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I Don’t Know How to Help.

8 July 2016

I’m a coward. And my privilege allows me to be a coward. I suspect that to some people this post is just going to come off as another white man complaining about this not being about him. That’s ok. It’s not my intention to write that post, but this is a post about my own thoughts and feelings, and not about what I think other people should do or not do. As such, this post is about me. It’s about my process as I try to navigate how to participate in a social movement that isn’t about me. That’s difficult to get right, and I’m sure I’ll get it wrong in some ways. I’m going to try. Maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.

I’m a coward because I want to be able to participate without criticism for when I get things wrong. I want to be able to make a contribution and yes, I want the social recognition that comes along with making a contribution. This is often called “cookie seeking”. Well, yeah. I like to be recognized when I participate constructively. I am not good at being selfless and altruistic.

The big social movements in my circles are about justice. This morning the headlines are about the Black Lives Matter campaign, the murder of innocent black citizens by police, and the murder of innocent Dallas police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest. I don’t have the first idea how to contribute to a just outcome here. I’m sad and confused and angry and demoralized. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid for the lives of black Americans. I’m afraid for the lives of my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew who are African American. I’m afraid for the reaction of police to Dallas. I’m afraid for the lives of police officers.

There are other (intersecting) social movements as well that I’ve written a little bit about, especially as they intersect with academia. LGBT participation. Sexual harassment and sexual violence against women. Bias in funding and publishing. All of these issues seem, to me at least, to roll up into a basic question: Why can we not distribute societal resources evenly, and treat everyone with equal measures of dignity and justice?

I don’t know. And I don’t know how to help.

I fear being publicly criticized. So much that I often feel criticized even when I just imagine how it might happen. It prevents me from taking stands. I was told yesterday that this is a normal psychological way that people keep from making mistakes. I believe that. But I also believe that it’s how cowards like me justify not making a difference.

But navigating a posture of contributing is damnably confusing for me. I am often told that as a white man, it is my responsibility to stop talking and start listening to people of color, and women, and LGBT voices. There is no shortage of white male voices: mine won’t be missed. And that’s perfectly reasonable, and I try to do that. I have a number of people in my community and in my life whom I can listen to, and I do that.

I am often told that as a white man, if I don’t speak up against racism and sexism and homophobia that I am part of the problem. That those communities and other white men need to see white men speaking on behalf of those not afforded our privileges. I don’t know how to reconcile this advice from that of the previous paragraph. But I try. I’ve written about these issues before, and will again. And I know I get things wrong.

The advice I think I understand the best is to amplify the voices of the communities most impacted by injustices. To use my voice and my privilege to point out the opinions and presences of those aggrieved by societal injustice. This seems reasonable to me. Though I have also been told that this can simply be co-opting and appropriating black and female voices. I confess I don’t really understand what appropriation is.

So I don’t know what to do to help. Perhaps it is simply not in my power to do anything. Perhaps I should retreat into the position that Alcoholics Anonymous takes: we neither endorse nor oppose any causes. The only way I truly know how to help is if someone comes to me with a drinking problem. And if they do, I don’t care what color, creed, or politics they have. I can help, and I will. I know what to do.

I don’t know how to participate in the big movements of social justice. I feel adrift and superfluous. Maybe that’s because I’m superfluous. But I’m open to suggestions. How does someone like me – white, male, privileged – help? How do I participate? Or is now the time for me to step back, shut up, and let other people’s voices be heard in their entirety. No interruptions from people like me?

When I ask these questions, and confess these fears and inadequacies, I am often scoffed at. I’m a grown-up, I’m told. Figure it out for myself. It’s certainly no one’s job to teach me about their community’s experience, or the right way to contribute. But I don’t know the way forward. I don’t even know if there is a way forward.

I’m a coward, perhaps, because I am afraid to just forge ahead and do what I think is right. Help as I can and accept that I’ll be criticized. Well, I’m a coward. I want to help, though just as much I want to get credit for helping without taking any actual risks.

And all of this confusion and indecision is a product of the fact that these injustices are not visited on me. I am afforded protection and given the benefit of the doubt by police. I am not discriminated against at work. I am not subject to threats of sexual violence in the workplace. I have a pedestal of privilege that stands me above those floodwaters. I feel like there should be some obvious way for me to use that pedestal to elevate others.

I don’t know if there is. I don’t know how to help.


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