am inspired by Maura and Enakai’s determination and willingness to have this conversation at all. These conversations are always hard, and for activists who take on leadership in such a way, it is very personal. What I share here are opportunities to shift the conversation, from a tug of war of “who has the power”, to a true dialogue where both parties can learn and grow from the experience. In this type of conversation, I believe that the person being approached has a chance to truly transform, not just get censored or feel attacked, and the people holding them accountable have the opportunity to be truly heard.
What I have noticed recently, has been a divide and miscommunication where activists are not the teachers they are meant to be, but are instead seen as attackers. I share here some thoughts that I hope will help activists who are holding someone accountable for their actions/words contributing to oppression:
- First and formost, I believe that the most powerful means of holding someone accountable for their actions, is to not come to them to punish them, or demand an apology, its to get them to see their impact, and take responsibility (resulting in a genuine apology). To come to them with a “you’re better than this” and “this isn’t you” approach I believe is more powerful and more of an invitation than “you’re wrong”, or “you’re the oppressor” approach.
- No one wants to see themselves as evil or wrong. Your work is to help this person recognize their mistake, and the way that their actions/words have impacted you and others, not that they are an inherently bad person. They will likely either fight you or crumble (not learn or change themselves) if your aim is to prove that they are a ________ist person.
- Ask them what their intentions were in the action, and then let them know how it actually impacted you/others or contributed to systems of oppression instead. Know that their intentions might very well have been true and heartfelt, but that the way that it landed was not (like throwing a ball and missing the mark and hitting a window instead). It is possible to have good intentions, but not have seen the viewpoint that you see. This of course does not let them off the hook “oh, well… you didn’t mean to… so…. ” but more like, “Great. I appreciate hearing that you meant no harm. And… I am hurt, others are hurt, and what you did was hurtful. Over here, I didn’t feel safe or celebrated, I felt attacked and treated as an other/outsider to be feared. I want you to know that your words and actions directly contributed to a wider system of oppression, as well as personally affected me.” From there you can work with them to see how their intention could have better played out. If you care about their intention, then they feel heard, supported, and likely more willing to be intentional with future actions.
- Try your best to tone down your “don’t do this” messages. In this conversation between Maura, Enakai and Coady/Sharon, the activists gave a list of don’ts, refuted Coady/Sharon’s explanation of his intentions with his actions/words, then demanded that he figure out what to “do”. Most people will liken this to an authority hand slap and will resist it. Support them in directing them into a healthy change, not censor them. Work with them to find solutions, not expect them to create it by themselves after you’ve torn down all of their previous contributions.
- Listen to them. If you don’t listen, then you are inviting their resistance to listening to you. It is already difficult to speak on such issues, don’t give them another reason to blow you off. The biggest example of this is at 8:43 – 9:50 in the video. If you don’t listen to them (within reason) then it’s not a conversation, then it’s just you attacking them. They will defend themselves, this is the nature of an attack. I know that people with privilege (and I hold myself to this too) are notorious for talking over marginalized people. In this case, it might be good to set up the conversation in the beginning by letting them know that this is often the case and request that they keep this in mind throughout the conversation. Bringing their attention to this in the beginning (as a means to set up the conversation powerfully) allows them to take that in while they formulate their thoughts and speak consciously.
- Don’t completely disregard their contributions to society or even to the cause that you fight for. At the very least, they created something to bite into, something specific to address, that lit a fire in you. Listen to their intention. (see :40 seconds into the video above).
- Treat them as a human being. If you don’t care about them, then they might have less cause to care about you or see themselves as really mattering. (see :50 seconds into the video and again 8:43 – 9:50). They do matter. Their words impact you and others. This is why you are having this conversation.
- Allow yourself to be moved by their sharing. If you come to understand a piece of what they are saying and it’s true for you, then allow that. This shouldn’t be a two-sided black/white argument… if it is, then the discussion isn’t a conversation, but a tug of war over who “wins”. In the video, Coady/Sharon explains his intention with Nazi uniforms and shows the transgressive elements of his performance. In response Enakai returns essentially saying well, these have been outed as racist, so too bad. (see 2:35 minutes into the video). Also, see the follow up video (below) with Enakai below at 1:00 to hear how he allowed himself to be moved. Remember that everyone’s natural pull is to justify their own perspectives (that means you too). With both parties doing this, the conversation will go nowhere. Lean against that natural sway that you have and you will be able to get into their world more, and move something deeper in both of you.
- Accept their apology while also forwarding the conversation. Accepting their personal apology does not mean that the conversation is over, or that they are forgiven and all is well, but allows them to contribute to the conversation and not just defend themselves. If it is a heartfelt apology (to you personally, or to a wider audience), to reject it can make them feel like their hands are tied. At this point in the conversation (5:20), Coady has been told “You hurt others, you are marked as the racist, don’t ever use those costumes or those words, we don’t accept your apology here.” He has very little to offer and can feel dominated.
- Don’t throw them off the side of the ship and expect them to swim. At (8:40) one point Maura asks “where will you go from here” and to someone who has just been given a list of “don’t”s, Coady doesn’t know where to go. It’s great to have them create the new path for themselves, but I believe that it needs to come with some guidance. An example of this is: “I hear from you that your intention with this action was to ______, how else can we accomplish this?”
- Enroll them as to why the public apology is so important (don’t just demand one). I believe that most people who are asked to give an apology are not interested in admitting to making a mistake, and activists see the public apology as a sort of trophy for winning or losing after the action. A public apology is an opportunity for that person to share with their followers what they’ve learned, and share what their true intention was. It’s a way to educate their following on this important issue and dispel beliefs that they are a ____ist person, but a person that made a mistake that they were blind to. If they issue a truly genuine and heartfelt apology, this lesson is now shared with all of their die-hard fans, who can also learn to break up their assumptions and question their own privileges.
These are some of the points that I was particularly lit up with as I watched this video. Do you have more thoughts/recommendations? Coming soon is another post for people people approached by activists, which I hope will also provide tools for people who are on the other side of this dialogue.
Where in your life did you participate in a challenging conversation where you or the other person was being held accountable for something? What made it especially difficult? What did you learn from it?